American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
April/May 2018
Volume 
46
Issue 
2

Experts Improve Public Understanding of Sociology Through Wikipedia

Jami Mathewson and Ryan McGrady, Wiki Education

Wikipedia is a resource people use every day to better understand the world. In a time when terms like “alternative facts” and “fake news” have become shorthand for a wide range of political, educational, and epistemological challenges to public knowledge, it’s crucial that we ensure the quality of the most popular source of information online. Due to the volunteer nature of Wikipedia, quality is much better in some areas than others. Many of the most important topics are underdeveloped, uneven, based on outdated research, poorly explained, skewed towards a particular perspective, or simply neglected. If we want the public to understand sociological ideas or develop policies and behaviors based on sociological scholarship, we need sociologists to contribute to Wikipedia.

Wikipedia and Public Sociology

An informed citizenry does not emerge by itself. People look to Wikipedia to make political and behavioral decisions; therefore, its quality and reliability are vital. 

In 2004, ASA President Michael Burawoy delivered a fervent call for sociologists to engage more deeply with the public. In the same spirit, eight years later, ASA President Erik Olin Wright articulated the particular significance of Wikipedia to sociology: “Wikipedia has become an important global public good. Since it is a reference source for sociologically relevant ideas and knowledge that is widely used by both the general public and students, it is important that the quality of sociology entries be as high as possible. This will only happen if sociologists themselves contribute to this public good.”

Even when sociologists understand the need for an informed public and the importance of Wikipedia, they may be unsure of how to participate. Sharing knowledge with the public via Wikipedia means navigating the site’s rules, norms, and processes, which can be challenging for any new user. Wikipedia’s style of collaborative writing can be difficult to adapt to as well.

That’s why Wiki Education was developed. By organizing efforts to improve information on the site, we hope to empower the public to participate fully as citizens in the new century.

Wiki Education staff are approached frequently by academics interested in adding their own expertise to Wikipedia. We have years of experience supporting tens of thousands of students with classroom assignments designed to improve the quality of Wikipedia entries, but until recently we have not had the infrastructure to help subject-matter experts learn how to contribute to Wikipedia. Wikipedia Fellows is a new program that does just that.

Launching Wikipedia Fellows

In January 2018, we launched the Wikipedia Fellows pilot, in partnership with the American Sociological Association, National Women’s Studies Association, and Midwest Political Science Association. ASA recruited three members to participate in the pilot cohort, who joined three members from each of the other two associations. For three months, the Fellows have collaborated both as learners and contributors, sharing knowledge, insights, and feedback from their varied backgrounds and perspectives.

We knew anecdotally that there was demand for a project like this when we first announced this pilot in November, but as word went around, we were thrilled and encouraged by the enthusiasm. We received nearly 90 applications from qualified academics for our nine-person pilot.

The goal was for each Wikipedia Fellow to make a substantial improvement to at least two articles about important subjects within their disciplines and areas of expertise. Our staff of Wikipedia experts have been involved at each step of the process to provide training and guidance through structured group meetings, our Slack channel, and on Wikipedia.

Our pilot cohort brought to this project a wide range of motivations such as a desire to use Wikipedia as a pedagogical tool by improving a resource used by students as well as a desire to train academic peers to edit. Other motivations included address systemic biases and participate in a form of activism. Most salient among the scholars’ reasons for participating is a shared passion for disseminating high-quality, equitable knowledge to the public. Editing Wikipedia is a powerful form of public sociology.

ASA’s Wikipedia Fellows

Sine Anahita, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, joined the program to improve articles about structures of masculinity, the alt-right and gender, working-class men’s friendship patterns, rural lesbians, lesbian land movement, women’s sexualities, LGBT sexualities, and anything related to Alaska. Michael Ramirez, Associate Professor of Sociology at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, contributed to articles related to race, class, and gender stratification. 

Bradley Zopf, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Carthage College, improved Wikipedia content related to contemporary and historical understandings of race, racism, prejudice, discrimination, and inequality, with a focus on the experiences of Arab and Muslim Americans in the United States. 

To kick off the pilot, Fellows evaluated Wikipedia’s coverage of their respective areas of expertise, identifying articles needing improvement. With 5.5 million articles developed over the last 17 years, there can be a lot to review on a given topic. Evaluating a topic’s accuracy and completeness requires broad knowledge of the literature on the subject. It requires a scholar who can determine the sources’ reliability and know which ideas or sources are missing or misrepresented.

ASA Fellows corrected omissions and errors and updated research findings. For example, in the article on masculinity, Ramirez added the role of violence among traits traditionally understood to be part of the Western conception of masculinity as well as a section about the social construction of masculinity. Anahita edited Wikipedia’s article about race with information about race as a sociological construct and included information about sociology’s own history of racism. Zopf improved demographic information in Wikipedia’s coverage of Middle Eastern and Arab Americans. He has also started to develop an article on Arab immigration to the United States. 

This is only a partial overview of the impact the ASA Fellows have already made to Wikipedia. We are very happy with how this pilot has gone thus far, and we’re eager to see as well as share the Fellows’ final contributions as they improve the public’s access to reliable sociological knowledge. To learn more about how Wiki Education works to improve Wikipedia’s quality, equity, and reach, visit wikiedu.org.