“So what exactly is this Digital Sociology group going to do then…?”

It’s only one day to go until the first event of the BSA Digital Sociology study group myself and Emma Head setup earlier this year. In the hope I’ll have something useful and interesting to say at the start of the day, I thought it would probably be a good idea to collate some ideas about ‘digital sociology’ and what it is we want to do with the group:

  • One of the key things we’re trying to do with the group is to help put the communication of sociological knowledge on an equal footing with its production. There’s a dangerous tendency for this activity to be devalued, to be sidelined or subsumed under the institutionalised logic of ‘public engagement’ and ‘impact’. What I personally find most exciting about the digital tools which have so rapidly become a part of everyday life is the communicative possibilities they afford and how this might render it possible to rethink the public role of the sociologist. What does ‘public sociology’ entail in a world of facebook, twitter, youtube, slideshare, soundcloud, pinterest and wordpress?
  • Longer standing debates about public sociology feed in naturally to contemporary debates about open research and digital scholarship. We’d like to encourage distinctively sociological engagements with questions which are applicable more broadly across the changing landscape of higher education. There’s also a fascinating (and growing) literature on contemporary crisis within the social sciences and humanities which raises many issues that can be usefully approached through a focus upon the many ways in which digital technology is implicated in the underlying structural changes. Through the umbrella notion of ‘digital sociology’, we’d like to link the analysis of these changes, their substantive critique and practical responses. Or in other words: use digital technology as a starting point to consider how higher education is changing and how sociologists can and should respond to these changes. 
  • At the end of John Holmwood’s plenary session at the BSA conference he proposed that “the task of Sociology in an age of austerity is to occupy public debate and make inequality matter”. I couldn’t agree more with this claim. However I think any discussion of the ‘task’ of sociology must take account of digital technology on two levels: the digitally driven transformation of the social and the rapidly expanded range of tools available  to sociologists with which to respond to these changes. In this sense we’d like to bring theoretical and empirical work on the changes which digital technology is bringing about within society into dialogue with practical discussions of professional practice. What tools are available to sociologists to ‘occupy public debate’ and ‘make inequality matter’? We’d like to link what can seem to be mundane technical discussions of tools to meaningful discussion of the purposes to which those tools can be put. So we want the group to help identify and disseminate best practice in areas like multi-author blogging but to do so in a way that’s framed by the underlying projects and commitments of those concerned.
  • In doing so we think it’s possible to overcome what Bourdieu described as “the canonical opposition that is made, especially in the Anglo-American tradition, between ‘scholarship’ and ‘commitment’”. The rapid proliferation of ‘tools of the trade’ in recent years naturally invites a renewed discussions of the uses to which those tools are put. Furthermore, blogging and micro-blogging provide a natural forum within which discussions of  ‘backstage’ aspects of academic practice and the value commitments underlying them, frequently rendered invisible within the traditional landscape of scholarly communication, not only occur frequently but can productively feed back into actual practice. We want to help establish a productive forum for such discussions (for instance via digitalsociology.org.uk) and also contribute to drawing out the practical implications of the discussions that take place within it.
  • Deborah Lupton has usefully pointed out how many things that would fit under the label of ‘digital sociology’ have previously taken different names: ‘cybersociology’, ‘the sociology of the internet’, ‘the sociology of online communities’, ‘the sociology of social media’, ‘the sociology of cyberculture’ etc. We’d like to provide a space for all this work and think that the notion of ‘digital sociology’ could be useful for unifying what have frequently been disparate and disconnected strands of scholarly activity. We’d like to bring what has often been a fragmented field of inquiry into digital media use into a much broader and productive dialogue with the strands of activity described above but also with the analysis of digital data (both qualitative and quantitative) to see what emerges.
  • In essence we’re proposing that ‘Digital Sociology’ be seen as an umbrella term under which a number of exciting trends within sociology can be brought into productive dialogue with each other. We’re hoping that the group can help showcase new developments, identify and disseminate best practice and provide a useful and integrative forum for discussion of emerging practice while also framing these activities in such a way as to bring the most innovative and cutting edge aspects of digital sociological practice into constructive dialogue with much longer standing disciplinary questions as to what sociology is and the purposes it should and could serve. 

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