Noortje Marres has posted an interesting piece on the question ‘What is digital sociology?’ at the CSISP blog. Noortje draws in her experiences of running the MA in digital sociology and also on the various cutting-edge bits of research she has done using digital data. Noortje raises some concerns about the potential for digital sociology to create a them and us type split. With digital sociology being seen as a kind of technical specialism that divides those who wish to be involved from those who see it as a narrow specialism. This seems like a reasonable concern. What is described as digital sociology is often an attempt to think creatively about new forms of social data and what they might reveal. This should be of interest to anyone who has an interest in social research. But I suppose it is also important that those with an interest in digital sociology don’t get too bogged down in the technical aspects of what they are doing and they then miss the opportunity to speak to these mainstream concerns and audiences. So Noortje’s piece raises some important issues about how we should approach digital sociology. I absolutely agree with with Noortje, that digital sociology should be an attempt to re-imagine how we might do sociology rather than an opportunity to retreat into data-centrism. Digital sociology, if done well, can allow us to follow and understand broader social changes and it can also assist in developing genuinely interdisciplinary dialogue. I’d really recommend reading Noortje’s overview of the issues to anyone who is interested in the possibilities of new types of research.
Noortje’s observations and suggestions provide me with an opportunity to reflect on my postgrad module ‘Digital by-product data and the social sciences’. This is a new module that I’ve now been teaching for three weeks (with 5 sessions left to go). The module mixes together students from four different masters programmes. So the module is designed for a broad audience and combines a conceptual engagement with digital data with some interactive tasks. Over the first three weeks we have looked at the potential opportunities and problems associated with digital data in the first session, then we looked at software infrastructures and data harvesting in the second session, and in the third session we looked at cultural changes in data accumulation. The first three sessions have been used as a foundation to understand why digital data accumulates, what form it takes and how it is ordered. The idea being that we need to understand the digital data themselves before we start using them. The first three sessions have been used with this in mind. Following on from the imagined promise of the data, we’ve them focused on the infrastructural and cultural transformations that afford certain forms of data accumulation. I’m hoping that this context will help to link the module to broader sociological concerns. We are now going to look at the use of the data in more detail. Next week we are going to look at the types of visualisations about the social world that populate web cultures. We are going to think about the sociological issues they visualise, the we are going to ask about how we might learn from these visual techniques and how we might critically respond to the vision of the social world that they offer. I’m really hoping to make this a module that is not about a technical specialism but which directly intervenes in mainstream interests and debates about the future of the social sciences.