Why Is Digital Sociology?

Any attempt at knowledge production has to answer the basic question of what it is. But, before long, it must also address the question of why it is.

As early as the 1990s sociologists were asking how to study the way internet technologies were clearly changing societies. The term digital sociology does not make an appearance until 2009. By then, communication studies and internet research had dominated in the study of the internet with some forays into the consequences for society.

So why bother with digital sociology?

First, we should consider what digital sociology purports to be.

Mark Carrigan has argued:

Digital Sociology in the broadest sense addresses the question of what such reinvention could or should mean in new circumstances where the content of this ‘newness’ is defined largely by the digital.

Carrigan is dealing with temporality and transformation. Each assumes there is something unique about the current social system that relates to digital technologies and that whatever that is, it is transformative.

Deborah Lupton takes up the mantle of describing digital sociology by appealing to the postulates formation the classicists among us appreciate:

    • Professional digital practice: using digital tools as part of professional practice – build networks, construct e-portfolios, build online profiles, publicize and share research
    • Analysis of digital technology use: research the ways in which people’s use of digital technologies configures their sense of self and their embodiment of social relations, the role of digital media in the creation or reproduction of social institutions and structures
    • Digital Data Analysis: using naturally occurring digital data for social research
    • Critical Digital Sociology: reflexive analysis of digital technologies informed by social and cultural theory

This is the concept we use in the digital sociology master’s degree program at VCU. We also drew heavily on this formulation in the book “Digital Sociologies”, which I co-edited with Jessie Daniels and Karen Gregory.

This formulation says that digital sociology does something sociology alone does not quite do and that internet studies and communication studies do not do as a disciplinary imperative. That’s a pretty controversial claim. In our line of work, branding a new disciplinary conversation is all about politics. Some sociologists have not been good agents about this, ignoring fields of study in the rush to claim intellectual brand reputation. Sociologists are not discovering the internet. We are woefully late to understanding the complexity of internet technologies, their causes and their consequences. We cannot best communication studies in studying what the internet is and what role it plays as a communication practice. We couldn’t if we tried. We cannot best internet studies on its 30 or 40 year head start on communities of intellectual practice around what and how the internet is.

But, there is something sociology must do. It is our disciplinary imperative to understand societies. Just as communication studies understands forms of communication, sociology must understand the social. If we have learned anything from internet studies it is that the internet is central to every form of social interaction in advanced modern societies. It is moving capital, reshaping global flows, building new institutional forms, reshaping firms, shifting our forms of social interaction and impacting our concept of the self. If internet studies is right, and I believe it is, then to understand modern societies we must understand what about the society is digital.

What is different about sociology’s approach is that we cannot, by virtue of the foundations of sociological knowledge, do this just to understand an end. We cannot care about the internet or the digital. That is not the sociologist’s job. Our job is to understand the means by which, the conditions under which, the context of internet technologies. We study process. And, if we are to matter, sociologists study inequality.

That is something that no other subfield can say quite the way that sociology can. The interdisciplinary fields are the best competition for bragging right’s on this. And, if we do it right, we should always be engaging feminist studies, black studies, African American studies, Latinx studies and so-on. Our contribution to how inequality shapes societies and people should be unique but it shouldn’t be in isolation. I will go so far as to say that no other disicpline can or will or has focused all of its tools and energies on unraveling macro and micro inequalities as they relate to technological change and technologies. I would hope that other fields would welcome us to these conversations because they matter so much more than academic status games.

Regardless, I said a field of knowledge production has to say why it is.

Digital sociology is because race, class, and gender are. Digital sociology is because capitalism is. Digital sociology is because inequality is. Digital sociology is immersed in the technologies reshaping social processes and, like the classic imperative to stand apart, must wrestle with our social location in a digital society. We should study groups because that is what we do. We should make testable hypotheses and revisit the assumptions in our empirical claims to knowledge. We should examine anew if place is a suitable proxy for space and if either approximate status in a digitally-mediated world. We should attend to power beyond the strength off weak ties. The digital society is not just social ties. It is also currencies and exchanges and power relations and asymmetries. Digital sociology should disaggregate these to their respective subfield experts but also keep an eye on their synthesis and integration. Digital sociology needs more big theory as well as testable theory.

Given the professionalization of the field, on display in our recent ASA conference in Montreal, that is an especially big challenge for sociology. Can we synthesize across sub-disciplines anymore? If we cannot, digital sociology as a subfield is probably doomed.

But the digital society will survive us. And if sociology cannot explain our digital society, we should be asking why sociology rather than why digital sociology.

My foray into this moment is to study the question that, for my money, made sociology matter: race and racism. What is race in a digital society and what guises are racism taking in a digitally-mediated world. It is a massive project but we are making a good start in my home department where this semester, graduate students will spend the semester asking what a racial project looks like in a digital society. We will have to tackle all the questions animating cutting edge theory and research in race, ethnicity, work, and culture to do so. Questions like, should we integrate race and ethnicity in one theoretical model? How do we conceive of citizenship? What is phenotype in a digital society? How do we bracket community and group when processes are digitally-mediated? If groups are more than just communicative practices then what is “black Twitter” or chicana memes? What is a black box society when a society is defined to a great degree by its degree of blackness? How are these meanings defined and contested in a digital society?

Our work joins the work done by others in communication studies, black studies, feminist studies, black feminist studies, queer studies, disability studies and more to identify, describe, measure and explain modern life in advanced societies. That is why digital sociology.

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