“Digital Sociology: The Reinvention of Social Research”. Noortje Marres on how digital technology contributes to sociology.
Noortje Marres is the author of 2017 book, Digital Sociology: The Reinvention of Social Research, a critical new overview and assessment of the key concepts, methods and understandings that currently inform the development of specifically digital forms of social enquiry. In conversation with Francesca Halstead, Noortje discusses the key arguments in her book, how she came to write it, and how digital technology contributes to sociology research and practice.
What is Digital Sociology?
Digital Sociology came into usage as a label only 5 years ago, which is somewhat mysterious, as sociologists have studied digital societies and have used digital techniques for many decades, going back to studies of computers in the workplace in the early 80s, and the even earlier development of software packages to process survey data. Sister terms, like Digital Anthropology, predate Digital Sociology by about 10 years.
Digital sociology emerged as a response to a particular hype – in industry, news, media, government, and the university – about how ‘new’ digital data would transform ways of knowing society. But digital sociology also offers an alternative to narrow definitions of digital social research. Some define the new ‘computational social science’ as essentially a form of data analytics. By contrast, digital sociologists are committed to investigating a far wider set of interactions between data, people, technologies – and much else besides – which overflow, exceed and do not “fit” inside the simple story about the new forms of data analysis taking the place of old social research methods, like surveys or fieldwork.
What goes on in digital culture takes the form of sociological processes but they are still too rarely understood in those terms. An example is that of ‘Samaritan Radar’ – an online data tool that was designed for the UK charity ‘Samaritans’, to help identify people at risk of “suicide” by analysing Tweets. Soon after its release, this tool became the focus of criticism online, and this highlighted all sorts of “unintended” effects of the release of the app – bloggers noted the risk that identifying social media users as posing a “suicide risks” would be stigmatizing. Others observed that monitoring for deviance poses a threat to digital expression, and would encourage self-censorship in online conversations. Importantly, these kind of effects, in which labels such as “suicide risk” affect people’s perceptions and actions, present fundamental sociological phenomena.
Classic sociologists from Max Weber to Howard Becker and Harold Garfinkel, and Susan Leigh Star have drawn attention to precisely these effects by which the categories used to make sense of social phenomena transform how social life is conducted. But today, to analyse these sociological effects, sociologists need to take an interest in how digital media technologies work and proliferate across social life.
What difference does digital technology make to how we practice sociology, and to sociology as a form of knowledge?
Sociology, and digital sociology, has an important contribution to make to wider debates about the role of science and research in digital societies today. It has an alternative vision to offer as to how we know society with digital data and with digital tools. The value of sociology in this regard is in my view insufficiently recognized. The field of computational social science has over the last years been strongly influenced by physics. Digital trace data are often approached as behavioural data. As one group of data scientists put it: by measuring what is liked, clicked, purchased “we do not have to consider people’s subjective opinions at all.” I think sociology can make important contributions to challenging such methodological assumptions – not just to be critical of computer science, but to outline alternatives to the reduction of digital data to behavioural data. The latter approach may certainly have its uses but it also produces a sociological blind spot: it ignores the interplay between people and ideas, and between people, ideas and technology, as in the case of ‘Samaritan Radar’ above.
Another question that digital sociology can help clarify is the changing role of research methods in digital society. Digital devices like phones and platforms like social media are explicitly designed to enable the analysis of social life: smart phones make possible spatial tracing, social media make social networks available for analysis to users as well as third party researchers.
We need to question which social methods get built into technology, and to study the effects of this on social life, and to argue, wherever possible, in favour of particular design and not others. Sociology is not alone in doing so – within digital culture many productive research practices have emerged over the last year, such as bloggers monitoring the tech industry for problematic knowledge tools, such as Facebook creepy search graphs, which made Facebook profiles searchable by attribute (eg “lives near me” and “likes getting drunk”). For this tool, bloggers produced an archive of problematic queries, virtually overnight, and sociologists can make important contributions not only by adding examples and voice to this critique, but also to spreading wider awareness of how social research tools and analysis do not just reflect but also intervene in society.
Technology is moving and changing so fast, with disruptive technologies changing the way we live and behave all the time. What challenges does this bring for research in this area?
One anonymous user said on Twitter some time ago: “There is no Internet of Things, only other people’s computers in your house”. This is a good way of summing up the challenge of recent developments in the digital sector. Digital services in transport and the home in effect mean that the hub-client model is re-instated in digital infrastructures today, a decade or so after we assumed digital networks were and would be inherently distributed. Indeed, many of the possibilities for digital sociology, like participatory research, are inspired by this older age of distributed digital networking. They stem from a time in which we believed that the web and social media were ‘unlike’ established society-wide infrastructures, like “the media” or “electricity.” Recent developments in the area of digital innovation have challenged this belief: they are precisely about grafting digital media technologies onto and into large, centralized infrastructures – think of intelligent mobility (driverless cars) or smart electricity meters in the home as examples, many of which are today designed to place the tech giants and utility industries in a position of centralized oversight. On the one hand, this undoes some of the progress that the Web represented: it presents re-centralization; bureaucratization, control. In this sense it is not just “other people’s computers” we find in our homes today: if only there were actual people associated with those nameless devices like digital energy meters in our homes. But, on the other hand, these new developments also make visible the challenges involved in transforming digital ways of living from a sub-culture into a society-wide phenomenon. We need to develop a much more precise understanding of what participatory practices and sensibilities are still being enabled by the digital and how these can be nurtured in this changing context.
What in your opinion are the key concepts and arguments making up the discourse in this field right now?
A key issue that digital sociology allows us to come to terms with is that the digital does not or no longer refer to a separate field or domain of society, it is no longer only a topic for the sociology of technology.
Only a decade ago, digital technology could still be thought of as a specialist concern – of geeks, experts, the young, the savvy, or those experimentally inclined. Today, the digital plays a fundamental role in a broad range of societal developments – from the transformation of the welfare state to the way elections are won, and how we experience “the self”. The digital today constitutes a “total social fact.” It operates across and between different social sectors and affects all aspects of society, in a way similar to how the environment is now understood by many as relevant to all domains of society.
The digital signals big transformations of society, but it may also require changes in how we understand – and investigate – social life. Issues that may seem separate from technology, like the sociology of discrimination, prove to be entangled with it. Take the issue of racism. Today, to understand racism, we also need to come to terms with search engines and social media bots with racist tendencies. Famously, a search for “unprofessional hair” in Google images returned “back mainly results of black women.” Why do these reactionary, views float to the top in search engine results? Some argued in the press that this was “reflective of our society” but that argument misses the point. Instead, what we see in these search engine returns is a particularly troubling way in which social and technological dynamics come together: platform algorithms reward content that has been most clicked and shared with visibility, which leads to the amplification of stereotypical views. Platforms let us see what has been seen the most. This is not just a purely social dynamic, but neither is it purely technological. It is both. To understand this, we need digital sociology.
What do we mean when we think of the digital public and/or publics?
Digital platforms and the associated practices that proliferate across social life, like Twitter, are transforming the ways in which scientists and intellectuals engage with publics, and communicate publically.
One the one hand, this is a humbling experience, as experts and thinkers are compelled to become users of digital media technologies like everyone else. But this has all sorts of beneficial effects, such as turning the communication of knowledge into an experimental practice: how to turn the main insights from a research article into a tweet? By making a drawing?
At the same time, in the participatory cultures that have emerged online, there are many risks, such as the strengthening of stereotypes flagged above. We know about the way women especially are targeted by online trolls, but there is also a more subtle, insidious dynamic in which stereotypical roles and positions, the “amateur”, the “expert”, are reinforced online. The role of “authoritative commentator” can seem to be filled more easily by some people rather than others: those who don’t question themselves, who give answers rather than formulate new problems.
Fortunately, digital culture is developing solutions to this. Social media also opens up creative ways of engaging publically, for example by adopting the mantel of a ‘collective’ or assembly of voices, rather than an “individual influencer”, and this experimentation with occupying different subject positions is important. This is one of the reasons I enjoy being an editor of Sociological Review, which has a lively blog and twitter account, to which different colleagues contribute, often anonymously.
Historically, one of the strengths of digital culture has precisely been to confound stereotypes, among others by allowing for anonymity and play in online interaction. Today it becomes all important to preserve and advocate this form of digital publicity, as it is under threat in a culture rightfully concerned with security and the problem of extremism.
Finally, how did you decide how to focus and structure your book around these themes?
The book grew out developing and teaching Masters courses on Digital Sociology, at Goldsmiths, University of London, where I developed and convened the first programme in the world on the topic (2011-2017). Now there are several MA courses with this title, in France, the US and here in the UK.
This initial MA programme in digital sociology was a collaboration between sociology and computing, and I now teach the course with this title in the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies at the University of Warwick. I believe digital sociology is an inherently interdisciplinary undertaking, combining elements from computing, social research, design and media, and communication studies. Of course, one of the attractions of sociology is that as a form of inquiry it has always combined elements from and with different disciplines like philosophy and gender studies, and I argue this is a strength for digital sociology. I think sociology is today in a very good position to make prominent contributions to interdisciplinary research, as sociological dynamics are proving once again fundamental in technical, economic, political and cultural domains.