What is Digital Sociology?

What is Digital Sociology? I really like that Deborah suggested this title for her lecture tomorrow night because it’s a question which fascinates me. Obviously this is in part a matter of terminological novelty, with ‘digital sociology’ obviously supplementing parallel projects of ‘digital humanities’, ‘digital geography’ and ‘digital anthropology’  in ways that are nonetheless difficult to pin down.  However I think there’s more to it than this and that asking the question ‘what is Digital Sociology?’ helps keep our focus on digital sociology as a project that is open-ended and integrative, aiming to combine the various disparate strands of sociological engagement with digital matters into a more or less unified field of inquiry. One of the many things I like about Deborah Lupton’s work on Digital Sociology is the way it attempts to answer this question in a way that is intellectually diverse but nonetheless remains coherent. I’m increasingly drawn to the idea that Digital Sociology could be conceived of as:

  1. an intellectual and institutional project which aims to build spaces within which these strands of activity can be brought into productive dialogue with one another
  2. the totality of work which emerges from within such spaces having been shaped by them

It sounds absurdly abstract when I phrase it like this. In practice I’m talking about quite mundane things like expanding study group activity, organising conferences, developing websites, establishing journals. I’m also speculating about what will emerges out of such spaces because I don’t know but I’m convinced it would be valuable. I’m also convinced it’s going to prove crucial to the future of the discipline in an increasingly inhospitable climate, though whether I’m able to justify that intuition evidentially is another question. I think there’s something very exciting beginning to happen though and it feels like Digital Sociology is beginning to take some kind of concrete shape rather than simply being something which is invoked in a quasi-speculative manner.

One of the things that appeals to me most about digital sociology is the possible transformation in sociological practice which it both reflects and reinforces. If digital communications increasingly become part of the research process itself then there’s a tendency towards a form of continuous micro-publication, almost constituting a kind of open-source sociology, which could contribute in an important way to the profile of the discipline. I’m cautiously optimistic that the tendency within sociology to see the communication of sociological knowledge as something of secondary importance could become a thing of the past & sociologists could become somewhat more sociable than they have tended to be. I’m also excited by the feral forms of public engagement which are proliferating on social media and hope they resist assimilation into the assessment structures of the academy. I’m deeply opposed to social media metrics being incorporated into academic assessment precisely because I think it’s likely they’ll squeeze the life out of the nascent sphere of activity. In this sense I think the potential implications of digital sociology extend far beyond new research topics, new methods and new methodologies – underlying questions of what constitutes sociological craft and how, if at all, it should be revised to take account of new circumstances have heretofore entered rather naturally into digital sociology. I hope these won’t be sidelined as it continues to develop.

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