School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University
Please note: this is the text of a spoken talk given at ‘Digital Sociology vs STS,’ at the Oxford Internet Institute, on 07 December 2016. It is not really intended to be picked over in great detail! It contains some things I’ve said elsewhere, and various implicit gestures to other work. I’ve very, very lightly edited it, but basically kept it in the general format of a talk to make these origins clear.
Thanks for the invitation. I should say that I’m here more or less ex officio – and in fact reluctantly so – as the co-convenor of the BSA STS group, with Stevienna De Saille (who sadly can’t join us today).
I’m also here largely because Huw couldn’t get any STS people to actually talk –which is maybe a data point that we should dwell on at some stage.
Anyway, with this in mind, it’s probably worth being clear at the outset, that I don’t actually know anything about digital sociology. And if that’s understandable, something that’s maybe less forgivable is that I’m not exactly an authority on STS either. Or at least I’m not someone committed to the conceptual and methodological infrastructure of that sub-field, and am often, in fact, quite hostile to it. So.
So: I’m not going to offer any kind of STS analysis of digital sociology, whatever that might be. What I do want to do, though, is first to think about digital sociology through a related framework that I have been interested in – and this is a perspective that we might call the social life of epistemic things, or, maybe better, the life history of discipline. I then to want to say something brief about two other longstanding hobby-horses of mine, which are ontology and collaboration.
In my own work, for the last couple of years, I’ve been trying to think about the edges between sociology, STS, and biology – and doing so on the basis of some idea that the normative projects of British sociology and STS would gain from a more nuanced account of how biological and social agencies inhabit one another. What has been striking to me, though, in trying to think those edges, is that the more and more you look through the archive of British sociology, the more you find these odd strands of biological material – entrails, I want to call them – draped across the history of the discipline (I think, for example, of short lived experiments on social biology at the LSE; on the ecological and psychiatric leanings of Chicago school sociology, and so on. The historian Chris Renwick has done huge amounts to draw together some of the key moments of this history).
Much of my own work, then, has been about calling attention to sociology’s long, complex, ambiguous relationships to psychiatry and psychology, to social epidemiology, to human ecology, and so on. And I am increasingly interested in the professional invisibility of these entrails and the commitment to a normative sociology that, if it is nothing else, is not biology.
I raise this here because I think it’s worth remembering, in thinking through the project of a digital sociology, that sociology is a discipline with complex and sometimes unexpected inheritances; that what look like the transformations of the present have histories, and disciplinary histories at that. So partly here I’m simply wondering if there are not other, older moments of computational and algorithmic thinking in sociology – and I’m wondering how such moments might animate, torque or thwart, the self-imaginary of a digital-sociological project. (I know at least one account of that, which is the work that Patricia Clough, Karen Gregory and their colleagues have done on cybernetic genealogies in sociology). But I also raise this as a way of calling attention to intensity of the police-work that surrounds the sociological project today. I think here, for example, of John Holmwood’s anxiety about sociology’s internal ‘self-subversion,’ as new formations split away from the ‘core.’
I think the presence of this kind of boundary policing, and the concerns that animate it, should be at the centre of our discussion.
But more critically maybe on this point (and here is a characteristically STS question) I want to ask how digital sociology imagines its lateral affinities, and how it thinks itself in relation to other kinds of hybrid disciplinary formation. It seems to me that these go in two directions: one to other projects that centre on the digital – the digital humanities, obviously – and another to other hybrid forms of sociology (I think of something like a neurosociology). With an STS hat on, and with a view to understanding the imaginary through which digital sociology is now producing itself, I want to ask about the affinities and disaffinities between digital sociology and these kind of projects. How, for example, might a digital sociology be like, and or different form, a biosociology, or a geosociology? In what way do the differences between these things matter?
The second point I want to make is about ontology. So, last week, I attended the second annual meeting of a group called Assist-UK – which is a new national organisation for STS in the UK. The meeting was also part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Science Studies Unit at Edinburgh, which of course everyone will know was a foundational moment, not just for what we now call STS in the UK, but for STS, internationally, as such. I guess this accounts for what struck me (in all frankness) as the slightly nostalgic pall that overhung the meeting – with talks gesturing back to older moments in science studies, and with those acts of memory working, in the old recursive style, as ways of both understanding and justifying the present.
Perhaps this is a stupid thing to say about the birthday part of a literal institution – but I was struck by the degree to which STS had become institutionalised, how it has worked (and still works!) towards its own institutionalization. I wondered about the costs of that work – which is to say the costs of becoming an institution. So partly I want to raise the question of what digital sociology might learn – for good and ill – about the work of institutionalizing (in which I think STS, ever a flakey ensemble, is intensely invested) .
Throughout that meeting, I couldn’t get out of my head a remark that Karen Barad makes in her monumental work, Meeting The Universe Halfway, that the foundational mistake of science studies – its original sin, I want to say – was in thinking that there was a difference in kind between the practice of science studies and the practice of science. Barad instead posits a mode of engagement in which an ‘understanding of the entangled co-emergence of “social” and “natural”… factors might best come from ‘engaging in practices we call “science studies” together with practices we call “science.” Marking at least the desire for such a practice of ‘together-with,’ many have since diagnosed an ‘ontological turn’ in STS of course, with even a special issue of Social Studies of Science devoted to the topic. Yet this meeting reminded me of just how much the social study of science was and is committed to a deeply traditional ontology of the social – which is to say: for many of my colleagues, at least at senior and institutional levels, STS is still the putting of science in context.
And as an outsider, as someone put in the position of reviewing digital STS abstracts for the BSA annual meeting, it seems to me that there might similarly be something to be said about distinguishing between a digital sociology and a sociology of the digital – which seem to mark very different ways of doing ontological work between and across the domains of the digital and the sociological. (I know of course that there are ongoing debates about non-representational approaches to the digital, and about what distinguishes these).
I don’t think the important question here is one of figuring out ontologies of the digital – it’s (and I stress here that my question is motivated by the history of STS), a question about the ontological consequences of how different kinds of digital sociology work. Another way of asking that question is: what is it about digital sociology that makes it a sociology? What are the consequences of that naming? What does the noun sociology do that a word like ‘studies’ or ‘research’ or ‘practice’ does not? And what are the consequences of that doing vis-a-vis our ontological purchase on this arena, and thus for how we are actually able to theorize and participate in digital spaces as such?
The last point I want to make is about collaboration. So I’m someone very broadly trained in the sociology of the biosciences, and in STS – but largely all of the work that I do these days is in some sense interdisciplinary or collaborative. I am increasingly reluctant to use those words, however – not least because they position the interdisciplinary researcher as somehow deviant or secondary. To name ‘interdisciplinarity,’ in other words, is to name an object in need of explanation; it identifies the thing that is not discipline; that which cannot be taken for granted (and thus, of course, that which can – which is to say: discipline as usual).
In an account of the positioning of collaborative work within STS, my collaborator Felicity Callard and I have argued that there is a kind of violence to this prefix ‘inter’ – insofar as it establishes an epistemic regime that takes disciplines to be prior, bounded, and stable; it sanitizes histories of rupture and admixture; it covers over the very active work of making discipline thinkable.
I am tempted to say that, today, self-described ‘interdisciplinarity’ is the primary engine through which disciplines are made whole.
I think here of the many collaborative projects through which STS is currently being pursued, not least those projects where, for example, STS scholars takes responsibility for ‘ethical legal and social implications of scientific developments’ – thus committing themselves to the epistemic parcelling-out of expertise, practice, and even affective engagement (several important papers have addressed this question).
Not least as a result of that development, I think one of the liveliest area of contemporary STS is the small literature that that has concerned itself with interdisciplinarity as a problem, that has argued for a great deal more attention to the socio-technics of collaboration, including to STS itself as a collaborative actor. So I guess all of this is to raise a question about the collaborative stakes of digital sociology – to ask a question about the kind of collaborative actor that digital sociology is going to be.
In the introduction to their recent edited volume on Digital Sociology, Kate Orton-Johnson and Nick Prior ask: ‘To what extent is the sociological imagination a sufficient basis from which to embark on investigation into digital worlds with cross or even trans disciplinary indices?’ I like this question a great deal. And of course it comes with the ghost of its own answer – which is: the sociological imagination is a totally inadequate point of embarkation for digital sociology.
In my own related weariness with these terms, I have started to think the work of interdisciplinarity and collaboration as the always in progress work of kin-making – following Donna Haraway, I would like to re-position the work of interdisciplinarity, not as the prim coming-together of two well-established strangers, but as the recuperation of relationships with complex kin. (I’m drawing on Haraway’s most recent book, which I heartily recommend).
All of which is a complex way of putting collaboration on the agenda for Digital Sociology – of saying, based on the sometimes lamentable experience of STS, that collaboration has a cost, and that that cost is sometimes very high indeed. So I want to ask you whether kin-work is not a better point of embarkation, for digital sociology, than the now tired trope of the sociological imagination or the interdisciplinarity. And I want to ask if recuperation is not a useful logic for wading into the transdisciplinary indices of digital life.
Kin-work is of course a good account of what we’re trying to do here more broadly today. And though we set it up in a playfully antagonistic way, I want to argue for STS and digital sociology as the ‘core discipline’s own awkward kin – two sub-fields brought together by the degree to which they are both alive, albeit in different ways, to the transformations of the present.