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.