I argued that digital sociology, as a distinct subfield, needs to not only have a what but a why.
It also needs a how.
As I see it, digital sociology will:
- observe macro changes in the digital society
- observe changes in institutions that shape the digital society
- observe and explain the effect of macro and institutional changes on groups
- observe and explain micro effects and the everyday life of the digital society
At the macro level, the standard tools are generally borrowed from economics. We might expect economic sociologists to dominate in this area. We might also expect to see historical sociology make significant contributions here. If the premise of digital sociology is that digitally-mediated technologies indicate an era of modern capitalism (argued by many, including Castells, DiMaggio, and Hargittai to name a few) then the comparative macro methods of historical sociology seem relevant to studying the digital society.
At the level of institutions (the clunky-sounding “meso” level), we have relied heavily on case studies, ethnographies, and event analysis to measure and observe institutions. One of the greatest challenges of institutional analysis has always been that it is notoriously difficult to gain access to institutions. That is less true of public or government institutions but it is still true that researchers have to develop deep ties to access these field sites. In the digital society, institutions themselves are not just undergoing massive change. They are also changing how we work, organize our non-work lives, give meaning to our routine activities and imagine the body politic. Institutional analysis of the digital society would include observing institutions but also the social institutions that structure our lives. You might expect organizational scholars to intervene here but, as has been pointed out over on Org Theory, organizational sociology is undergoing it’s own transformation. With their move away from sociology departments and into business schools, organizational sociology may not have a lot of incentive to do critical research of work organizations in the digital society. On the other hand, this may be an excellent opportunity for organizational sociology to reinvigorate the critical sciences in orthodox business cultures.
That leads us to the issue of how all this change is impacting inequality or stratification. The most obvious intervention here would be to study how groups access resources, such as income, wealth, work, health, education, housing, and other resources important for mobility and thriving. Perhaps the richest site for digital sociology, however, is studying status. I am thinking of Cecilia Ridgeway’s argument that esteem and respect are as important as resources and power to durable inequality. One of the most ironic issues to me is that the word status is so foundational to digital platforms, its economies and scale and importance in daily life. Yet, we have not even begun to mine sociology’s expertise in understanding how status works when “offline” is now always at least partially happening “online”. You might expect ethnographers in this area but also quantitative analysis of firms. I keep thinking fuzzy theory and qualitative comparative analysis could also find a home here.
Finally, we have a lot of research activity around the everyday life of the digital society. But we have in no way exhausted this area. It is perhaps the most accessible level of analysis of the digital society. Our traditional methods of recruitment and analysis are most powerful in this area. Still, we have not mined all the various subcultures, their intersections, and the conditions under which they opt in, opt out, are forced in or forced out of various digitally-mediated arrangements. We can look at these processes in the family, in the home, in religious communities, in urban areas, in rural areas, at work, at play, in sex, in mating, in the emotional experience of money and economics. As is true in the literature underpinning this work you might expect surveys, interviews, and case analysis.