Digital sociology, public sociology, private sociology

Today the British Sociological Association’s Digital Sociology study group is holding its first event in London. Sadly I won’t be able to attend, living as I do on the other side of the world. However I will be following proceedings with interest, via Twitter and any blog posts that may result from the event.

The meeting will discuss the topic of ‘What is digital sociology?’ I have recently contributed to this debate in various forums: on this blog, in a collection of writings based on the blog that I put together and self-archived, in a preprint of a book chapter (available here) and in a Wikipedia entry that I wrote on digital sociology. I am developing these nascent ideas further in an introductory book on digital sociology that will be published by Routledge.

One aspect of digital sociology about which I am currently writing is the challenges for sociologists of the new digital technologies. In the chapter referred to above I have started to discuss these issues, and will do so in expanded form in the new book.

Several interesting articles have been published in recent years by sociologists about the implications for sociology itself of the affordances of digital media. Digital media technologies and data are social artefacts and thus are obvious sources of research for sociologists. Not only that, they allow sociologists to engage in public sociology – communicating their ideas to public audiences outside the academy — more easily than ever before, through the use of open-access forums and social media.

But digital media also contribute to what I am calling for the moment ‘private sociology’, or the professional personae and lived working lives of the academics themselves who use them. As sociologists such as Roger Burrows, Mike Savage and Dave Beer have pointed out, such platforms as digital citation indices has resulted in sociologists’ (and other academics’) professional worth and accomplishments becoming ever more metricised and scrutinised. Those academics who fail to engage in public sociology via digital media may find themselves disadvantaged in their private sociology lives. Yet many academics feel confronted by what they perceive as the technical challenges of learning to use digital media for academic purposes or the time commitments involved to blog or tweet or follow others’ blogs or tweets (an issue that constantly is raised whenever I present workshops on social media for academics).

Those sociologists who do take up the gauntlet and actively use social and other digital media may find themselves confronted with ‘the politics of circulation’ (Beer’s phrase), or the re-use and transformation of their intellectual property via social media in ways to which they are not accustomed. Here again there may be implications for their ‘private sociology’ lives: how sociologists perceive their work and what they think about its use by others in non-academic forums.

Sociologists’ and other academics’ working lives are also being challenged by the introduction of massive online open access courses (MOOCs) and by the open access movement, provoking universities and scholars to rethink teaching, learning and publication traditions.

More broadly there is a much bigger question of how sociology as a discipline might be transformed by digital technologies and data. Burrows and Savage have contended that in the face of the digital data industry that has developed to harvest and analyse these data, sociologists may find themselves sidelined as pre-eminent empirical social researchers. Another issue is to what extent sociologists are able to make use of digital data and analyse the ever-changing platforms and devices of Web 2.0 and the emergent Web 3.0? Susan Halford and Mike Savage have pointed out sociologists may need to become more technically proficient or alternatively collaborate with computer scientists to fully understand new digital media.

There is much here to discuss, and I look forward to the proceedings of the BSA Digital Sociology group meeting. 

8 thoughts on “Digital sociology, public sociology, private sociology

  1. Pingback: The True Value of a College Major (Not) | Hey Sweetheart, Get Me Rewrite!

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  5. Pingback: Academics online: what are the risks? | This Sociological Life

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