While there has been much discussion in recent decades on the nature of social capital and its importance in online interactions, it is my contention that these discussions have been dominated by the American Communitarian tradition. In this article, I begin with an overview of American Communitarianism to identify the key elements therein that are found in contemporary theories of social capital. Following this, I expose some of the weaknesses of this tradition and apply Bourdieu’s distinctive theoretical framework to online interactions to demonstrate the fecundity of Bourdieu’s sociological perspective when applied to contemporary online interactions. To do this, I examine interactions online that involve ‘internet memes’, as digital inhabitants themselves colloquially define them. It is my contention that an agonistic model, rather than a communitarian one, best describes the online interactions of digital inhabitants.
It is interesting, and in a way inevitable, that Bourdieu’s sociology is increasingly being adopted to theorise online interaction. The paper mentioned above attempts to do just that by researching online memes. But in my opinion, it succeeds more in arguing why Bourdieu’s tool kit is useful in this context, than it does it proving an explanation of memes as a new online phenomenon. And so I found this paper useful because it tries to demystify online networks as an idealised space of democracy and interrelations ‘devoid of colonial intent or capability” (Coleman, 1999 as cited in Julien, 2014) as defended by the American Communitarians, as the author calls them.
For many years now, the Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) world, in particular, has been guilty of such assumptions and that has created a lot of glowing reviews of the web, thus lacking more critical perspectives, as Professor Neil Selwyn pointed out at the Networked Learning Conference, but for which he did not seem to provide alternatives. Well, Bourdieu does provide a relevant research kit to understand social phenomena – even online – that can be also further enhanced.
Julien also makes a very valid point about the fact that
Participation and exclusion in online interactions do not particularly refer merely to access or inaccess of IT, but rather to the ability or inability to act in particular ways online; in other words, to be able to differentiate and achieve distinction within online culture.
This is an important differentiation and an element of (voluntary/involuntary) digital exclusion that is worthy of note, because as he goes on to state ‘individuals online inculcate a unique habitus” (p.7).
Although I very much agree with this discussion of the literature, I was a bit lost about how it relates to the use of online memes, first because the context of the empirical research on which the paper focuses is missing, and second because the paper ends up summarising the Internet (not the web!) as a field that can produce a ‘digitally oriented habitus” (p.13) instead of examining and acknowledging what role social capital plays in producing such changes, or distinctions in the first place. Yet, it supports a growing practice of looking at online phenomena from a critical lens. And that is already something, I guess!