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.


Digital Sociology now out

Digital Sociology has now been published (click here for the Amazon link and here for the publisher’s link).

 

The publisher’s blurb is below:

Digital Sociology

We now live in a digital society. New digital technologies have had a profound influence on everyday life, social relations, government, commerce, the economy and the production and dissemination of knowledge. People’s movements in space, their purchasing habits and their online communication with others are now monitored in detail by digital technologies. We are increasingly becoming digital data subjects, whether we like it or not, and whether we choose this or not.

The sub-discipline of digital sociology provides a means by which the impact, development and use of these technologies and their incorporation into social worlds, social institutions and concepts of selfhood and embodiment may be investigated, analysed and understood. This book introduces a range of interesting social, cultural and political dimensions of digital society and discusses some of the important debates occurring in research and scholarship on these aspects. It covers the new knowledge economy and big data, reconceptualising research in the digital era, the digitisation of higher education, the diversity of digital use, digital politics and citizen digital engagement, the politics of surveillance, privacy issues, the contribution of digital devices to embodiment and concepts of selfhood and many other topics.

Digital Sociology is essential reading not only for students and academics in sociology, anthropology, media and communication, digital cultures, digital humanities, internet studies, science and technology studies, cultural geography and social computing, but for other readers interested in the social impact of digital technologies.

Chapter abstracts for my Digital Sociology book

I am pleased to announce that my latest book, Digital Sociology, has now gone into production with Routledge, and is due for publication around October this year. Here are the chapter abstracts to give some idea of the book’s contents.

1 Introduction: life is digital
In this introductory chapter I make an argument for why digital sociology is important and why sociology needs to make the study of digital technologies central to its very remit. It is argued that ubiquitous and mobile digital media have changed the ways in which social life is represented, conducted, monitored, managed and analysed. Digital technologies affect social relationships, concepts of identity and embodiment, the monitoring and organisation of people’s movements in space and the creation of and access to information and knowledge. I provide an overview of how digital sociology has developed and outline its four main aspects: professional digital use, analyses of digital technology use, digital data analysis, and critical digital sociology.

2 Theorising digital society
Chapter 2 provides a foundation for the ensuing chapters by reviewing the major theoretical perspectives that are developed in the book. The literature reviewed in the chapter is mainly drawn from sociology but also includes contributions from scholars in media and cultural studies, science and technology studies, surveillance studies, software studies and cultural geography. The perspectives that are discussed include analyses of the global information economy and new forms of power, the sociomaterial perspective on the relationship between humans and digital technologies, prosumption, neoliberalism and the sharing subject, the importance of the archive, theories of veillance (watching) that are relevant to digital society and theories concerning digitised embodiment.

3 Reconceptualising research in the digital era
Chapter 3 focuses on sociological and other social research in the digital era. The aim of the discussion is not to outline how to do digital research in detail. Rather I present an overview not only of some of the approaches that are available and their possibilities and limitations, but also of the more theoretical and critical stances that sociologists are taking to digital social research. I also devote attention to innovative ways of performing digital social research that are part of attempts to invigorate sociological research practice as a way of demonstrating the new and exciting directions in which sociology can extend in response to digital society.

4 The digitised academic
The higher education workplace has become increasingly digitised, with many teaching and learning resources and academic publications moving online and the performance of academics and universities monitored and measured using digital technologies. Some sociologists and other academics are also beginning to use social media as part of their academic work. In this chapter I examine the benefits and possibilities offered by digital technologies but also identify the limitations, drawbacks and risks that may be associated with becoming a digitised academic and the politics of digital public engagement.

5 A critical sociology of big data
Chapter 5 takes a critical sociological perspective on the big data phenomenon. The discussion emphasises that big data sets are systems of knowledge that are implicated in power relations. Big data are both the product of social and cultural processes and themselves act to configure elements of society and culture. They have their own politics, vitality and social life. Following an overview of the ways in which big data discourses and practices have achieved dominance in many social spheres, I discuss how digital data assemblages and algorithms possess power and authority, the metaphors used to describe big data and what these reveal about our anxieties and concerns about this phenomenon, big data hubris and rotted data and the ethical issues related to big data.

6 The diversity of digital technology use
Chapter 6 reviews research that has studied the use of digital technologies in different areas of the globe and how socioeconomic, cultural and political factors shape, promote or delimit the use of these technologies. I move from a discussion of the findings of large-scale surveys involving large numbers of respondents from specific countries or cross-nationally to in-depth qualitative investigations that are able to provide the detailed context for differences in internet use. The chapter shows that digital social inequalities are expressed and reproduced in a range of ways, including cultures of use as well as lack of access. Social inequalities and marginalisation may also be perpetuated and exacerbated online.

7 Digital politics and citizen digital public engagement
In Chapter 7 I examine the politics of digital veillance, activism, privacy debates, calls for openness of digital data and citizen digital public engagement. It is argued that while digital activism and moves to render digital data more open to citizens can be successful to some extent in achieving their aims, claims that they engender a major new form of political resistance or challenge to institutionalised power are inflated. Indeed digital technologies can provide a means by which activists can come under surveillance and be discredited by governments. Other negative aspects of citizen digital public engagement are outlined, including the ways in which the internet can incite discrimination and vigilantism and promote the dissemination of false information.

8 The digitised body/self
Chapter 8 addresses the ways in which digital software and hardware are becoming part of our identities as they store more data about our experiences, our social relationships and encounters and our bodily functioning. Digital sociologists and other digital media researchers have recognised the ways in which human embodiment and concepts of selfhood are represented and configured via digital technologies, digital data and digital social networks. It is not only the data or images produced via digital technologies that are important to research and theorise, but also how the objects themselves are used in practice. This chapter examines the incorporation of digital technologies into everyday lives across a range of contexts.

A review of Punk Sociology

ShowJacketSociology in the Anglophone world has been in the doldrums for some time. Since the heady days of poststructuralism and postmodernism, until very recently few advances had been made in theory or method. British sociology, however, is seeing a renewed impetus and vigour, with several sociologists beginning to talk about a move from ‘zombie sociology’ to ‘live sociology’ (Back, 2012) or ‘inventive methods’ (Lury and Wakeford, 2012), in which creative approaches and different ways of communicating are suggested to move the discipline out of its doldrums.

Punk Sociology, by British sociologist Dave Beer, is a welcome contribution to this new and exciting approach. As its title suggests, Beer attempts in this short book (part of the Palgrave Pivot series, itself an innovative approach to academic publishing) to show how sociology might be shaken up and re-energised. Punk sociology looks outward, is subversive and willing to try new approaches and also ready to engage with alternative forms of knowledge outside sociology. It means investigating forms of research and representations of social life that are beyond the textual, such as audio-visual material, and, as Beer puts it, ‘to coach ourselves to see sociology in sources where we may not be expecting to see it’ (p. 38). It also includes working with, rather than on, participants in sociological research, and experimenting with different approaches to writing about one’s work: blogging, podcasts, YouTube videos and tweets, for example. Beer encourages sociologists to take courage in conveying ideas that may still be raw and engaging with others’ responses to them, a practice that social media avenues encourage.

I am no fan of punk rock, but I very much like the concept of punk sociology. The term itself denotes a fresher approach to the sociological canon and accepted assumptions of what sociology is and should be. I would have loved to have read a book like this as an undergraduate in first-year sociology in the early 1980s, when unfortunately I found myself bored rigid by the dry and dull way in which the discipline was taught. I suspect that undergraduates and even postgraduates in sociology today would also welcome Beer’s thoughts on enlivening sociology.

Exponents of critical sociology have always been a little bit punk in their reflexivity and their efforts to challenge the status quo and identify hidden power relations. Beer talks about the vibrancy and energy of the punk ethos That, for me, is what sociology can contribute at its best, and what has impelled me in my own sociological writing and research (including this blog). I am always interested in new ideas and approaches in my discipline and making new connections (including with other disciplines) and investigating where I can take them.
Sociology is inherently fascinating to many: it is about our own lives and times. Sociologists are able to offer many important insights into social life and selfhood, and it is it downright negligent for us not to be able to convey these insights to others. To render sociology dull is a great disservice to what it can promise.

Beer has chosen to represent the punk ethos in positive terms in this book, largely ignoring its sometimes nihilistic, violent and often overly confronting tendencies. I don’t think he wants to argue that sociology should go down this road. Punk at its most extreme was gritty and hardcore, and my reading of Beer’s argument is that he is espousing a somewhat gentler and optimistic version.

I would have liked to have seen some more concrete examples of punk sociology practice in the book. Beer makes suggestions for how to go about being a punk sociologist, but they tend to be general. Some specific cases of how sociologists might employ new ways of practising the craft in the ways suggested by Beer and how they have gone about it would have been helpful and interesting.

I agree with Beer that there is no point in wallowing in dismay about what some see as an apparent crisis in sociology. The discipline needs to be reactive, energetic and nimble — and yes, even confronting like the original punk musicians were — in response to the social changes that are continually occurring and new forms of social research that are emerging (particularly those related to digital media and digital data).

Beer suggests a punk music playlist to listen to as part of his call to arms for punk sociology. Join him in cranking the music up loud and getting to work on a sociology that is new, imaginative, in the moment and ever-so slightly anarchic!

References
Back, L. (2012) Live sociology: social research and its futures. The Sociological Review, 60: 18-39.
Lury, C. and Wakeford, N. (2012) Inventive Methods: the Happening of the Social. New York: Routledge.

My 2013 academic publications

These are the academic publications of mine that have been published this year. Some of these are open access (the link is provided if they are OA). For those that are not and you would like a copy, please contact me on deborah.lupton@gmail.com and I will email you a PDF.

Books

  • Deborah Lupton (2013) Risk, 2nd edition. London: Routledge.
  • Deborah Lupton (2013) The Social Worlds of the Unborn. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Deborah Lupton (editor) (2013) The Unborn Human. Open Humanities Press (e-book) (OA – available here).

Book chapters

  • Deborah Lupton (2013) Introduction: conceptualising and configuring the unborn human. In Lupton, D. (ed), The Unborn Human. London: Open Humanities Press (OA – available here).
Peer-reviewed Journal Articles and Conference Papers

 

Other Publications

  • Deborah Lupton (2013) Fat Politics: Collected Writings. Sydney: University of Sydney (OA – available  here).
  • Deborah Lupton (2013) The Commodification of Patient Opinion: the Digital Patient Experience Economy in the Age of Big Data. Sydney Health & Society Group Working Paper No. 3. Sydney: Sydney Health & Society Group (OA – available here).
  • Deborah Lupton (2013) Revolting Bodies: the Pedagogy of Disgust in Public Health Campaigns. Sydney Health & Society Group Working Paper No. 4. Sydney: Sydney Health & Society Group (OA – available here).
  • Deborah Lupton (2013) Digitizing Health Promotion: Personal Responsibility for Health in the Web 2.0 Era. Sydney Health & Society Group Working Paper No. 5. Sydney: Sydney Health & Society Group (OA – available  here).
  • Deborah Lupton (2013) Book review: Twitter: Social Communication in the Twitter Age (by D. Murthy). Information, Communication and Society, online first, DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2013.808366.
  • Deborah Lupton (2013) Opening up your research: self-archiving for sociologists. Nexus (newsletter of the Australian Sociological Association), 25(2), 30—1.
  • Deborah Lupton (2013) Personlich vervantwortlich: gesundheit im digitalen Zeitalter (Personal responsibility for health in the digital age). Kursbuch, 175,  http://kursbuch-online.de/kursbuch/kursbuch-175/
  • Lupton, D. (2013) Infants and/as objects (conference paper) (OA – available here).
  • Lupton, D. (2013) Introducing digital sociology (preprint book chapter) (OA – available here).
  • Lupton, D. (2013) The digital cyborg assemblage: Haraway’s cyborg theory and the new digital health technologies (preprint book chapter) (OA – available here).
  • Deborah Lupton (2013) Book review: Why We Eat, How We Eat: Contemporary Encounters Between Foods and Bodies (edited by E.-J. Abbots and A. Lavis). LSE Review of Books (OA – available here).

Types of veillance relevant to digital sociology

A 'nest' of surveillance cameras at the Gillet...

A ‘nest’ of surveillance cameras at the Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been working on a chapter of my new book Digital Sociology that outlines major theoretical perspectives that I consider are relevant to a sociology of digital society. One section of the chapter reviews the different types of veillance (watching) that have been discussed in sociology, media and cultural studies. Here they are, with a brief definition of each one:

Surveillance: watching from above (the powerful watching the less powerful)
Sousveillance: watching from below (the less powerful watching the more powerful)
Panoptic veillance: the few watching the many, leading to self-watching
Synoptic veillance: the many watching the few
Uberveillance: watching from all directions, particularly with the use of tracking devices worn on or embedded into the human body
Liquid surveillance: watching that is dynamic, moving restlessly from site to site and using various types of technologies
Banoptic surveillance: exclusion of individuals or social groups via surveillance techniques
Participatory veillance: voluntary participation as a subject of veillance
Social veillance: watching each other via social media
Dataveillance/panspectric veillance: watching that involves the use of digital data technologies rather than human senses alone
Algorithmic veillance: watching using computer algorithms and digital data

* Revised on 9 January 2014 – thanks to David Armstrong for his helpful comments.

Digital sociology enters the Australian sociology landscape

This week I presented the first paper at the first ever session bearing the title ‘digital sociology’ that has been held at The Australian Sociological Association (TASA) annual conference. The TASA annual conference is the pre-eminent meeting for sociologists around Australia, and there were over 400 of us in attendance at the conference. There were two sessions on digital sociology and each was packed out, a  welcome indication that a  lively interest in the topic is beginning to grow in Australia. They were convened by Theresa Sauter from QUT.

I used my presentation as an opportunity to introduce the concept of digital sociology, to explain why the title is now being used and why it is important that sociologists engage in theorising, researching and using digital technologies. The accompanying full paper that was published in the conference proceedings reviewed some of the work of British sociologists who have written about the digital world and the impact on sociology of new forms of digitised knowledge (see below for links to the PowerPoint slides and full paper).

I have written numerous posts about digital sociology exploring these issues (collected here) and I am a regular user of social and other digital technologies as part of investigating the possibilities, potential and drawbacks of engaging with these technologies as a sociologist (posts on this are here). I am currently working on a book entitled Digital Sociology for Routledge that is bringing all these topics (and many more) together. Suffice to say that digital sociology has become my major research interest, extending previous work I carried out in the mid-1990s and into the early 2000s on personal computers.

Other presentations at the two digital sociology TASA sessions included an examination of Google Glass using Tarde’s concept of the monad (Tim Graham and Theresa Sauter), David Collis’ analysis of the ‘savant garde’ and algorithmic logic, a project looking at Twitter as used in the Australian news debate television program Q&A in the context of theories about the public sphere (Erin Carlisle), Theresa Sauter again with her discussion of the use of the term digital sociology and a case study of Pinterest, Tristan Kennedy’s talk on ethical issues in online participant observation research, a paper on the use of apps to engage in ethical consumption (Kim Humphery and Tim Jordan) and Ashlin Lee’s analysis of convergent mobile technology. These were all interesting presentations that sparked much discussion among those attending the sessions.

As I noted in my presentation, many sociologists, including those in Australia, have been researching computer technologies and online interactions ever since personal computers began to be available to the general public in the mid-1980s. These topics are not new, but what is new is that the technologies have changed and become ever-more pervasive in everyday life as we have moved from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0 and now to Web 3.0 (the Internet of Things). The term digital sociology incorporates these developments by encompassing all things digital, and is also a nod to other disciplinary terms now in use such as digital anthropology, digital humanities and digital cultures.

I hope to see digital sociology grow in interest from this first entrance into the TASA space and that, like the BSA Digital Sociology study group that was established earlier this year, a TASA thematic group will develop. Australian researchers are invited to contact me if they would like to join an Australian Digital Sociology research network.

Slides from my digital sociology TASA presentation can be viewed here. The full paper can be downloaded here.

The academic quantified self

Last week I put together two abstracts for the British Sociological Association’s conference next year. One abstract is for a panel on digital public sociology and the other is for a workshop on the quantified self. In the digital public sociology abstract I refer to the need to take a critical sociological perspective on engaging in public sociology using digital tools. In the abstract on the quantified self, I focus on the conditions that have come together to make the quantified self assemblage possible.

As I was thinking about what I wanted to discuss in these papers, it struck me that there are strong connections between the two. Engaging as a public sociologist using digital media invariably involves some form of quantifying the self. Roger Burrows has employed the term ‘metric assemblage’ to describe the ways in which academics have become monitored and measured in the contemporary audit culture of the modern academy. As part of configuring our metric assemblages, we are quantifying our professional selves.

Academics have been counting elements of their work for a long time as part of their professional practice and presentation of the self, even before the advent of digital technologies. The ‘publish or perish’ maxim refers to the imperative for a successful academic to constantly produce materials such as books, book chapters and peer-reviewed journal articles in order to maintain their reputation and place in the academic hierarchy. Academic curricula vitae invariably involve lists of these outputs under the appropriate headings, as do university webpages for academics. They are required for applications for promotions, new positions and research funding.

These quantified measures of output are our ‘small data’: the detailed data that we collect on ourselves. Universities too engage in regular monitoring and measuring practices of the work of their academics and their own prestige in academic rankings and assessment of the quality and quantity of the research output of their departments. They therefore participate in the aggregation of data, producing ‘big data’ sets. The advent of digital media, including the use of these media as part of engaging in public sociology, has resulted in more detailed and varied forms of data being created and collected. Sociologists using digital media have ever greater opportunities to quantify their output and impact in the form of likes, retweets, views of their blogs, followers and so on. We now have Google Scholar, Scopus or Web of Science to monitor and display how often our publications have been cited, where and by whom, and to automatically calculate our h-indices. Academic journals, now all online, show how often researchers’ articles have been read and downloaded, and provide lists of the most cited and most downloaded articles they have published.

In adopting a critical reflexive approach to all this monitoring and measurement, we need to ask questions. Should the practices of quantifying the academic self be considered repressive of academic freedom and autonomy? Do they place undue stress on academics to perform, and perhaps to produce work that is sub-standard but greater in number? However it is also important to consider the undeniable positive dimensions of participating in digital public engagement and thereby reaching a wider audience. Academics do not write for themselves alone: being able to present their work to more readers has its own rewards. Quantified selfers can find great satisfaction in using data to take control over elements of their lives and also as a performative aspect. So too, for academics, collecting and presenting data on their professional selves can engender feelings of achievement, satisfaction and pride at their accomplishments. Such data are important to the academic professional sense of self.

As I argued in my abstract for the digital public sociology panel, as sociologists we need to stand back and take a reflexive perspective on these developments in academic life: not simply to condemn them but also to acknowledge their contribution to the ‘making up’ of academic selves. We should be alert to both the pleasures and the privations of academic self-quantification.

See here for my blog posts on using digital media as an academic and here for my other posts on the quantified self.