Crafting a postgraduate module: Digital by-product data and the social sciences

Over the last two or three weeks I’ve been working on my postgraduate module ‘Digital by-product data and the social sciences’. The module ran for the first time last year and I’ve been trying to develop the content a bit for this year (it runs in the spring term). It’s actually been much easier to flesh out the reading lists this year. There have been quite a few relevant publications in the last twelve months. The module focuses upon the conceptual and methodological challenges and opportunities of digital by-product data and what these mean for the social sciences. So the material on digital culture and web cultures is useful for background reading, but I’ve tried to focus on readings that fit directly with the aims. It has become clear that this is a rapidly expanding area with more social scientists thinking about what they might do with digital data, and what the limitations might be. We are even now beginning to see this type of data being used to perform social science and to investigate substantive topics.

Given that the students are seeing this development unfold, this is quite an experimental module. As well as getting the students to do readings, I also get them to imagine projects and to find and use bits of data. We then reflect on what this reveals and the problems and issues we might identify. We try to use more conceptual and critical accounts if these developments to frame the use of digital data. We also think about how these new data and methods might interface with more traditional approaches.

As well as adding a series of new readings, I’ve also been gathering podcasts, audio interviews and studios of talks. Many of these have been posted on this blog. Because of the connected and tech savvy nature of those interested in ‘digital sociology’, there is a variety of material available. So this year I’ve been able to add audio and audio/visual materials to sit alongside the readings and inform the seminar discussion (thanks in particular go to Mark Carrigan for the work he has done producing podcasts that I’ve been able to link to). These podcasts really give a different dimension and have really helped in building up the depth of content.

This is the running order for the module:

1. Introduction: Data accumulation and the crises of social science

2. Software infrastructures and data harvesting

3. Researching a confessional society

4. The culture of visualisation

5. Drawing upon digital by-product data and networks

6. The new melodramatic imagination: an example of the sociology of mediated objects

7. Social media data aggregators and scraping

8. Data recursivity, the social life of methods and the social life of data

This post by Dave Beer was originally posted on Thinking Culture – we’ve reposted it with his permission as part of our Sociological Craft Project. Find out more here. If there’s an aspect of academic life you’d be willing to reflect upon for the project then please do get in touch!


Categories: Digital Sociology, Sociological Craft

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