Digital sociology and human-computer interaction research

I have been thinking for some time about some of the shared interests of digital sociology and human-computer interaction (HCI) research. In December 2014 I gave a paper at the major annual Australian HCI conference (known as ‘OzCHI’), offering a sociological perspective on self-tracking cultures. And I recently submitted a brief position paper for a workshop on everyday surveillance, to be held as part of the preeminent conference on HCI internationally (referred to as ‘CHI’), to be held in May 2016. Here is what I have to say in this position paper.

Everyday Surveillance: What Digital Sociology Can Offer

In this position paper I outline how perspectives from digital sociology can contribute to researching and theorising everyday surveillance. I contend that sociologists and human-computer interaction (HCI) researchers have tended to conduct their research in relatively separate spheres that would benefit from collaboration and greater use of the literatures in each discipline.

Thus far there has been little interaction between sociologists and HCI studies. Yet there is much potential for the approaches of each area of study to draw insights for each other’s work. Sociologists can learn from innovative methods presented in HCI. For their part, HCI researchers could benefit from the sociocultural theory developed in sociology to provide greater depth to their investigations. While they engage in approaches to researching user experience that offer interesting new methods for sociologists, their work tends to draw on psychological models of behaviour that fail to incorporate the broader social, cultural and political dimensions of everyday beliefs and practices and are often paternalistic in their approach.

Digital sociology is a subdiscipline of sociology that is beginning to blossom. This work draws on a long interest on the part of sociologists in the social, cultural and political elements of the internet, cyberspace and personal computer use. In line with the traditional interests of sociologists, those scholars who have directed attention at digital technologies have emphasised the social determinants of technology use: structuring factors such as gender, age, social class, geographical location, race and ethnicity. As such, their perspective tends to be critical, interested in identifying the power relations and tacit assumptions that underpin social relationships and institutions.Sociologists have adopted a range of social theories, including Marxist-influenced structuralist conflict theory, feminist and poststructuralist Foucauldian theory as well as Latourian actor-network theory, to generate insights into people’s use of digital technologies and the social impact of these technologies.

More specifically, in relation to everyday surveillance, HCI researchers have yet to fully engage in the ground-breaking work of sociologists who have explored the social elements of digital surveillance technologies and the ways in which these technologies are used across a range of domains and for a multitude of purposes.

Several sociologists have sought to investigate how people within specific social groups engage in voluntary and participatory surveillance, typically using ethnographic, focus group or interview-based research to do so. Some survey-based research has sought to identify people’s attitudes to the ways in which their personal data are used by third parties and the accompanying data security and privacy issues, as well as the influence on attitudes of membership of social groups.

An important sociological literature has developed that takes a critical approach to covert or disciplinary surveillance and the spread of such monitoring into many nooks and crannies of everyday life, often without people’s knowledge or consent. Analysis of the social implications of algorithmic sorting on people’s life chances and opportunities (sometimes referred to as ‘algorithmic authority’) has also begun to develop. This literature is part of critical data studies, a developing multidisciplinary field of research incorporating not only sociology but also anthropology, cultural studies, internet studies, media and cultural studies and cultural geography.

As a digital sociologist who has researched digital data practices and data materialisations, particularly in relation to self-tracking cultures, big data politics and understandings, digitised academia, and parenting cultures, I am interested in learning more about user-experience methods in relation to surveillance technologies as they are employed in HCI, but also contributing my sociological perspective to broadening HCI’s hitherto often individualistic, instrumental and uncritical approach. I argue that bringing greater awareness and more in-depth analysis of the social into HCI research on surveillance to a greater extent would enrich the field.


12 thoughts on “Digital sociology and human-computer interaction research

  1. Deborah – much needed line of enquiry.

    However, I reckon the greatest need (and value) is in the emerging HDI (human data inferface) rather than HCI. HCI’s focus has grown out of the study of interaction with a computer systems, which traditionally also represented the physicalisation of the data, and applications the means of interaction and management.

    I think the pressing issues are less about human interaction with “computer” systems, but more about human interactions with data. Whether or not we deliberately set out to self quantify or not, we all are being ubiquitously datafied, and our data combined, shared, analysed on a massive scale. Whether we are consciously aware or not, this data is part of who we are as humans and the big questions are about how we are able to fully realise and express digital selves as an integral part of our human selves.

    As such, I think HCI only scratches at the surface.

    btw – I am a big fan of the HDI research work at Cambridge in this area (ref links below). In particular, their framing of HDI around legibility, agency and negotiability. I have found it a very useful level of abstraction in my practice. Hopefully, when I practically prove out some of my thinking over the next year or so, I get to contribute to the discussion more formally 🙂

    http://www.bigdata.cam.ac.uk/events/human-data-interaction
    http://arxiv.org/pdf/1412.6159v2.pdf

    love your work

    cheers

    James

  2. Very interesting post. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. Though I’m into HCI a wee bit I cannot yet make a connection with the sociology of the subject as highlighted. But now I’m wondering about how user interfaces via their design ,good or bad, can be complicit with the surveillance project.

    My initial thought on the subject when you hinted previously at this post was more towards the design of user interfaces and how they affect social engagements.

  3. Pingback: Digital sociology and human-computer interaction research | Urban speeches

  4. Oh, that’s good news! That’s definitely the kind of perspectives we need in the community. I’ve always struggled with the part where HCI researchers ask me to “operationalize” or “toolkit-ize” my findings from field-work or studies. I hope we’ll have a chance to meet there!

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