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Wikipedia and The Outsider Within

ASU’s Dr. Tracy Perkins will be presenting research on Wikipedia’s racialized knowledge politics at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting on August 9th. She is presenting with two of three coauthors and former students: Sophia Hussein, Lundyn Davis, and Mariam Trent.

Their talk is titled, “Wikipedia and The Outsider Within: Black feminism and racialized, gendered knowledge construction online.

Written by Tracy Perkins

In 2018, when I was still a faculty member at Howard University, I assigned students in a class on the Sociology of Food and Agriculture a semester-long project of contributing to Wikipedia. With the support of staff at Wiki Education, the students learned to evaluate Wikipedia articles, identify areas for improvement, find academic sources of information to help improve their chosen article, summarize the sources they found, and integrate their summaries into Wikipedia articles. Over the course of the semester, the seventeen participating students made 449 edits, adding over 17,500 words and 164 references. To date, the articles they edited have been viewed more than 620,000 times. The fact that their classwork would be read by real-life people around the world added weight to our discussions about research, knowledge, and how to share it.

Indeed, Wikipedia has become the world’s most referenced online encyclopedia. But while it provides an important free source of information, Wikipedia’s content reflects the social inequalities of the world around it, as well as the biases of its contributors. Gender bias on Wikipedia (for example, the disproportionate number of biographies of men as compared to women), has received substantial press attention. However, racial bias has been less well documented. In our paper, three of my former Howard students and I use our experience editing Wikipedia for the class project to reflect on the racialized nature of knowledge sharing on Wikipedia, and its intersection with sexism. We show how some of Wikipedia’s formal and informal editing practices perpetuate the racial biases of academia and the press, while also adding the biases of Wikipedia’s predominantly white, male editors.

Unlike most Wikipedia editors, the students in my class at Howard University, a Historically Black University, were predominantly Black and female. We read Patricia Hill Collins’ classic 1986 article, “Learning from the Outsider Within: The Sociological Significance of Black Feminist Thought,” as an introduction to thinking about the politics of knowledge. More specifically, it showed us how Black women’s life experiences can lend themselves to improving the range and accuracy of knowledge produced in academia. Our article grapples with these questions as they apply to Wikipedia.

Stay tuned for more as we develop and publish our work. ASU students will also have a chance to get involved this fall – I’m running the Wikipedia assignment again in a class called “Food and Justice” (JUS 494) in the School of Social Transformation. I still have room for more students, so please join us!

About the Authors

Tracy Perkins is an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. She was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminology at Howard University from 2015-2020. Her research focuses on social movements, social inequality, and the environment.

Sophia Hussein graduated from Howard University with a BA in Sociology. She is currently applying to master's programs in social work and hopes to work to implement policies that support women and children in marginalized communities.

Lundyn Davis graduated from Howard University with a BA in Sociology and received a MS in Bioethics from Columbia University. She is currently a medical student at Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin.

Mariam Trent graduated from Howard University with a BA in Sociology. She is currently applying to nursing school, and hopes to offer culturally competent preventative health care as a nurse practitioner.

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