Reorienting Sociology: Disruption and Digital Technology

Image: Joshua Jackson

Tuesday 24th January, 2017

William Housley

Reorienting sociology is a phrase that builds on the endless ‘turns’ that prefigured the current phase of defining the discipline. It is a navigational frame and needs to be treated with caution, lest it be applied with unreflexive haste. The recent explosion of interest in the emerging contours of digital society and new forms of data have been cited as a signal moment for sociology and the social sciences more generally.

Some commentators have argued that a step change in sociology (and aligned social sciences) is warranted in the face of big data and the opportunities that it offers for the generation of significant insights and a move towards ‘Big Science’ – where discrete analytic practices and work are broken down into networked, distributed and digitally organized collaborative tasks amongst groups and interdisciplinary ‘data labs’.

This form of knowledge organisation is also predicated on the emergence of new occupational groups (e.g. data scientists) and the harvesting of crowd intelligence through large scale annotation exercises that make use of distributed digital labour through the exploitation of crowdsourcing data coding platforms, often without demographic selection or sampling, in order to generate classifiers for machine learning and algorithm development.

On a wider scale, over and above the promise of big and broad data, the emerging contours of digital society are seen to reorientate the study of social life due to the sheer acceleration and velocity of ‘disruptive’ social change realized through social media, digital data, robotics, ‘social’ algorithms, automation and the arrival of artificial intelligences.

The theoretical, methodological and empirical opportunities for conducting social science and understanding the emerging contours of digital society represent exciting topics of inquiry and offer new ways for conducting research. For example, the possibility of using new forms of data and organizing research in different ways in digitally networked times and the claim that rapid socio-technical change is acting as a catalyst for social theorization of advanced technologies-in-action as they move out of the research and development lab and into peoples hands (literally) in an accelerated fashion.

Perhaps reorientation to new problems and phenomena is best understood as a constant feature of sociological inquiry; social change is, after all, a key question and concern for the disciplinary enterprise. The perception that we are living through intense social, technical and environmental change is both widely shared and empirically documented. The social is being reassembled but key questions and concerns remains the same. How do things associate and organize? Why do these assemblages change over time? How do agents relate and integrate within a given social form? New forms of association between both human and non-human ‘societal’ integrators, mediators and disruptors remain key concerns.

To this extent, we might step back from claims surrounding a ‘digital turn’ in sociology. The turns will keep coming, thick and fast due to the inexorable pace of social change, social (re-) organisation and our (and possibly other actors) position within the warp and weft of social relations. To this extent, one course of action would avoid privileging the ‘digital’ but rather seek to consider it as an opportunity to track, trace and interpret social life as a process and ‘structuring’ matrix of relations. In this short piece I will identify three interrelated well established analytic frames that have been operationalized in order to examine the digital as such an opportunity and in ways that might tell us something about social life in general as well as in particular. These are the study of breaches in social and normative order, the mapping of scientific and social controversies and finally, transformation and world making.

Digital Technology: Disruption as Breaching

Ethnomethodology and the early work of Garfinkel noted how ‘breaching experiments’ revealed the import of background expectancies and the normative foundations of situated interaction order. For example, behaving as a lodger in the family home would generate humour and, eventually, upset; the role expectancies of being a parent, partner or family member being disrupted by requests to use the bathroom or offers of weekly rental for sleeping space. At a more granular level and within the context of Goffman’s studies of face work and Sacks’ fine grained documentation of repair and alignment within talk – the study of breaches and repair have been central to the empirical enterprise of understanding how social (interaction) order is accomplished, moment by moment, in real time. In the sense that breaches in social and moral order provide a window for the analyst to peer in and document how it is that social actors themselves keep the social on the move.

The arrival of mobile telephony, social media and other body proxemic digitally networked, communicative devices present social actors with a number of problems and opportunities. Being networked on the move has to be managed with the co-presence of others, being hailed from afar or augmenting co-presence with networked information requires modification, management and routine repair of interaction order. Digital devices can disrupt shared expectations within routine interactional flows, but they are also realigned and incorporated at the same time by people in ways which render visible the character of these new mobile social technical affordances and the organizational and mundane features of everyday social life. In other words, the study of how new technologies breach established social relations tell us much about the socio-technicality of both.

Digital Technology: Disruption and Controversy

The arrival of data generating digital technologies, such as social media, provide new avenues for exploring controversies at scale and in near real time. Science and Technology Studies have routinely explored scientific controversies as a naturally occurring opportunity through which to observe the social organizational characteristics of science as practice. In a way that is distinct, but similar, to normative breaches of interaction order, controversies bring into view a range of occluded practices that do not always form part of the official account of how science might be understood to actually work and operate. Social media as data can inform the development of new ways of mapping controversies within networks and in ways that can document how different tropes, narratives, claims and groups are mobilized in relation to things like climate change, often in ways that aid powerful forms of visualization in relation to actor networks.

However, ‘disruptive’ digital technologies (inclusive of social media) can also be understood to be controversial objects in their own right, due to the way in which they are designed and deployed in order to disrupt markets, cultures and social relations. The ‘digitally disruptive’ are inherently controversial due to the way in which these technologies are designed to cross boundaries and established turf with ease, at relatively low cost and in ways that can potentially generate significant value above and around traditional circuits of capital, governance and regulation. As a consequence, the examination of the digital as controversial renders visible established (and changing) forms of social organization and ordering in moments of repair, realignment and reaction.

Digital Technology: Disruption and Transformation

In addition to looking at the ways in which digital technology can be followed as a socio-technical associational frame that generates analytic insight through the routine breaching of the interaction order and the generation of controversy amongst groups, networks and structures it might also be understood to be transformative. For example treating social media as data can augment traditional social research methods, the use of networked mobile telephony can enhance the ways in which we interpret people, places and spaces whilst on the move, algorithms can generate unintended consequences in the ways they automatically categorise social media communications at scale in terms of race and class in relation to real or perceived social problems and so on.

A central issue here is the way in which digital technologies disrupt social categories and categorization practices by augmenting and re-orienting shared understandings and what is that we take for granted. In this sense they have the potential to make new ‘social worlds’ by constituting transformative social relations and connections. Again, these are avenues for further study in the first instance but include inquiry into the way in which, for example, we communicate and interact via Web 2.0, the transformative effects of mobile telephony, the arrival of networked, distributed, digital ‘butlers’ and ‘personal assistants’ with voice recognition capabilities and so on.

To conclude, perhaps, it is the reorientation and reassembly of the social that is important here – the topic of inquiry if you like. How social explanations and associations are being built around new technologies and other mundane and exotic objects is not knew but is perhaps now more clearly discernable in the face of commercially driven technological disruption and change – a rolling assemblage of breaching experiments and a generator of multiple socio-technical controversies – that allow us to render visible the social-in-action in all its mundane and sometimes exceptional ontological and organizational force.

William Housley, is a sociologist, based at the Cardiff University School of Social Sciences, who works across a number of research areas that include language and interaction, social media, the social aspects of disruptive technologies and the emerging contours of digital society, economy and culture. Professor Housley was a co-founder of COSMOS and is currently working on a number of ESRC funded projects that relate to digital society and research; he co-convenes the Digital Sociology Research Group at Cardiff University, is co-editor of Qualitative Research (SAGE) and serves on the editorial board of Big Data and Society (SAGE).

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