Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Book Launch, Digital Sociology: The Reinvention of Social Research by Noortje Marres

Madras HQ Bibliotheque, CODE/CITY, Manu Luksch © 2017
Digital Sociology* was launched on 9 May 2017 at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London. The launch included a panel discussion chaired by Lucy Kimble (University of the Arts London) with contributions from the author, Noortje Marres (University of Warwick; BD&S Editorial Board member) and four panellists.  In advance of the panel, the Journal also filmed Hannah Knox (UCL; BD&S Editorial Board member) interviewing Marres about some key arguments in her book.  The video is available here.

Noortje Marres began by noting that her final manuscript was submitted shortly after the Brexit vote and Trump election, which have sparked considerable debate on the role of social media, data analysis tools to detect fake news and new forms of blocking manipulative content. What is the relation of these two events to her book? She argued that these are piecemeal technical solutions that do not go to the heart of the problem. As much research has shown, communities amongst which fake news circulates are separate from the platforms and their mitigating technical services. What technical solutions do not address is that sharing is a logic underpinning digital platforms and from which their social value is derived. It is this value and logic that digital sociology attends to, of how knowledge generation is a social process rather than narrowly behaviorist or configured by individual platforms. Marres’ understanding of social logics is at the heart of her book and each panelist took this up in different ways.

Les Back (Goldsmiths) began with a quote from Marres’ book, that ‘digital sociology is ultimately a form of awareness, nothing more, nothing less’ (44) and that it is not fringe but key to understanding social life and that we are already inside the thing we are trying to understand. To exemplify this point he noted how the monitoring of social media is part of the very techniques of digital border surveillance and the traceability of migrants.  Beyond police and border guards, the movement and management of migrants are in numerous and troubling ways implicated in the digital.

Amanda Windle (University of the Arts London) offered a feminist critique by referencing a quote inspired by Donna Haraway’s work that ‘we must stay with the trouble’ (37). Marres offered this in relation to the troubling question of framings of the digital as either an object or instrument of inquiry. Windle added to the ‘troubles’ raised in Marres’ book by posing a number of questions such as ‘whose digital sociology?’; are research subjects active or passive participants? what are the situated practices that make up digital life? which bodies are potentially silenced?

Mike Savage (LSE) reflected on the reference in Marres’ book to the 2007 article he co-wrote with Roger Burrows on the ‘coming crisis of empirical sociology’ and how Marres effectively critiques the presumed binary they set up between ‘new’ and ‘old’ methods. Taking the example of inequalities research, he argued that rather than debating for or against new methods the challenge is how to persuasively tell stories through aesthetic devices and visualisations and what he names the ‘symphonic aesthetic.’ 

Hannah Knox (UCL) took up another claim in Marres’s book that while people have always been active in world making, digital devices blur the boundaries between methods and the tools people use in their everyday lives. She argued that scientists need to become sociologists to understand data and interpret visualisations. Through this provocation she made an appeal for interdisciplinarity and questioned whether we are all becoming digital sociologists or if there are new forms of expertise emerging in the interstices of existing disciplines.

In these and other ways, all presentations attested to the importance and wide applicability of Marres' book for sociological studies of digital worlds.  An audio transcript of the panel can be found here.

*Marres, Noortje.  2017. Digital Sociology: The Reinvention of Social Research. Cambridge: Polity Press.