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Blog of the Centre for Invention & Social Process, Goldsmiths

What is Digital Sociology?


There have been some posts recently about Digital Sociology (here and here), and I would like to add a few comments, based on my experience developing the MA/MSc Digital Sociology at Goldsmiths together with others.

I might as well begin with my main point: I have one big fear about digital sociology, and that is that it will be seized upon as an opportunity to re-enact the drama of the ‘two cultures’ : I mean the debate in which humanistically inspired approaches are pitched against narrow scientistic ones – with sociologists thinking they must choose to be either ‘with them or against us.’ I don’t think this has happened yet, but it will not necessarily be easy to avoid over the coming years: digitization has been widely and very publically framed as an opportunity for a new push in ‘computational social science’, and this fact alone will make it tempting for some to cast digital sociology in the role of defender of sensitive, civilized, more tolerant forms of study, over against narrowly defined scientific empiricism.

It’s not that I think there aren’t any problems with the narrow scientific empiricism that is celebrated in so many accounts of computational social science. There are plenty: the data-centrism, the obsession with scaling up and speeding up, the too limited definition of method in terms of the application of numerical measure – problems that have been well and subtly documented by Burrows and Savage, dana boyd, and others. But above and beyond this, the task of digital sociology surely isn’t to repeat well-known distinctions, and to re-enthrench binary oppositions that are already too familiar to us – those that were central to debates of the 20th century about the crisis of the human sciences. To pitch hermeneutics overagainst positivism again? I would like to think the role of digital sociology is to point the way beyond the oppositions between quant and qual, data and theory, and so on, and to develop practices that work across them. Digitization makes possible new creative ways of imagining and doing sociology (including what Lury and Wakeford call inventive methods). That’s what makes it exciting.

If I were to quickly answer the question ‘what is digital sociology?’, I would say something along these lines: Digital sociology is not just about theorizing the digital society, and it is not just about applying social methods to analyse digital social life. The relations between social life and its analysis are changing in the context of digitization, and digital sociology offers a way of engaging with this. As John Law, Evelyn Ruppert, Steve Woolgar, and Lucy Suchman have discussed, the spread of digital devices affects the relation between social life and social research. For one, the means by which social life is performed and the devices through which it is recorded, observed and interpreted are increasingly the same or similar. Among many other things, this makes possible different ways of deploying social technologies in social and cultural research. Digital sociology  asks: how does digitization affect the relations between researchers and researched, and those between the objects, methods, techniques of social research, broadly conceived?

Sociologists are increasingly working with digital devices, such as hashtags and geo-coding, deploying them in their own research. I don’t just mean they use them to communicate their projects like everybody else (though that is an issue too). Sociological research deploys digital devices analytically, as in recent work on doing sociology with Twitter   (see for an example projects by Digital Sociology students here). As Les Back has explored, and also David Beer, digitization open up new possible ways of deploying technology sociologically, and thereby, possibly, a space for experimenting with other kinds of relations between technology and sociology. Of course, sociologists must be aware that they don’t grant too much power to the machine and to the algorithms. But it seems to me that they are pretty well equipped to deal with this issue: social studies of technology have been developing concepts and methods for understanding technological phenomena as collective, heterogeneous, techno-social accomplishments for years (see  for a discussion this post by Tarleton Gillespie).

One final point follows from this: I think digital sociology is best understood as an inter-disciplinary practice. Of course, much sociological research today draws on a variety of disciplines, and relations between Sociology and Computing by several decades precede today’s ‘computational turn.’ The statistical software package SPSS was developed by an inter-disciplinary team involving social researchers and computer scientists (Uprichard, Burrows et al, 2008). However, this is not necessarily acknowledged very well in how sociological methods are taught and communicated. But inter-disciplinarity may well become harder to ignore. A lot of the interesting work in digital social research today clearly and noticeably draws on a variety of skills and competences, including social theory, data visualisation, ethnographic fieldwork, design, programming and social methods, and so on. Digital sociology often involves collaborative work across disciplinary boundaries, and this is another exciting thing about it, and another reason why it would be a shame if we got too defensive about it.

By Noortje Marres.


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