Originally published in Portuguese in CARRIGAN, M. “Sociologia Digital: Problemas e Propostas” In: ALVES, P. & NASCIMENTO, L.
Novas fronteiras metodológicas nas Ciências Sociais. Salvador: EDUFBA, 2018.
Only five years ago, Jessie Daniels observed that were “Digital Humanities but No Digital Sociology” (Daniels and Feagin 2011). Since then the situation has changed, with an edited collection by Orton-Johnson and Prior (2013), a monograph by Lupton (2014), a collection by Daniels, Gregory and Cottom (2016) and a monograph by Marres (2017). Daniels, Gregory and Cottom have organised two popular Digital Sociology mini-conferences at the annual Eastern Sociological Society conference in the United States, with a third to follow in 2017. This reflects a similar trend in the United Kingdom, where a Digital Sociology study group was established within the British Sociological Association (BSA) by myself and Emma Head in 2012, leading to numerous events both within the main BSA conference and beyond it. There has been an MA in Digital Sociology offered by Goldsmiths, University of London for some time before this, convened by Noortje Marres, who now leads a module in Digital Sociology at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies at the University of Warwick. The University of Edinburgh now has a Digital Sociology research group, as does Cardiff University. Numerous other universities in the UK have research clusters which are coterminous, or at least overlapping, with these trends, even if they do not used the precise terminology of digital sociology. The same trend can be seen within the Australian landscape, as digital sociology has become a regular feature of meetings of The Australian Sociological Association (TASA). These international developments have to some extent been mutually reinforcing, as the affordances of social media have allowed an increasingly rich web of interaction to unfold through blogs and twitter, while podcasts and videocasts have allowed face-to-face event to circulate outside the confines of a physical location and incite further debate and discussion in the process.
It is no longer the case that there is ‘no digital sociology’. But what is digital sociology? Marres (2017: 32) suggests that a working definition is a commitment to addressing digital objects, digital techniques and digital platforms. Lupton (2014) suggested four major aspects to digital sociology: professional digital media use, sociological analyses of digital media use, digital data analysis and critical digital sociology. To what extent are these new developments? As Lupton observes, sociological analyses of digital media use have clearly been part of the discipline for as long as there have been digital media. It is not a novelty for sociologists to study digital technology, even if other designations might have been used e.g. information society, computing, information technology, communications technology. Lupton (2014) is particularly alert to the long history of studying cyberculture, emerging from growing engagements with computer technologies from the interdisciplinary field of cultural studies within the UK. However locating such a trend within the history of sociology raises a complex and important question of disciplinary ‘ownership’. Given what Holmwood (2010) describes as sociology’s tendency towards being an ‘exporter’ discipline, fields of inquiry that emerge from the discipline and/or its practitioners often do not remain within it. The role of sociologists in establishing fields such as internet studies, science and technology studies and computer-support cooperative work are a case in point. This tendency is compounded by the inevitable position of digital technologies at the intersections between disciplines, something which Lupton (2014) discusses with regards to the division between communications and sociology in both the US and Australian contexts.
We can identify a comparable pre-history to the other dimensions which Lupton (2014) considers. For instance, the voice recorder is an indispensable tool of the trade for qualitative sociologists, initially in the form of a tape recorder prior to today’s ubiquitous digital recorders (Back 2012). Such technology figures in practice as a device but rarely as an object of inquiry in its own right, let alone the broader socio-technical architecture within which its use is embedded. This reflects a broader suppression of the technological within the university (Hall 2016). While sociologists have long used technology, the more recent proliferation of digital technologies offers an opportunity to reclaim the lost socio-technical architecture of sociological practice as an object of inquiry in its own right. It offers a possibility for a renewed reflexivity about the purposes, techniques and tools of sociological research. Marres (2017) describes this is a ‘coming out’ of technology within social inquiry. It has always been there but the changing socio-technical environment necessitates we attend to it in a newly focused way.
If we recognise this pre-history, it becomes clear that digital sociology should not be seen as something entirely new. So what is it? In this chapter, I argue that digital sociology should be seen as a project, one undertaken within a rapidly emerging community of practice (Orton-Johnson, Prior and Gregory 2015). As such, it is not intended as a comprehensive review of the development of digital sociology as a literature. The focus of this chapter is instead upon the challenges which digital sociology is a response to and how it might seek to meet those challenges. To help define this project, I consider four areas in which socio-technical developments have created problems and opportunities for sociology: social media, digital capitalism, public sociology and digital methods. The project of digital sociology involves practical engagement with these emerging issues, with the intention of reorientating sociology towards a social in which the digital can no longer be treated as a specialised matter. This in essence is the challenge: accounts of the social which marginalise the digital are decreasingly tenable, while knowledge production predicated upon them is being challenged by newer ways of knowing the social world.
Social data produced as a by-product of digitally mediated transactions has been held by many to signal a revolution in the social sciences (Schönberger and Cukier 2013, Petland 2014, Rudder 2014). Such ‘big data’ is frequently characterised in terms of its volume, velocity and variety (Kitchin 2014a, Ruppert 2013). Its advocates see it as representing an epistemic gain over older forms of social data, counterpoising such unobtrusive measurement to the traditional instruments of the social scientists such as the interview or sample survey. Such a claim often carries a logistical assumption as well, framing research using existent social data as an efficient alternative to the expensive business of undertaking new research. Any claim the discipline could once make to a monopoly over the social has long since passed, with new techniques for representing and analysing the social world now primarily emerging sociology and often outside the university itself (Savage and Burrows 2007, Savage and Burrows 2014). Defensiveness in the face of these changes risks leaving the lacunae of the nascent computational social sciences unexamined and the relevance of sociology’s intellectual resources for addressing these challenges unexplored (Kitchin 2014a). Digital sociology is an optimistic and open-ended project which seeks to move beyond this defensiveness, albeit one still in an early stage.
Digital Sociology and Social Media
Prior to the mainstreaming of ‘social media’, the most commonly invoked designator was ‘web 2.0’, used for instance by Beer and Burrows (2007) in an early contribution to digital sociology. Both phrases invite an understandable reluctance, inviting a they do a “fiction that digital technologies only acquired a social dimension with the rise to prominence of commercial platforms” (Marres 2017: 50). Part of the reluctance to accept such a definition rests on the obviously commercial origins of the terms themselves, as a new cohort of technology companies sought to differentiate themselves in a resurgent Silicon Valley by claiming they were bringing into being a radically new ‘social’ dimension to digital technology that had heretofore been lacking (Marres 2017: 49-50, Marwick 2013). The fact these prior platforms were not as mainstream or as popular certainly does not make them any less social (see Marres 2017: 50) but the scope of their expansion is something which we need to take extremely seriously in sociological terms.
Interaction on these platforms is richly symbolic, mediated by the specific architecture of each platform, in a way which resists dissolution into behavioural terms. These platforms have given rise to what Housley et al (2014: 2-3) describe as “the mass communication and sharing of ‘user-generated content’, and have given rise to a form of mass, self-reported data about their users’ daily routines, perceptions of, and sentiments about, particular events.” Such data is of immense sociological interest, facilitating the ‘digital remastering’ of classical sociological questions (Housley et al 2014). But it challenges us to move beyond the existing traditions of qualitative and quantitative in social research, hindering qualitative analysis through the size of these datasets and frustrating quantitative analysis through the socio-demographic uncertainty which pervades them (Edwards et al 2014). Furthermore, platform specificity creates challenges for synthesis, particularly in terms of how to develop general accounts of ‘social media’ as a social phenomenon which remain empirically grounded. Realising the sociological value of such social data necessitates that we resist calls to use it as a replacement for existing methods and instead see it as augmenting existing methods and reorienting inquiry towards new objects (Edwards et al 2014, Housley et al 2014).
While the category of ‘big data’ is usually understood to extend beyond social media data, the two notions have arisen in parallel for reasons which are worth reflecting upon. The emergence of social media is often narrativized in terms of quantity: 3.5 million internet users, 1.1 billion websites and 1.7 billion Facebook users. 3.3 billion Google searchers, 7 billion YouTube videos viewed and 430 million tweets sent on the day of writing alone, October 2nd 2016 (Internet Live Stats 2017). However a preoccupation with the number of users on a platform or the number of uses of that platform taking place each day can too easily obscure the qualitative transformation taking place. For this, we need to locate social media in terms of a history of digitalisation and capitalism, identifying why this particular form of technology emerged under these conditions in the way that it did. Examples such as the Soviet internet as well as the Chilean Cybersyn project, illustrate why the relationship between capitalism and digitalisation must be understood as contingent rather than necessary. If we take ‘big data’ as a self-evident category, instead of one which has emerged historically under specific politico-economic questions, we risk naturalising developments which ought to be an object of analysis.
How do we contextualise these developments? As Housley at al (2014: 2) observe, many of them “speak to core sociological concerns that relate to classic questions of social organisation, social change, and the integration and regulation of citizens within complex, late modern, globalizing, and interconnected social formations.” The tradition of epochal theorising within sociological thought, in spite of the many criticisms which can be made of it, offer important resources to make sense of digital change and that which it portends. These accounts have proliferated in recent years, raising the question of how we can evaluate competing claims of late modernity, liquid modernity, second modernity, network society, morphogenic society and social acceleration (Archer 2013b). This is a vast literature, orientated around common themes: Atkinson (2010), Carrigan (2014), Heaphy (2007) and Howard (2007) provide either critical or credulous overviews of its key features. But they offer a panoramic perspective on social change, suggesting rich themes (e.g. identity, risk, lifestyle, pace of social change) which can be used to build connections between empirical studies of social media and synthetic developments which locate social media within a broader account of social change.
Digital Sociology and Digital Capitalism
Much as sociological treatments of digital technology have tended to circumscribe it, restricting their analysis to the digital transformation of a particular sphere of social life, so too have economic analyses been similarly restricted. The tendency has been to treat the technology sector as sui generis, whatever the political stance, if any, taken by the analyst. Even the breathless discourse of ‘disruptive technologies’ does this, constructing the economic system as a dependent variable in a deterministic playing out of technological change. The difficulty arises because of the confusion this generates between the technology sector, technology-dependent sectors of the economy and capitalism as a whole. As Srnicek (2016: loc 157) notes, the technology sector is relatively small, employing around 2.5% of the US labour force and accounting for around 6.8% of the value added by private companies. The preoccupation with technology forms as cultural and political actors obscures a wider systemic transformation in which new socio-technical forms arising from and supported by this relatively small sector of the economy penetrate across the economy as a whole (Srnicek 2016: loc 157-158).
We should see digitalisation as on a par with financialization in terms of understanding contemporary capitalism. In fact, the two processes are deeply interconnected, with their separation being as much an artefact of disciplinary divisions as anything else. This has most obviously been the case at the level of global communication and the international dispersal of the supply chain, but the ensuing transformation of the corporation effects every aspect of its internal organisation and the experience of those working within it (Sennett 2007, Woodcock 2016). The infrastructure of the contemporary digital economy emerged out of the vast investment of the ‘dot com’ bubble, without which the mainstreaming of the internet might not have been possible (Srnicek 2016: loc 294-333). However the link between what Peter Thiel describes as the first Silicon Valley gold rush and the unfolding of contemporary digital capitalism goes further than this (Masters and Thiel 2014: loc 155-171). The importance of recognising this is in part macro-economic, as the the bursting of the dot com bubble sowed the seeds for the housing bubble, (partial) recovery from which involved the development of a low-interest rate environment in which the second Silicon Valley gold rush took shape. But the
Many of the current power players within Silicon Valley are those who survived the ensuing crash. In fact many of them emerged from the same company, the so-called ‘Paypal Mafia’ who have since founded Tesla Motors, LinkedIn, Matterport, Palantir Technologies, SpaceX, YouTube, Yelp, and Yammer. The most prominent members of this group, Reid Hoffman, Peter Thiel, and Elon Musk, are amongst the most powerful figures in contemporary technology. The start-ups which later came to power, riding a wave they self-interestedly distinguished as web 2.0, in fact enjoyed remarkably similar conditions: ready access to venture capital (often mediated through the aforementioned elders) and a lack of demand to demonstrate profitability. But conjointly, we can see also a culture that emerged within this febrile atmosphere, concerned with self-branding and networking one’s way to the top. A sub-culture of relentless self-ambition and accelerated aspiration is of sociological significance because what emerged in the first Silicon Valley gold rush has only intensified with the onset of social media (Marwick 2013, Vance 2015: 10-11). The cultural norms of Silicon Valley have begun to spread beyond it as the corporations involved have sought political influence, both in terms of their own self-interest but also the character of government itself (McGoey 2015, Frank 2016: loc 2918-2934). As Srnicek (2016: loc 157-178) puts it, the digital economy now acts as a leading light in an otherwise stagnant economy, increasingly to the point of “becoming a hegemonic model: cities are to become smart, businesses must be disruptive, workers are to become flexible, and governments must be lean and intelligent.” We should take the rhetoric of ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ seriously, but address it sociologically as a form of self-understanding and self-justification amongst a nascent class of digital elites, emerging under extremely specific conditions. The vibrancy we see within this space is cultural as well as techno-economic.
A key difficulty in attempting to unpick the frantic activity of the technology sector is distinguishing the genuinely novel from variations on a theme. Do we live in an age of continual innovation or one in which endless iterations of the same technology substitute for meaningful change (Featherstone 2013)? The self-descriptions promulgated by the heroic entrepreneurs of digital capitalism raise important questions concerning the ontology of social change (Archer 2013). Within a relatively new sector of the platform economy, the venture-capital led rush towards entry can create the appearance of heterogeneity, as an array of platforms spring up to meet a need without providing any obvious way to distinguish between them. The apparent vibrancy of the tech start-up, with aspirant firms springing up into being and falling off the radar each week, scene masks an underlying consolidation within the technology sector. There can be many factors responsible for this disappearance: rebranding, ‘pivoting’, failure or acquisition. Rushkoff (2016) offers a powerful critique of how the desire to be acquired is shaping the life cycles of start-ups in ways harmful to the possibility of innovation and Martínez (2016) presents a fascinating first-person account of such a life cycle. But the overall trend is one of consolidation, as little benefit can be accrued through being a runner-up in a sector where winner-takes-most or winner-takes-all dynamics dominate (Lanier 2014; Stone 2013, 2017).
Van Dijck (2013) identifies four major chains of platforms: Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon. Many other corporations, large and small, existing within this eco-system but the tendency is towards increasing vertical-integration and isomorphism. Consider the number of services which at least three of these four platform chains offer: e-mail, tablet computers, mobile app stores, instant messaging, cloud storage, streaming music, video-on-demand, wearable computing, eBooks and more. If we look through the list of services which two of the four offer, it is easy to see potential growth areas for the others. We can see the tendency at work in dynamics of imitation and acquisition, as Facebook sought to first acquire its new rival Snapchat before instead incorporating its functionality into the Instagram platform which was acquired in 2012.
Far from the disintermediated world which the rhetoric of Silicon Valley promised, the consumers are increasingly presented with a choice between incompatible eco-systems or social platforms with minor differences in functionality and demographics. The most immediate manifestations of this may seem trivial, such as the difficulties consumers face in foregoing a platform in which they have built up (Vogelstein 2013). But the increasingly bitter conflict between them seems likely to intensify this process and the minor irritations confronting consumers today herald what seems likely to be a more worrying and nakedly oligopolistic situation in the near future. Under these circumstances, we cannot easily detach political economy from methodology. Whatever access a platform currently offers to social data does not imply this offering will be sustained over time, as corporations become subject to increasing pressure to generate revenue over time (Edwards et al 2012). The continual reinvention which takes place in this environment carries similar consequences, as even user-focused platform developments such as modifications to how a timeline is ordered have consequence for social research which depends on access through such platforms (Vis 2016). Furthermore, the highly commercialised character of much research using social data raises questions of ‘black boxes’ which have important philosophical and methodological ramifications (Edwards et al 2012, Pasquale 2014). It does not follow from these concerns that digital methods orientated towards social data are in any sense unviable, only that the landscape within which such work proceeds is inherently unstable. There are familiar questions of power, prestige, interests and inequality raised by the circumstances under which we consider narrower issues of methodology and epistemology.
Digital Sociology and Public Sociology
Foremost amongst the concerns of digital sociology has been the use of digital tools and platforms by sociologists. However sociologists have long used digital tools. Many of these uses are so everyday as seem instinctively unworthy of mention, such as the reliance on e-mail to coordinate academic work, electronic systems to allocate rooms within universities, the use of library catalogues to find resources or the reliance upon electronic access to journals as print subscriptions continue their decline into non-existence. But it is this everyday dependence, the ready-at-hand nature of these technologies as tools, which can obscure the affordances and constraints of technologies, particularly in relation to what came before. For instance, as Hayles (2012: 5) observes, “print-based scholars increasingly compose, edit and disseminate files in digital form without worrying too much about how digital txt differs from print, so they tend not to see the ways in which digital text, although superficially similar to print, differs profoundly in its internal structures, as well as in the different functionalities, protocols and communicative possibilities of networked and programmable machines”. It is precisely for this reason that “we need to be inside of the networks, online communities, and collaborative movements to be able to see what is going on and describe it” as Beer and Burrows (2007) put it an early contribution to digital sociology.
Through doing so, we confront the rapidly changing reality of digitalisation through our everyday practice, ideally in a way that is dialogically reflexive about that practice, a possibility underwritten by the demonstrable tendency of academics to use social media to talk and reflect on the conditions of their own working lives (Carrigan 2016). In doing so, we can move beyond the forgetfulness of the technical pervasive within the social sciences (Hall 2016). The ubiquity of digital infrastructure renders such a recovery necessary at the methodological level, allowing us to retain an epistemic distance to the processes and events into which we inquire (Marres 2017). But it also heralds a potential transformation of sociology’s relationship to external publics, facilitated by a reflexivity about the communication of sociological knowledge developing to match the more familiar reflexivity about the production of sociological knowledge.
Such reflexivity necessitates that we remain critical about platforms and their publics. As Couldry (2014) has convincingly argued, an account of this relation is integral to the branding of social media. These platforms are seen as new sites for assembly, in which a previously fragmented public can come together, with their latent sociality finally given expression by this new technology. This ‘myth of us’ obscures the complex dynamics which mediate the groups we encounter on any different platform, as algorithmic and curatorial functions overlap to delimit those who will see any given communication (Carrigan 2017). Even the totality of users on any given platform does not represent a general public. While Facebook might appear to come closest, the 79% of online adults (68% of all Americans) using Facebook, reveals extensive swathes of the population as non-users of Facebook (and in many cases without access to the internet) even in the country from which it originated. The second and third most popular platforms amongst Americans, Instagram (32% of internet users and 28% of American adults) and Twitter (24% of internet users and 21% of American adults) reveal how wide this gap is when we consider social media platforms as a whole (Greenwood, Perrin and Duggan 2016).
Social media does not offer us unmediated access to a general public. Such an ambition, in so far as it exists, represents a hangover from a previous era of the ‘total intellectual’: a problematic role, able to be occupied by a handful of scholars, which emerged under conditions which no longer obtain (Baert 2012, Fatsis 2014). Social media does however provide powerful tools for building relationships with groups outside the academy, particularly in asynchronous ways compatible with the temporal demands of the accelerated academy (Vostal 2015, 2016). The affordances of social media described by boyd (2012), particularly their persistence and searchability, engender a discoverability to sociological conversation conducted through social media that can be sufficient in its own right to facilitate connections with journalists, policy makers, activists groups or charities who are either directly seeking sociological knowledge or pursuing some end which leads them into indirect contact with sociologists on social media platforms.
However much more deliberate forms of engagement are facilitated by social media, which can be mapped onto Burawoy’s (2005) distinction between traditional public sociology and organic public sociology. The former has traditionally been embodied by the figure of the intellectual, whether the aforementioned ‘total intellectual’ (or those aspiring to such a position) or the more modest ‘specific intellectual’. The familiar activity of traditional public sociology encompasses writing for opinion pages, being interviewed in the media and publishing books intended for a wider audience which address pressing social issues. As noted, media can support this activity by making sociologists more easily discoverable by journalists and producers. It is also extending the range of online outlets, with newspapers and magazines having large digital sections and new online-only publications opening up which specialise in academic content. But it creates new opportunities for narrow-casting rather than broadcasting, connecting with specific audiences who might previously have been marginalised within mainstream media. For this reason, writing for specialised blogs and engaging with niche social media forums can be an effective form of traditional public sociology if the publics with which one seeks to engage with are pre-constituted and specific. The organic public sociologist might work with labour movements, community groups, social movements or human rights organisations. Social media offers new ways of identifying and beginning to engage with groups, it offers new ways of supporting groups (albeit ones that might often blur into the category of traditional public sociology) and it offers new ways of making this activity visible within the academy in a way that might draw others into their remit. Social media is changing how such groups can come together, particularly in their initial stages, by offering new opportunities and challenges for assembling similarly-concerned people in time and space.
Such engagement confronts important questions about the status of sociological knowledge. What makes claims to know the social emerging from the discipline relevant when so many other actors offer competing claims? One possibility is simply to ignore this challenge, perhaps buttressed by a sense that ‘our’ knowledge production is characterised by a degree of profundity which will ensure their inevitable victory in the market place of ideas. Such a response seems almost wilfully ignorant to the changes that have taken place in the organisation of inquiry within social life: not just the fact of the aforementioned plurality of authoritative claims to speak about the social but of the material interests vested in the growth of consultancy and the think tank system (Medvetz 2012, Thrift 2005). Underlying this view we often see what I have elsewhere termed the amelioration fallacy: the self-regarding assumption that social problems would be easy to fix if only our existing knowledge circulated more effectively i.e. if more people listened to us (Carrigan 2016, French 2012). Another is to seek to adapt ourselves to these conditions, accelerating our reflective impulses in order to thrive more effectively within the time horizons of the media and politics, perhaps seeking to become one of what Linsey McGoey (2015) memorably calls ‘TED Heads’: celebrity academics who thrive within the international conference circuit.
But if we reject both acquiescence and adaptation then what strategy is left? Fighting back. As Savage (2015: 403) puts it, this “involves the social sciences getting their hands dirty and seeking to wrest intellectual authority from market researchers, consultants, journalists and commentators”. Social media represent potent tools in such a project, though not ones liable to lead inexorably to social influence, not least of all because of the aforementioned challenge of ‘being heard above the din’ (Beer 2009). If the affordances of social media are seen as something entirely extrinsic to scholarship, merely to be drawn upon in disseminating existing findings, it is doubtful whether an impact on the distribution of intellectual authority is likely. The realities of contemporary labour within an accelerated academy militate against this (Vostal 2015, 2016). With unmanageable workloads and an increasingly inhospitable labour market now ubiquitous features of academic life, expecting younger scholars to take advantage of the affordances of social media represents ‘just another thing to do’. In such cases, engagement is liable to become a means to an end, undertaken to be counted and recognised, rather than as an end in itself. After many years of what Burrows (2012) calls living with the h-index, it is possible that the metrics of social media might prove alluring to scholars. What van Dijck (2013) calls the ‘popularity principle’ is built into the architecture of platforms: ‘importance’ is reduced to ‘popularity’ within these platforms, creating a feedback loop where the popular progressively monopolise the attention space. Such a dynamic is liable to produce a handful of academic celebrities, much digital labour but little meaningful engagement. The challenge faced by digital sociology is how to build collective platforms which allow us to exploit the affordances of social media without having this effort smothered by such pernicious platform dynamics. Digital sociology is not simply a matter of new techniques or objects, rather it is concerned with how we orientate ourselves towards this novelty as such and what it means for our labour.
Digital Sociology and Digital Methods
The far too frequent assumption made about digital methods is that, as Marres (2017: 51), describes it “these ‘data-intensive approaches to social analysis somehow provide better or ‘truer’ access to social life than older social research methods”. This epistemic complacency obscures epistemological and methodological issues which urgently need to be addressed. We see new modes of analysis emerging, driven by both the affordances and constraints of data environments, raising important questions in the philosophy of science which are still relatively unaddressed. The unobtrusive character of transactional data is understood to offer an unprecedented window on human life, revealing who we are when we think no one is looking, as one popular book about data science memorably put it (Rudder 2014). Unfortunately, the epistemic specificity of transactional data too often gets lost in the hype surrounding it, making it difficult to engage adequately at the level of philosophy of science.
Opposition to the hype and the politics of discipline in which it is embedded should not incite a rejection of transactional data but rather a careful scrutiny of its ontological and epistemological character, as well as its methodological implications (Kitchin 2014b, Halford 2015). As Little (2015) observes, “most social activity leaves no digital traces” and this is something which should be incorporated into our approach from the outset. In fact digital sociology could help address this variance by highlighting what are ultimately sociological questions. Why do some activities leave digital traces and others not? Who has access and who does not? How is this distribution structured? How does it change over time and what factors play a part in shaping these changes? If we accept a naive resurgent positivism which sees transactional data as providing access to the truth of human behaviour, we obscure precisely those questions liable to prove useful in realising the methodological promise of these innovations.
Those rightly critical of the “utopia of social legibility” which Little (2015) identifies in the advocacy of computational social science, can too easily lapse into a rejection of the epistemic gains offered by transactional data. It is a mistake to see some inherent danger to sociological inquiry latent within computational techniques. The risk is rather that our preoccupation with computational techniques leads us to confuse technical innovation with epistemological advance. As Gary Hall (2016) provocatively asks of an example often cited by Lev Manovich to introduce cultural analytics, how interesting is it to more or less confirm an established history by new means rather than deploying these techniques to challenge or complicate this history? Technical advances do not lead inexorably to epistemic gains and a sociological approach to method can help us sustain this awareness while nonetheless resisting a lazy slide into facile rejection. We should be vigilant with regards to the theoretical and methodological issues raised by technical innovations, not assume that these innovations necessarily create theoretical and methodological problems. We should be sensitive to the allure of new techniques, particularly given the intellectual climate in which technical mastery can be a potent source of disciplinary self-confidence at a point in time where others appear to be lacking (Beer 2014). But our response to these issues should be to open up, rather than close down, elaborating on the possibilities latent within new techniques rather than rejecting them.
We can see an example of what this might look like in the proposal for ‘socialomics’ offered by Chen and Yan (2016) which adapts and extends techniques of cultural analytics in order to gain traction on questions of socio-cultural change at the macroscopic level which would usually fall outside of its remit. The underlying inspiration is shared with cultural analytics, resting on a recognition of the limitations of close reading and the quantitative possibilities afford by digitalisation and computational techniques, but the sociological concerns of their case study are ‘baked into’ the foundational categories of the inquiry, shaping their understanding and application of the techniques in a way which uniquely constitutes them for the task at hand. Pursuing such an approach necessitates a clarity about epistemology and methodology which is often lacking in these debates. For instance, as Housley et al (2014) argue, the emerging capacity to analyse macro-social processes in real time is an enormous opportunity but it is one which gives no reason to assume we can dispense with other forms of inquiry, as well as heralding all manner of philosophical, ethical and methodological questions which need to be addressed. Rather than seeing computational techniques as a threat, we should aspire to digitally remaster traditional sociological questions in order to render them adequate for these new technological opportunities (Edwards et al 2014). If we fail to do this, we risk an increasing subordination of sociological inquiry to what Kitchin (2014a: loc 3800-3817) describes as “ad hoc and pragmatic approaches” and “proliferating forms of weak empiricism”.
We need digital methodology and digital theory to catch up with digital methods (Edwards et al 2014; Housley et al 2014; Kitchin 2014b). Unfortunately, the structures of the contemporary academy militate against this in a number of ways. The growth dynamics of the journal system encourage specialisation in both reading and writing, whereas what we urgently require are fora in which cutting-edge innovations can feed back into over-arching debates within a disciplinary and trans-disciplinary remit. Only then can we mitigate the fractal-like dynamics of disciplinary change which currently work to squeeze out crucial discussions about the future of sociology given widespread digitalisation (Abbott 2001). The problems caused by this hyper-specialisation are (perversely) paralleled by a counter-specialisation dynamic, in which important technical details about working with data are excluded from the discussion in mainstream journals, in the process making it more difficult to address the methodological questions which suffuse the whole process of working with digital data.
Digital sociology’s concern with its own disciplinary conditions creates a risk of insularity, leaving it preoccupied by what takes place within the discipline rather than looking outward from it. Avoiding this necessitates being clear about the ambitions of digital sociology at a disciplinary level. Marres (2017: 40) offers a useful comparison to environmental sociology. Sociological phenomena have an environmental dimension and sociological work takes place in an environment, but this does not mean all sociology should be environmental sociology. Digital sociology as a sub discipline can help us recover the digital dimension to social life and better appreciate how the digital environment in which we work shapes the work that we do. As Marres acknowledges, in many cases this digital dimension might be irrelevant to the inquiry at hand. What is crucial is that its existence is something which is acknowledged at the level of the discipline, rather than that all practitioners come to focus on it in the course of their substantive inquiry.
Understood as a project in this sense, the notion of ‘digital sociology’ functions as an assembly device through which to gather the disparate strands of sociological engagement with the digital within what Porpora (2001) calls ‘argumentative space’: ensuring that agreements and disagreements on substantive matters play out between similarly motivated interlocutors, facilitating intellectual development on issues of shared concern without privileging any one particular position. In doing so, it aspires towards the emergence of what Mouzelis (2008: 9) 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”. Exchanges which bring this about are dialogical rather than dialectical, increasing people’s awareness of their own views and expanding their understanding of others through the process of exchange, rather than seeing disagreement as an obstacle which must be overcome in pursuit of a common ground (Sennett 2008: 19).
This entails an openness within the discipline and beyond it, involving proactive engagement with a wide range of trends: digital humanities, digital anthropology, digital geography, social informatics, data studies, web science, data science, software studies and beyond. Through such engagements, digital sociology might one day confront the temptation of intellectual imperialism, styling itself in neo-Comtean fashion as the queen of the (digital) social sciences. Such an ambition would prove regressive, suppressing the character of sociology as a scavenger in which Urry (2005) locates its propensity for “getting now into unexpected places and doing unexpected things once it has escaped beyond the drawbridge”. To seek to raise the drawbridge once engagement has taken place, seeing in the digital a new ‘centre’ for the discipline, would provoke precisely the fractal dynamics of fragmentation and specialisation which digital sociology seeks to overcome (Abbott 2001, Holmwood 2010).
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