An Agenda for Digital Sociology

I see Digital Sociology as an open-ended integrative project, concerned to assemble the disparate strands of sociological engagement with digital technology within a more or less shared intellectual space: not in the sense of striving for unanimity but rather to ensure that disagreements at least tend to play out in terms which make the basis of intellectual disagreement clear and at least in principle leave all parties aware of the methodological and theoretical consequences which hinge upon them. In this sense, I advocate the need for what Nicos Mouzelis calls a theoretical lingua franca: “a flexible vocabulary with no foundationalist pretensions, which can help sociologists establish bridges between their own and other disciplines, as well as between competing social science paradigms” (pg. 9).

My belief is that the initial work towards this end can be achieved through the assembly of divergent traditions with convergent interests within spaces conducive to ‘building bridges’: face-to-face, print and digital fora in which sociologists undertaking work that seeks to describe and/or explain the ‘digital’ in the broadest sense of the term enter into dialogue with one another. In such spaces, we have dialogical rather than dialectical interaction, such that as Richard Sennett describes it “through the process of exchange people may become more aware of their own views and expand their understanding of one another” rather than seeing disagreement as an obstacle to the achievement of common ground that must be overcome (pg. 19). Digital Sociology is both what emerges from these spaces and the assembly work required to ensure their success.

The ‘theoretical lingua franca’ of Digital Sociology is something that has to be built up from within them as a hermeneutical project that seeks to elaborate upon the basis of agreement and disagreement. The point is not to overcome distinctions but rather to ensure that they “do not become dichotomtic essences” as Mouzelis puts it in his discussion of sociological theory more broadly (pg. 9). Through such conceptual work, we ensure the possibility of reclaiming those points of agreement which tend to get lost because scholarly debate frequently proceeds through the articulation of disagreements. In the most mundane sense possible: what are we trying to do? What is (digital) sociology for? There are likely to be disagreements here as well – for instance between those who argue for a “renewed interest in sociological description” (4.8) and those concerned to explain ‘why this is so rather than otherwise‘ – but there’s an enormous amount to be gained by entering into productive dialogue about the reasons for these disagreements e.g. perhaps an explanatory project for digital sociology is reliant upon the “renewed emphasis on good – critical, distinctive and thick – sociological descriptions of emergent digital phenomena” that Beer and Burrows advocate (1.1).

The understanding of Digital Sociology I’m advocating is one which rejects intellectual provincialism. I like the account Pablo Boczkowski and Ignacio Siles offer of this as “a sort of intellectual insularity (or provincialism) that privileges a certain inwards-looking commitment to a particular paradigm, set of ideas, or mode of inquiry without considering work done in other fields that might significantly enrich or transform it”. Instead they argue for an intellectual cosmopolitanism that “promotes the crossing of territorial scholarly quadrants in the study of media technologies to rethink assumptions and normalized processes” (pg. 58). For Digital Sociology to be cosmopolitan in the sense would be for it to be proactively and openly engaged with the wide range of intellectual trends which could be referred to as a ‘digital turn’ (but probably shouldn’t be): digital humanities, digital anthropology, digital geography, social informatics, data studies, web science, data science, software studies, platform studies and game studies.

However what distinguishes it from the “emerging, fundamentally transdisciplinary, computational literacy” of which Lev Manovich and others claim the existence is a conviction in the continued value of the intellectual resources carried within sociology as a discipline. It should be engaged with computationality but it shouldn’t be exhausted by it. To have a theoretical lingua franca, a multifaceted conceptual vocabulary through which ‘internal’ disagreements can be translated into the same intellectual topology, helps guard against this assimilation or exhaustion – by elaborating upon a language which is often tacit, it becomes easier to translate into the language of other disciplines and sub-disciplines in a way that’s both effective and minimises semantic loss. It allows distinct, though not necessarily compatible, elements of the sociological tradition to be articulated in relation to digital phenomena (e.g. the sociological imagination, structure and agency, critical reflexivity, self and society) and for novel insights and approaches found in other disciplines to be contextualised in terms of these intellectual resources. This avoids the tendency for substitution, in which an existing element is replaced with a novel one, instead facilitating combination in which existing elements and novel ones are combined in order to produce something new and distinctive (which can then in turn be contextualised in terms of more established intellectual resources).

To advocate combination rather than substitution doesn’t entail intellectual stasis because existing intellectual resources are modified through this engagement with novelty – the point is to get beyond both substitutive and additive approaches to intellectual development. This applies as much within the discipline as beyond it. The methodological opportunities presented by digital data should be brought into dialogue with the existing theoretical resources of the discipline rather than taken as an occasion for their replacement. In doing so, we help avoid a preoccupation with (digital) technique by using an awareness of these new techniques for producing data about the social world as a basis upon which to enrich our understanding of the possibilities for description, explanation and intervention that our overall toolbox potentially affords. I see this as a case of expanding and refining the methodological repertoires of sociology rather than as anything which could be seen as a ‘new’ way of doing sociological research (even though some very new and innovative techniques may be incorporated into the aforementioned repertoires).

One of many things I like about Deborah Lupton’s work on Digital Sociology is her appreciation of the many strands of activity woven into Sociology which have sought to engage with digital technology and its embedding in social life:  ‘cyber sociology’, ‘the sociology of the internet’, ‘e-sociology’, ‘the sociology of online communities’, ‘the sociology of social media’ and ‘the sociology of cyberculture’ etc (loc 309). Drawing these strands together within the integrative spaces of Digital Sociology helps illuminate what are distinctively sociological approaches to these phenomena that other disciplines also attend to: digital devices and their associated infrastructures, how they are shaped by their context & contribute to shaping it, the activities transformed & facilitated by them etc. The point is not to assert the superiority of sociological understanding but to bring it into dialogue with the insights and findings of other disciplines in a mutually enriching way. Another is Lupton’s focus on the digital transformation of professional practice (as just one form of activity transformed by digital technology). The context within which sociologists work is being transformed and this entails both challenges and opportunities – I see attempts to rethink sociological practice as an integral part of Digital Sociology: for instance Live Sociology and Punk Sociology.

We need to avoid pursuing innovation for its own sake but nonetheless creatively explore the opportunities that digital devices offer for creating and communicating sociological knowledge differently (in the process overcoming the evaluation of the former as more important to the discipline than the latter). Partly this is a matter of Digital Scholarship by Sociologists but we should also be critical of the context in which these changes are being pursued, their constraints and enablements, the agendas subsumed into transformations later presented as inexorable (the ‘tsunamis’ and ‘avalanches’ of digital transformation). In this sense, I hope that Digital Scholarship by Sociologists leads to Digital Public Sociology but I think this requires work. My enthusiasm for digital engagement comes about because I think it offers opportunities to circumvent constraints of work within the academy, facilitating an open and engaged scholarship that avoids the axiomatic opposition of commitment and scholarship that was critiqued by Bourdieu, leading to greater participation within public life and collaboration with groups pursuing agendas of social amelioration outside the academy. It offers an opportunity to, as David Beer puts it, create a sociology which “will draw people into its debates, into its ideas, and into its findings, all of which are likely to provide alternative visions of the social world” and to deploy sociological knowledge in collective projects of achieving those alternative worlds.

At the risk that this post grows ever longer, here’s a summary of what I’m suggesting should be included within Digital Sociology as an intellectual project:

  1. Building an online space for digital sociology within which debates can take place, announcements can be circulated and ideas can be shared. I suspect a group blog could serve this function, with a defined series of regular contributors and a process for applying to this contributing group to join the list, as well as an editorial process for accepting guest posts.
  2. Building a print space for digital sociology. By which I mean an open-access journal & so ‘print’ in a figurative sense really. Ideally it would be attached to the aforementioned online space in order to overcome some of the limitations inherent in academic journals. I think a book series would also be beneficial so that future monographs on digital sociology can be drawn into dialogue with one another.
  3. Building face-to-face spaces for digital sociology. A regular conference that brings digital sociologists together – ideally rotating internationally and digitally enhanced to the greatest possible extent given available funding. Also a regular conference that brings digital sociology into dialogue with cognate disciplines – I’m currently organising something on the ontology of digital technology (keep July 18th 2015 free!) that could provide a model for how this could work, albeit with an expanded remit. Also a regular seminar series that would incorporate both the inwards facing and outwards facing aspects suggested here – again digitally enhanced to overcome the geographical restrictions inherent in something like a seminar series.
  4. Identifying and disseminating innovations in sociological practice including but not limited to the generation and analysis of digital data. Using digital devices in any aspect of the research process – the possibilities, challenges and questions encountered through such applications. This goal could be incorporated within any of the three points suggested above in various ways (perhaps a more informal ‘show and tell’ format as well as more traditional training) as well as pursued separately through the production of digital training resources and the organisation of more traditional training workshops. I’d also include coding within this category – in the sense of formal training but also informal networks of people who are training themselves in their spare time.
  5. Conceptual work elucidating the multi-faceted language of digital sociology: the objects of digital sociology, the ontology of digital devices and infrastructures, the meta-theoretical ambitions of digital sociology. For instance the event mentioned above about the ontology of digital technology will (hopefully) serve this purpose, as is the work I’m starting on social media and social normativity that seeks to contextualise the claims made about social media in terms of existing frameworks within which sociologists have made claims about social change. These are just examples that reflect my own interests though & I think there are many forms this could take.
  6. Elaborating the methodological repertoires of digital sociology through high quality research into particular substantive topics that uses new techniques and forms of digital data to address important questions relating to digital devices and their associated infrastructures, how they are shaped by their context & contribute to shaping it, the activities transformed & facilitated by them etc.
  7. Creating an infrastructure for digital public sociology: running training, creating resources and developing networks that help us get good at doing public sociology (including though not limited to the utilisation of digital tools). Creating spaces which gather an audience (e.g. Sociological Imagination, Discover Society, The Society Pages) and facilitate interventions that are irregular yet still effective. These spaces also make it easier to get new projects off the ground.

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