Seth Lewis

Seth C. Lewis (Ph.D., University of Texas at Austin, 2010) is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota (Twin Cities). At the intersection of media sociology, professions, and technology, his research focuses on the process of innovation in journalism, as the field negotiates challenges to its boundary work and professional control. With Maxwell McCombs (et al.), he co-edited the 2010 book The Future of News: An Agenda of Perspectives, and he is affiliated with the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. Previously, he worked as an editor at The Miami Herald and was a Fulbright Scholar in Spain.


What one insight from your field, approach, method, findings etc. do you think is most important for scholars working in this topical area?

I’ll discuss one concept that has been important to my recent work. I examined the notion of boundary-spanning as a means of creating novel space for innovation to occur. In this case, I was looking at the manner in which a particularly influential actor in the journalism field (the Knight Foundation) had sought to break down traditional barriers to the profession as a way of trying to bring innovation back in, from external fields and actors. I mention this because while the idea of studying boundary work (Gieryn, 1983), both in the rhetorical and material sense of the phrase, is hardly new to communication and the social sciences, it nevertheless could encourage us to think about how forms of digital and cultural production occur in boundary-spanning spaces—in those gaps between science/humanities disciplines, between professional/cultural fields, between work/play identities, and so forth. This emphasis on boundaries and their evolution can help us work more collaboratively across disciplines and methods, and encourage us to consider some interesting questions, such as: How were those boundaries forged historically, and who (or what) encouraged their design? What are the relative benefits and drawbacks, normatively, of such barriers (or their removal) in professional and socio-cultural spaces? To what extent does the blurring of boundaries require different sets of methods to understand the outcomes from multiple (disciplinary) perspectives?

What are two issues that are not adequately treated within current work on cultural production in the digital age in your field or in others?

Following on my discussion of boundary work above, I see two inadequacies—in methods and theories.

On the former, there is a need to expand and “make normal” the use of mixed methods, not as a dual emphasis reserved only for the most unique of research circumstances, but as an idealized starting point for most projects. And, even while the academic community has a ways to go in legitimizing such interdisciplinary research, at the same time we need to be critically assessing the shortcomings of existing qualitative and quantitative approaches, and imagining ways that newer, yet-to-be-imagined methods—perhaps ones that fall in the boundary spaces between qualitative/quantitative—might better address some of the most interesting questions we encounter. (I’ll mention one idea in passing: Increasingly, I see the need for bringing together historical and contemporary forms of research—rather than treating them distinctly as, say, “history” and “quantitative social science”—in a more symbiotic whole, as a way of teasing out how systems of cultural/digital production have been structured over time and connecting that with how such systems are used in contemporary life.)

On the latter point, and as Aphra Kerr pointed out, the study of cultural production in the digital age—housed as it usually is in media studies, communication, cultural studies, and related departments—could benefit from a boundary-spanning effort to incorporate insights from the likes of engineering and computer science. This would help us take our rather rich descriptions of cultural production and build up from that theories that are grounded in a better understanding of both the human (agency) and design (structure) elements of digital networks and systems. Drawing on disciplines that focus on how digital technologies are designed and deployed can help us better assess how the architecture shapes the social relations and textual output that we frequently study in sociology, communication, etc.

Are humanistic values such as justice, equality, democracy or (insert preferred humanistic value here) currently served by cultural production in a digital networked environment?

It’s hard to say. Certainly, the growth of digital technologies, on balance, has enabled greater production of free expression (a key humanistic value I would add to the above list) for more people, in more places, and in more ways than we might have anticipated even just a few years ago. At the same time, values such as justice and equality—i.e., ones that emphasize an element of regulating action—might not be so easily served in an environment that more readily facilitates “talk” than on-the-ground “action.” Part of the problem, perhaps, is the disconnect between virtual and physical: We still live, pay taxes, and vote in local communities and within national contexts, and yet digitization works in a deterritorialized fashion; this complicates questions about how digital media serve values that may be managed quite differently in different political environments.