An excerpt from my forthcoming book Digital Sociology (Routledge) …
Digital sociology can contribute to the revitalising of ‘dead sociology’ in many important ways. Digital technologies as methodological devices and as subjects for research provide exciting, creative and innovative new ways of conducting sociological research. They offer an opportunity to enliven sociology and other social research, by contributing new forms of data and ways of including research participants as co-collaborators in research projects. Sociologists offer many important perspectives on digital social research. Not only are they able to investigate people’s digital technology use from both broad and in-depth perspectives, they are able to position this use within the social, cultural and political context in which it takes place. They are able to interrogate their own position as researchers and to query the nature of research methods from a critical perspective. All of these perspectives contribute to a potential rich and vital sociology in which practitioners reflect upon their own positioning as researchers and site their approaches within a theoretical perspective that acknowledges the ways in which social research practices both document and create social lives.
Adopting a critical reflexive sociological perspective on sociologists as digital media researchers, one could ask the following questions. What are sociologists doing when they seek to analyse digital media? To what extent are they simply taking up digital media analysis tools to harvest data and to what extent are they challenging these tools’ usefulness or even focusing attention on the tools (and digital platforms and digital data) themselves as objects of research? There are different layers of analysis that can be engaged in by sociologists, each of which adopt a somewhat different perspective on the epistemologies and ontologies of digital devices, software and data. We can use computer functions and open source tools such as Google Ngram, Google Trends, Google Search and autocomplete simply as search tools, as any digital users do, but we can also position them as research tools, ways of exploring and revealing social and cultural conventions, norms and discourses. At the same time, as reflexive digital sociologists, we need to view these tools as very blunt instruments, and acknowledge that in using them we are required to invest our faith in the validity and reliability of the data they produce. And further, as critical analysts of the digital, we can reflect on how these tools position ourselves as researchers and their implications for social research in general.
Thus, for example, when I use a tool such as Google Trends, as a sociologist I may do so in various ways. I may use the tool and accept the results it produces unproblematically. Here the data it produces is my main interest. I may be interested in investigating how the tool produces and structures the data, challenging the ‘black box’ of its inner workings and logic. The tool itself is here becoming the object of my analysis. I may want to explore the social and political implications of how Trends is part of the Google apparatus of shaping and structuring knowledge. I may want to do all of these things simultaneously. All of these are intriguing ways of investigating the digital world sociologically.