I described myself as an ‘academic technologist’ for a number of years. During my part-time PhD, I’d drifted into a number of roles which felt connected but which were difficult to summarise: training people to use NVIVO, writing digital scholarship resources, advising on CAQDAS strategy for research projects, running workshops about social media and maintaining social media feeds. Since then I’ve ceased to use the description, in part because I got sufficiently sick of talking about NVIVO that I resolved never to approach the topic again, but also because the term didn’t really seem to have much purchase. I rarely felt people understood what I meant by it. But unlike ‘digital sociologist’, their lack of understanding wasn’t coupled with some degree of interest in finding out.
Perhaps research technologist would have been a better term. This is what Andy Tattersall uses in a thought-provoking essay at the LSE Impact Blog. He identifies a strange lacunae which has also long-fascinated me: a proliferation of digital tools emerging from outside the academy, increasing numbers of technology startups focused on the academy, strategic investment in tools and platforms by institutions but specific features of academic labour which are hindering uptake:
Whilst this work is a great help to those aware of it, the reality is a majority of academics are either unaware of or unwilling to engage with the myriad tools and technologies at their disposal (beyond social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, ResearchGate, etc.). There are several reasons for this: workload and deadline pressures; fear of technology; ethical implications around their use and their application, especially when it comes to third party software; or too much choice.
I’d add to this that their engagement with social networking sites is inevitably shaped by the conditions of academic labour in ways which can prove detrimental. The research technologist, on Tattersall’s account, emerges to mediate between different stakeholders in these transformations and to help academics negotiate these changes in an effective way:
But with so many tools available, how do academics navigate their way through them? How do they make the connection between technology and useful application? And who helps them charter these scary, unpredictable waters?
The parallel he draws is with the learning technologist: “this group of centralised, university-educated professionals help drive teaching innovations that are underpinned by technology”. As he describes the practical activity performed in such a role:
It would support research and its dissemination in the use of video, animation, infographics, social media, online discussion, mobile device use, and social networks, to name just a few technologies. The learning technologist applies pedagogical reasoning for their technology choices, and the research equivalent would need to assess the same considerations. Not only that but good communication skills, information literacy, and an understanding of data protection, ethics, and what constitutes a good technology – and how it can be applied to a specific research setting in a sustainable and timely manner – are all essential. For example, the use of video to disseminate research around speech therapy would potentially be more useful than an infographic. In the same way, an infographic published in a blog post might be a better way of conveying the results of a public health project.
On this understanding, I could easily be described as a research technologist who specialised in disseminating sociology. I have a broad acquaintance with the discipline, understand its different intellectual currents and am very familiar with the sociological sensibility that unites much of them. Someone operating in this role might step in to do the dissemination work on behalf of an individual or a project. But the intellectual familiarity also facilitates their entering into the project, in a relatively narrow capacity, in order to support and guide this activity. The point is not only to undertake the activity, it’s the capacity to work with researchers as they do this and to understand the practical challenges they face over and above the technology itself:
The reason why in-house support could benefit the practice and dissemination of research is that researchers are very pressured for time, and often don’t know what they need regarding research technologies and especially dissemination. Secondly, when they do know what they want, they often need it “as soon as possible”. These two problems are more solvable within the department, especially as researchers often don’t know where to go for specific help. The research technologist would be a designated, focused role, embedded within the department. They’d be a signpost to new ways of working, problem solving and, most importantly, be able to consider all issues of ethics and/or compliance when passing on advice.
This involves a familiarity with the issues encountered in technology use, rather than simply the tool or platform itself. Andy’s example of guiding researchers through the experience of dealing with hostility and abuse on Twitter is an excellent example. I really like his vision of “a kind of ‘Swiss Army knife’ professional, who can exploit the burgeoning number of opportunities afforded by the many new technologies out there” but I suspect I’ll still continue to call myself a digital sociologist for the time being.
Here’s a really interesting presentation by Matthew Dovey about the emergence of this role and the purpose it serves: