J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

“If tools could make anyone who picked them up an expert, they’d be valuable indeed.” Plato, The Republic

‘Outsiders In’: Yearly Kos, Boundary Lines, and Border Zones

Posted by chanders on June 12, 2006

Well, the YearlyKos convention in Las Vegas got press attention that probably exceeded everyone involved’s wildest dreams. Beltway Blogroll has the best press roundup that I’ve seen (Part One here, Part Two here.) It’s a perfect political story, and a few possible journalistic frames include: nerdy bloggers leave the computer behind and venture into the real world, blinking in the glare of slot machines and dancing girls with conical metal brassieres; friendly faces are put to hitherto cryptic screen names; or, finally, formerly rambunctious and  angry outsiders are slowly absorbed into the Democratic Party establishment, leaving their radical views and integrity behind, but sacrificing the passion of youth for the power and cynical wisdom of middle age.

It’s this last frame which has dominated coverage … not surprisingly, of course, as its an old, old story (going back at least to the overthrow of the thuggish Titans by the Athenian gods, who then went on to become crackpot dictators in their own right). The "outsiders become insiders" frame actually was launched a few weeks ago with Matt Bai’s article in the New York Times Magazine, but reached critical mass with Maureen Dowd’s column and Adam Nagourney’s write up.

Dowd: "As I wandered around workshops, I began to wonder if the outsiders just wanted to get in. One was devoted to training bloggers, who had heretofore not given much thought to grooming and glossy presentation, on how to be TV pundits and avoid the stereotype of nutty radical kids."

Nagourney: "They may think of themselves as rebels, separate from mainstream politics and media. But by the end of a day on which the convention halls were shoulder to shoulder with bloggers, Democratic operatives, candidates and Washington reporters, it seemed that bloggers were well on the way to becoming — dare we say it? — part of the American political establishment.

Mark Warner’s$50,000 party was the icing on the cake for a lot of the mainstream press, and even my parents’ local paper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, got in on the act. Wrote Dick Polman: "Moulitsas wrote recently that the party insiders can either work with
the bloggers, "or get out of the way." Yet there’s always the danger
that the outsiders might wind up seduced and co-opted."

Even the normally indefatigable Jeff Jarvis seemed momentarily stumped by the whole affair (unless, of course, he was just rhetorically playing dumb). Notes Jeff:

"What is the line between insider and outsider? In one breath, you hear the attendees talking about taking over the party. In the next gasp, you hear them talk about supplanting both parties […] So is this a party? A caucus of the party? A splinter from the party? A new party? A gathering of bloggers or media? A gathering of media or activists? A candy mint or a breath mint? Life is so confusing now."

The question of insiders versus outsiders isn’t a new one for social scientists; indeed, it comes into play every time you have to define a population to study and then extrapolate that population from the "real world":  who, in other words, is in the group that we think is important enough to spend a few years studying, and what characteristics do they possess that differentiates them from everybody else?  One of the major sociological moves in recent years has been to deny that the boundary between inside and outside is self-evident, or, in fact, that it even exists at all.  Bruno Latour probably puts the point most provocatively, writing in his chapter "Outsiders In" from Science in Action that we must "leave the boundaries [between inside and outside] open and close them only when the people we follow close them.” Or, as Collins and Evans note in "The Third Wave of Science Studies," "one could say that the tendency to dissolve the boundary between those inside and those outside the community reaches its apogee in ‘Actor Network Theory’ [ANT], as first adumbrated by Bruno Latour and Michel Callon. Here even the boundary between human experts and non-human contributors to the resolution of conflict is taken away."

While there has been some retreat from ANT within sociologies of science in recent years, its notions about insiders versus outsiders are still enormously productive, in my opinion, especially when it comes to analyzing occupational, social, and political categories upended by the internet. The most provocative application of ANT to online journalism, for instance, comes from Turner, who argues that "the boundaries of journalistic practice have long been more porous than professional norms might suggest … [we need a theoretical model] in which the sociological concepts emerging in and around the study of science and technology can be usefully applied to other professions. These concepts make it possible to identify new sorts of journalists."

So, getting back to the Yearly Kos, its possible to argue that the boundary lines between "insider and outsider," "activist and operative," "rebel and party hack" aren’t nearly as clear as Dowd, Nagourney, and, indeed, the Kossacks themselves, would like to believe. Instead of a sharply defined boundary line we might better imagine a thick, poorly defined "border zone" made up of proliferating hybrids, shifting social and occupational roles, and networks of expertise. To at least some degree, there is no important empirical difference between the outsider Kossacks and  the insider party establishment; or, at least, such a difference cannot be productively imagined by drawing sharply defined borders between the two.  (This, of course, begs the question as to whether there is some sort of "core" beyond either side of the border zone.)

We can’t stop here, though– because as we’ve seen, while the empirical and sociological utility of sharp lines might be questionable, there’s still a rhetorical value to fixing your own borders, on the part of the social actors themselves. In other words: the Kossacks, the Democratic Party, the mainstream media– all these groups find it useful to define themselves and others as insider or outsider, as part of "our" group or part of "the other guy’s" group." This is where the  Bourdieuean notion of the field, distinction, and the "real as relational" can still be valuable, perhaps not as a description of actually existing social reality, but at least as the description of a rhetorical and "professional" strategy by which insiders are distinguished from outsiders.  And yet, the very fact that such categorical definitions find such little purchase in "actually existing" social life renders them supremely flexible and, indeed, potentially incoherent. This, I think, is what Jarvis is getting at when he writes of the Yearly Kos attendees that:

"they are the outsiders who want to be in and who decide who’s in and who’s out. When asked about whether Hillary Clinton would be welcome at his event, Kos said, “Oh, my God, no way!” Nagourney said she declined an invitation. The outsiders declare she’s in the wrong crowd so she’s out with them.

In other words, the insider / outsider rhetoric changes all the time, depending on who is talking, when, about whom. But the deployment of this rhetoric is both strategic and essential to the identity of the various social actors involved.

And of course, all this can apply equally to mainstream, professional, and online journalism, as I tried to get at in my discussion of the NORG movement in Philadelphia.

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