Digital sociology is a sub-discipline of sociology that focuses on understanding the use of digital media as part of everyday life, and how these various technologies contribute to patterns of human behavior, social relationships, and concepts of the self.
The first scholarly article to have the term 'digital sociology' in the title appeared in 2009. The author reflected on the ways in which digital technologies may influence both sociological research and teaching. In 2010, 'digital sociology' was described, by Richard Neal, in terms of bridging the growing academic focus with the increasing interest from global business. It was not until 2013 that the first purely academic book tackling the subject of 'digital sociology' was published. The first sole-authored book entitled Digital Sociology was published in 2015, and the first academic conference on "Digital Sociology" was held in New York, NY in the same year.
Although the term ‘digital sociology’ has not yet fully entered the cultural lexicon, sociologists have engaged in research related to the Internet since its inception. These sociologists have addressed many social issues relating to online communities, cyberspace and cyber-identities. This and similar research has attracted many different names such as 'cybersociology', 'the sociology of the internet', 'the sociology of online communities', 'the sociology of social media', 'the sociology of cyberculture' or something else again.
Digital sociology differs from these terms in that it is wider in its scope, addressing not only the Internet or cyberculture but also the impact of the other digital media and devices that have emerged since the first decade of the twenty-first century. Since the Internet has become more pervasive and linked with everyday life, references to the 'cyber' in the social sciences seems now to have been replaced by the 'digital'. 'Digital sociology' is related to other sub-disciplines such as digital humanities and digital anthropology. It is beginning to supersede and incorporate the other titles above, as well as including the newest Web 2.0 digital technologies into its purview, such as wearable technology, augmented reality, smart objects, the Internet of Things and big data.
Subfields of digital sociology
Four aspects of digital sociology have been identified by Lupton (2012):
- Professional digital practice: using digital media tools for professional purposes: to build networks, construct an e-profile, publicise and share research and instruct students.
- Sociological analyses of digital use: researching the ways in which people's use of digital media configures their sense of selves, their embodiment and their social relations.
- Digital data analysis: using digital data for social research, either quantitative or qualitative.
- Critical digital sociology: undertaking reflexive and critical analysis of digital media informed by social and cultural theory.
Professional digital practice
Although they have been reluctant to use social and other digital media for professional academics purposes, sociologists are slowly beginning to adopt them for teaching and research. An increasing number of sociological blogs are beginning to appear and more sociologists are joining Twitter, for example. Some are writing about the best ways for sociologists to employ social media as part of academic practice (see the LSE Impact of the Social Sciences website) and the importance of self-archiving and making sociological research open access, as well as writing for Wikipedia.
Sociological analyses of digital media use
Digital sociologists have begun to write about the use of wearable technologies as part of quantifying the body and the social dimensions of big data and the algorithms that are used to interpret these data. Others have directed attention at the role of digital technologies as part of the surveillance of people's activities, via such technologies as CCTV cameras and customer loyalty schemes as well as the mass surveillance of the Internet that is being conducted by secret services such as the NSA.
The 'digital divide', or the differences in access to digital technologies experienced by certain social groups such as the socioeconomically disadvantaged, those of lower education levels, women and the elderly, has preoccupied many researchers in the social scientific study of digital media. However several sociologists have pointed out that while it is important to acknowledge and identify the structural inequalities inherent in differentials in digital technology use, this concept is rather simplistic and fails to incorporate the complexities of access to and knowledge about digital technologies.
There is a growing interest in the ways in which social media contribute to the development of intimate relationships and concepts of the self. One of the best-known sociologists who has written about social relationships, selfhood and digital technologies is Sherry Turkle. In her most recent book Turkle addresses the topic of social media. She argues that relationships conducted via these platforms are not as authentic as those encounters that take place "in real life".
Visual media allows the viewer to be a more passive consumer of information. Viewers are more likely to develop online personas that differ from their personas in the real world. This contrast between the digital world (or 'cyberspace') and the 'real world', however, has been critiqued as 'digital dualism', a concept similar to the 'aura of the digital'. Other sociologists have argued that relationships conducted through digital media are inextricably part of the 'real world'. Augmented reality is an interactive experience where reality is being altered in some way by the use of digital media but not replaced.
The use of social media for social activism have also provided a focus for digital sociology. For example, numerous sociological articles, and at least one book have appeared on the use of such social media platforms as Twitter, YouTube and Facebook as a means of conveying messages about activist causes and organizing political movements.
Research has also been done on how racial minorities and the use of technology by racial minorities and other groups. These "digital practice" studies explore the ways in which the practices that groups adopt when using new technologies mitigate or reproduce social inequalities.
Digital data analysis
Digital sociologists use varied approaches to investigating people's use of digital media, both qualitative and quantitative. These include ethnographic research, interviews and surveys with users of technologies, and also the analysis of the data produced from people's interactions with technologies: for example, their posts on social media platforms such as Facebook, Reddit, 4chan, Tumblr and Twitter or their consuming habits on online shopping platforms. Such techniques as data scraping, social network analysis, time series analysis and textual analysis are employed to analyse both the data produced as a byproduct of users' interactions with digital media and those that they create themselves. For Contents Analysis, in 2008, Yukihiko Yoshida did a study called "Leni Riefenstahl and German expressionism: research in Visual Cultural Studies using the trans-disciplinary semantic spaces of specialized dictionaries." The study took databases of images tagged with connotative and denotative keywords (a search engine) and found Riefenstahl’s imagery had the same qualities as imagery tagged "degenerate" in the title of the exhibition, "Degenerate Art" in Germany at 1937.
The emergence of social media has provided sociologists with a new way of studying social phenomenon. Social media networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, are increasingly being mined for research. For example, Twitter data is easily available to researchers through the Twitter API. Twitter provides researchers with demographic data, time and location data, and connections between users. From these data, researchers gain insight into user moods and how they communicate with one another. Furthermore, social networks can be graphed and visualized.
Using large data sets, like those obtained from Twitter, can be challenging. First of all, researchers have to figure out how to store this data effectively in a database. Several tools commonly used in Big Data analytics are at their disposal. Since large data sets can be unwieldy and contain numerous types of data (i.e. photos, videos, GIF images), researchers have the option of storing their data in non-relational databases, such as MongoDB and Hadoop. Processing and querying this data is an additional challenge. However, there are several options available to researchers. One common option is to use a querying language, such as Hive, in conjunction with Hadoop to analyze large data sets.
The Internet and social media have allowed sociologists to study how controversial topics are discussed over time—otherwise known as Issue Mapping. Sociologists can search social networking sites (i.e. Facebook or Twitter) for posts related to a hotly-debated topic, then parse through and analyze the text. Sociologists can then use a number of easily accessible tools to visualize this data, such as MentionMapp or Twitter Streamgraph. MentionMapp shows how popular a hashtag is and Twitter Streamgraph depicts how often certain words are paired together and how their relationship changes over time.
Critical digital sociology
This aspect of digital sociology is perhaps what makes it distinctive from other approaches to studying the digital world. In adopting a critical reflexive approach, sociologists are able to address the implications of the digital for sociological practice itself. It has been argued that digital sociology offers a way of addressing the changing relations between social relations and the analysis of these relations, putting into question what social research is, and indeed, what sociology is now as social relations and society have become in many respects mediated via digital technologies.
How should sociology respond to the emergent forms of both 'small data' and 'big data' that are collected in vast amounts as part of people's interactions with digital technologies and the development of data industries using these data to conduct their own social research? Does this suggest that a "coming crisis in empirical sociology" might be on the horizon? How are the identities and work practices of sociologists themselves becoming implicated within and disciplined by digital technologies such as citation metrics?
These questions are central to critical digital sociology, which reflects upon the role of sociology itself in the analysis of digital technologies as well as the impact of digital technologies upon sociology.
To these four aspects add the following subfields of digital sociology:
Public digital sociology
Public sociology using digital media is a form of public sociology that involves publishing sociological materials in online accessible spaces and subsequent interaction with publics in these spaces. This has been referred to as "e-public sociology".
Social media has changed the ways the public sociology was perceived and given rise to digital evolution in this field. The vast open platform of communication has provided opportunities for sociologists to come out from the notion of small group sociology or publics to a vast audience.
Blogging was the initial social media platform being utilized by sociologists. Sociologists like Eszter Hargittai, Chris Bertram, and Kieran Healy were few amongst those who started using blogging for sociology. New discussion groups about sociology and related philosophy were the consequences of social media impact. The vast number of comments and discussions thus became a part of understanding sociology. One of such famous groups was Crooked Timber. Getting feedback on such social sites is faster and impactful. Disintermediation, visibility, and measurement are the major effects of e-public sociology. Other social media tools like Twitter and Facebook also became the tools for a sociologist. "Public Sociology in the Age of Social Media".
Digital transformation of sociological theory
Information and communication technology as well as the proliferation of digital data are revolutionising sociological research. Whereas there is already much methodological innovation in digital humanities and computational social sciences, theory development in the social sciences and humanities still consists mainly of print theories of computer cultures or societies. These analogue theories of the digital transformation, however, fail to account for how profoundly the digital transformation of the social sciences and humanities is changing the epistemic core of these fields. Digital methods constitute more than providers of ever-bigger digital datasets for testing of analogue theories, but also require new forms of digital theorising. The ambition of research programmes on the digital transformation of social theory is therefore to translate analogue into digital social theories so as to complement traditional analogue social theories of the digital transformation by digital theories of digital societies.
- Digital anthropology
- Digital humanities
- Digital Revolution
- Social web
- Sociology of the Internet
- Software studies
- Tribe (internet)
- Computational social science
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