Why Digital Sociology Will Always Be Public Sociology and Vice Versa

Notes for an event on Reorienting Sociological Thought at Cardiff University in May.

The idea for this event is that we each discus a prominent call to reorientate sociological thought and make a case for it. I agreed today to talk about public sociology rather than digital sociology, but it’s difficult to stick to this distinction because, as I will argue, the current climate means that public sociology will always be digital sociology and vice versa. Making this case invites an obvious question: what is ‘digital sociology’, what is ‘public sociology’ and what does it mean to say that the boundaries between them are blurring?

The most concrete answer to the question ‘what is Digital Sociology’ comes from Deborah Lupton, who identifies four distinct strands to Digital Sociology:

1. Professional digital media use: using the kinds of tools discussed above for academic purposes.
2. Sociological analyses of digital media use: researching the ways in which people’s use of digital media configures these sense of selves, their embodiment and their social relationships.
3. Digital data analysis: using pre-existing digital data for social research, either quantitative or qualitative.
4. Critical digital sociology: undertaking reflexive and critical analysis of digital media informed by social and cultural theory.


However more often than not, discussion of what digital sociology is becomes preoccupied with what digital sociology is not: how it defines itself in relation to the broader discipline, predecessor fields like internet studies and computational fields which many, though not all, see as in some sense constituting a threat to the sociological enterprise. Depending on your perspective, this ambiguity can seem productive or vacuous. I like the suggestion made by Orton-Johnson, Prior and Gregory that digital sociology should perhaps conceive of itself as a community of practice with the substance of the ‘project’ of digital sociology being something worked out substantively through collaborations that extend beyond the broader discipline.

It might seem easier to define what public sociology is. But it’s nonetheless worth noting that the project of public sociology, if we can conceive of it in that way, similarly oriented itself through the delineation of what it is not. As Michael Burawoy introduces the concept on his website:

Public Sociology endeavors to bring sociology into dialogue with audiences beyond the academy, an open dialogue in which both sides deepen their understanding of public issues. But what is its relation to the rest of sociology? It is the opposite of Professional Sociology – a scientific sociology created by and for sociologists – inspired by public sociology but, equally, without which public sociology would not exist. The relation between professional and public sociology is, thus, one of antagonistic interdependence.

Public sociology, as a conversation between sociology and publics, should be distinguished from Policy Sociology — the application of professional sociology to the interests and problems of clients (organizations, agencies, corporations). Public sociology is the conscience of policy sociology, exposing the means-end rationality upon which it rests, just as Critical Sociology interrogates the assumptions – methodological, philosophical, and theoretical — of the research programs of professional sociology. Critical sociology, as the guardian of the diverse values underpinning the sociological enterprise, imbues professional, policy and public sociologies with moral purpose.


I don’t intend to go into detail about the history of public sociology or how it has been theorised in this talk. Partly, this is due to a lack of time and this not being my main focus. Partly, it’s because to be frank I’ve never been able to generate all that much enthusiasm for this literature. A bibliography of public sociology which was compiled in 2010, if I recall correctly, contains close to 200 entries and one can assume it’s only grown since then. I’ve always found it jarring quite how voluminous the literature on public sociology is, though I think it’s important not to see doing and theorising as mutually exclusive. Nonetheless, I’m most interested in the doing – or making sense of the doing, in order that we might do it better – rather than the theorising. I don’t think it’s a matter of this not being a concern of the literature, as much as journals by their very nature tending to be ill-suited to discussions of practice and reflections upon it e.g. they privilege the monological over the dialogical, the textual over the audio/visual, the theoretical over the substantive and the scholar over the practitioner.

It’s easiest to make my case with regard to the intrinsically public nature of digital sociology. The consolidation of digital sociology as something distinctive within the disciplinary landscape has been (unsurprisingly) reliant on social media platforms. Individual blogs, group blogs, institutional blogs, Twitter feeds, hashtags, podcasts and online repositories have all played a part in facilitating exchanges (asynchronously and otherwise) in which some sense of digital sociology as a collective project, as something to be achieved to borrow John Holmwood’s expression about the discipline as a whole, has taken shape. Much of this has been face-to-face but these events have themselves been intensely digitalised, from their conception through to their marketing and their enactment, up to reflections on them when time has elapsed. What danah boyd describes as the persistence, visibility, spreadability and searchability which characterise social media lend an indisputably public character to this digital(ised) sociological activity. This doesn’t mean digital sociology is necessarily public in the deeper sense of serving existing publics or consolidating new ones. This will always require further work. But there’s a public character intrinsic to digital sociology which always challenges us to go further.

However digital sociology is both a response to changes within the academy itself and a project to intervene in these changes. It’s in this sense that I think digitalisation within and beyond the academy has to be seen as integral to public sociology in the contemporary climate. It is reshaping what is ‘public’ and ‘private’ in complex ways, some positive but many not, conditioning the propensity of sociologists towards ‘public sociology’ but also the institutional context in which certain forms of activity are recognized and others ignored. It also complicates Burawoy’s distinction between ‘organic’ and ‘traditional’ public sociology:

Public sociology brings sociology into a conversation with publics, understood as people who are themselves involved in conversation. It entails, therefore, a double conversation. Obvious candidates are W. E. B. Du Bois (1903), The Souls of Black Folk, Gunnar Myrdal (1994), An American Dilemma, David Riesman (1950), The Lonely Crowd, and Robert Bellah et al. (1985), Habits of the Heart. What do all these books have in common? They are written by sociologists, they are read beyond the academy, and they become the vehicle of a public discussion about the nature of U.S. society—the nature of its values, the gap between its promise and its reality, its malaise, its tendencies. In the same genre of what I call traditional public sociology we can locate sociologists who write in the opinion pages of our national newspapers where they comment on matters of public importance.

There is, however, another type of public sociology—organic public sociology in which the sociologist works in close connection with a visible, thick, active, local and often counterpublic. The bulk of public sociology is indeed of an organic kind—sociologists working with a labor movement, neighborhood associations, communities of faith, immigrant rights groups, human rights organizations. Between the organic public sociologist and a public is a dialogue, a process of mutual education. The recognition of public sociology must extend to the organic kind which often remains invisible, private, and is often considered to be apart from our professional lives. The project of such public sociologies is to make visible the invisible, to make the private public, to validate these organic connections as part of our sociological life.

http://burawoy.berkeley.edu/PS/ASA%20Presidential%20Address.pdf [my emphasis above]

Digitalisation disrupts ‘traditional public sociology’ because it fragments the media field in a way which renders a  broadcasting model of public intellectualism untenable while also creating many new opportunities for narrowcasted public intellectualism of various sorts. It also disrupts ‘organic public sociology’ because it engenders a tendency towards an increasing awareness of the ‘private’ activity of others within the academy (e.g. you follow someone on Twitter and you’re much more likely to find out about the activism they’re involved in) and it’s also changing the organisational dynamics of the publics with whom one is working in an organic way.

It’s on this point that I’m probably overstating my case that public sociology is always digital sociology. But what I’m trying to get at is that this isn’t simply a matter of sociologists utilising digital technologies for preconceived ends. It’s the space of opportunities opened up when public sociologists and publics, in relation to and for whom they work, both exist in a digitalised environment: the digitalisation is within each group but also between them. The conversation within publics is often digitalised, the conversations between public sociologists is often digitalised and the relation between them can be digitalised: there’s nothing inexorable or uniform about this but we mischaracterise the whole field if we fail to recognise it. I’ve written about this elsewhere in terms of asexual activism but I think the point can be generalised. My claim is that if we take Burawoy’s call to develop a ‘sociology of publics’ seriously then it’s impossible to ignore the important role digitalisation is playing in reshaping the processes through which publics come to be constituted.

Digital sociology and public sociology might not yet be indistinguishable but the practice of each is certainly heading in that direction.



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