Text by Matt Parker, PhD Candidate,
CRiSAP Research Centre, London College of Communication
Social Imaginaries: The re-invention of social research was a panel discussion and book launch of Digital Sociology by Noortje Marres held on 9 May at Central Saint Martins.
Here PhD Researcher Matt Parker reports back on the event:
What is digital sociology? Who are digital sociologists? Are we all now digital sociologists? These were broad questions raised by the audience and navigated by a thoughtful interdisciplinary panel from within the arts and humanities invited by Noortje Marres to respond to her new book Digital Sociology: The Reinvention of Social Research.
Lecturer in Digital Anthropology Hannah Knox argued that digital technology allows people, as active participants in world making, to become ‘sociologists’. A blur is forming between the methodological tools of sociology and the banal everyday consumption of consumer based data flows. Behavioural trends, movement and migratory patterns and the body itself are all now subject to digital sociological methods. Does this put the discipline of sociology at threat? What responsibility has the sociologist when using socially produced metrics? When automated data becomes almost self-generating, how does one determine the validity of data and to what purpose should it be deployed? Who are therefore digital sociologists? For Marres, digital sociology is ‘about acquiring problems’, even turning the methods of sociology into problems. When looking into the digital realm, Marres sees something far more alive and organic than something that requires interventions, something already at this stage of its life that is large, oblique and constantly moving. This is the problem at hand and is a problem for both the private and public realm.
The event left me with more questions than answers, which is undeniably the purpose of a book launch; to engage, intrigue and persuade individuals into the purchase of a £16.99 paperback academic monograph. The academy and culture at large is still talking about the digital as something new and confusing. It is difficult to know whether to be anxious or celebratory of its potential. Once I make my commitment to providing my data to whichever book vendor I choose to order Digital Sociology from (it won’t be Amazon), I hope that the rounded and ultimately positive take on ‘the digital’ that was suggested to come from the book, will shine light on the virtue of data scraping, big data and their positive application towards the social sciences.
The event was hosted by the UAL Innovation Insights Hub and the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies, University of Warwick, with Les Back (Goldsmiths), Lucy Kimbell (UAL), Hannah Knox (UCL), Noortje Marres (Warwick), Mike Savage (LSE), and Amanda Windle (UAL).
The digital makes possible new ways of monitoring, analysing and intervening in social life. Critics have pointed at the new forms of surveillance and control that this makes possible, and to new types of data economies. But the creation of new forms of knowledge about social life is central to efforts to implement digital infrastructures: they enable the introduction of new kinds of actionable insight into society. At the same time, however, the liking-and-sharing economy has recently been exposed to serve power more than truth. In this context, how can we communicate the constructive potential of the insight that knowing is a social process? What can be the role of social research in digital societies? This is the issue that Digital Sociology (Marres, 2017) examines, and one that this event will explore by way of a panel discussion about the following proposition: in a digital age, “knowing society” becomes an inherently interdisciplinary undertaking, one that requires mutual engagement, and thrives on creative exchange, between computing, social sciences, and the arts.
Evelyn Ruppert has written a blog post about the event for Big Data & Society:
The journal has also just published a video interview with Hannah Knox about my book: