Social Networks and Online Media for Migration Scholars


In the last few months there have been a number of blog posts and articles in circulation about academics using social networks and online media. One of the more prominent ones includes an article about academic social networks in the journal Nature. In this post, I will discuss how I use social networks and online media as a migration researcher. These tools have helped build my career by giving me an additional way to engage with my professional communities. They have also helped to improve my research itself, by challenging me to explain it to different kinds of audiences.

As I see it, there are four primary ways to use social networks and online media for career development as a migration scholar. Listed in order of the amount of time and active participation needed, they are:

1.    Staying up to date
2.    Establishing your professional identity
3.    Making and maintaining connections
4.    Contributing to discussions about your areas of expertise

1. Staying up to date

I have found social media (Twitter in particular) to be incredibly useful for staying up to date with the international migration field. At the time of writing I follow about 1,900 users on Twitter, a significant proportion of whom tweet regularly about migration issues. Some of these users are fellow migration scholars, while others are activists and activist organizations, news websites, and individual journalists. Another significant proportion of the users I follow are sociologists working in other subfields in which I have an interest.

If you are interested in migration and the idea of Twitter scares you a bit, I would start by following the people in Jørgen Carling’s carefully curated list of migration researchers. It’s a fairly small list, and these users generally stay on topic, so it is easy to find relevant information there. If you’re more adventurous, do a Twitter search for migrationists on #ScholarSunday, a hashtag started by Raul Pacheco-Vega which has really started to take off as a way to recommend Twitter-using scholars.

Facebook and LinkedIn are also great for staying up to date with the professional field. There are a number of researcher-focused groups on these platforms, some of which are meant for members of specific professional organizations. As a member of the Asian Australian Studies Research Network Facebook group, for example, I benefit from seeing discussions of news articles and opinion pieces that are relevant to scholars in that country. While Twitter operates in real time and it is easy to miss articles and discussions that are posted when you’re not logged in, Facebook and LinkedIn work at a much slower pace. This is extremely helpful for those of us doing migration research that crosses time zones—there is less fear of missing out on an important conversation, because the platforms make it easier to find posts that were created while you were away.

2. Establishing your professional identity
People will google you. Search committees, grant reviewers, study respondents, journalists, readers, first dates–people want to know who you are and what you do, and the easiest way to do that is to google you. But what comes up when they do that?

Type your name and your main research area into a Google search bar. At the minimum, you should be able to find an institutional web site with a work e-mail address. If you’ve been publishing, your books and articles should appear, as well. If the results are sparse (or worse, unflattering), consider putting up some sort of profile: a professional web site, a public LinkedIn profile, an page, or all three.

I have had decent success with my professional web site, which I host on WordPress. I get a handful of visitors a day, some of whom look at my CV and blog posts. Though I don’t have the data to back this up, I hope that it helps people find me. If you met me at a conference or on the street and all you remember about me is my name and that I study international migration, you can probably find me on the Internet very easily.

3. Making and maintaining connections
When I first became interested in Australia as a potential case for my dissertation work, I had never been to the country and did not know anyone there. I was lucky enough to get a small grant to go and see if this case was viable, but I did not know where I would go, what I would do, and whom I could talk to. I googled scholars and wrote some cold e-mails to people whose work was most directly relevant to my tentative research plan. Many of them agreed to meet with me, but I realized that that wasn’t enough to fill two weeks of exploratory fact-finding. Besides, I also wanted to start building a larger network of colleagues, acquaintances, and friends in the country. How could I find some of these people?

I realized that Twitter was another, less formal avenue for developing these kinds of contacts. I looked at people’s Twitter bios (which generally include their job, research interests, and location) and started following people who could be helpful. I engaged in conversations with them by responding to what they were tweeting. Seeing whom they were in conversation with led me to other people. By the time I got to Australia I was able to meet with some of these people in person, which naturally led to other introductions and acts of mutual assistance. This was old-fashioned networking, except that Twitter helped to remove some of the barriers of space, formality, and awkwardness.

Social networking is also helpful for supplementing face-to-face networking. When I attend conferences, I use Twitter to arrange informal meetings with people that I want to meet in person. This is especially helpful at large conferences with hundreds or thousands of attendees, where it can be difficult to track people down. By the end of the conference, I will have met a number of new people, some of whom I had really hit it off with (intellectually or otherwise). I will often follow them on Twitter, LinkedIn, or to open up a channel of communication and keep tabs on how they are doing in their careers. In some cases, if we are both comfortable with it, we become Facebook friends, which allows for different kinds of information sharing.

4. Contributing to discussions about your area of expertise
International migration is an incredibly hot topic in the news and among policymakers, and scholars need to put their ideas out there as well. As someone who cares deeply about the social impacts of social science, I am happy to see that there are a number of scholars who are doing this very well. I regularly read publicly-oriented group blogs like Social Scientists on Migration Policy, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform blog from UC San Diego’s Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, and the COMPAS blog from Oxford’s Centre on Migration, Policy, and Society. I also read individual migration-oriented blogs like those of Hein de Haas and Nando Sigona. Another one of my favorites is Tanya Golash-Boza’s Get A Life, PhD. While this blog does not focus on migration, I appreciate getting general academic career advice from another migrationist in sociology.

Though I don’t claim to be a regular blogger, I have written a few posts for scholarly blogs that have broader audiences in mind. As a hobby, I also run a less “scholarly” Tumblr blog called Migrantography that reposts photographs of migrants and migrant life. For me, blogging has been most useful as an intellectual challenge: how do I convey these complex ideas that are specific to my discipline and sub-disciplines to a mixed audience of experts and general readers?

Final remarks
As scholars, we need to be engaging in the migration-related conversations that are happening on social networks and online media. For many people, these are primary sources of information. If we want our ideas about migration to have some broader social impacts, we need to be putting them out there in free, open channels like blogs and networking sites. At the same time, using social networks and online media to engage in these conversations can help us build other aspects of our careers as scholars and alleviate some of the isolation of academic work.

Caveat: Online engagement is not risk-free. Recent high-profile cases of US academics being censored and losing their jobs and the consistent harassment of women on the internet make many scholars understandably wary of putting themselves and their ideas out there. For me, the benefits have outweighed the risks, but you should decide for yourself what online professional activities you are comfortable pursuing.

Thanks to Amparo González (@orapmagon), Jacques (@jacksometer), Kajal Nisha Patel (@KajalNP), and Tseen Khoo (@tseenster) for your suggestions and insights as I brainstormed this post on Twitter!

Calvin N. Ho
Department of Sociology
University of California, Los Angeles

Image: “How to use the web without falling into it.” Spanish-language Jehovah’s Witness publication found at a Los Angeles bus stop. Photo by Calvin N. Ho.

The views, perspectives, and opinions expressed here and by those providing comments are those of the author(s) and commentator(s) alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Dissertation Reviews, its members, editors, or advisory board members.

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