How to make the most out of your visit days

By Sharon Cornelissen and Samantha Jaroszewski

This past fall and winter must have been a nerve-racking grad school application season for many of you. As first year PhD students, we still vividly remember those anxious days and weeks awaiting graduate school decision emails, compulsively checking gradcafe. Congrats to all of you who have been accepted to one or more programs! Now that decisions have been sent out, it is your turn to decide.

One year out from making our own visits and decisions, we have reflected on the experience and compiled some advice for prospective graduate students to make the most of their visiting days.

thinking woman deciding

General advice

  • Narrow down your options. If you have more than one acceptance, remember that the visit days can be really draining personally, and also are an investment in you by the university. Often they pay for your trip, a current student hosts you and professors take time to get to know you. If you’ve already mentally ruled out an option, consider declining the offer to visit. Perhaps it will also free up a spot for a waitlisted student to go on the official visit.
  • Stay for a couple of days rather than hopping from campus to campus. This gives you an opportunity to ‘feel out’ not just the departmental culture, but also go explore the town or city and housing situation. After all, you are not just choosing a school but also the place where you are going to live for the next 5 or more years. Why not take that extra day to explore the town beyond the university?

  • Get to know your fellow admitted students. Not only may these people be in your future cohort, but also if they end up at other schools they may be good contacts to have. Wouldn’t it be awesome to have a place to stay in Chicago or Seattle for a future conference?

  • Keep notes about your visit day experiences. Jot down first impressions, pros and cons, etc. It may be more clear in your mind now than in a month when you have to make your final decision.

  • Be nice to everyone. You never know when you will meet them again, so handle all interactions — including declining offers of admission — respectfully. It may be prudent to email the potential advisor yourself before declining the offer formally, thanking him or her for the time and hospitality.

Questions to ask of current graduate students:
Pay particular attention to the other graduate students — admitted and current students. Your colleagues are the ones that you’ll learn the most from and who will support you in the most difficult moments – trust us, those moments will come. How collegial are they? Is there a more friendly or more competitive atmosphere?

  • Are you happy here? Do you feel students around you are happy?

  • What made you decide to come to this school rather than other schools? How do you feel your expectations have held up?

  • What dissertation projects are current graduate students working on? (Are their projects inspiring and interesting to you?)

  • What are the weaknesses of this department? What would you like to see done differently?

  • How are faculty-student interactions? What type of advising structure is common in the department? Examples of advising structures include hands-off, workshop model with larger cohorts or apprenticeship one-to-one relationship with a main advisor.

  • How much time does it take to fulfill the teaching requirements? Are there other service requirements? How long on average does it take for people to graduate?

  • Do students get offices? Often, visiting days are a time when everyone coalesces in the office, so this can give a misleading impression. Ask about how much time people spend in the office on the norm — are people around?

  • What standard of living does your stipend afford? Can you afford an apartment, studio, close to school, do you need roommates? How is the housing situation? Do you need to take out loans? Is there 6th or 7th year funding available? Do you get reimbursed for conference travel?

  • What is the social life like in this town and/ or with fellow graduate students?

Questions to ask of faculty you want to work with
Often schools schedule individual meetings for you with professors. Prepare ahead of time. What are you going to ask them? An informal sample among our cohort yielded unequivocal conclusions: most meetings are going to be awkward. Knowing what to ask will not only give you better information, but also allows you to evade some of the endemic awkwardness of academia…

  • What projects are you working on? Where do you see your research agenda going in the next few years?

  • How many students are you working with? What are some examples of the topics of dissertations that you are currently supervising?

  • Do you work on projects together with your students, for instance co-authored papers?

  • How would you characterize your advising style? How often do you meet with your students?

  • What kinds of jobs have graduates from this department in the last couple of years been able to secure? What kinds of jobs have your students been offered in recent years?

Final advice: Stop asking everyone for advice. What school fits you well – your interests, ambitions, finances, happiness, family life? How do you want to live your life for the next five or more years? Balancing all these factors is very personal and no one knows as much about your situation as you do. Don’t worry too much about making the “right choice.” There may be many places where you could be productive and happy.


Durkheim on the basketball court

Princeton's nearly empty gym

Princeton’s nearly empty gym

I sometimes sit in Princeton’s steamy, ancient-feeling gym and watch as a handful of individuals organized from strangers scattered across the five full basketball courts in one large room, into two teams for one full court game in a matter of minutes. This is a phenomenon that has fascinated me since, as an undergrad at North Carolina, I would sit outside at picnic tables and watched as an empty basketball court would fill with a 5 on 5 game and a number of guys “waiting for next” on the sidelines in a matter of minutes. My  now-husband called it the “bat signal” — there were guys all over campus ready to play at a moment’s notice, and the echoing dribble of a basketball summoned them to the court.

Strangers, bound together only by the knowledge of a common game and the serendipity of being in the same place in the same moment, become teammates. They assess each others strengths and weaknesses, develop a system of nicknames and draw on a common language of the game that helps them adapt, organize, and generate order out of what appears to be chaos.

As I watch this process, I’m often in awe of how rapidly it unfolds. I have thought a lot about sociology as it relates to sports in the conventional ways: collective effervescence and mega events, the conspicuous leisure of country clubs, and the associated refinement of tastes.

But how do we make sense of the transition of strangers into a team and then back to strangers- a process  that lasts from thirty minutes to a few hours. I was reading Robert Bellah’s introduction to Durkheim on morality right before I got to the gym which offered me a specific set of lenses for my post-run observations on the basketball court.

First, for collectives to emerge, how important is a shared moral order? Durkheim discussed a shared moral order not necessarily as a normative phenomenon but rather as the underlying assumptions and orientations that make the social fabric of a society. Durkheim himself advocated a moral order based in discipline, commitment to social groups, and individualism. We can see through the lens of Durkheim how these concepts apply to the seemingly random coalescence of players into teams in pick-up-basketball.

Teammates playing basketball together

Teammates playing basketball together


The role of physical discipline in athletics is overt – success requires practice, which can be monotonous, the extending of one’s physical and mental limits. But what of social discipline? There exists a code: there are well known rules of the game, shared knowledge that allows the participants to respect and defer to the authority of the game. Even with no referees the players self regulate, immediately accepting blame for illegal plays by raising a single hand in the air, often placing the other hand over his chest (of course, what counts as an illegal play draws on the bank of shared knowledge and past experience and intimate familiarity with the rules.)

Those who call fouls too often though are also considered undisciplined, unable to concede to the intrinsically physically tough game or prioritize the good of the game — i.e., maintaining the flow of play  — over their own individual-level discomfort of being fouled.

Finally, as someone who didn’t play sports growing up, I had little appreciation for the level of discipline involved in team sports. This year, my first year of grad school, I played on an intramural flag football team, during which time I learned quickly how difficult it is to remain level headed in moments in which your physical and emotional senses are heightened. The amount of interdependence and cooperation required for team sports inevitably leads to conflict within teams or between them — during which individuals must self-censure and self-regulate in an especially conscious way to maintain the good of the team, the game, and the social group generally.

Players gather to begin forming teams

Players gather to begin forming teams

Commitment to social groups

This commitment to the social group is particularly interesting in a spontaneously-emerging team of pick-up basketball because the group usually has no ties to one another before or after the game. Here on the basketball court, the team is the salient group. The individuals who come together are undergrads, graduate students, spouses, faculty, staff, and spouses of any of those groups (and, rarely, members of the Princeton public or alumni). Often, friends in pairs of two will come to the gym in pairs and form the basis of the teams.

For teams to emerge, one person usually has to take charge. He’ll perhaps approach a player or pair of players “just shooting around” on another court and ask if they’re up to play. This is a pretty visible ritual in the open gym, and other individuals or pairs are usually on the lookout; if someone initiates this conversation, generally others will begin wandering — dribbling the basketball — toward the newly formed small group.

Once a quorum has been met — usually a minimum of four willing players — teams are generated. First, usually, pairs that came together are placed on the same team. Then, often teams are arbitrarily divided, sometimes based on some fortuitous coincidence of markers (for example: white shirts, team A, every other colored shirt, team B) but otherwise just more or less randomly assigned.

What is interesting is that, despite random or quasi-random assignment to teams, the individual begins to associate himself with that team; the in-group/out-group dynamic is immediately established and salient. The players demonstrate pride and excitement when they contribute positively to the team’s effort and frustration when performing poorly, hurting the team. However, when another player seems to struggle they are reassuring; gestures such as high-fives, pats on the back or butt are common, as are the “it’s all right, man” -type comments. Individuals fill themselves into niches based on the team’s needs, not their own preferences, because someone has to play the less-fun positions of defense if the team is going to be successful. The team success, rather than individual excellence, is the goal: performing otherwise leads to sanctions such as being thought of as a ball-hog or stats-padder.


While the team is the salient group, individual skill and player identity is important to the game. Players assess and diagnose each other individual — on their own team and the opposing team — for strengths and weaknesses. This has a predictive function; the players can strategize about which shots to “let” the other player take based on his odds of making it, determining which teammate to pass to for maximum likelihood of a basket, etc.

The individualism also creates a distance; there is the team (again, commitment to the team) or nothing. Players rarely bother learning each other’s names or details of each other’s lives. As an observer, this has always been striking to me. If I’m assigned to a group, my first instinct is to get to know my new group-mates: I’d want to know his or her name, department, how long they’ve been at this particular hobby, other hobbies, etc. This, I’ve been told, would be considered weird — even inappropriate — on the basketball court.

In the game I was observing, nicknames emerged such as “shorts,” “buckets,” “red,” and “blue.” Only one player’s name was routinely used — Sam — and he was easily the best player on the court; perhaps his name was known to all because of the frequency of his play or, because of his skill, the others made a point to recognize him by name.

This distance, while contributing to the group commitment by making it the more salient (indeed, the only relevant) identity, maintains an air of individualism. This isn’t, for example, a game of old friends or a time for generating new friendships. The space between the individuals is closed by participating on the same team, but returns to normal — a number of strangers who once shared the same court — once the game or series of games ends.

Over the course of the game, individual discipline enables the game to proceed smoothly, while commitment to the team encourages self-sacrifice, pride, and strategizing based on contextual experience and tacit knowledge. However it is the individualism — the anonymity of the team before and after the game — that is particularly interesting. The groups cooperate within teams and engage in explicit conflict against the other team, and then dissolve again into individuals as they leave the gym without expecting to ever play together again.

Dumpster diving and the tragedy of the commons

As I was completing a draft of a paper on dumpster divers in 2012, Emmanuel Guerisoli, a friend at the New School urged me that my case really was about the tragedy of the commons. While at the time I didn’t think too much about it, recently while reading Garrett Hardin his comment was pressed back to me.

The tragedy of the commons is a theory of collective human behavior that poses that without state regulation or privatization, people will maximize their short-term self interests and will inevitably overexploit commonly shared resources. An example is the risk of overfishing our oceans or the problem of collectively acting to tackle climate change. Garrett Hardin concluded: “Freedom in a commons brings ruin to us all” (1968: 1244)

How is the tragedy of the commons applicable to dumpster diving? 

Dumpster divers are people who collect and eat food from retail trash as a lifestyle choice, rather than being driven by necessity. Some retail establishment donate food that is about to expire – such as packaged freshly made salads and sandwiches – to charity organizations like City Harvest. The bulk of expired or about to expired food, ranging from day old bagels to vegetarian sushi, from bags full of fair trade chocolate bars to Dunkin’ donuts, however, ends up in the trash. In the United States an estimated 40% of all food goes to waste at some point of the production and consumption cycle.

In New York City, where I did fieldwork on dumpster divers in 2012-2013, retail trash is put in trash bags on the sidewalk six nights a week. As trash bags are put in public space, trash temporarily becomes a common good, not officially subject to police restrictions. The trash landscape in New York City can be seen as a common available for anyone to exploit.

Inline afbeelding 1

While some dumpster divers are secretive about their best spots, they don’t really have to worry about the issue of over-diving. The commons of dumpster divers in New York City get replenished 6 days a week, with stores seemingly endlessly throwing out wasted food.

Also, not everyone is as eager to stick both hands into unknown trash bags, especially not in public. Most people find the idea of eating food from the trash disgusting and the idea of doing so voluntarily rather crazy. Once at an alumni event in New York, after I told a middle-aged Dutch expat about my research, he gravely asked me how widespread mental illness was among dumpster divers.

The “tragedy of the commons” in the case of dumpster divers, rather, seems to be expressed in a shared commitment to responsibly managing the commons. For instance, I was dumpster diving alone at the Trader Joe’s on Union Square in Manhattan on a Wednesday night in September 2012:

As I am looking into another trash bin, moving white trash bags around to look one layer beneath the trash bags on top, I see an Asian, perhaps Japanese looking woman in her late thirties, bend over to close a trash bag full with packaged boxes of breaded, roasted chicken. She must be around 1.60 m and is wearing a cotton dark blue cap, her shoulder-long hair in a tiny pony tail. She is not carrying a handbag or other bag and is dressed in a grey hoodie with the name of a bar on it. I approach her and she introduces herself to me as Rachel, telling me somewhat later that she is a jewelry maker and sells her jewelry online. 

She tells me that she is closing the bag in front because otherwise the Trader Joe’s may get a fine. When I ask her whether she works for the Trader Joe’s she says hat she used to but not anymore. I tell her that I left the bag open intentionally, hoping that other people may find it and take some of the breaded chicken. She answers: “The people that come here know where to find it” (Field notes, September 19. 2012)

She is probably right in pointing out my naive idea that random New Yorkers would casually “stop by and take some chicken” upon seeing an open trash bag on the street. More interesting is that she takes the stand of Trader Joe’s and enacts the norm of closing bags and not leaving behind a mess: even going as far as cleaning up after people who neglect to do so. This norm was enacted and expressed by all the dumpster divers I followed – and evidenced by how unknown others ‘left behind’ trash they had just dived at, leaving behind legible signs such as an occasional lost glove or loosely retied knots.

Why did they do so? What can we draw from this short example? I think it is quite interesting that without formal regulations, with vague group boundaries and a weakly developed sense of ‘groupness,’ most dumpster divers in New York shared a normative commitment to the responsible self-management of the commons. Rather than “bringing ruin,” as Garrett Hardin’s model might have predicted, they work together with many anonymous others to maintain ‘their’ commons.

Becoming an academic: on hummus and crudites

“I’m trying to figure out what food to get for the party tonight. A few people suggested hummus and vegetables but I feel like that’s all grad students ever eat.”

“Yeah, I actually just had some hummus for lunch”

“…so did I.”

Why do we eat so much hummus? One of the most salient things I learned in my first semester of graduate school was, precisely, how to look like a graduate student — being socialized into a discipline that we enthusiastically claim as our vocation. At orientation, I remember admiring wide-eyed the poise of the more senior students, their penetrating questions, and their concise summaries of their research projects. It felt like they were on display, and I was window shopping for my future demeanor.

This is why we go to job talks. Of course, it is an exciting opportunity to become familiar with the research of our colleagues and of other graduate students or faculty in our discipline and others and offer feedback. But beyond that, we learn how to perform sociology. That includes demeanor and comportment, but also audience interaction: how to ask good questions, and how to answer them. In this informal way, I’ve developed a running list of successful practices and also what not to do; I’ve ruled out possibilities for what “good sociology” looks like and narrowed down the approaches I consider appropriate moving forward. In fact, I recently transferred this running list from a mental note into paper form that I keep in my desk!

  • When an audience member asks you a multi-point question, make notes of the question and answer it in order.
  • So… don’t forget to bring a pen and paper when giving a presentation!
  • Include a road map of the presentation in the first few slides
  • Theoretical framing comes up front! Classical and contemporary theorists if possible!
  • Mixed methods > single method

In our daily encounters with faculty — at the coffee pot, in the mail room, or in our excruciatingly long hallway (a breeding ground for awkward encounters) — we learn to see our academic idols not as daunting figures behind closed doors but as friendly colleagues, insightful and brilliant though they are. We learn how they carry themselves but also develop confidence in our own interactions with the leaders in our fields.

Similarly, in our contact with our more senior graduate colleagues, we are inducted into the academic life — but more specifically, the life of our department. We learn about the prestige of the different journals — tacit knowledge that is invisible to the casual observer. We also learn how to dress the part: we see the degree to which casual attire is acceptable in the office, the more looks they adopt when precepting a class, and how nicely they clean up for a presentation or interview. In a recent seminar with the politics graduate students, I was really struck by how differently the sociologists and the political scientists in the room dressed. It drew my attention to the culture of our department, and perhaps our discipline more broadly: while we are serious and professional,  we’re not overly formalistic.

While I’ve spent hours reading classical theory and learning statistical programming, I’ve spent even more hours chatting with my office-mates, sitting in a writing group with my cohort, and taking notes at job talks; I’ve gone to more wine-and-cheese receptions than I could count and volunteered to show a visiting lecturer around. All of these experiences have shaped how I think, act, and understand what it means to be an academic.

This is — I hypothesize — why we eat so much hummus. If I were planning a party for undergrads, the obvious choice would have been to order pizza for the group. As an undergrad, I ate a lot of free pizza. As a graduate student, I eat a lot of free hummus and crudites. However, as sociologists, we are also being socialized into more professorial preferences. While pizza is still Mediterranean food, it doesn’t quite signal “I’ve spent a lot of time in graduate school” like a strong taste for wine and antipasto.

Online etiquette: the fork and the iPhone

By Nicole Pangborn

In his recent New York Times article, Frank Bruni discusses the world of “instant expression” and “immediate audience” that we have come to know all too well in the digital era. He contrasts this world — of 140-character real-time updates and instant Facebook statuses — with the world of his mother, where it used to be common advice to “count to ten before you speak”. Making a reference to the recent Twitter gaffe of a prominent PR executive (in which she lost her job after tweeting a distasteful joke about being white, and therefore not having to worry about AIDS on her trip to Africa), Bruni claims that today, speed has overtaken sense, and nuance has simply “exited the equation”. When quickness is what matters most, complex and intricate ideas are nearly impossible to circulate widely. Bruni makes the case that our biggest challenge in the new year will be to learn how to take advantage of our new technologies while simultaneously avoiding the loss of complexity of thought.


When I read Bruni’s article over the winter break, I was immediately reminded of Norbert Elias, one of the theorists we studied in our first year Classical Theory course. In his most famous work, The Civilizing Process (1939), Elias describes the role of new technology (e.g., the fork) in the historical shaping of social behaviors (e.g., table manners). He also emphasized the effects of such technology on the more internal processes that mold how members of society think and feel about such behaviors. Broadly, he poses the question: to what extent do we create the technology that is inspired by our behavior, and to what extent is our behavior then a product of that technology? This got me wondering: what would Elias say about the effects of social media and digital technology in our era, and how might they fit into larger historical processes?

It seems to me that digital technology fulfills our natural need for connection and association. But after a need is fulfilled by a new technology, that technology in turn shapes behavior (either by stigmatizing or commending practices). In the rapid-fire online world, slow deliberation — long, drawn out argumentation, infused with complexity of thought — is quite frowned upon. This distaste for slowness in many ways forces us to want to read, express, and think more quickly, even when the subject matter might actually call for a more complicated solution. The aversion is particularly strong within the Silicon Valley startup communities, where adjectives like “simple”, “fast”, and “elegant” reign supreme for investors. One might imagine that if simplicity is such a priority for these startups, who are largely responsible for introducing future technologies, the cycle could continue: web-based platforms for connection in the future could very well be focused on even more rapid-fire, simplified communication.

For now, though, because this technology has pushed us to frown upon slow deliberation, it has then also allowed us to approve some other behaviors that we might have disapproved in the past. When our need for instant gratification is combined with the fact that the Internet keeps us physically removed from our audience, acting on impulses — even to the point of rudeness — becomes almost acceptable. In this new type of social space, we don’t have to physically face the person(s) we are speaking to, and we can lash out without reaction or consequence. For instance, it’s considered completely “okay” to start a heated political battle in, say, the comment section underneath a friend’s Facebook link. There is barely enough space to properly argue through such a medium, and perhaps because of the loss of a more nuanced discussion, such fights often devolve into misunderstanding, coarse name-calling, and heat-of-the-moment insults, which are then etched in digital stone for all the world to see (and remember).

So, it seems (to me at least) that the ideas we have about what is socially “okay” have changed at the hands of the Internet. Whaddaya think, readers? What might the message boards and posts of the future look like? (Please feel free to discuss in the comment section!)

“Getting intimate” online

By Sharon Cornelissen

Most of our urban public interactions with strangers are not particularly intimate, except perhaps when being pressed way-too-intimately against anonymous bodies in the subway during rush hours. Even then we try to maximize personal space such as through the unspoken rule of maintaining distance when picking seats on transit. We also like to play with our phones, which helps us to avoid catching the eyes of others. This seems to have replaced the role that newspapers once played.


Online we relate to strangers quite differently. Consider the popular blog Humans of New York, which has over 2 million followers on Facebook alone. The blog is a collection of snapshots of urban strangers, accompanied by a short personal story or wisdom shared by the individual portrayed. Below is an example of a picture posted on January 9, 2014:


“What was the saddest moment of your life?”

“When my mother died.”

“What’s your fondest memory of your mother?”

“When I was 13 years old, I had an accident and was in a body cast for 6 months. I couldn’t even sit up. She would come in my room everyday, turn up the radio, and sing in my ear.”

Two days later, the post had already received over 65,000 likes on Facebook and more than 800 comments. Reading through 100 comments, 16 out of 100 commenters said the post made them cry, 19 people addressed the unnamed person in the picture directly (addressing him as ‘dude,’ ‘honey,’ ‘sir’ or ‘my friend’) and 38 mentioned their own mother and shared a fond memory. One user left the following comment:

The worst moment of my life, was also when my beloved mom passed away, just a few short months ago… I’m glad you have strong, wonderful memories of your mother… it’s a sad club, the “No Mom” club, but I truly believe that we are a testament to our mother’s strength and love and I know I will live well in her memory. XOXO to you, sir!

How are our online interactions with strangers different from offline interactions? Why do these commenters seem to identify so readily with this stranger? What is the nature and depth of this form of online intimacy, and on what basis is it established?

While these questions merit more attention, one of the interesting features of HoNY is the eye-contact between viewers and subject. The prolonged eye-contact with the unnamed stranger represents a contrast to everyday urban interactions in which a person’s gaze is usually averted. The connection is established for at most a fleeting moment. In the essay Sociology of the senses: Visual interaction Simmel analyzed the unique significance of eye contact in social interaction. He argued that it establishes a temporary union between humans and represents perfect reciprocity:

By the glance which reveals the other, one discloses himself. By the same act in which the observer seeks to know the observed, he surrenders himself to be understood by the observer. The eye cannot take unless at the same time it gives (Simmel 1921: 358)

HoNY plays with this experience, the sense of mutual disclosure and openness we associate with it: see also viewer’s reactions to Marina Abramovi’s artwork. HoNY enables viewers to see and meet the eyes of strangers, without being seen seeing. The pictures offer viewers a glimpse into urban strangers’ eyes and minds. The frozen-in-time prolonged glance we can sustain with the strangers of HoNY creates a sense of intimacy and exposure: exactly the sense of exposure we seek to avoid or minimize in everyday interactions with strangers in public settings.

So what explains the seeming contradiction between our ease of ‘getting intimate’ online and our everyday avoidance of intimate interactions with strangers offline? The mediated form of eye contact that HoNY facilitates gives us a hunch. In contrast to Simmel’s description of eye contact as perfect reciprocity, the intimacy of HoNY is largely one-way traffic. HoNY offers viewers ready-to-consume intimate moments with anonymous New Yorkers. While viewers leave behind strikingly moving and personal comments, which hints at the intimacy HoNY creates for some, this online way of relating remains transient and anonymous. One could say HoNY facilitates the intimacy of the onlooker and enables a type of online voyeurism into the eyes and minds of strangers.

I, sociologist: Artificial Intelligence and the future of Sociology

By  Andrew Ledford

A long time ago, in a Galaxy far, far away and 2 B.K. (2 years before kids), my wife and I were weekly movie-goers.  We would pretty much go to see just about anything.  These days, 10 P.K. (10 years post-kids), the opportunity doesn’t come that often so we are pretty selective with what movie is “baby-sitter worthy.”  The most recent movie we saw was Spike Jonze’s “Her” starring Joaquin Phoenix in the not-so-distant future as a lonely writer who falls in love with his Operating System (OS). 

Her It is a quirky movie that has great appeal in how natural the relationship is portrayed.  For those who have not seen it yet, it is    absolutely “baby-sitter worthy.” 

In seeing “Her” and considering my newly found field of Sociology, I began to wonder if we are truly in the dawn of a new age for our discipline.  The type of AI as depicted in Her is different from the current program that “learns” your preferences on the Internet (which is slightly sinister), but rather true AI that can independently think, communicate, and most importantly reason without human influence.   This is considerably more advanced than what has been discussed in previous sociology conferences such as the one hosted by the National Science Foundation in May 1993. This conference looked at AI only in terms of “intelligently searching and analyzing data.”One of my colleagues upon reading the first draft of this post suggested that I not get too “sci-fi” with my concept of social interaction with machines but I believe that is exactly the point of this concept and the necessity it entails.

         Once the technology is there for AI to exist (as described earlier), the time it will take to surpass human capabilities will most likely be short considering the incredible capacity for simultaneous calculations and an extensive database of knowledge.  This is not just my opinion either but a consensus of an eclectic group at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University.  As fantastical as the name implies, the Future of Humanity Institute has been deliberating over the existential risk facing mankind once AI “comes online.”  Scientists, mathematicians and philosophers come together to work through what happens when we aren’t the smartest beings on the planet anymore. In November, I attended a lecture by Oxford University Philosophy Professor, Nick Bostrom, whom is also the founding Director of the Institute. The lecture was truly awe-inspiring when considering the term  “the fate of humankind” was being tossed around like we were on the ground floor of the Manhattan Project.

As the Institute would argue, when, not if, AI surpasses human capability and becomes a “being” that can reason and interact with humans, it will be critically important to examine the interaction between the human race (now for the first time as a member of the “rational being” unit of analysis) and AI machines.   To do this, an AI sociologist will have to be a stellar programmer (e.g., Python is the first language they learn and then English), and the real dilemma will then be whether it would even be possible to study machines that are vastly superior in intellect. Will they let us?  One can conclude that studying a superior “being” might be similar to playing chess with a vastly superior player and wondering what their next move might be.  The challenges for human sociologists in understanding the reasoning of a machine might be even more difficult.   Assuming that the superior intelligence of AI will allow us to examine and study it, is it also possible that AI will begin to examine us?  It is not hard to imagine that there is the potential for AI to become sociologists of the human race as well in a desire to work alongside their creators.

They will be smarter, more efficient, and most likely have an ability to eliminate bias altogether, which their human counterparts cannot do.  Its quite possible that a machine would not have to disassociate itself from its own SES, country of origin or education.  Would it necessarily have the characteristics of the programmer that created it?  Would it be possible for the AI, assuming it does surpass human capability to then remove this characteristic altogether?  There are more questions than answers with this concept as the technology still doesn’t exist but it can become quickly unnerving.    It is not hard to imagine that an AI sociologist (the machine version) will be able to study human-to-human interaction better than a human sociologist will.

        Back to current day— it is an exceptional time to be a sociologist with the modern tools that are already bringing down many barriers to better sociological study than was possible even 10-15 years ago.   The advent of true AI likewise poses exciting new opportunities for this field.  Whether we are the examinees or the examined however, AI sociology requires serious contemplation and most importantly,  involvement from the sociological community in  discussions on the advent of this technology,  lest we find ourselves in the position of trying to play catch up with a more intelligent being.   At that point, even John Connor won’t be able to save us.