Sociology of outer space?

One of my small joys in life is to watch people blink slowly when I tell them that one of my areas of study is sociology of outer space. “Cool” or “Can you really do that?” are the most common responses so far. I agree – it is not something one comes across daily. I could probably name everyone who ever wrote anything remotely sociological on anything remotely related to outer space, as there aren’t many.

It is hard to define what sociology of outer space is. Not many social scientists are interested in space exploration, and those who do tend to cross disciplinary boundaries. As a sociologist myself, I interpret their work through sociological framework, although some of them might self-identify as social geographers, anthropologists, communication scholars, or social historians. Thus, instead of a strict definition, I use sociology of outer space as a working title for this fuzzy cluster of social science research.

Before I go further, let’s address the elephant in the room – is sociology of outer space a real deal? If you were to google sociology of outer space or astrosociology, you will most likely land in a flashy website that seems to predate myspace.

Astrosociology.org is a website owned by Dr. Jim Pass, a self-proclaimed founder of astrosociology, a field that studies everything human-and-space related. He bought the domain and registered astrosociology as a trademark in mid 2000s – a move that was not well received by mainstream sociologists. The overarching argument was that astrosociology is nothing but a catchy name with no theoretical substance behind it. In the end, Pass declared that astrosociology is not a sub-discipline of sociology anymore, but an interdisciplinary field of social sciences, humanities, and art (read: everything but STEM) that addresses all the questions related to humanity and outer space.

It is too easy to dismiss astrosociologists as a collective of eccentrics whose work resembles space advocacy more than actual science. But we should not through the baby out with the bathwater and regard everyone who studies social aspects of space exploration as lesser social scientists.

Sociologists have means to make informed predictions that can lead to deliberate and intelligent decisions. Governmental space programs, private space entrepreneurs, and space advocacy movements can be better understood only if we know what social forces drive them. A critical assessment of inequalities within space programs is the first step towards fixing them. Finally, sociological research on organizations and decision making processes can explain and help prevent deadly disasters, such as the Challenger or Columbia, in a very risky environment. And there is sociological research on that.

Social knowledge is crucial to prepare for the multi-planetary future. For example, lessons learned from Polynesian migration through the Pacific ocean some 10,000 years ago, could help to prepare for future spaceflights and outer space settlements. Studies of groups wintering in Antarctic research stations can show how a micro society with its own rules and norms evolve – something that we should know before establishing our first settlement in outer space.

Sociology provides tools to understand and improve experiences of groups of people during spaceflight; it can explain what drives people to stars; and what social problems lies ahead once a space colony is established.

Contrary to space activists, sociologists do not approach space exploration with rose colored glasses. Some have argued that space race is just a playground for rich and famous since the very beginning of the Apollo program. Profit is the main force that drives capitalists to outer space. Capitalism needs unlimited resources for its continuous growth. Rhetoric of science, freedom, spirituality, and global benefits is just a screen used to justify costly and dangerous space programs.

Others point out that this is not the whole picture. They argue that space entrepreneurs and space advocates all share beliefs of a utopian society established in the far frontiers of outer space. This belief system is reminiscent of Western colonialism and libertarian individualistic ideology; and only by understanding these beliefs we can explain what drives people to devote their lives to space activism.

Other social scientists study space organizations. These organizations talk about spaceflights as if it was a completely routine activity in order to distract public from actual risks and costs of spaceflight. Space programs produce science, which becomes a commodity of itself that helps justify high costs and to secure more funding. And despite the rhetoric of space being a place for humanity as a whole, space programs are still very much a masculine domain. Gendered assumptions are built into space programs, which hinders women’s opportunities and even impacts the way we research and try to address this issue.

This rough sketch shows ways in which space programs can benefit from sociological knowledge. Vice versa, outer space offers limitless possibilities for sociological theory building – whether by studying organizations in a high risk and low return environment or by exploring emotion management during long term spaceflight, sociologists can use new scopes to learn more about societies back home.

In the following weeks I will publish a series of posts that review current stage of sociology of outer space. It is quite nebulous, but evolving field. These posts are a work in progress towards a more coherent review article, so feel free to post your feedback in the comments or email me directly.

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