July 2012 on ‘This Sociological Life’

Part of this month was devoted to writing my three-part series on digital sociology. The first two of these posts: ‘Digital sociology 1: what is it?’ and ‘Digital sociology 2: professional digital practice‘ were republished on the LSE Impact of the Social Sciences blog. I have been working on collecting these posts, along with some other writings on using social media in academia, into a document that I will publish electronically next month, entitled Digital Sociology: An Introduction (watch this space for news on when the document will become available).

I also published two Storify presentations this month. One looked at the homage to British medicine and the NHS in the Olympics Opening Ceremony (including reactions on social media) (it can be viewed here). The other Storify presentation summarised the proceedings of a forum on the Social Determinants of Health that I helped to organise at the University of Sydney (see it here).

My piece on disgust in anti-obesity campaigns appeared in The Conversation. I am continuing to write about how disgust is used in public health campaigns for a journal article. I have been collecting examples of public health campaign materials on a Pinterest board as part of this research: the collection can be seen here.

This month I also finally completed the second revised edition of my book Risk (first published by Routledge in 1999) and sent it off to the publishers. One of my blog posts this month drew on one of the aspects I cover in the book: risk, concepts of space and place and the Other.

My article ‘M-health and health promotion: the digital cyborg and surveillance society’ was published in Social Theory & Health this month (see here for details).

Digital sociology part 3: digital research

In my previous two posts (‘Digital sociology part 1: what is it’ and ‘Digital sociology part 2: professional digital practice’) I presented an overview of the four practices of digital sociology and looked in more detail at professional digital use. This final post in this series on digital sociology looks at the various approaches to researching digital technologies from a sociological perspective.

Analysing digital data

Titles such as ‘digital social research’ or ‘digital social science’ tend to be used to refer to conducting ‘e-research’ using digitalised data sets that may be shared collaboratively using digital platforms. The focus, therefore, is on the collection and use of data and the tools to analyse these data rather than on the ways in which users of digital technologies are engaging with these tools and devices as part of their everyday lives: see, for example, the Oxford e-Social Science Project.

This approach is interested in the most efficient use of tools to store and analyse digital data and the ways of dealing with the constant churn of information on the web as well as the ethical issues around using such data such as copyright, privacy and data protection concerns. Research also includes investigation into how researchers engage with web archives as research tools and the reasons why they may choose not to do so.  ‘Naturally’ or incidentally generated data that are already collected by various web platforms (for example Facebook and Twitter posts, search engines, SMS messages and even GPS data) are used for analysis. Researchers may also elicit data for their own concerns, including using web-based surveys. This approach to digital data analysis is also interested in ways of recording and analysing data for qualitative analysis, including images, videos and audio data.

The terms ‘webometrics’ or ‘cybermetrics’ have been used to describe quantitative social research using digital data sets drawn from network websites and social media sites. While these approaches seem quite widely used in such fields as information science and technology, thus far they seem little used by sociologists.

Research into how people use digital and social media

As I commented in my previous post, people are now using digital and social media platforms and devices across the life span, from infancy to old age. Many of the consumers of media have also become content producers through the use of social media such as micro-blogging and blogging platforms and sharing tools such as YouTube and Flickr.

Since the advent of the internet,many sociologists and other researchers have used data from online communities to research many varied social issues, from the use of health-related websites for patient support and information sharing to the ways in which people with anorexia support each other in their ‘thinspiration’ quest, how people of ethnic minority groups represent themselves online, the articulation and organisation of online activism, self-presentation, self-identity and patterns of sociability on social networking sites such as Facebook and how ‘mummy bloggers’ share their experiences with other mothers on the web, to name but a few topics. Another topic of research has featured how people interact with their technologies: how they deal with the plethora of information streaming forth from the internet, what they use their digital devices for, how these devices are employed at home and in the workplace and so on. Children and young people’s use of digital technologies has come under quite a deal of scrutiny as well in a social context in which there is continuing concern about their ‘addiction’ to these technologies, their access to online pornography, cyberbullying or online sexual predation.

This kind of digital sociological research has clear overlaps with research in digital anthropology, digital cultures and cultural geographies of digital technologies, much of which is also directed at exploring the ways in which people interact with and use digital media using both qualitative methodologies (such as interviews, focus groups and ethnographic research) and quantitative approaches such as surveys and content analysis of digital material.

Critical digital sociology

A further topic of digital sociology research is that which directs critical attention at the ways in which sociologists and other academics themselves use digital media. This is a reflexive approach that draws on contemporary social and cultural theory to analyse and interrogate the kinds of subject positions or assemblages that are configured via digital technology use as part of professional practice. While such a critical approach does not preclude professional digital use, it opens up a space for reflection upon the implications and unintended consequences of such practices.

Burrows (2012), for example, has written on the ways in which metrics such as the’ h-index’ and ‘impact factor’ constructed via digital citation indices contributes to ‘a complex data assemblage that confronts the individual academic’ (p. 359). These metrics have become integral to the ways in which academics, academic units and universities receive funding and are ranked against others, and in the case of individual academics, to their prospects for employment and promotion. Uprichard (2012) has commented critically on the call for sociologists to use digital data in their research, focusing in particular on data-mining of the transactional data that is produced through live-stream interactions on the web such as Twitter and Facebook posts and updates. She argues that approaches to such data are often ahistorical and thus lack the richness of context. Further, they tend to be preoccupied with questions of method over sociologically imaginative ways of analysing the digital data that are collected. Other sociologists have addressed the ethical issues of using data from online communities and forums for research, including consideration of such questions as whether or not such communities constitute public or private space or whether researchers should make themselves known to communities when studying their interactions.

Very few sociologists (or other academics) have published critiques like these thus far. However the role played by digital technologies in the academic workplace looks to increase in importance as universities are moving (very quickly in some cases, more slowly in others) towards more extensive incorporation of online teaching as part of their credentialed courses. As an academic discipline sociology has traditionally played an important role in identifying and commenting upon the social and economic inequities underpinning the workplace and other social spheres. In this spirit, as digital technologies increasingly become part of the academic world, continuing critical and reflexive examination of these technologies and their implications for academic practice and selfhood should be an integral dimension of digital sociological research.


Burrows, R. (2012) Living with the h-index? Metric assemblages in the contemporary academy. The Sociological Review, 60(2), 355—72.

Uprichard, E. (2012) Being stuck in (live) time: the sticky sociological imagination. In Back. L. and Puwar, N. (eds) Live Research Methods (Sociological Review Monograph), in press. Preprint copy available here.

Digital sociology part 2: professional digital practice

In my previous post (‘Digital sociology part 1: what is it?’) I explained the concept of digital sociology and presented four aspects I considered integral to this sub-discipline: professional digital practice, sociological analyses of digital use, digital data analysis and critical digital sociology. In this post I focus on professional digital practice, or using digital media tools for professional purposes: to build networks, facilitate public engagement, receive feedback, establish an e-profile, curate and share content and instruct students.

It is clear that a revolution in how tertiary education is offered is on its way, as demonstrated by the recent decision of elite universities such as Princeton and Stanford to invest significant sums of money in massive open online courses which at the moment are provided free of charge to anyone who wishes to enrol (including, I note, an ‘Introduction to Sociology’ subject). The move towards open access and e-publishing of scholarly work also seems inevitable. Furthermore, creating en ‘e-profile’ is becoming an important part of academic work. Judicious use of social media allows you to exercise better control and manage the content of your online persona in a context in which search engines are constantly collating information about you.

For all these reasons, an understanding of how to present knowledge and promote learning in digital formats will soon become a vital part of academic practice. Here’s some specific ways in which academics can use some of the digital tools now available:

Building networks

Using platforms such as Twitter and Facebook can be a highly efficient way of connecting with other academics working in a similar area as well as interested people from outside academia. These platforms allow participants to join networks arranged around topic or discipline areas and to contribute in discussions and sharing information within these networks.

Facilitating public engagement

Blogging sites such as WordPress and micro-blogging platforms such as Twitter can be used as easily accessible forums in which academics can communicate their ideas in short form. Unlike traditional journal articles that are locked behind paywalls, these platforms are free to access and material can be instantly published, allowing academics to share some of their research findings quickly. They therefore allow academics to promote their research and share it with a far greater audience than they would usually find in the traditional forums for publication. Links can be provided to journal articles so that longer academic pieces can be followed up by readers.

Receiving feedback

Blogs and micro-blogging platforms also allow interested readers to comment and engage with authors, thus facilitating public engagement. You can ask a question in a blog or Twitter post and receive responses, or readers may simply chose to use the comments box to make remarks on something you have published. Quora is a social media platform designed specifically to ask questions of anyone who uses it. Once you have set up an account you can publish a question or answer other people’s questions, as well as follow others’ questions to see what the responses are. You can also follow topics or people.

Establishing an e-profile

Sites such as Academia.edu and LinkedIn as well as your university profile webpage are ways of providing information about yourself. In Academia.edu, designed specifically for academics, you can list and upload your articles, conference papers and books and you can follow other individuals and topic areas and be followed in turn.

Curation and sharing of content

Curation and sharing platforms such as Delicious, Slideshare, Pinterest, Scoop.it, Pearltrees, Bundlr, Paper.li and Storify, as well as referencing tools such as Mendeley, Citeulike and Zotero, allow academics to easily gather and present information and, importantly, to then make the information public and share it with others online. On SlideShare you can share your Powerpoint presentations and the referencing tools allow you to gather lists of references on specific topics and then share these with others. Several of these tools, including Pinterest, Bundlr and Storify, allow you to insert your own comments or analysis on the material you have gathered.


The platforms listed above can also be used as teaching tools, providing new ways of engaging students both through classroom teaching and in student assignments, where students can use the tools themselves to collect, curate and present information. Students in any area of study need to be trained in using social media and other digital technologies as part of preparing them for their future careers, as these technologies are increasingly becoming part of the working world.

Some examples of using digital and social media in sociology

This blog post itself is an example of professional digital practice in action. It is an edited version of a longer Storify presentation, and I was first inspired to write on this topic by an exchange I had on Twitter (for the Storify presentation, which contains additional information on digital sociology including weblinks to relevant courses, books, articles and blog posts, go here.

Digital media are being increasingly used as part of academic conferences. For example, academics often tweet about the content of the presentations they attend, providing a ‘back-channel’ of communication that can be shared with both those participating and those who cannot attend. These tweets can then be presented and preserved in Storify as a record of the conference to which anyone can have access.

I have previously written in detail about how Pinterest can be used for sociological research (see my previous post on ‘How sociologists and other social scientists can use Pinterest’). As I commented in this post, this curation platform is a wonderful way of collecting images related to one’s research interests. It also offers various possibilities for teaching, allowing students to curate and comment on their own image collections.

Paper.li provides a platform to create online newsletters by collating material downloaded from other sites. It can be used by academics to collect recent blog posts, the abstracts from newly published journal articles or online news articles relevant to a specific topic which they then share with their social networks on a daily or weekly basis.

Sociologists may also like to think about making their own apps for teaching purposes. It is possible to access app maker wizards online that are easy to use and inexpensive. See here for my account of how I made my own app explaining key concepts in medical sociology.

Further Resources

The LSE Impact of the Social Sciences blog provides invaluable content for academics interested in using digital media. It also has a handbook on maximising the impact of one’s research (including via digital means) and a guide to using Twitter for academic purposes, both of which can be downloaded free

See also the University of Warwick’s research page for links to useful articles about creating an academic e-profile.

See my Delicious stack ‘Social Media and Academia’ for an extensive collection of articles and blog posts  and Mark Carrigan’s Bundlr collection on ‘Academia 2.0’ . Also see #mlearning and #digsoc on Twitter for tweets on this topic.

My next post ‘Digital sociology part 3: digital research’ will provide an overview of how sociologists can use digital data and research the ways in which digital and social media are used in everyday life.

Digital sociology part 1: what is it?

English: A tag cloud (a typical Web 2.0 phenom...

English: A tag cloud (a typical Web 2.0 phenomenon in itself) presenting Web 2.0 themes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is digital sociology? Why is the term not commonly used, when the terms’ digital anthropology’, ‘digital cultures’ and ‘digital humanities’ have been employed for some years? I have not yet come across any book that uses ‘digital sociology’ in its title (there are, of course, several books that focus on various aspects of the digital world from a sociological perspective without using this term). The only course I have discovered thus far which uses the term ‘digital sociology’ to describe itself is a MA/Msc in Digital Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. The term ‘digital social sciences’ tends to be used quite narrowly to refer to the use of quantitative methods (‘webometrics’) to analyse digital data.

Although ‘digital sociology’ does not yet seem to be in regular use, sociologists have engaged in research related to the internet since its inception. They have addressed many varied social issues relating to online communities, cyberspace and cyber-identities. Such research has attracted many different names, dispersed across multiple interests, whether it is entitled ‘cybersociology’, ‘the sociology of the internet’, ‘the sociology of online communities’, ‘the sociology of social media’, ‘the sociology of cyberculture’ or something else again. While the term ‘cyber’ was in vogue in the 1990s and early 2000s, reference to the ‘cyber’ seems to have been largely replaced by the ‘digital’ now that the internet has become more pervasive, moving from desktops to devices that can be worn on the body and transported to many locations, allowing the user to be constantly connected to the net. Digital sociology’ encapsulates the concerns previously addressed by ‘cybersociology’ and extends into this new era of mobile digital computer use. It is a neat descriptive term that also references other disciplines and their use of the term ‘digital’.

Despite the body of literature referred to above, it has been argued that in general sociologists have been slow to take up research involving social media and to personally engage in using social media for professional practice, such as blogging and Twitter (Daniels and Feagin, 2011; see also my earlier post ‘Where are all the sociology blogs?’). The sociology of digital technologies/digital sociology or whatever term is adopted must surely begin to expand as a sub-discipline in sociology, given the increasing prevalence of digital technologies. They are becoming an increasingly integral part of everyday life for many people in the developed world across the lifespan. Preschools and child care centres are now starting to advertise that they offer tablet computers as part of their facilities. At the other end of the lifespan, Wiis are used to support mobility for the residents of aged care facilities and social media devices are being introduced to older people to encourage them to engage in social connection from home. Digital sociology can offer a means by which the impact, development and use of these technologies and their impact upon and incorporation into social worlds and concepts of selfhood may be investigated, analysed and understood.

It seems to me that given the ways in which digital technologies have infiltrated everyday life and have become such an important dimension of how people gather information and connect socially with others the digital world should now be a central feature of sociological study and research. Not only should sociologists learn to use digital media for professional purposes, they should also be undertaking research that is able to explore the impact of these media in everyday life from a critical and reflexive perspective. Some sociologists have begun to do this: for examples see Gehl (2011) on the representation and management of the professional self online and Burrows (2012) on how metrics are having an impact upon academic practice and selfhood.

To summarise, here are the main activities in which digital sociologists can engage:

  •  Professional digital practice : using digital media tools for professional purposes: to build networks, construct an e-profile, publicise and share research and instruct students.
  • Sociological analyses of digital use : researching the ways in which people’s use of digital media configures their sense of selves, their embodiment and their social relations.
  • Digital data analysis : using digital data for social research, either quantitative or qualitative.
  • Critical digital sociology : undertaking reflexive and critical analysis of digital media informed by social and cultural theory.

This blog post is an edited version of my Storify presentation ‘Digital Sociology’, which includes much more detail and many weblinks to relevant courses, books, articles and blog posts as well as a list of further resources (it can be viewed here).


Burrows, R. (2012) Living with the h-index? Metric assemblages in the contemporary academy. The Sociological Review, 60(2), 355—72.

Daniels, J. and Feagin, J. (2011) The (coming) social media revolution in the academy. Fast Capitalism, 8(2), available here.

Gehl, R. (2011) Ladders, samurai and blue collars: personal branding in Web 2.0. First Monday, 16(9), available here.

My next blog post will continue on this topic, discussing professional digital practice in more detail.

Risk, concepts of space and place and the Other

"Notice! Closed Circuit Television" ...

“Notice! Closed Circuit Television” Sign (Rockville, MD) (Photo credit: takomabibelot)

Fears about risk tend to be projected onto certain social groups: those that are defined as the dangerous ‘risky’ Other, requiring control and intervention. As Mary Douglas’ (1969) writings have shown, the Other — that which is conceptualized as radically different from Self — is the subject of anxiety and concern, particularly if it threatens to blur boundaries, to overtake the Self. These anxieties and fears tend to emerge from and cohere around the body, which itself is a highly potent symbolic object.

Knowledge and meaning, as cultural geographers emphasise, are inevitably spatially as well as socially, politically and historically situated. Spatial metaphors and binary oppositions are central to notions of Self and Other. When we refer to the boundaries of the body/society, to the distinction between inside and outside, to the marginalised or excluded, we are relying on spatial metaphors and binary oppositions. Notions of space themselves are cultural objects, constructed through social, political and historical processes. But the importance of space and place in relation to concepts of riskiness lies not simply in their value as metaphor, but in their materiality. The members of ‘risky’ marginalised groups are viewed by the dominant group as polluting public spaces, and they shrink from contact, physical or otherwise, with them. Strategies of exclusion directed at ‘risky’ individuals or subgroups are often explicitly concerned with maintaining bodies within certain geographical limits.

In western societies there are many strategies directed at policing public spaces and attempting to remove members of threatening marginalised groups from areas designated as appropriate only for the privileged. The figure of the criminal is frequently positioned as risky and requiring exclusion from others. As part of the strategy of dealing with the risk and uncertainty of crime, people develop a ‘mental map’ of places, defining some as likely to be ‘safe’ and others as ‘risky’. This ‘mental map’ does not simply rely on geographical aspects of a space or place, but also draws on ideas and assumptions about social relations and the kinds of people who inhabit or pass through these spaces and places at specific times of day and night. Fear of crime tends to be located within public rather than private space, as the criminal is considered to be an ‘unpredictable stranger’ rather than someone known to oneself, and thus as inhabiting public space rather than being encountered in one’s home (Lupton 1999).

Members of such social groups as young working-class men, the unemployed and injecting drug users are typically nominated as potential criminals because of their assumed simmering resentments against society and lack of capacity for self-control. Those spaces in which they move about — the inner city, the shopping mall, the housing estate — are considered ‘dangerous’ in terms of the risk of crime and therefore as requiring increased surveillance, police presence and caution on the part of those who transverse them.

Since the early 1990s surveillance technologies such as closed circuit television (CCTV) and biometric identity documents for use in traversing national borders have increasingly been deployed in the attempt to monitor and protect public spaces, particularly those deemed ‘risky spaces’ because of those individuals who move through them. Such technologies involve not only social monitoring but also social exclusion of individuals considered to be undesirable, posing a threat in some way. These people tend to belong to defined social groups: young people (particularly young men), homeless people, street traders and black men. In the wake of September 11, men of a Middle-Eastern appearance have also been singled out for special surveillance, particularly in airports and in border surveillance. It has been argued that such measures are a way of dealing with the fear, anxiety, panic and trauma that events such as September 11 and July 7 have incited. National border security controls are a means of providing a figurative as well as literal barrier between the threatening Others and Us at a time at which terrorist attacks have rent open notions of containment between inside and outside. These measures are never able to fully control the unexpected or guarantee improved security, but they function at an unconscious level to help reassert feelings of safety and security (Salter and Mutlu 2011).

Strategies of exclusion exerted on the part of the most powerful in a society in their attempts to avoid risk often serve to incite fear and anxiety in those they seek to exclude or intimidate. The bodies of white, heterosexual, bourgeois men tend to claim public space as a right, and frequently seek to dominate and exclude others through exerting an aggressive gaze or through violence. Other bodies must fight to establish their place in this space. Feminists have written about the ways in which women, as one of the Other categories of bodies within public spaces, are positioned as vulnerable to confrontation or attack and therefore tend to lack the self-possession of privileged men in the same space. Moving in public space, for women, is constantly problematic, making them feel uneasy or anxious, exposed to the gaze, evaluation and imminent threat of (masculine) others (Whitzman 2007).

Strategies of spatial exclusion, therefore, are typically employed by members of dominant social groups to exert control over marginalised groups for which they hold hostility, contempt or fear of contamination. Such groups may be constructed as posing a risk to the dominant group through behaviour that is deemed to be too ‘different’ or potentially polluting and therefore confronting. The spaces these groups occupy are commonly singled out as dangerous and contaminating to the dominant groups. Alternatively, marginalised groups may be constructed as being vulnerable and ‘at risk’ from the greater power of the dominant group. For marginalised groups, constructed by dominant groups as the Other, requiring regulation or exclusion or both, this domination of space leads in turn to feelings of enhanced fear and anxiety, of being ‘at risk’ of intimidation, violence or coercion.

This is an edited excerpt from the second revised edition of my book ‘Risk’ (Routledge, in press).


Douglas, M. (1969) Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Lupton, D. (1999) Dangerous places and the unpredictable stranger: constructions of fear of crime. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 32(1), 1–15.

Salter, M. and Mutlu, C. (2011) Psychoanalytic theory and border control. European Journal of Social Theory, 15(2), 179—95.

Whitzman, C. (2007) Stuck at the front door: gender, fear of crime and the challenge of creating safer space. Environment and Planning A, 39(11), 2715—32.

June 2012 highlights on ‘This Sociological Life’

Last month was the first full month in the life of this blog, and it was a busy one. One of the most popular posts of the month looked at the debate provoked by the obesity sceptics who challenge the orthodox medical view that (non-extreme) obesity is detrimental to health. Many interesting opinions were posted in response to the post, including clinicians and health promotion academics working in obesity treatment and prevention and activists advocating for the Health at Every Size Approach, as well as my own comments providing details about other work in this area and in fat studies. There were quite a few relevant sources cited to back up commentators’ arguments, so these comments would be a good place to look for those interested in the debate between anti-obesity exponents and obesity sceptics.

Other posts published last month looked at topics such as how women engage in voluntary risk-taking (‘edgework’) and how this differs from men’s edgework; pregnancy and loss of control of the body/self; the concept of the ‘good mother’ in relation to the ‘fat child’; the Australian government’s controversial introduction of a mental health check for three-year-old children; the new mobile device technologies and how they are being used for health promotion; and the concepts of the ‘milkmother’ and the ‘Yummy Mummy’ in contemporary understandings and experiences of motherhood.

Another popular post in June looked at how sociologists and other social scientists can use the social media platform Pinterest as part of their research and teaching. This post was republished on the LSE Impact of the Social Sciences website. I noted in the post that I have made my own Pinterest boards on my current research interests. They include ‘Medicine as Culture’, ‘Fat Culture’, ‘The Sociology of Infancy’, ‘The Sociology of the Preborn’, ‘M-health and the Digital Cyborg’ and ‘Public Health Campaigns’ (you can view the boards here). I was also interviewed for The Australian newspaper’s Higher Education section about using Pinterest in academic work.

In June I also wrote a guest blog for ‘Croakey’, the health section of the ‘Crikey’ discussion website on making an app as an experiment to see how easy being an ‘app developer’ is (). To view or download the app itself (which explains over 25 key concepts in medical sociology) go here. I continue to be fascinated by the capabilities of social media for academic work and have been busy experimenting with Twitter (@DALupton), Delicious and Storify.

Meanwhile, in other academic writing my article ‘”Precious cargo”: foetal subjects, risk and reproductive citizenship’ was published in Critical Public Health. Last month I continued work on the revisions for the second edition my book Risk, originally published by Routledge in 1999, and plan to submit the final manuscript to the publishers at the end of July. I am bringing the book up to date by including, among many other issues, discussions of Ulrich Beck’s and Anthony Giddens’ latest writings on risk and new governmentality approaches on ‘prudential risk’ in the context of the catastrophic events that have occurred since the turn of this century and which have resulted in different ways of understanding and dealing with risk.