Digital Sociology Down Under

In November, the 2013 annual conference of The Australian Sociological Association (TASA) was the first conference in Australia to host streams on digital sociology. It was the Associations’ 50 year anniversary and simultaneously the inauguration of digital sociology down under. After circulating an expression of interest for papers aligned with digital sociology through the Cultural Sociology thematic group, enough papers to fill two sessions rolled in, although an engagement with the digital sparked up throughout the conference.

Both digital sociology sessions were held on Wednesday, November 27, and were extremely well-attended. The popularity of the sessions and the engaged discussion they generated clearly showed that digital sociology is on the rise in Australia. It was an honour to have both keynote speakers Prof. Celia Lury and Prof. John Holmwood present in the digital sociology sessions. Lury, who works at Goldsmiths, where of course the first MA/MSc in Digital Sociology has been set up, also delivered an intriguing address at the conference which raised issues about the need for sociologists to engage in new theories and methods to capture the culture of the digital.

Deborah Lupton opened up the first digital sociology session with her paper ‘Digital Sociology: Beyond the digital to the sociological’. Deborah has been instrumental in developing ideas around digital sociology in Australia, including numerous posts on her blog, a Facebook page and a first introductory resource. In her presentation, Deborah outlined her definition of digital sociology and its relevance in the discipline. She argued that digital sociology encompasses all things digital, not just the cyber, and is a new way to enliven sociology. She outlined four key dimensions of digital sociology, including (1) professional digital practice, (2) sociological analyses of digital media use, (3) digital data analysis and (4) critical digital sociology.

Deborah’s paper was followed by several interesting case studies that exemplified what ‘doing’ digital sociology might look like. In a joint paper, Timothy Graham and I considered the ontological provocations of imminent wearable computing technologies through the example of Google Glass. Carefully avoiding dualisms and technologically deterministic judgements of the new technology, we showed how Google Glass can be understood as a technique of self though which people relate to themselves and others and in this way navigate their day-to-day lives. Alerted by Latour to Gabriel Tarde’s concept of the monad we postulated that Google Glass provides an example through which to trace and make visible entities in a digital network.

Continuing the Google-theme, David Collis next conceptualised the Google PageRank algorithm as an autistoid technology that institutes a ‘hyperlink ethic’, which transforms the way information is organised online. Drawing on psychoanalytically-informed social theory his presentation exemplified how to account for the unique structure and agency of digital life.

Erin Carlisle concluded the first session with a paper on the Australian political panel TV programme Q&A. She questioned the applicability of traditional public sphere theory to despatialised, mediatised communication. Erin’s paper provided an excellent example of how digital sociology can be useful in reconceptualising publics in light of digital developments.

After recharging over lunch, the second session had even more to offer. In my paper ‘The Culture of the Digital: From Digital Methods to Digital Sociology’ I developed a critical perspective on the label ‘digital sociology’. While a keen proponent of the emergence of the sub-discipline or interest area, I cautioned about the use of the label. Arguing that it is great to see sociology reaffirming its contribution to the digitisation of social life, showing its willingness to adapt its craft, and declaring its relevance in the context of a proliferation of interest areas that are taking claim to the ability to access and analyse the social, I outlined the danger of reinforcing binaries between the humanities/qualitative studies and the sciences/quantitative/big data work. I suggested that good digital sociology needs to be open to interdisciplinarity and to acknowledge the unique culture, architecture and affordances of the digital, as well as to consider the emergence of new political and ethical power relations in the realm of the digital.

As if following my call, the rest of the session provided some stellar examples of critical digital sociology. Tristan Kennedy used his research on online heavy metal subcultures to reflect on ethical and methodological considerations surrounding privacy and consent when studying digital communities. Tim Jordan (also on behalf of Kim Humphery) conceptualised ethical consumption apps. He considered how new moralities emerge in the context of digital interaction, which reconfigure the ideological and material complicity of consumers and disturb the notion of the consumer as agent. Finally, Ashlin Lee presented his theoretical framework for understanding ‘convergent’ mobile technology. He showed how a shift in the materiality and sociality of digital communication and consumption necessitates new ways of conceptualising the entangled reciprocal relationships between humans and technologies.

The breadth and depth of the critical engagement in all of these presentations truly shows the unique perspective sociology has to offer to the study of the digital. And the lively buzz that surrounded the sessions indicates the keenness of sociologists to have their say. Numerous other papers that engaged with the digital were sprinkled throughout the conference and eager conference-goers tapped me on the shoulder left, right and centre, expressing their excitement about the sessions and their interest in getting involved.

The digital is certainly on the agenda in Australian sociology and we would like to foster this interest by establishing an Australian Digital Sociology research network. Researchers located in Australia who are interested in getting involved can contact me (t.sauter@qut.edu.au), Deborah Lupton (deborah.lupton@sydney.edu.au) or Alexia Maddox (alexia.maddox@curtin.edu.au)

Dr Theresa Sauter is a Research Associate in the ARC Centre of Excellence in Creative Industries and Innovation at the Queensland University of Technology


Categories: Digital Sociology

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