Sociological Imagination: Digital Sociology and the Future of the Discipline

Image: Shutterstock

Thursday 17th December, 2015

Kate Orton-Johnson, Nick Prior and Karen Gregory


Special Section on Digital Sociology

Although the term digital sociology has emerged in the last few years, the term points us less toward a bounded field of research practices or theoretical standpoints than toward what we should think of both as a reflexive moment in sociological thinking — a moment that asks us to interrogate taken-for-granted presumptions of who or what constitutes the “social” — and as a moment that, methodologically, can blur longstanding distinctions between qualitative and quantitative work. As Orton-Johnson & Prior note, digital sociology is inherently an interdisciplinary practice that draws from a long history of research done in Internet studies, information and communication studies, media and cultural studies, the sociology of science and technology, surveillance studies, and computer science, yet it is also a practice that continually reflects on the core concerns of sociology. Disciplined self-reflection not only brings those concerns to the interdisciplinary table but augments and reconceptualizes what may count as a social concern. It is this reflexive practice that makes digital sociology an exciting pursuit: it offers opportunities to theorize the nature and shape of the social world and simultaneously to explore and experiment with emerging methods, what Lury and Wakeford have called “inventive methods.”

Digital sociologists often signal the increasing prevalence of digital technologies in our everyday lives (although the shared “our” is itself an invitation to critical scrutiny) as a call for such methods, but there is more to the story than this. Such methods are necessary if we are going to come to terms with the digital as a social actor that easily weaves together and may even do away with longstanding binaries such as structure/individual, human/world, and even lively/inert. Still, rather than fetishize the digital as a determining social force, digital sociology is an opportunity to study and understand the material and very local practices that bring digital technologies and data-driven social relations into being.

As Marres has suggested, digital sociology is interested in the question of how digitization affects or alters “the relations between researchers and researched, and those between the objects, methods, [and] techniques of social research, broadly conceived.” As such, the practice anticipates emerging technologies and the possibilities of understanding the social through new forms of data. Nevertheless, at its best, digital sociology continually reflects on what it means to conduct sociological work, what the terms and limitations of our inquiry are, and when and how sociology can offer necessary counter-perspectives to economic and political systems that are all too eager to embrace the digital as a means of governance. It presents an opportunity to step outside “normal science” for a moment, to address the big concerns of the discipline.

Digital sociology does not forsake core sociological concerns: stratification, social inequalities, the nature of power, and the histories of subjugation and violence that have accompanied the formations of race, gender, and class categories. Thus the field has a mandate to do work that is inherently critical. In this way, the “digital” in the term “digital sociology” asks us simultaneously to understand the ways in which social conditions and social relations are being terraformed by emerging technologies, the prevalence of data, and algorithmic capacity and also to see the ways in which histories are never final and often reinstantiated in and through these very technologies and modes of seeing or knowing the world. Digital, here, is not a neutral or free-floating technological abstraction; neither is it a panacea to technical problems. It is relational, social, and embedded.

To us, this critical mandate defines the project of digital sociology, and we imagine that the interdisciplinarity of the field will only grow richer as we work in collaboration with research being done in studies of financialization, geography, urban studies, social infrastructure, gender and queer studies, and critical race theory. It is precisely because data science and computational social science discourses threaten to dominate “digital” studies that a critical digital sociology capable of connecting the dots between and among humanistic disciplines is essential. While we might not go so far as to say that digital sociology will radically alter the relationship between sociology and other disciplines, the emerging field does offer new opportunities for collaboration, innovative research design, and the development and creation of our own research tools. As others have commented, it’s best if digital sociology not work too hard to define itself rigidly at the onset but instead develop as a community of practice. Such a community of practice might not only be limited to academics but include artists, activists, and educators, for example, as well.

Given that digital sociology’s concerns extend to almost all social institutions as well as to issues of political and economic governance, the field shares an interest with public sociology, and there is much work to be done in digital sociology to broaden conversations, share research findings, make research tools available, and bring a strong voice to the policy table. Inasmuch as digital sociology offers opportunities for interdisciplinary work, it also offers a chance to negotiate ties that are being forged between the university and the corporation and to participate in the development of faculty-driven, student-focused digital curriculums and digital pedagogy. As we are witnessing the development of a digital, algorithmically driven social infrastructure (often mistaken simply as an algorithmic infrastructure, which masks the layers of human labor and resource extraction such an infrastructure requires), it is essential that digital sociology continue to draw attention to choices that are being made, to political and economic agendas, to environmental effects, and to potential alternatives. Just as it might be porous, engaged, and emergent, however, digital sociology might also remain cognizant of those logics of institutional consecration that position it in a field of higher education: where careers and reputations are made, where tweets and retweets are complicit in metrics-driven agendas, where corporate and state-backed funding streams are opened, and where younger scholars are struggling to find a position in the academy.

While conversations about “the digital” may forever be haunted by notions of immateriality, as if smart phones and digital technologies simply emerge from (and upload to) a “cloud,” digital sociology will only become relevant the more it concerns itself with the material and lived conditions that give rise to such a digital world. This means moving far beyond easy distinctions between “online” and “offline” and to understanding the deeply entangled relationships between technology, media, bodies, and data. The real challenge for digital sociology is to theorize and work with that entanglement while still thinking in terms of the social—and while drawing attention to the larger patterns of stratification and the production of new social populations that have come into being on the heels of what often appears to be digital abundance.

Kate Orton-Johnson, Nick Prior and Karen Gregory are all based in the Department of Sociology at the University of Edinburgh. 

Here's more you may be interested in: