For the last few years, I’ve taken to talking about digital social science. I mean this partly as a short-hand to refer to a whole range of (sub)disciplines and (sub)fields which have emerged in response to the challenge of ‘the digital’: data science, computational social science, web science, internet studies, digital sociology, digital anthropology, digital geography, data studies, software studies, platform studies, algorithm studies. But I also mean it as an umbrella term to refer to where this field formation could lead. I’ve found this a difficult topic to explore and the most developed statement I’ve managed is this short talk at an event last year:
I was immensely excited to read this post by Jeff Pooley, as it pursues an overlapping line of thought and does so with a great deal more clarity than I’ve thus far managed:
There’s a new academic meta-field, centered on digital life, that doesn’t look anything like a traditional discipline. The field is more like an estuary, fed by a number of existing disciplines—library and information science, law, sociology, science and technology studies, and communication. It’s an interdisciplinary mashup of fields whose domains (“media”, “information,” “technology”) have merged.
There’s nothing surprising about the intellectual momentum: rapid social change always calls attention to itself. Ambitious scholars mix with curious benefactors, writers trade alarmist and upbeat takes, and initiatives get launched. The modern social sciences, in the U.S. at least, emerged as a sense-making response to late 19th-century social churn. A society on the move is always throwing its novelty into relief; yesterday’s order makes today feel weird. So we would expect the last two decades of unending digital upheavel to generate an academic echo.
What makes the new, nameless formation interesting is its place in the university: the new field is seeded by institutes that—crucially—exist outside the established department system. It is a resolutely cross-disciplinary field, whose brick-and-mortar centers, like Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, are designed for idea exchange. The academics who populate the field, they reside in established departments and schools; it’s when they have thinking to share that they travel to Cambridge or to one of the other institutes.
So what’s formed over the last two decades is an extra-departmental crossroads. Lightly staffed centers, with few standing faculty, welcome a rotating cast of visiting speakers and affiliated fellows. Sharply designed, public-facing reports, perhaps open source tools and a podcast series—these are the centers’ main outputs.
The new digital-studies institutes have flourished at elite universities—like Harvard and Oxford—that could never really stomach the idea of training journalists or librarians. Communication research and library science were sneered at for their vocational grubbiness. Berkman and the Oxford Internet Institute are, in that sense, an institutional end-run around the student-supported disciplines that employ the bulk of their visitors and fellows.
He offers a careful account of how this meta-field has emerged, as well as the challenges it faces as the conditions which gave rise to it themselves undergo change. There’s more to the digital social sciences than the institutional spaces he describes but this thoughtful and insightful post has helped bring clarity to issues that were still frustratingly unclear in my mind despite having thoughts about them for so long.