Boundary work

From: “Anything But Heavy Metal”: Symbolic Exclusion and Musical Dislikes” by Bethany Bryson, American Sociological Review, Vol. 61, No. 5. (Oct., 1996), pp. 884-899.

I have been thinking a lot lately about social exclusion and online social networks, and the idea of boundary work seems relevant to that. Not that I have any hard evidence for this (if there can be such a thing for ideological matters), but the ideology surrounding social media and the subjectivity we are supposed to experience in using them hinges on the illusion that we are performing boundary work but are not subject to it. This illusion relieves social anxiety and encourages a steady flow of data contributions that the platform owners can monetize. Ideally for social media companies, the exemption from boundary work would be predicated on the user’s continual contribution: the more you post, the less you feel subject to judgment or vulnerable to exclusion.

That sounds paradoxical at best, since the more you say, the more you can be judged for. But the accretion of information has a defensive purpose; posting more can be pre-emptive. It can make users into elusive chameleons, or convey the impression that one is merely playing with identity rather than evincing some essential truth about oneself in social media. The more we say in social media, then, the less pinned-down our identity becomes. Further disclosures are meant to raise more questions, and require further elaborations, which provide more self-protection and actual obfuscation under the guise of clarifying one’s self-presentation.

So while the ability to post at will lets users think they can post their way into inclusion within ever-shifting social environments, the network controls that social media place in users’ hands provide them the means of exclusion and at least the fantasy that these controls can be operated with autonomy and impunity.

The implication of this is that the kind of status policing that once depended on taste can now depend on other network mappings of social space — the social graph. Its tangibility makes taste displays less significant, less determining. The boundary exists without the taste display to draw it; the online social networks can preserve it independent of the repeated demonstration of superior cultural capital. Social networks are like banks of cultural capital that way; the influence accrued can be manifest and stored in them, freeing users to behave otherwise in other contexts. It is not necessary to dislike cultural proxies in order to establish cultural capital and one’s belonging to an elite group. The stakes just aren’t that high with any particular cultural self-presentation or taste display.

Not only does the social hierarchy inhere in online cultural-capital banks and social graphs, but social media record so many self-presentations that they are all diminished in ultimate importance. Social media flatten the sense of occasion (a parallel to Benjamin’s notion of an art work’s aura); all events are equally sharable and capturable. Moments at which we experience a heightened publicity are vanishing; all moments are in theory equally public, equally an occasion; so there is no sense focusing on how one comes across in any given special moment.

I also think there is a useful distinction in the passage above between behavior and attitudes. Social media make a great deal of effort of capturing our attitudes as behavior and collapsing the difference between the two, thereby eliminating (perhaps inadvertently) the work we need and expect to perform to translate one into the other, to make symbolic exclusion have social-exclusion effects. But social-media capture may just make users conscious of a different level of “attitudes” that can elude capture yet express or contain the sentiment necessary to perform the offstage, impolite, antisocial acts of exclusion that ultimately sustain a given social order.

There is probably a more straightforward way of expressing this. Social-media use may elide the step we are accustomed to taking of translating the exclusionary attitude (the cultural capital) we want to show off into the identity performance we think we have to make to show it off. This is, in part, because there are no particular optimal occasions to show off, as everything is theoretically recordable and important. (It takes more collective effort to establish an “occasion.” They are rarer as life becomes more easily digitizable and transmissible.)

So the boundary work, which you would think would become more explicit on social media, actually becomes more obscure, retreating to some as-yet-uncaptured region of everyday life and behavior. The cultural displays online are not boundary work at all, though we might pretend they are; the boundary work is already coded at the level of the network links. Lower status people can try to cultural-work their way to more links and influence, but higher status people are under no obligation to tip their hand about what cultural displays earn status, and can risk silly cultural displays with less fear of losing status.

And to take that further, the network that is hard-coded online may be a distraction from the uncoded networks in which real power circulates; the “secret societies” of the “power elite” that are guarded and kept private and so on. These are not given to Facebook to trace.

In short: social media sell us the idea that we can perform boundary work (develop our tastes so as to improve our status at others’ expense) without being subject to it (we always get another chance to defend our tastes when they seem to lead to our being excluded). This is all very profitable for social-media companies, and it distracts us all from the real arenas of power, the networks that are defined by their ability to escape social-media capture, to transcend it.


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