Though it is a hugely exciting trend, the growth of digital research methods risks becoming a narrow specialism. It is crucial that we don’t fall into the digital dualist trap of assuming that ‘online’ and ‘offline’ constitute distinct realities, as doing so profoundly misrepresents both the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’. Rather than see digital research methods as a specialism, we can more usefully construe them as expanding the research repertoires of sociologists to adequately equip us for researching a social world where digital technology is ubiquitous.
The growth of computational methods are particularly exciting, however they pose a particular risk that we become preoccupied with technique. New technical opportunities naturally invite questions of what we do with them and why. The exploration of such techniques must be anchored in a renewed and reflective dialogue about the nature and ends of sociological practice. Preoccupation with computational techniques risks fuelling a much broader transition from mode 1 to mode 2 knowledge production within the academy and threatens the sustainability of sociology as a discipline.
In doing so, we grant digital sociology a much needed existence over and above digital methods. Digital sociology can be construed, in the broadest terms, as an exploration of the opportunities which digital tools afford for rethinking sociological craft. Creating and refining new tools for research constitutes one element of this. So too does the empirical study of the broader digital turn which has led to the possibility of such tools existing, as well as transformed the nature of the social world which they are subsequently used to study. But digital sociology can, at least potentially, mean something which both encompasses these elements and moves far beyond them.
One obvious possibility to this end is to consider the implications of digital tools for the communication of sociological knowledge, as well as the aforementioned focus on its production. Assuming that ‘impact’ is here to stay, it becomes necessary to ameliorate some of its more deleterious effects by engaging with this transformed institutional climate in a specifically sociological way. Refusing to explore the possibilities which digital tools afford for communicating sociological knowledge (in a way which generates an ‘impact’) carries the risk that the specifically sociological dimensions of such knowledge, as well as the autonomy with which such communication is carried out, are eroded to an ever great extent.
The communication of sociological knowledge has been systematically undervalued, as opposed to itsproduction. The communicative possibilites which digital tools afford will not be used to their full potential unless the communication of sociological knowledge is seen as carrying equal importance as a scholarly activity – applying as much to teaching as it does to ‘impact’ and ‘public engagement’ using digital tools.
If communication of sociological knowledge comes to be valued in a widespread way, it holds out the possibility of rethinking the public role of the sociologist. There is a greater public appetite than ever before for social scientific knowledge – witness the continual presence of social science books (usually written by journalists) in best seller lists or the millions who watch TED videos (etc) or follow iTunes U courses. However construing public engagement entirely in such terms misses the point – it turns public engagement into a specialism defined by the superstar academics it can produce at this level. Yet the availability of free, easy, instantaneous publishing and communication tools enables such activity to be a potentially everyday occurrence for sociologists. ‘Narrowcasting’ about a specific research area to what can potentially be an extremely small group of interested individuals is no less important than broadcasting to an audience of millions and it should be seen as such. The key claim is that (a) communicating sociological knowledge carries equal scholarly weight to its production (b) this communication should not be construed in instrumental terms.
As John Holmwood has put it, “Sociology is a discipline that has to be ‘achieved’, or continually re-invented, in new circumstances.” – Digital Sociology in the broadest sense addresses the question of what such reinvention could or should mean in new circumstances where the content of this ‘newness’ is defined largely by the digital.