Interview with Barry Wellman

© Barry Wellman and Figure/Ground
Dr. Wellman was interviewed by Andrew Iliadis. October 30th, 2012.

Professor Barry Wellman is based at the Faculty of Information (“iSchool” of the University of Toronto where he directs NetLab. He has been the S.D. Clark Professor at the Department of Sociology, a member of the Cities Centre, and the Knowledge Media Design Institute. Wellman is the co-author of the prize-winning Networked: The New Social Operating System (with Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project) published by MIT Press in Spring 2012. Prof. Wellman is a member of the Royal Society of Canada. He founded the International Network for Social Network Analysis in 1976. He is the Chair-Emeritus of both the Community and Information Technologies section and the Community and Urban Sociology section of the American Sociological Association. He is a Fellow of IBM Toronto’s Centre for Advanced Studies. He has worked with IBM’s Institute of Knowledge Management, Mitel Networks, Advanced Micro Devices’ Global Consumer Advisory Board, and Intel’s People and Practices research unit. Wellman has been a keynoter at conferences ranging from computer science to theology. He is the (co-)author of more than 200 articles that have been co-authored with more than 80 scholars, and is the (co-)editor of three books.

How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?

 It certainly was a conscious choice. In the late 1950s and the early 1960s when I was in graduate school there was massive anti-Semitism in the U.S. and, frankly, in Canada too. If you watch Mad Men, the show actually represents that pretty well. The corporate world was closed to me. I knew that I didn’t want to be a doctor or a dentist because I’m not very good with my hands or with blood. I knew that I was smart, but as I’m not too conflict oriented,  I didn’t want to be a lawyer. So the question was: what kind of academic would I be.

I was a history major at Lafayette College. (In those days we didn’t have sociology in many colleges.) One day I was talking to one of my best friends, Jack Marchalonis, when he said “Look, Barry, you really like modern current events – you ought to think about going into sociology.” And a light-bulb went off in my head. I took the only sociology course my college had. And I got lucky. I got into Harvard grad school, and it was a wonderful place to be. I was a quiz kid as an undergraduate and participated in something called the “College Bowl” on CBS-TV, and that probably helped get me into Harvard.

Who were some of your mentors in university and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?

Both Lafayette and Harvard had the norm of taking their students seriously. It had a club mentality: Once they took you in, they basically took care of you. As a student, you didn’t know all the gossip, but you were treated as a colleague. I had three mentors at Harvard: Chad Gordon was my thesis adviser, but I was also very close to Charles Tilly who was an urban sociologist and social historian. I was his teaching assistant. My third mentor was Harrison White, who also became famous as a theorist of social network analysis; I was also his teaching assistant. All three were great role models. They encouraged me to integrate a wide range of interests into my work. They took their students seriously. Following their example,  I’ve been doing a lot of paying-it-forward, taking my graduate students seriously. And I see my former students now taking their own students seriously: I’m proud of my intellectual children and grandchildren

In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?

The changes are for the worse. The biggest change is much less money, and that means we have very large classes. Neither I nor my teaching assistants can now take the time to really get to know many students and to counsel them. The only time that our students learn anything on a one-to-one basis is in their senior year when they take a small seminar with me. At the same time, the University of Toronto keeps warning us not to get to know students.

What makes a good teacher today? How do you manage to command attention in an age of interruption characterized by attention deficit and information overload?

The statements about “attention deficit” and “information overload” assumptions you are making; not me. In my undergraduate course, I walk around. Although the students’ laptops are open, by walking around I can see if the laptops are for note taking and not for talking to friends. I don’t allow using cell phones, and I do a lot of question asking. Although some students say I do too much question asking, I like the Socratic Method, although I remember what happened to Socrates. So, one, a lot of Q and A; two, keep it humorous but serious; three, complement everything I say with PowerPoint; four, don’t put my PowerPoint slides online to encourage students to come to class and pay attention if they want to get the information.

What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors and what are some of the texts that young scholars should be reading in this day and age?

This is a life I love. And you have to love it. One of the saddest things we see are students who go into grad school because they don’t know what to do with the rest of their lives. They turn out to be miserable, they make their peers miserable, and they make the faculty miserable. So if you don’t want to do it, don’t do it. Or, realize after a year, or even half a year, to get out as soon as possible. One thing that people really need to do is peer-to-peer learning, and that only happens with smart, motivated graduate students. And a good thing, of course, is to make alliances with faculty who you not only like, but who are really topnotch, can open doors, and also tell you what’s going on.

What texts to read? I think you ought to start with my book, Networked: The New Social Operating System! It’s a great intro to the field. We wrote it as a high-end trade book, which means that it has endnotes but is also readable. We worked very hard, both my co-author Lee Rainie, who used to be a journalist, and myself. We also worked with a copy editor who gave us thousands of edits and we pretty much did everything she said.

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan declared, in reference to the university environment that, “departmental sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed.” This claim could be viewed as an endorsement of interdisciplinary studies, but it could also be regarded as a statement about the changing nature of academia. Do you think the university as an institution is in crisis or at least under threat in this age of information?

Universities are always in crisis. My university has said “We are in big financial trouble” for the 45 years I’ve been here.  First of all, Marshall, who was at the University of Toronto where I am, didn’t know what he was talking about. He talked only to his acolytes. Departments are strong here in Toronto; they’re strong just about everywhere. In a few places like Irvine where they’ve tried not to have traditional departments, they’ve actually been forced back to having them. The forces of conservatism – of disciplinary boundaries – are strong. Different universities get more involved in interdisciplinarity than others. Right now at my university it’s rather weak, while at Duke it’s strong. I think these are faddish trends.

The interdisciplinary stuff works great, but only when you get the right people with a broad range of knowledge and are selective in getting only the best people involved. But there are complications. For example, one of the things I discovered working with computer scientists, is that you have to spend a lot of time building a common language. For example, the word “culture” or “community” means very different things to computer scientists than to sociologists such as myself.

In a 2009 article, Francis Fukuyama argues that the tenure system has turned the academy into one of the most conservative and costly institutions in the country. Fukuyama believes the freedom guaranteed by tenure is precious, but thinks it’s time to abolish this institution before it becomes too costly. What do you make of Fukuyama’s assertion and, in a nutshell, what is your own position about the academic tenure system?

Fukuyama generally doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He wrote a book about the end of history which was one of the most foolish books that I ever read – but that’s an ad hominem argument. With regard to his present assertion, I would disagree. First, tenure is better than the alternatives. Second, if we didn’t have tenure, we would have the following situation: We would have administrators, who tend not to be the cream of the crop, making decisions about people. From my own experience they tend to want to get rid of faculty members who make trouble, or rock the boat, or do anything else. Third, the problem of tenure, of course is dead wood. That can be alleviated with wise leadership. Fourth, how are you going to convince someone to go into a field and sacrifice ten years of their life getting a PhD when they’re not going to have some sort of guarantee that they have some certainty of a career?

How do you see the individual actor in contemporary society? Your theory of “networked individualism” implies something different from actors working within groups. Is it the information in the network that comprises the individual? Can you say something briefly about this concept?

In our Networked book, we’re mostly playing off against groups. Groups are really tightly bounded and densely knit networks where everybody knows each other, such as villages or work groups. Something that a lot of evidence points out is that people live in multiple communities. I remember when we did our first study in East York in 1968-69 (which is in Toronto by the way), we were surprised to find out how few people lived in the same neighborhood.  We always thought of communities as neighborhoods.

Now we’re studying work groups and we’re finding the same thing. Scholars especially move around from team to team. So, yes, that’s an issue, and networked individualism says, “look, there are individuals, they are centers of their own personal networks, and then they move around between one team and another.” And we can’t analyze them as super-individuals because people are connected. We couldn’t solve the New York City Hurricane Sandy flood situation by giving everybody a little shovel. We have to have something that is comprised of building-block networks.

Another concept – “glocalization” – is becoming widely used and this is in part due to your own research on the subject. What is glocalization, and how is it different from the older model of globalization?

Glocalization is a multiply invented term. Keith Hampton, who was once my student and is now a faculty member at Rutgers, and I jointly invented the term for Sociology. We later found that four or five other scholars invented it for other disciplines. It’s a neologism in which we put together global and local. What we keep finding is that people use social media such as the internet to be widely connected, but at the same time the local situations turn out to be very important, both online and of course in real life. As computer scientists keep forgetting, people have bodies, so “glocalization” in our sense means interaction that is both global and local and of course everything in-between happening more or less simultaneously. But, for many people, the local is more important because the people they usually speak with on the internet, are the same people they also see in their physical interactions. There is no separation between the two.

What do you think of the idea that too much communication can lead to a decrease in action? The political scientist Navid Hassanpour at Yale studies media disruption in the context of political exacerbation, particularly in the Middle East. What he found was that when there is a disruption in connectivity then that produces more action. What is your stance on this?

I haven’t read Hassanpour’s articles, but it would be interesting to see his evidence. This is the first I’ve heard of it. By contrast, Chuck Tilly has shown that connectivity is a reinforcing thing that actually has helped people to get mobilized.

We discuss this issue a little bit in our Networked book, and also in an article we wrote for Peace Magazine. Most people in Cairo were not connected to the internet: only about 20% had internet access. Yet, Cairo internet users were using it to connect with the outside world, and with each other, although they had to be careful that surveillance forces weren’t involved.

In conclusion, there is a punditry belief that the internet takes people away from interactions. Yet, hardly any evidence supports that. Any study that I know of – and I can think of a half- dozen by Jeff Boase, Keith Hampton, Hua Wang, etc. – shows that the more you’re online, the more you’re offline and the more you’re interacting,  So, online and in-person interactions are reinforcing rather than countervailing phenomena.

©  Excerpts and links may be used provided that full and clear credit is given to Barry Wellman
and Figure/Ground with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Suggested citation:

Iliadis, A. (2012). “A Conversation with Barry Wellman,” Figure/Ground. October 30th.
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