Reorienting sociology is a phrase that builds on the endless ‘turns’ that prefigured the current phase of defining the discipline. It is a navigational frame and needs to be treated with caution, lest it be applied with unreflexive haste. The recent explosion of interest in the emerging contours of digital society and new forms of data have been cited as a signal moment for sociology and the social sciences more generally.
Some commentators have argued that a step change in sociology (and aligned social sciences) is warranted in the face of big data and the opportunities that it offers for the generation of significant insights and a move towards ‘Big Science’ – where discrete analytic practices and work are broken down into networked, distributed and digitally organized collaborative tasks amongst groups and interdisciplinary ‘data labs’.
This form of knowledge organisation is also predicated on the emergence of new occupational groups (e.g. data scientists) and the harvesting of crowd intelligence through large scale annotation exercises that make use of distributed digital labour through the exploitation of crowdsourcing data coding platforms, often without demographic selection or sampling, in order to generate classifiers for machine learning and algorithm development.
On a wider scale, over and above the promise of big and broad data, the emerging contours of digital society are seen to reorientate the study of social life due to the sheer acceleration and velocity of ‘disruptive’ social change realized through social media, digital data, robotics, ‘social’ algorithms, automation and the arrival of artificial intelligences.
The theoretical, methodological and empirical opportunities for conducting social science and understanding the emerging contours of digital society represent exciting topics of inquiry and offer new ways for conducting research. For example, the possibility of using new forms of data and organizing research in different ways in digitally networked times and the claim that rapid socio-technical change is acting as a catalyst for social theorization of advanced technologies-in-action as they move out of the research and development lab and into peoples hands (literally) in an accelerated fashion.
Perhaps reorientation to new problems and phenomena is best understood as a constant feature of sociological inquiry; social change is, after all, a key question and concern for the disciplinary enterprise. The perception that we are living through intense social, technical and environmental change is both widely shared and empirically documented. The social is being reassembled but key questions and concerns remains the same. How do things associate and organize? Why do these assemblages change over time? How do agents relate and integrate within a given social form? New forms of association between both human and non-human ‘societal’ integrators, mediators and disruptors remain key concerns.
To this extent, we might step back from claims surrounding a ‘digital turn’ in sociology. The turns will keep coming, thick and fast due to the inexorable pace of social change, social (re-) organisation and our (and possibly other actors) position within the warp and weft of social relations. To this extent, one course of action would avoid privileging the ‘digital’ but rather seek to consider it as an opportunity to track, trace and interpret social life as a process and ‘structuring’ matrix of relations. In this short piece I will identify three interrelated well established analytic frames that have been operationalized in order to examine the digital as such an opportunity and in ways that might tell us something about social life in general as well as in particular. These are the study of breaches in social and normative order, the mapping of scientific and social controversies and finally, transformation and world making.
Digital Technology: Disruption as Breaching
Ethnomethodology and the early work of Garfinkel noted how ‘breaching experiments’ revealed the import of background expectancies and the normative foundations of situated interaction order. For example, behaving as a lodger in the family home would generate humour and, eventually, upset; the role expectancies of being a parent, partner or family member being disrupted by requests to use the bathroom or offers of weekly rental for sleeping space. At a more granular level and within the context of Goffman’s studies of face work and Sacks’ fine grained documentation of repair and alignment within talk – the study of breaches and repair have been central to the empirical enterprise of understanding how social (interaction) order is accomplished, moment by moment, in real time. In the sense that breaches in social and moral order provide a window for the analyst to peer in and document how it is that social actors themselves keep the social on the move.
The arrival of mobile telephony, social media and other body proxemic digitally networked, communicative devices present social actors with a number of problems and opportunities. Being networked on the move has to be managed with the co-presence of others, being hailed from afar or augmenting co-presence with networked information requires modification, management and routine repair of interaction order. Digital devices can disrupt shared expectations within routine interactional flows, but they are also realigned and incorporated at the same time by people in ways which render visible the character of these new mobile social technical affordances and the organizational and mundane features of everyday social life. In other words, the study of how new technologies breach established social relations tell us much about the socio-technicality of both.
Digital Technology: Disruption and Controversy
The arrival of data generating digital technologies, such as social media, provide new avenues for exploring controversies at scale and in near real time. Science and Technology Studies have routinely explored scientific controversies as a naturally occurring opportunity through which to observe the social organizational characteristics of science as practice. In a way that is distinct, but similar, to normative breaches of interaction order, controversies bring into view a range of occluded practices that do not always form part of the official account of how science might be understood to actually work and operate. Social media as data can inform the development of new ways of mapping controversies within networks and in ways that can document how different tropes, narratives, claims and groups are mobilized in relation to things like climate change, often in ways that aid powerful forms of visualization in relation to actor networks.
However, ‘disruptive’ digital technologies (inclusive of social media) can also be understood to be controversial objects in their own right, due to the way in which they are designed and deployed in order to disrupt markets, cultures and social relations. The ‘digitally disruptive’ are inherently controversial due to the way in which these technologies are designed to cross boundaries and established turf with ease, at relatively low cost and in ways that can potentially generate significant value above and around traditional circuits of capital, governance and regulation. As a consequence, the examination of the digital as controversial renders visible established (and changing) forms of social organization and ordering in moments of repair, realignment and reaction.
Digital Technology: Disruption and Transformation
In addition to looking at the ways in which digital technology can be followed as a socio-technical associational frame that generates analytic insight through the routine breaching of the interaction order and the generation of controversy amongst groups, networks and structures it might also be understood to be transformative. For example treating social media as data can augment traditional social research methods, the use of networked mobile telephony can enhance the ways in which we interpret people, places and spaces whilst on the move, algorithms can generate unintended consequences in the ways they automatically categorise social media communications at scale in terms of race and class in relation to real or perceived social problems and so on.
A central issue here is the way in which digital technologies disrupt social categories and categorization practices by augmenting and re-orienting shared understandings and what is that we take for granted. In this sense they have the potential to make new ‘social worlds’ by constituting transformative social relations and connections. Again, these are avenues for further study in the first instance but include inquiry into the way in which, for example, we communicate and interact via Web 2.0, the transformative effects of mobile telephony, the arrival of networked, distributed, digital ‘butlers’ and ‘personal assistants’ with voice recognition capabilities and so on.
To conclude, perhaps, it is the reorientation and reassembly of the social that is important here – the topic of inquiry if you like. How social explanations and associations are being built around new technologies and other mundane and exotic objects is not knew but is perhaps now more clearly discernable in the face of commercially driven technological disruption and change – a rolling assemblage of breaching experiments and a generator of multiple socio-technical controversies – that allow us to render visible the social-in-action in all its mundane and sometimes exceptional ontological and organizational force.
William Housley, is a sociologist, based at the Cardiff University School of Social Sciences, who works across a number of research areas that include language and interaction, social media, the social aspects of disruptive technologies and the emerging contours of digital society, economy and culture. Professor Housley was a co-founder of COSMOS and is currently working on a number of ESRC funded projects that relate to digital society and research; he co-convenes the Digital Sociology Research Group at Cardiff University, is co-editor of Qualitative Research (SAGE) and serves on the editorial board of Big Data and Society (SAGE).
Social scientists have, overall, been slower to tap into the ever-increasing flow of “big data” than their peers in the physical and medical sciences. That lethargy is a tad ironic given that so much of the big data available, whether it be government administrative data or social media feeds like Twitter, don’t have to be imagined and created, but exist essentially ripe for the picking.
As Martha Sedgwick, SAGE’s head of project innovation, notes, “In the past two years over 90 percent of the world’s data has been created. The digital trails produced by us all as we go about our daily life (via smartphones, transportation, payment interactions) contain huge potential for social research. These vast data sets offer new ways to understand our world and look to solve societal problems and it looks like we are at the cusp of a major turning point in the social sciences as researchers work with these data to answer new research questions.”
Perhaps the earliest questions to address, however, are more meta: How will social science research and teaching evolve to meet the challenges and opportunities big data creates? How can we bring down barriers to make this new computational social science accessible for all social researchers? That was the subject of a panel discussion SAGE Publishing held in conjunction with the Campaign for Social Sciences as part of the recent ESRC Festival of Social Sciences 2016. The November 9 panel, titled Big Data, Social Media Research and Innovations in Research Methods, was chaired by Sedgwick and featured guests Sharon Witherspoon, head of policy, Academy of Social Sciences and Campaign for Social Science; Luke Sloan, senior lecturer at Cardiff University and deputy director of Cardiff Q-Step; and Mark Kennedy, director of the KPMG Centre for Business Analytics.
The full video appears in the video below, which in turn is followed by encapsulations of their remarks provided by each of the panel’s participants.
This promise of big data is not without its challenges, and the social sciences have been slower than other fields, like biology, astronomy and physics, in working with big data. Social researchers face a number of hurdles as they look to develop the capacity to collect and analyse these vast and varied datasets, potentially produced in real time. New tools are needed to collect and process these data, including volumes of unstructured text requiring new ways to bring together qualitative and quantitative research skills. New statistical and programming skills are needed, and are emerging both within the social sciences and through new interdisciplinary collaborations (universities like Cardiff and Imperial fostering these collaborations through new interdisciplinary research labs bringing together academics from across the social sciences with computer scientists). Secondary data available through social media channels like Twitter raise questions of representation and bias as well as questions of privacy and informed consent that require us to develop about new ethical frameworks.
‘Big data’ present exciting opportunities for social scientists to further our understanding of the world – and this understanding is a means to making it better. In the case of administrative data – data collected by government in the course of, for instance, administering benefits or tracking exam results – it can illuminate causes and linkages that are otherwise invisible. But to realize this vision the social science community needs to increase its number and data skills, to negotiate access in the face of government reluctance, and most important, to ensure that we have strong and thoughtful safeguards and ethical principles in place. This means we need to take seriously the need for ‘social consent’ and full transparency, as exemplified in the Administrative Data Research Network arrangements. If we take this seriously, it can allow us to examine big and meaty questions: about how social relations between people and environments affect individuals, or how about how culture – patterns of meaning – and social institutions interact.
Twitter presents us with a rich vein of data on opinions, attitudes and behaviors that allow us to ask new questions about the social world, but it is not without its problems. All methods and approaches have their drawbacks and for the traditional tools at the disposal of a social researcher such as surveys, focus groups and interviews, these are well explored, documented and understood. Yet Twitter is new and we need to begin by asking the basic questions around representativeness, research design and what can (and cannot) be measured. In this sense, there is a a body of work to be done around establishing what Twitter data is, what it means, how people use the platform and understanding the relationship between the individual and their online identity. Through providing case studies of how real world event manifest online, through taking what we already know about networks and applying it to retweets and mentions, through maintaining an open and honest dialogue of what works and what doesn’t we can start to make the strange familiar.
With smartphones, social media, and new markets for buying and selling the digital traces of our social and economic lifeways, we social scientists are at the threshold of a period of dramatic change — change that comes with both opportunity and challenge. With new technologies for monitoring and measuring all things social, we are only starting to assemble new high-res datasets of patterned human interaction, and these datasets hold the promise of explain rare but significant sentinel events such as those we have seen in the news this year. Quite simply, we talk about these events using words like ‘jolt’, ‘upset’, ‘eruption’, ‘shock’ and ‘crash’ because we lack theories to anticipate them. In the coming years, innovators will gradually start to better explain these events, identify their antecedents, and even predict them. Both individually and collectively, the question of social scientists is, will we be among these innovators?