The emergence of digital sociology

An excerpt from the Introduction chapter of my forthcoming book Digital Sociology (to be published by Routledge later this year).

While there certainly have been a number of sociologists who have been interested in researching computer technologies since they attracted popular use, in general sociologists have devoted less significant and sustained attention to this topic compared to their colleagues in communication and media and cultural studies. In the context of the US, Farrell and Petersen (2010), in remarking upon what they term ‘the reluctant sociologist’ in relation to internet-based research, express their surprise at this lack of interest, particularly given that sociologists have traditionally been in the forefront of adopting and testing new research methods and sources of data for social research studies. While the occasional argument has appeared in journals that American sociologists should be researching online media technologies (DiMaggio et al. 2001), it would appear that sociologists in that country tended to abandon communication and media research in general when it moved to journalism schools and an accompanying focus on the social psychology of persuasion in the middle of last century. As a consequence, although the sociology of culture has flourished in the US, for quite some time American sociologists tended to leave research into the mass media alone (Farrell and Petersen 2010, Nichols 2009, Pooley and Katz 2008).

In the UK, the interdisciplinary field of cultural studies (often conjoined with media studies) emerging in the 1970s dominated research and theorising related to the mass media, and subsequently, of computer technologies. Cultural studies scholars were particularly interested in cyberculture rather than the rather more banal term ‘information society’ or ‘sociology of information technologies’ that tended to be employed in sociology (Webster 2005). Indeed the choice of terms is telling. The ‘cyber’ focus of cultural studies emphasises the futuristic, science-fiction dimensions of computerised technologies, while terms referring to ‘information technologies’ direct attention at the grounded, factual and utilitarian use of such devices for accessing information (Webster 2005).

For a long time, when cultural studies scholars were writing about cyberculture and other aspects of media and popular culture, British sociologists remained focused on such topics as work, crime and social class. Researchers in cultural studies were more interested in the uses people made of popular culture, while sociologists of culture tended towards examining the constraints to their freedoms posed by social structures such as social class, gender and ethnicity (Webster 2005). Few connections were made between these bodies of literature. Thus, for example, the influential and wide-ranging volume The Cybercultures Reader (Bell and Kennedy 2000) was edited by Britons David Bell, a critical geographer, and Barbara Kennedy, an academic in film, media and cultural studies. While the work of a few sociologists (including myself) was included in this reader, most other contributions were from academics affiliated with communication, media and cultural studies, literary studies, critical theory or technoscience.

My own country, Australia, like the US has experienced the introduction of schools of journalism and mass media studies and a resultant withdrawal to some extent of sociologists from mass and digital media research. The British cultural studies tradition is also strong in Australia. Cultural studies in Australia as an academic discipline tends to be very separate from both media and communication studies and sociology. Each one – media and communication, sociology and cultural studies – has its own individual association and annual conferences, and there tends to be little communication between researchers associated with each discipline. Media studies and communication studies in Australia have oriented themselves towards the US tradition, while sociology and cultural studies are more influenced by British scholarship. Here again the bulk of Australian research on digital technologies have been published by researchers located within media and communication or cultural studies departments and in journals devoted to these disciplines, rather than by sociologists.

The situation is quickly changing, however. In recent years interest in digital society finally appears to be growing in sociology, and the term ‘digital sociology’ has recently become used more frequently. The first journal article published to use the term ‘digital sociology’ of which I am aware was by an American sociologist in an American journal (Wynn 2009). In this piece Wynn outlined various ways in which digital technologies can be used both for research purposes (using digital devices to conduct ethnographic research, for example) and in teaching.

Digital sociology as a term and an endeavour is most commonly found in the British context. At the end of 2012 the British Sociological Association approved a new study group in digital sociology which held its first event in July 2013. Goldsmiths, University of London, offers the first masters degree in digital sociology. The first book with this title was published in 2013 (Orton-Johnson and Prior 2013), a collection edited by two British sociologists featuring contributions predominantly from other sociologists located in the UK and continental Europe While digital sociology is still not a term that is used to any obvious extent by American sociologists, the American Sociological Association now has a thriving section entitled ‘Communication and Information Technologies’ that incorporates research on all things digital. In Australia as well digital sociology has not been used very commonly until very recently. A breakthrough was achieved when two sessions under the title digital sociology were held for the first time at The Australian Sociological Association’s annual conference in November 2013.

… What is notable about digital sociology as it has recently emerged as a sub-discipline, particularly in the UK, is not only the focus on the new technologies that have developed since the turn of the 21st century, but also the development of a distinctive theoretical and methodological approach that incorporates this reflexive critique. Digital sociology is not only about sociologists researching and theorising about how other people use digital technologies or focusing on the digital data produced via this use. Digital sociology has much broader implications than simply studying digital technologies, raising questions about the practice of sociology and social research itself. It also includes research on how sociologists themselves are using social and other digital media as part of their work. The same types of concerns and theoretical approaches tend to be shared by sociologists writing on digital media and others commenting on related issues such as the future of sociology as a discipline, which types of research methods should be employed and how they should be conceptualised, the ways in which issues of measure and value have become prominent in contemporary societies, the emergence of a knowledge economy and the new political formations and relations of power that are evident. While not all of these scholars may categorise themselves as specifically digital sociologists, their work has contributed significantly to the distinctive direction of the sub-discipline as it has recently emerged.

References

Bell, D. and Kennedy, B., eds. (2000) The Cybercultures Reader. London: Routledge.

DiMaggio, P., Hargittai, E., Neuman, W.R. and Robinson, J. (2001) Social implications of the internet. Annual Review of Sociology, 27 (1), 307-336.

Farrell, D. and Petersen, J.C. (2010) The growth of internet research methods and the reluctant sociologist. Sociological Inquiry, 80 (1), 114-125.

Nichols, L. (2009) Toward a renewed sociology of mass media and popular culture. The American Sociologist, 40 147-148.

Orton-Johnson, K. and Prior, N., eds. (2013) Digital Sociology: Critical Perspectives. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pooley, J. and Katz, E. (2008) Further notes on why American sociology abandoned mass communication research. Journal of Communication, 58 (4), 767-786.

Webster, F. (2005) Making sense of the information age. Information, Communication & Society, 8 (4), 439-458.

Wynn, J. (2009) Digital sociology: emergent technologies in the field and the classroom. Sociological Forum, 24 (2), 448-456.

 

7 thoughts on “The emergence of digital sociology

  1. In my program, I’ve encountered a wide range of reactions to my dissertation topic, which utilizes blogs and blog comments as my source material. It’s good to know that the term “digital sociology” even exists. I’ve considered transferring to a Media Psychology program because of the number of blank stares I’ve gotten when describing my research 🙂

  2. Reblogged this on Tracey Yeadon-Lee and commented:
    I can’t wait for this book to come out. Deborah Lupton is doing some really interesting stuff in the area of digital sociology which is opening doors for some new and exciting areas of research. Her work is definitely speaking to my current desire to break out of traditional methods, approaches and expectations – and do something different.

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