Undisciplined thoughts on ‘digital sociology’

Attending the BSA Digital Sociology study group event this week left me inspired to blog more. And what more appropriate topic to start with than to write through some of the thoughts and questions the event raised for me?

As the inaugural event for this group, the question for the day – ‘What is digital sociology?’ – was deliberately open-ended. But several of the speakers appeared to converge around the understanding that ‘digital sociology’ is an umbrella term encompassing 1) ‘the digital’ as an object of research, 2) digital research methods, and 3) the ways sociologists engage with digital tools and platforms to disseminate and communicate their research. What was also emphasised is the fact that ‘digital sociology’ cannot be seen as some fringe activity – whether sociologists like it or not, society is already (unevenly!) digitized, and in Noortje Marres’ words “digitization affects the relations between social life and its analysis”.

In other words, digitization cannot be ignored if we actually want to understand contemporary society. And as Les Back pointed out (sharing a recent ‘aha’ moment), the answer to the question ‘what is digital sociology?’ is actually very simple: ‘It’s sociology, stupid!’ To do sociological research in our day and age means doing sociology, in his words, “with/through digital culture”.

I have been following recent discussions about digital sociology, but with some hesitance about how to engage, mostly due to my ambivalent disciplinary status (i.e. I’m not really a sociologist). As someone who studied Media & Communications, then Gender Studies, straddling faculties and departments, I’ve never had a strong sense of disciplinary affiliation. Thus while I’ve been interested in the emergence of debates around digital sociology (as well as digital humanities), I’m not sure how to situate myself as an academic within those debates. Is there something about the disciplinarity of digital sociology which is important, and which means it’s not really for me? Is it relevant for me to ask instead ‘what is digital gender studies?’ Or ‘what is digital cultural studies?’ Considering both of these ‘fields’ encompass a range of (inter)disciplinary approaches, I’m not sure those questions are particularly productive. This is why I think Les Back’s ‘aha’ moment felt particularly useful, and helped me to see how I can engage with the idea of ‘the digital’ in my own research areas. Whether we’re talking about distinctly sociological research or the wider social sciences and humanities under which gender and cultural studies are located, we need to engage with the ways in which the digital now constitutes the social and the cultural – and vice versa. It’s nothing more (or less) complicated than that.

Some of my ‘usual questions’ were on my mind during the event – Where is ‘race’? Where is gender? Where is class?… (Some quite distinctly sociological questions, perhaps?) And it was good to see these questions attended to by the Celeb Youth project. The project leaders shared how their research (one aspect of which tracks Twitter conversations about celebrities) has highlighted how a cultural environment of gendered, racialised and classed inequalities converge with the anonymity and virtual environment provided by social media platforms to produce some particularly vile forms of hate speech. To me, staying with the core questions which sociology aims to tackle – about inequality and social justice – seems to be absolutely central to engaging with the digital. We need to consider the ways in which the digitization of society affect oppressive structures and relationships, how it shapes and is shaped by them.

So the way I understand it now, ‘digital sociology’ isn’t so much about doing something edgy and new – it’s a sociological engagement with how the digital mediates and constitutes social structures and relationships. At this point, in terms of my own research, I can’t say that I in any real way have engaged with the idea of the ‘the digital’. But I have some ideas of how to start – more on that another time…

For some more in-depth discussions about digital sociology, visit http://digitalsociology.org.uk/. Also, check out tweets from the #digitalsociology hashtag.


Playing with Pinterest

Pinterest makes me feel like a kid again, back when I was always cutting pictures out of magazines and assembling them for various purposes. When I heard about it, I set up an account and started playing around with random pretty pictures (another great procrastination tool!).

But coming across the LSE Review of Books Pinterest account – with pinboards on subjects like ‘Gender Studies’ and ‘Politics: Protests and Revolutions’ – started me on a new train of thought in terms of potential uses of Pinterest. As Deborah Lupton wrote on the Impact of Social Sciences blog in June, Pinterest as a visual curation platform has “the potential to be a very useful tool for sociological research and teaching (as well as for other academics in the humanities and social sciences)“.

So I started thinking about possible ways in which I could use visual curation in my research. Today, working on pulling together a thesis chapter on representations of feminism within popular media discourse, I was going back to look at lots of online articles which I have analysed from The Guardian and The Observer. And the thought occurred to me that here was something that Pinterest could potentially come in useful for. While my focus is on analysing the text of these articles (I’m looking specifically at how they represent British feminism in relation to issues of race), the images are also interesting. So I decided to create a Pinterest pinboard, more as an experiment than anything else.

So here it is. I won’t go into any analysis of the images – but would be interested to hear any thoughts on this collection, in relation to the themes of British feminism and ‘race’. Some related words in my analysis: diversity, inclusive/exclusive, multiculturalism, whiteness… Seeing all these images together for the first time certainly makes me realise there’s a lot more to say!

Organising myself

In my paid job (which is not related to my PhD), I have been travelling around England delivering training over the last couple of weeks. During one of the icebreakers, we asked people to tell us one thing they were good at. I found myself saying that I was good at being organised (I know, exciting stuff!). This is true when it comes to my day job. I have to be organised there, coordinating networks of people, events, and activities. But is this the same when it comes to my PhD?

I’ve recently been working towards a more methodical and accessible way to organise my research. Most of my information and references are currently saved in a big folder on my hard drive (backed up, obviously!), divided into lots of different folders and sub-folders. To be honest, that’s worked fine mostly, as it’s easy enough to do a word search in Windows if I’ve forgotten where I’ve saved something or I want to look up what I’ve written about a particular word or phrase. However, this means I only have access to my work when I am on my own laptop, and I know that my documents are not organised in the most logical way any more (things often grow in different directions than i originally anticipate).

Recently, after listening to my friend singing its praises, I downloaded Evernote and am now collecting all my notes in there. I’m finding it pretty useful so far, and it’s great that I can save and organise my notes whichever computer I am working from (as I can access them online). Also, I like that i can tag my notes, and I think this is going to be prove much more intuitive when I am pulling content together for chapters and papers.

When it comes to referencing systems, I’ll admit that so far I have only really half-heartedly tried using them. I tried Zotero for a while, but we didn’t gel somehow (although I know there are lots of fans of Zotero out there), and so a couple of months ago I downloaded Mendeley. I’m still in the (very slow) process of adding in my references – it seems like one of those things that is never quite urgent enough to actually use my precious time to do it. Not sure I like Mendeley any better than Zotero to be honest – anyone have any tips for the easiest and quickest way to manage your references – especially if you’re already more than half way through your project?

What did recently get me very excited though, was Scrivener, which helps you draft and edit very long documents (e.g. a thesis!). I downloaded the trial version about a month ago, and loaded everything I had written into it, and started playing around with it. Suddenly the thought of actually drafting my thesis seems a less daunting task! If you haven’t tried it, I would definitely recommend it, although you do need to take some time to go through the tutorial to understand how it works. Plus, there is a cost involved once your trial is done (£25 for students).

And last but not least, it’s that exciting time of year when I get to buy a new academic diary! My friend said I was the only person she knew who still used a paper diary, but really, I can’t live without it (and anyway, I know lots of people that have them!). Of course I have an Outlook calendar at work, but as I don’t have a fancy phone or ipad, I need something I always have with me to be able to fit together my work, study, social and other activities into one coordinated whole. So here’s a picture of my new beautiful diary, and the (matching!) multi-colour pen I bought, which I will be using to colour-code my life for the next year.