Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for
LS695 Seminar in Research Design
Right now, all we have on the Net is folklore, like the Netiquette that old-timers try to teach the flood of new arrivals, and debates about freedom of expression versus nurturance of community. About two dozen social scientists, working for several years, might produce conclusions that would help inform these debates and furnish a basis of validated observation for all the theories flying around. A science of Net behavior is not going to reshape the way people behave online, but knowledge of the dynamics of how people do behave is an important social feedback loop to install if the Net is to be self-governing at any scale.Introduction Most studies of computer-mediated communication (CMC) have focused on conceptions of the technology as a tool, rather than as a constructed environment. This is not surprising, given that the bulk of research about computing in general has taken this tool-oriented approach. A few researchers have turned to anthropological and sociological theories to study individual interactions in a "culture of computing," and have found these theories to be particularly useful in better understanding the impact of computer technology on human behavior and interaction (Sproull & Kiesler, 1991; Sproull, Kiesler, & Zubrow, 1984). This direction has particular relevance in the study of CMC. In fact, popular discussions of CMC activity already commonly incorporate the ideas of "virtual" culture and community. (Cisler, 1992; Rheingold, 1993; Tyckson, 1992; Von Rospaq, 1991)
While the door has been opened to the study of CMC in a cultural context, little has been done to ground this study in a theoretical base of anthropological or sociological research on culture. To that end, I intend to examine the potential applicability of the work of Pierre Bourdieu in the sociology of culture--work which has been widely cited in recent years in the fields of anthropology, sociology, philosophy, and communication--and propose a project of study to analyze CMC using Bourdieu's theoretical model. One group of authors described Bourdieu's program as a "study of the conditions of production of academic knowledge, technical expertise, and bureaucratic power in contemporary France." (Postone, LiPuma, & Calhoun, 1993) This paper attempts to provide a justification for substituting the milieu of "cyberspace" for that of contemporary France in Bourdieu's theoretical model.
In her paper "Appropriating Bourdieu: Feminist Theory and Pierre Bourdieu's Sociology of Culture" (1991), Toril Moi defines the process of appropriation as "a critical assessment of a given theory formation with a view to taking it over and using it for feminist purposes." In that same sense, I hope to appropriate Bourdieu for the purpose of structuring a research program on the social and cultural aspects of computer-mediated communication.
In order to show the applicability of Bourdieu's theories to the study of CMC and related information networks, I will first discuss the justification for defining CMC environments as culture, go on to provide an overview of Bourdieu's theoretical project, and then examine the tasks that must be undertaken in order to utilize Bourdieu's constructs in exploring and understanding that culture. I will conclude with an assessment of the viability and usefulness of such a research project.
In his recent book The Virtual Community (1993), Howard Rheingold lays out the aspects of computer-mediated communication over bulletin boards and other computer conferencing networks (including, but not limited to, the Internet) that have led him to consider that medium as constituting communities, and beyond that, culture. Rheingold says "Most people who get their news from conventional media have been unaware of the wildly varied assortment of new cultures that have evolved in the world's computer networks over the past ten years." (p. 4) He is not the only one to use the term culture in describing the experiences and interactions of CMC participants. However, like many others who use the term, he fails to link his characterization to a theoretical construct of what constitutes a culture--as opposed to a community, a society, or a subculture, for example.
Defining "culture," however, is no small task. A first step toward this end, checking the definition of culture in the American Heritage Dictionary (1992), yields several meanings that could be considered in the context of social research. The primary definition reads:
1.a. The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought. b. These patterns, traits, and products considered as the expression of a particular period, class, community, or population. c. These patterns, traits, and products considered with respect to a particular category, such as a field, subject, or mode of expression.This is the definition of culture usually assumed in social scientific analysis. And this definition is what informs the academic field of anthropology, particularly cultural anthropology, the discipline most likely to be cited when the idea of "studying culture" is introduced. Other definitions of culture as provided by the dictionary focus on the concept of culture as a selective slice of intellectual or artistic activity, or on the process of obtaining knowledge of these areas; these issues will be explored more fully in the discussion of Bourdieu's version of cultural studies.
The dictionary defines anthropology itself as "The scientific study of the origin, the behavior, and the physical, social, and cultural development of human beings." Freilich (1989), in his introduction to a collection of essays on the relevance of culture as a concept, states that "culture, just recently, was the central, integrating idea in anthropology, a construct which gave anthropology a distinctive personality within the social sciences." (p. 1) And Kapferer (1987) tells us that "Anthropology's focus on culture structures the discourse of its practitioners and their relations with other scholars. The breadth and variation of human culture tends to define the bounds of anthropology." As a starting point for defining culture in the context of CMC, a review of introductory literature in anthropology therefore was in order. At the very least, such a review seemed likely to yield a working definition of culture as used by anthropologists in their research. However, a first look at this literature sheds little light on the topic. While the term "culture" is used liberally in anthropology texts, it is seldom defined in a clear or consistent fashion. In addition, like many other social sciences, anthropology is in the midst of shift in paradigms from the positivistic to the more subjective. This necessarily has an effect upon the stability of definitions of concepts such as culture and society. Two definitions drawn from anthropology textbooks show the range of meanings attributed to the word.
(1)One troublesome aspect of this definition is its deterministic phrasing; culture itself is said to "shape personalities in each society," and to "generate ideas and behavior," rather than being a concept shaped by personalities, or generated through the exercise of ideas and behavior. One is forced to ask how this structure is itself generated.
Culture. . . is variously defined as a worldwide striving toward "civilization" through the accumulation of practices and beliefs; a unique pattern of beliefs that shapes personalities in each society; a local system of ideas and practices that are functionally integrated; an unconscious structure that generates ideas and behavior; a system of shared symbols that come into play in social interactions; and a system by which people adapt to their environment. (Miller, 1979, p. 9)
Another textbook gives a different view of the term:
(2)In this definition, the emphasis is on culture as process, but with little specificity. Are we to take this to mean that all learning and adaptation constitutes "culture"? If so, the concept of culture is so broad as to be almost meaningless in the context of social studies.
Culture: The nongenetic or learned ways in which humans adapt. The learning and sharing involved in culture means that it can be equated with tradition and examined as history as well as adaptation. The interrelatedness or wholeness of culture also means that anthropology may make use of methods from the humanities to illustrate this major concept. (Schusky & Culbert, 1978, p. 216)
Each of the above authors is quick to note that the multiplicity of definitions of culture that occur in anthropological literature are what provide the field with its depth and richness of interpretation. However, this lack of specificity in defining the clear boundaries of "culture" makes it possible to appropriate the term--and many of the associated theories--for research that may not fall within the more traditional boundaries of anthropology.
The study of culture, in fact, has not been limited to the field of anthropology. The ambiguity of the concept, and its shifting boundaries, have led to the development of "cultural studies" that span a range of social scientific fields, ranging from sociology to communication. Reviewing the literature of some of these fields yields another set of definitions, these somewhat easier to apply in the context of studying computer-mediated communication. For example Hannerz (1992), while relating the study of culture back to anthropology, expands the definition of the phenomenon being studied:
[I]n the recent period, culture has been taken to be above all a matter of meaning. To study culture is to study ideas, experiences, feelings, as well as the external forms that such internalities take as they are made public, available to the senses and thus truly social. For culture, in the anthropological view, is the meanings which people create, and which create people, as members of societies. Culture is in some way collective. (p. 3)This conception of culture as a collective creation of meaning is echoed by Douglas (1989), who begins her discussion of the role of the individual in the operation of economic theory by stating that "Culture is nothing if not a collective product," (p. 38). In fact, a growing number of social theorists, many of them with their academic "home" not just in anthropology, but also in fields ranging from sociology and communications to economics and political science, are developing and utilizing definitions of culture that depend far more on the constructed meanings generated by collective action than on any external definition of boundaries.
The idea of culture as collectively constructed meanings has its roots in the current paradigm shift in the social sciences. This shift, from an objectively oriented, positivistic approach to a subjectively oriented, relativistic approach, has been as significant in the field of cultural studies as in any other branch of social science research. Alexander (1990), in his introduction to a book summarizing current debates on culture and society, says that "Culture is the 'order' corresponding to meaningful action. Subjective, antimechanistic order is conceived of as followed for voluntary reasons rather than because of necessity in the mechanistic, objective sense." (p. 2) The book itself provides an interesting view of how cultural studies is currently developing as a field, since it sets out to examine debates over the nature of culture and society, and breaks down perspectives on the study and meaning of culture according to sociological rather than anthropological traditions--including functionalist, Durkheimian, Marxist, poststructuralist, and other perspectives. This blurring of the lines between anthropological and sociological study is significant in the cultural studies field, and allows those studying collective behavior to take a more holistic view, one that does not force a separation between the study of social activity and social organization.
It is in this opening provided by the introduction of sociological perspectives into the study of culture that we find the work of Pierre Bourdieu, a sociologist whose work focuses on the concept of culture, and whose research has included a great deal of fieldwork in the anthropological tradition. Kapferer (1987), in discussing the changes taking place in the anthropological perspective on culture, says that "the trend is toward the cultural as constitutive, not in the form of 'value orientations' or guides or 'models' for action, but as finely ingrained in what Bourdieu calls habitus, or the habituated practices of human beings." (p. ix)
Bourdieu's program of study, often referred to as the "sociology of culture," moves away from the traditional definitions of culture used in anthropology, drawing more on subsidiary definitions of culture such as those provided by the American Heritage Dictionary:
2. Intellectual and artistic activity, and the works produced by it;In his article on Bourdieu's cultural sociology, Sulkunen (1982) says that:
3.a. Development of the intellect through training or education.
b. Enlightenment resulting from such training or education;
4. A high degree of taste and refinement formed by aesthetic and intellectual training;
5. Special training and development.
Contrary to his British counterparts, the Birmingham school of cultural sociology (which adopts a 'wide' definition of culture as a totality of meaningful practices constituting a way of life), Bourdieu defines culture narrowly as 'the best that has been thought and said, regarded as the summits of achieved civilization.' (Hall 1870:59)Sulkunen goes on to qualify this definition of culture as "that which is defined as such by the dominant classes.," a critical aspect of Bourdieu's interpretation of culture. In fact, Bourdieu uses the term culture to refer solely to this aspect of civilization--achievements defined as "the best" by the dominant class. To describe the "meaningful practices constituting a way of life," he has developed his own terminology, allowing a degree of specificity not achievable in the current lexicon of anthropology. To determine the usefulness of Bourdieu's ideas about culture and society in the context of CMC, we must look carefully at his terminology and constructs.
Bourdieu's model of society and social relations has its roots in Marxist theories of class and conflict. Bourdieu characterizes social relations in the context of what he calls the field, defined as a competitive system of social relations functioning according to its own specific logic or rules. The field is the site of struggle for power between the dominant and subordinate classes. It is within the field that legitimacy--a key aspect defining the dominant class--is conferred or withdrawn. That legitimacy is conferred in the form of symbolic capital, discussed below. Moi (1991) quotes Bourdieu as defining the field in this way: "A space in which a game takes place, a field of objective relations between individuals or institutions who are competing for the same stake." (p. 1021) That stake is the amassing of capital, in order to ensure the reproduction of the individual's or institution's class.
Rather than using his concept of field as a substitute for the traditional concept of culture, Bourdieu sees everyday life as consisting of not one but a conglomeration of fields, including leisure, family patterns, consumption, work, artistic practices, and others. (Sulkunen, 1982, p. 106-7) The dominant class in each of these fields may vary in its composition, but the process of struggle for capital, and through the amassing capital for dominance, is consistent in each.
Another key concept in Bourdieu's theories is that of habitus, which he defines as the "system of acquired dispositions functioning on the practical level as categories of perception and assessment or as classificatory principles as well as being the organizing principles of action." (Bourdieu, 1987/1990) The habitus is an individually operationalized set of expectations and understandings based on the collection of experiences a given individual encounters that shape his or her sense of the "rules of the game." It is what regulates interactions within a field in an observable, "objective" manner, affecting not only the individual but all those who interact with that individual. According to Sulkunen (1982), "habitus of a group or class defines a symbolic order within which it conducts its practices--in every day life as well as in the feast." (p. 108) One of the most powerful aspects of the concept of the habitus is that is both subjectively constructed and objectively put into practice, helping social scientists to bridge the gap between subjective and objective sociological theories.
In his discussions of both field and habitus, Bourdieu rejects the sociological concept of functionalism, arguing that social forms are not generally determined by needs for survival or integration. The field and the habitus can (and do) vary substantially over time and geographic boundaries; while the processes of class struggle and symbolic action may remain consistent, the forms that these activities take varies not based on functional determinants, but on seemingly arbitrary social constructions.
While the field and habitus describe, respectively, the environment and rules within which class struggles take place, the concept of symbolic capital defines the tools used by individuals and institutions within a field to gain dominance and thus to reproduce themselves over time. It is in this area that Bourdieu both draws most strongly from Marxist ideas of class and conflict, and also breaks most clearly from the classical Marxist constructions. Rather than defining capital purely in Marx's economic terms, Bourdieu defines two primary types of symbolic capital: economic and cultural. Both describe endowments that individuals bring with them into the field and attempt to augment. Economic capital is equivalent to the capital familiar to students of Marxist theories including both monetary and property assets. Cultural capital, however, is a concept unique to Bourdieu's theoretical model. This is where Bourdieu's use of the narrower definition of culture comes into play. Cultural capital can also be described as cultural competence. Like economic capital, it conveys legitimacy, and a legitimacy regulated by institutions within the society. In the case of cultural capital, that legitimacy is regulated not by the government but by educational and artistic institutions.
Cultural capital can be converted into economic capital, just as economic capital can be converted into cultural capital. however, these conversions happen at different rates of exchange. Economic capital is more liquid, and more easily transferable from generation to generation, making it particularly useful in continuing the process of reproducing class legitimacy and domination over time. Cultural capital, however, also functions as a major factor in class definition. In order to maintain the legitimacy of cultural capital, and to ensure both its convertibility and its ability to reproduce itself, the educational system creates a market in cultural capital with certificates as the currency. (Garnham & Williams, 1990)
The real significance of capital in Bourdieu's theoretical model is the role that it plays in the continuing struggle between the dominating and the dominated classes. It is through the acquisition of capital, and the use of symbolic capital to perpetrate symbolic violence, that classes ensure their own legitimacy and reproduction. Like Marx, Bourdieu believes that the more this process of symbolic violence is hidden from sight and left unchallenged, the more powerful it is in reproducing class dominance. Thus, when we take as an absolute given that individuals with advanced degrees are best qualified to teach in universities, and do not challenge the assumptions behind that assertion, we leave power structures unchanged and allow the continuation of the symbolic violence that Bourdieu calls "pedagogic action." (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990, p. 5)
Bourdieu has not limited his work to theoretical construction. Rather, he has demonstrated a commitment to integrating the processes of ethnographic study and development of theoretical models, arguing that each process depends upon, and informs, the other. One of the more interesting applications of his theoretical constructs is provided in his book Homo Academicus (1984/1988), an examination of academia in modern France. This study of pedagogy in action, and in particular its analysis of the exchanges of symbolic capital and power in the field of higher education, serves as an excellent blueprint for designing a cultural and sociological study of CMC. It is this work that I will use as a model for a preliminary assessment of how Bourdieu's theoretical constructs can be applied in the context of CMC.
In order to apply Bourdieu's theories to the context of CMC, it is necessary first to clearly define the boundaries of the potential field (and possibly subfields), classes, habitus, and symbolic capital that exist in--and therefore define--that context. This task is not a small one; there is much debate over the boundaries of the CMC environment, and its dependence on quickly changing technologies muddies those boundaries further. What I attempt to do here is merely to propose working definitions for these concepts; definitions that will need to be tested through empirical observations and analysis of the CMC environments in question. In fact, one of the strengths of Bourdieu's theoretical model is its emphasis on the use of empirical observation to support hypotheses and to feed back into the theoretical model.
Defining the field itself provides the initial challenge in this process, as there are two distinct ways to envision the field in the CMC environment. The first is to see each CMC-based system as a separate field; thus, the Internet might make up one field, Usenet another, FidoNet a third. One difficulty with this definition is determining the boundaries of a given system; for example, a single PC-based BBS might incorporate Usenet newsgroups, FidoNet messages, and local discussion topics. The second is to see all CMC media as making up a single field, with individual CMC systems as subfields within that field. This definition is certainly more practical for the purposes of doing research; the question is, will this definition operationalize effectively in the context of Bourdieu's theoretical constructs? Again, turning to Homo Academicus, it is useful to note that Bourdieu uses the term field in many contexts--referring to the field of the university (p. 29), as well as to those of the arts and social science faculties. It appears that Bourdieu's definition of field is fluid enough to incorporate overlap, allowing us to see individual CMC systems such as Usenet or the Internet as fields in their own right while still permitting the definition of a field encompassing all such media.
What will ultimately justify the definition of the field is the consideration of the subsidiary constructs of class, habitus, and capital, which must be consistent within a field. It is in this area that the most tentative mappings must be made, for these concepts must be validated with empirical evidence gathered through observation and interaction.
Classes within the larger context of CMC appear to be defined in terms of expertise and experience with CMC (particularly in the field of given CMC system), and through affiliation with particular CMC systems (more likely when viewing CMC systems en masse as a single field). Having a "history" on the network places individuals in positions of authority, from which they often then feel they have the authority to dictate how current practices of communication should operate. In many ways, this pattern of interaction is similar to that found in small and less industrialized societies, where authority is passed down through the elders of a group, and tradition defines most patterns of interaction. This authority, in fact, results from the accumulation over time of cultural capital, a key concept in Bourdieu's model of interaction and cultural reproduction. While the authority is not represented in a system as formal as that of the degree granting or promotion and tenure systems of academia, like academia, it tends to reward both seniority and celebrity.
Also affecting class distinction, particularly on multi-network CMC media such as the Internet or Usenet, is the affiliation of an individual with a particular "home" system. Thus, users with accounts on well-established systems such as the Well, or those with accounts at prestigious research universities are likely to be accorded more status in the field than those on such commercial systems as Delphi or America Online, or hobbyist systems such as FidoNet. However, within each of these systems, there are also class distinctions, again often based on the concept of cultural capital within that system; this supports the idea that the field in CMC can be conceptualized as either the individual system or the interrelated systems as a whole; in each case, class and capital are conceptualized differently, but share similar characteristics.
While CMC was a relatively unusual mode of communication, frequented by only an elite subsection of computer users, economic capital played a minor role in allowing entrance into the field, and almost no role in determining power and status within the field. It is possible to identify a two key participant groups that formed the population of CMC environments. These included computer scientists and other researchers associated with early networking projects such as the ARPANet, a group that served as the original population of what we now call the Internet; computer hobbyists or "hackers," who frequented bulletin board systems and other grass roots computer networks (such as FidoNet), as well as those responsible for building and maintaining early computer systems and networks. Another identifiable thread in the CMC user population was that of 1960s-style "counterculture" activists, many of whom recognized early on the power of CMC networks for grass-roots organizing and redefinition of community. While the first of these groups, the scientific research community, did wield some economic power, both of the other groups accumulated capital almost exclusively in its cultural rather than economic form.
The economic power wielded by the scientific community did enable them to implement and enforce many of the early power structures in CMC environments. For example, on the ARPANet, the precursor to the Internet, restrictions limiting participation by those not in the scientific community were actively enforced. Even now, the backbone of the United States portion of the Internet, which is funded (and therefore controlled by the National Science Foundation, restricts use of network facilities for certain purposes (primarily commercial) through the "Acceptable Use Policy." This policy is an excellent example of the use of symbolic power to control the activity of other participants in the field.
Cultural capital, in the form of expertise and experience using CMC or through affiliation with a "high status" system, is also used regularly to impose restrictions on other members of the field. New users of CMC systems are regularly ridiculed or attacked for shows of ignorance or inexperience; reactions of the dominant cultural class range from patronizing to hostile, and often are sufficient to drive new participants who do not exhibit sufficient acquisition of this cultural capital out of the field entirely.
The most problematic of Bourdieu's concepts to define in the context of CMC is that of habitus, particularly since habitus, by its very definition, is the most subjective of the constructs Bourdieu provides. What may be most useful in defining the habitus of CMC participants is an examination of CMC terminology. The linguistic conventions we use to describe and define phenomena are themselves creations of the pedagogical process, and are constantly informed by our cultural assumptions--or habitus. It is interesting to note that computer and communication technology, more so than most technologies, has developed its own extensive and unique lexicon. Bookstores shelves are full of computer dictionaries and glossaries, books on computers devote large sections to definitions of terms and jargon, and it is not unusual for technically sophisticated computer users to find themselves "translating" jargon for less sophisticated users. Yet this phenomenon does not appear in conjunction with technologies such as telephony, radio, or television; while their underlying mechanics may be as mystifying as those of computers, linguistic conventions emphasizing the complexity or difference of those systems have not arisen as they have in the context of computers.
Among the terms unique to CMC interaction, and providing insight into the habitus of participants, are such words as netiquette, flaming, and newbie. "Netiquette" refers to the often unwritten but communally enforced rules governing appropriate behavior in CMC interaction. While a few guides to these network "rules of the road" have been compiled and electronically distributed (Rinaldi, 1992; Templeton, 1991; Von Rospaq, 1991), they are seldom made available to new users, who tend to learn the rules by breaking them and being reprimanded. "Flaming" is responding in a hostile or highly critical way to a user who has been perceived as violating these norms of CMC behavior. And "newbie" is a term used, often in a denigrating manner, to describe new and unsophisticated users of CMC systems.
The fact that so many terms have been developed in the CMC environment to describe the implementation and violation of behavioral norms is an indication of the importance of the habitus, which Bourdieu sees as the individually operationalized but collectively effective method for the regulation of behavior within the field.
This preliminary investigation of the applicability of Bourdieu's theoretical constructs of field, class, habitus, and symbolic capital and power appears to support the definition of CMC as a legitimate field (or fields), and to justify closer analysis of this environment. Ideally, such research will yield significant insight not only into the current nature of interaction in CMC, but also into its likely future as patterns of capital distribution change and the field both expands and matures. By making a case for the suitability of this theoretical model in studying the CMC environment, this paper only sets the stage for a larger program of research. This research will need to incorporate empirical studies of a variety of CMC systems (which can be seen as subfields of the larger CMC field) in order to test the validity of the constructs, identify more clearly the classes interacting in the field, and to define in more precise terms the symbolic capital (especially cultural) being used by these classes to exert power and ensure their continuing survival.
While this discussion of Bourdieu's costructs in the context of CMC may seem sketchy, it is because the research being proposed is, in fact, the development of a substantially more in-depth model of the symbolic power and practice exercised in CMC, and the potential of Bourdieu's theories in both understanding current practices and anticipating future changes in the cultural milieu.
In keeping with Bourdieu's example of combining theory with practice, my research will require close observation of CMC interactions and participants in order to both validate the constructs outlined here, and to attempt to predict future trends in the use of symbolic power and action by classes within that field. Only by ensuring that the theoretical work is informed by field research can these constructs be made useful for understanding behavior and predicting trends in the use of this increasingly ubiquitous medium. Toward that end, I expect the research to consist of a reflexive process of developing theoretical constructs, verifying those constructs through observation of interaction in CMC contexts, and then reforming constructs based on observed interactions.
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