Twitter research: what’s holding sociology back?

I often hear it said that Twitter offers researchers unprecedented opportunities because it provides qualitative data at a quantitative scale. Twitter provides, to download and analyse for free, data that used to be ethically challenging and expensive to obtain: yet sociology, with a few notable exceptions, has been very slow to exploit it. This is by no means is an exhaustive list, but it’s telling that it’s compiled by a leading social media scholar and, out of 267 articles, it includes 1 paper published in Sociology. Why does this matter? Aside from debates about sociology’s future in the digital age, Twitter research is poorer for the absence of sociological scholarship.

In Margret Archer’s words:

“Everything has a context and that context was developed before whatever problem the researcher is looking at developed. There is no such thing as decontextualized action or situation-less action. So, we’ve got to theorize somewhat about the structural context in which things happen and how it came to being.”

Yet, there’s far too much Twitter research that problematically cauterizes Twitter from its social structural contexts. It’s almost inconceivable that social concerns, such as misogyny on Twitter, can be adequately addressed without reference to structure; and consequently agency and culture. In short, Twitter is ripe for empirically informed sociological scholarship. The tools are available here (along with tutorials and a helpful community of experts); we just need to apply our sociological imagination to using them.

“Ethnographies & Health” An early-career workshop

1st–2nd October, 2015 LSHTM, London UK Keynote speaker: Dr. Tiago Moreira, Durham University Discussants: Prof. Judy Green & Dr. Simon Cohn, LSHTM

Workshop details:
‘Ethnographies & Health’ is organised by Sarah Milton, Emma Garnett, Joanna Reynolds and Judy Green, and will take place at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, 15-17 Tavistock Place, London WC1H 9SH on 1stand 2ndOctober, 2015.

We envisage a small workshop (20-25 presentations) and prior to the workshop we will organise a buddying feedback system, whereby delegates will be asked to read in advance the paper of another delegate. At the workshop itself, delegates will be asked to briefly comment on their buddy’s paper, before opening up the floor for further questions. The sharing of these short papers will help ensure that it is a productive and supportive experience for everyone involved.

The workshop is supported by a Workshop Support Grant from the Foundation for the Sociology of Health and Illness (

Abstract submission:
Please send abstracts (max. 400 words) to by June 31st, 2015. We will inform you by email notification if your abstract has been accepted by 31stJuly, 2015. If your abstract has been successful, we will ask you to submit a short written version of your paper in advance of the workshop (mid September), to be shared with another delegate as described above.

Attendance at the workshop will be limited to those whose abstracts have been accepted. Lunch and refreshments will be provided on both days, and there will be a networking and social event on the evening of the 1stOctober. There will be no attendance fee, and five small bursaries of £75 will be available as contributions towards travel and accommodation costs for delegates with limited funding for attending workshops. Please indicate when you submit your abstract if you wish to be considered for a bursary and why.

Buying Medicine from the Web: understanding the risks

by Lisa Sugiura (@lisa_sugiura)

Following the recent tragic death of Eloise Parry from ‘diet pills’ she purchased online, there has been a flurry of media attention highlighting the risks of buying medicine from the Web. However this is not a new issue. The dangers of purchasing medicines online have been reported over the past decade in: harrowing media cases; in governmental campaigns; and, to a lesser extent, in academic studies. The Guardian article Should I buy prescription drugs over the internet?’ Sunday 26 April 2015 reports that: the majority of prescription medicines available to purchase online are fake, substandard or unapproved; that one in four GPs have treated patients for adverse reactions to medicines bought online; and that it is illegal for UK based websites to sell prescription medicine unless they are registered pharmacies. We, as consumers, are told that the main things we need to be concerned with are: whether medicines are counterfeit; whether they are safe to consume; and whether or not they are being sold legally. Except it is not that simple. These ‘risks’ are presented in the rhetoric of online medicine purchasing but are not fully explained or disentangled from the confusion over what is legitimate or illegitimate when obtaining medicine from the Web.

In the first instance, ‘counterfeit medicine’ is an ambiguous term. Although debates over counterfeit medicines have been ongoing for almost the same length of time that medicine has been available to buy online, there is still no universal definition as to what they are (Attaran et al. 2012). The Guardian article refers to fake, substandard and unapproved medicines, and all have been associated with the counterfeit medicine trade. Often these terms are used interchangeably. However, they are distinct from each other and placing them all under the same umbrella implies that they share the same deficiencies. Fake medicines are: deliberately and fraudulently mislabelled with respect to identity and/or source; may include the wrong ingredients or inactive ingredients; or have imitation packaging. Substandard medicines are those that do not meet the legally required quality specifications of a country’s regulations (for example, here in the UK the sale and provision of medicine is controlled by the Medicine Act 1968, which is now encompassed within the Human Medicines Regulations 2012) due to the quality of the raw ingredients, or (unintentional?) errors in manufacturing or handling. Unapproved medicines mean that they have not been registered. They do not have the obligatory legal authorisation (of a country’s regulators) to be imported or sold in a particular country. Such medicines are often untested and so their safety and efficacy are unknown.

It is clear that when considering counterfeit medicines there are issues related to the deliberate intention to mislead, which are distinct from contrasting production methods in different countries, but, from a patient perspective, not all counterfeit medicines are dangerous to health. Whilst some are undeniably dangerous containing illicit substances or are ineffective, others provide legitimate treatment. The quality of medicines is also conflated with commercial and economic interests. Counterfeiting can occur with both branded and generic medicine products and this has financial implications for pharmaceutical companies. A brand name is a name given to a drug by the manufacturer. The use of the name is reserved exclusively for its owner. Alternatively a generic medicine is a pharmaceutical product, usually intended to be synonymous with a brand product, which is manufactured without a licence from a company and marketed after the expiry date of the patent or other exclusive rights. They are marketed under a non-proprietary or approved name rather than a proprietary or brand name. Generic medicines are frequently as effective as, but much cheaper than, brand name medicines. Because of their low price, generic medicines are often the only medicines that the poorest can access.

When considering whether medicines bought online are safe to consume, it should be noted that there no reliable statistics on side effects or harms resulting from medicines bought online. In 2007 it was reported that the FDA did not have accurate figures on “adverse events” resulting from online medicine purchases (Easton, 2007). A UK survey reported that one in four general practitioners said that they had treated patients for adverse reactions to medicines bought online, while a further 8% suspected they had treated side effects of web-bought medicines (Moberly, 2009). However, the survey did not ask whether the medicines that caused these reactions were purchased abroad or from unregistered outlets, or whether the reactions were the result of fake drugs, or a failure in the instructions provided or an interaction with another medication.

Nevertheless, there have been reported deaths occurring from the consumption of counterfeit medicines bought online (Kao et al., 2009; Dondorp et al., 2004; Hanif et al., 1995). In China, during 2001, it was reported in the Shenzhen Evening News that 200,000 people were alleged to have died from consuming fake medicines (Satchwell, 2004:44; Humble, 2005). Furthermore, the harrowing case of Eloise Parry is also not unique. In 2013, a young British woman named Sarah Houston died after taking slimming pills that she had purchased from the Web. In both cases it is significant that the product taken was not sold for human consumption in the US or UK. This opens up a whole other can of worms concerning substances that escape medicine regulation provided they are not marketed for human consumption. Often they are often sold under the guise of bath salts or plant food, though the design of their packaging and marketing may suggest otherwise.

UK based websites must be registered pharmacies to sell prescription medicine, if not they can be prosecuted. These online pharmacies operate in the same manner as offline establishments, where a valid prescription procured from a doctor is needed before the medicine can be dispensed. This issue is uncomplicated when dealing with websites trading from the UK; however UK citizens can access international online pharmacies, with different medicine regulations and standards. Medicine that ordinarily requires prescription in the UK might be obtainable over-the-counter elsewhere, and less regulation might mean a reduced quality of ingredients. With no global standards to govern the online sale of medicine, domestic laws can easily be circumnavigated. Policing and control of the movement of medicines across borders is problematic. The Web allows people to view websites outside of national and legislative jurisdiction and enables access to unregulated and unauthorised substances within the home country sent from abroad.

Before the Web there were limited options for people to purchase medicine. Nowadays people can choose to undertake the traditional practice of visiting a doctor or pharmacy or go online for their healthcare needs. Given the attention that this issue has and is currently receiving, more needs to be done to deconstruct the problem of being able to buy medicine from the Web. Specifically, for people to manage the risks associated with purchasing medicine online there needs to be a clearer distinction between buying medicines from legitimate online pharmacies as opposed to illegitimate online sources.


Attaran, A., Barry, D., Basheer, S., Bate, R., Benton, D., Chauvin, J.,& McKee, M. (2012). How to achieve international action on falsified and substandard medicines. BMJ345.

Dondorp, A. M., Newton, P. N., Mayxay, M., Van Damme, W., Smithuis, F. M., Yeung, S., Petit, A., Lynam, A. J., Johnson, A., Hien, T. T., McGready, R., Farrar, J. J., Looareesuwan, S., Day, N. P. J., Green, M. D. & White, N. J. (2004). “Fake antimalarials in Southeast Asia are a major impediment to malaria control: Multinational cross-sectional survey on the prevalence of fake antimalarials.” Tropical Medicine & International Health, 9(12), 1241–6.

Hanif, M., Mobarak, M., Ronan, A., Rahman, D., Donovan, J. et al. (1995). “Fatal renal failure caused by diethylene glycol in paracetamol exlixir: The Bangladesh epidemic.” British Medical Journal, 311, 88–91.

Human Medicine Regulations 2012

Humble, C. (2005). “Inside the fake Viagra factory.” Sunday Telegraph, 21 August. Available at: http:// Inside-the-fake-Viagra-factory.html.

Kao, S. L., Chan, C. L., Tan, B., Lim, C. T., Dalan, R., Gardner, D. & Lee, K. O. (2009). “An unusual outbreak of hypoglycemia.” New England Journal of Medicine, 360(7), 734-6.

Medicines Act 1968

Satchwell, G. (2004). A Sick Business: Counterfeit Medicines and Organised Crime. Stockholm Network.


What are algorithms and why are they problematic?

Algorithm has become a well-used buzzword. We are told algorithms can be an insidious presence in our lives; that they offer a problematic illusion of objectivity; and that, in reality, they disguise and set in concrete subjective decisions that cannot represent our nuanced and messy social reality. Algorithms, it is claimed, often (in the name of efficiency) compound and amplify injustice.

Yet the word algorithm is rarely defined. Since it’s used imprecisely it can often be substituted for the words code or software. Essentially an algorithm is a finite set of logical statements written in a coding langauge for a computer to process. Algorithms can be written in a variety langauges and compiled into software.  Over the history of computing, an array of different platforms and languages has evolved. Each of these languages has evolved for a variety of purposes; from programming robots in factories to producing search engine results. Each language built on previous elements of other languages. For example, the Hyper Text Mark-up Langauage that Tim Berners-Lee developed to enable documents to be shared on World Wide Web could not have existed without the Standard Generalized Mark-up Language, which could not have existed without Generalized Mark-up Language, which built-on IBM’s Document Composition Facility; and so on.

Nevertheless, you don’t need to understand the history of computing to know why algorithms can be problematic. At the most fundamental level, computers can only ‘think’ in binary. All computers rely on electronic circuits and these circuits use logic gates that can either be open or closed. These states are represented in binary as 1s or 0s. We can represent this logic in pseudo-code, which is a halfway house between English and computing code. A line of code in an algorithm will decide if a condition is true or false and this translates to a 1 or a 0 signifying a logic gate in the computer’s circuit is open or closed. Computers are therefore told to do something:

If a condition is true;

While a condition is true;

Until a conditon is true;

For example:

If body temperature = 37C Then maintian patient’s temperature

  Else if body temperature < 36C Then alert medical professional

End if

If there were only 4 web pages in the world (called A, B, C, and D) and the only links on the Web were from pages B, C, and D to A. Google’s famous PageRank (PR) algorithm in pseudo-code would look like this:

PR(A) = PR(B) + PR(C) + PR(D)

This is an actual algorithm that runs until its user types in y or n:



cout<< “Do you want to continue (Y/N)?\n”;

cout<< “You must type a ‘Y’ or an ‘N’.\n”;

cin >> ans;


while((ans !=’Y’)&&(ans !=’N’)&&(ans !=’y’)&&(ans !=’n’));

Of course modern software can be extremely complex; it’s estimated Windows OS has 50 million lines of code. It’s important, however, to remember every piece of software; every algorithm that is compiled in software is only as good as the number of binary decisions it needs to do its job. If that’s fitting a windscreen on a car production line; that’s straightforward. The closer machines come to making decisions that involve ambiguity the more binary decisions have to be ‘nested’ in the software to accommodate that ambiguity. That means thinking becomes more complex by building on the results of previous binary decisions and assumptions.

For example, this pseudo-code algorithm assumes if a user has left his or her privacy setting alone they have consented to having their status updates logged.

If privacy_setting = False then user_status = public

Do while user_status = public

       Copy user_status_updates to log


End if

So this is very simple example, but we can see that algorithms are problematic because inevitably they have to discipline messy ambiguity with layers upon layers of binary ‘thinking’ that, within millions of lines of code, can be impossible to trace and used to hold their authors to account.

Two Up-coming Events at Warwick 13/1/2015

What is Digital Sociology? An evening lecture by Deborah Lupton with Mark Carrigan and Emma Uprichard responding. It will take place in S0.21 from 5pm to 7pm. This is in the Social Sciences Building on the University of Warwick campus. It would be helpful if you could register using Eventbrite.

Sociological Perspectives on Digital Health: An afternoon seminar with Deborah Lupton, Conor Farrington, Sam Martin and Maz Hardy. It will take place in A0.23. This is Milburn House, the centre of the IAS which is next to University House. You can find it on the campus map here by typing in A0.23. The seminar will take place from 2pm to 4pm. It would be helpful if you could register using the eventbrite page here.

Digital sociology, digital cultures, web science, data science …. what’s the difference?

Wednesday 14 January 2015

17:00 – 19:00 (drinks reception to follow)

Small Cinema, Richard Hoggart Building

Goldsmiths, University of London

Book tickets here

The event is organised to reflect on different and innovative digital social science research approaches and programmes that have developed over the past several years. From digital sociology to web science, how is the question and challenge of digitisation being conceived and researched? What are the key differences between approaches and their consequences for how we do social science? Join the discussion and debate lead by short reflections on these questions by a panel of scholars from Goldsmiths, Warwick, Southampton and Canberra.

Chair: Evelyn Ruppert, Digital Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London


Susan Halford, Web Science Institute, University of Southampton

Deborah Lupton, News & Media Research Centre, University of Canberra

Noortje Marres, Digital Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London

Dhiraj Murthy, Digital Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London

Emma Uprichard, Warwick Q-Step Centre, Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies, University of Warwick


Twitter Fever; how should (Digital) Sociology respond?

When describing the growing number of social science papers devoted to Twitter it’s now becoming difficult to avoid hyperbolic metaphors; an initial trickle of research is becoming a deluge. To date Web of Science has indexed over 150 papers from sociology alone that address Twitter. The rush to exploit Twitter’s research potential is understandable. There are now free tools available, such as Node XL, which, at unprecedented speeds and scales allow us to access, harvest, and analyse the traces of people’s thoughts, opinions and behaviours. Seemingly combining the scale and generalisability of methods such as national surveys with the granularity and detail of close textual analysis, ethnography, or participant observation (Driscoll & Walker, 2014, p1746), Twitter is often considered the holy grail of data sources. Sociology is responding to Savage & Burrow’s widely cited and knowingly provocative epitaph for traditional empirical sociology with initiatives such as Digital Sociology, but how should this new project position itself to Twitter-fever? The answer lies in finding a fine balance between being critical and constructive.

A “reflexive critique” (Lupton 2014) of new methods is crucial. A closer examination reveals many of the techniques used to sample and analyse Twitter data are limited or flawed. Twitter use is unevenly distributed among Web users in general and, even among those that use it, a significant percentage rarely send a tweet of their own, preferring instead to “listen” to the tweets of others (Graham, Hale, & Gaffney, 2014). There’s no reliable method for verifying the location of Tweeters. For example, from a sample of 19.6 million tweets collected by Graham et al. (2014) only 0.7 percent of tweets contained structured reliable geolocation information (p4). Since they are invisible to algorithms, Twitter’s intentionally nuanced cultural practices such as subtweets (tweets referencing an un-named but implicitly identifiable individual), quoting text via screen captures, “hate-linking” (linking to denounce rather than endorse) and, of course, irony, are ignored by automated methods of textual analysis (Tufekci, 2014). Much Twitter research is therefore completed with “only limited understandings of how best to work with the spatial and linguistic contexts in which the information was produced” (Graham et al. 2014, p1).

Yet Twitter analysis can yield its rewards see, for example, the contribution it made to the Reading the Riots project where it described the lifecycle of misinformation. Digital Sociology’s role is to integrate what works into the “development of a distinctive theoretical and methodological approach” (Lupton, 2014) to address our most important and challenging social problems. This begins with a critique then progresses to its own contribution.

While addressing misogyny online for instance, a critique of Twitter analysis reveals, in isolation, it is a poor substitute for sophisticated ethnography accompanied by historically situated and theoretically reflective analysis. ‘Proving’, through sentiment analysis, how many people make misogynist statements on Twitter, who gets retweeted the most; who’s the most influence misogynist in a network of misogynists is all very well but how does this help us understand misogyny; its consequences and possible counter-measures? Twitter, however, is still a rich source of data that should not be jettisoned in a rush to achieve a lofty critical superiority.

Twitter analysis can and should be integrated into Digital Sociology’s broader project. When any of us use technology we individually and collectively engage with wider society; its political and social history and the struggles that have preceded our temporal space. Misogyny on Twitter is technologically mediated symbolic violence that arguably reengages modern patriarchy with centuries of discursive action intended to humiliate feminist voices. Via religious, legal, and medical discourses, the antecedents of misogyny are deeply embedded in our collective conscience. It’s important to capture misogyny online, but also place it its full historical and social context. Rather than deployed as an end itself, Twitter research should therefore be absorbed into Digital Sociology’s arsenal of methods; be used to verify findings and catalyse further insights from comparing its data to other digital and analogue sources (Tinati, Halford, Carr, & Pope, 2014). Moreover, when required, the data should be analysed genealogically (Foucault, 1991) via historical and theoretical texts.


Driscoll, K., & Walker, S. (2014). Working Within a Black Box : Transparency in the Collection and Production of Big Twitter Data, 8, 1745–1764.
Foucault, M. (1991). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Penguin.
Graham, M., Hale, S. a., & Gaffney, D. (2014). Where in the World Are You? Geolocation and Language Identification in Twitter. The Professional Geographer, (July), 1–11. doi:10.1080/00330124.2014.907699
Lupton, D. (2014). Digital Sociology. Routledge.
Manovich L (2011) Trending: The promises and the challenges of big social data. Debates in the Digital Humanities: 1–17.
Tinati, R., Halford, S., Carr, L., & Pope, C. (2014). Big Data: Methodological Challenges and Approaches for Sociological Analysis. Sociology. doi:10.1177/0038038513511561
Tufekci, Z. (2014). Big Questions for Social Media Big Data : Representativeness , Validity and Other Methodological Pitfalls Pre-print.

‘Like’ your Existence or What is a Selfie?

By Dr Mark Featherstone.

This was first posted on the blog of the School of Sociology and Criminology, Keele University.

What is a selfie? Why do people take pictures of themselves and then post them on Facebook or Instagram? When I was a kid my parents took photos of me and my brother and hoarded them in biscuit tins stored in the backs of cupboards, but today we tend take as many pictures of ourselves as we do of each other. Why is this the case? If we take pictures of other people in particular situations in order to remember, why do we take pictures of ourselves? Is this in order to remember ourselves? Perhaps if we did not take pictures of ourselves in particular situations – at the beach, at a party, and so on – we might forget we were ever there. Perhaps if we did not take pictures of ourselves in banal, everyday, situations we might forget ourselves completely? We might forget we ever existed.

By nature the selfie tends to screen out the situation we find ourselves in – the distance between the hand and face means that it is only possible to capture so much background in the shot. As a result, the face, or if the photographer uses a mirror, the body, tends to dominate the shot. Thus, I’m not sure anybody takes a selfie to remember their friend’s party. Perhaps some people do, but I think the clue to the meaning of the selfie resides in the word itself – selfie. This is about the self. For this reason, I think that the majority of selfies are taken simply in order to assert the photographer / subject’s presence in the world. What does the selfie say to other people? It says ‘look at me, I am here’. This is why the celebrity, most especially the precarious celebrity, the celebrity who fears they may be forgotten tomorrow, really needs the selfie. The selfie tells everybody that they’re still around, they still exist. Of course, nobody cares about seeing a minor celebrity’s face over and over again, so what we find is that the celebrity selfie will tend to involve more and more exposure and in the end what the French writer Paul Virilio calls, over-exposure. Over-exposure is an effect of a kind of celebrity arms race – show more and more in order to try to attract more and more hits.

But what is over-exposure? Over-exposure occurs when the private sphere over-flows into public space and everything is on show. Another famous French post-modernist thinker, Jean Baudrillard, talks about this idea in terms of obscenity, which refers to a situation where what should remain off scene suddenly intrudes and flashes into view. In terms of the internet, this is exactly why hard-core pornography is obscene in Baudrillard’s use of the term – everything which would usually take place in private is here placed in full public view. We see everything.

Neither Virilio or Baudrillard place value judgements upon their ideas of over-exposure or obscenity – it’s not that they think saying too much or showing too much is morally bad, but rather that they understand that civilization has evolved through ideas of public and private discourse which are now in the process of being undermined by digital communication and social media. This is clearly problematic. What we know about Facebook, for example, is that we can very easily say too much. In a sense social media compels us to speak, to affirm our existence and our situation, to everybody and anybody who will listen. But this is problematic when what we say is not framed in the correct register – for example, when I become abusive or violent online. Or it may simply be the case that I am over-exposed in some other way that impacts upon my life in ways that I could not have foreseen or imagined. Consider a drunken night – I am photographed drunk with friends who post my image on Facebook. What impact does this have upon my future employment prospects and so on? The issue here, of course, is not that my behaviour is somehow morally offensive in itself, but rather that it becomes problematic and even deviant when it is captured, recorded, and transposed from private space into the public arena.

In response to this situation, Google recently announced ‘a right to forget’, where I can ask them to remove information relating to my name from its internet searches. In a sense this seems like a basic legal innovation relating to the right to privacy and so on, but in my view there is more at stake here connected to the reason we are ever over-exposed in the first place. There are, of course, many instances where people have had their name and image violently abused on the internet, and these people should no doubt have a ‘right to forget’, but what interests me here is the more general idea of the concept of a right to forget in the context of a technological society where it seems to me that we are desperate to remember, to the extent where we need to take photos of ourselves and post them on our Facebook pages in order to remember that we even exist.

The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman tells us that we live in a liquid modern world. Everything flows, and moves very quickly, and there is no permanence about the world. Life is precarious. Paul Virilio explains that speed is the measure of all things today. We live in what he calls a dromocracy. In other words, speed is what separates the winners from the losers. Life is a race. For Virilio’s French colleague Baudrillard, our world is characterised by a blizzard of signs. Everything flows through the media. What mattered today, 12 hours ago, 6 hours ago, 3 hours ago, 20 minutes ago, is now meaningless. Old news is no news. I am sure everybody can recognise elements of this world, the post-modern world, Bauman, Virilio, and Baudrillard theorise, but what has this got to with the selfie? My view is that in the face of this lightning fast, liquid society characterised by a blizzard of signs and information, everything begins to collapse and merge into an undifferentiated flow of opinions, perspectives, and general noise. How can we make ourselves heard under these conditions? How can we convince ourselves that we matter? How can we convince ourselves that we exist? The answer is that we must take to Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram in order to reconstruct our world on a virtual platform which paradoxically confirms our concrete existence. Ironically, I know I exist because I can see my photograph on the Keele website. This digital image confirms my here-ness.

The problem with this is, of course, that this photo no longer really looks like me. This is a common, rather banal, complaint that we all have about our lives in photos, but the deeper meaning of this protest holds. In psychoanalysis my image is not me – it is an alienated version of me, my ego, which I use to imagine myself. This is necessary in order to give myself some sense of self, and identity over time, but it is also important that I do not begin to confuse myself with a two dimensional image, and collapse my life into some kind of virtual persona. However, it may be the case that this is exactly where we are today. We are lost in our lightning fast, liquid society, and buried in signs, symbols, ideas, and information that we cannot process, simply because of the speed which characterises their production, consumption, and redundancy. In the face of this situation, the cost of my survival is the banal practice of making myself heard and seen – I assert myself on the internet in the most basic way I can. I post a picture of my face with some snappy caption which confirms that I am an interesting person who deserves to exist or, if even this is beyond me, I simply affirm my existence without any symbolic support. Here, I simply exist because I exist – ‘here I am, and that is all’.

In his recent article in the London Review of Books, ‘On Selfies’, the writer Julian Stallabrass explains that the problem with the selfie and Instagram is that the image itself is obsolete, redundant, and subject to a kind of logic of disappearance from almost the moment it appears online. In this respect, my image disappears into obscurity the moment I upload it, and I find myself back to square one. As a result I must endeavour to transform myself into a kind of living image where I upload myself, my every thought, and every image, onto some social media platform or other in order to keep myself viable. Of course, this work, and this is work, does not come without its own costs. As we know success and over-exposure opens me up to constant surveillance by friends who sit in judgement about the value of my life, opinions, haircuts and so on. At this point, I exist, but unfortunately, I am now an object of public scrutiny. Here I exist in a kind of critical space – my existence condemns me to the possibility of violent critique.

Although the above describes the general condition of online identity, for the psychoanalyst the constant obsession with self-identity represents a particular condition – pathological narcissism or what is sometimes called narcissistic personality disorder. Named after the Greek mythological figure, Narcissus, who fell in love with his own image, pathological narcissism is a reflection of ego weakness, which leads the narcissist to seek to repair their self through constant construction and reconstruction of an ideal self. Moreover, this ‘exhibitionist self’ is also prone to seek to devalue others in order to boost their own self-esteem and position in relation to everybody else. As a result, the narcissist is not only self-obsessed, but also prone to violent outbursts against others.

However, what is interesting about the current discussion is that what I have sought to suggest is that the selfie is not the result of individual pathology, where particular narcissists seek to post images of themselves all over the internet, but rather that this is somehow a general cultural condition today, caused by the nature of our high tech global society that makes us feel very small, insignificant, and almost non-existent. The result of this situation is that in a sense we all become narcissists who have to reaffirm our identity constantly. This is what I think the selfie discloses about our contemporary world. But what can we do about this condition? Against this situation, which has become as normal, bland, and banal as the selfie itself, the truly radical act would be to become less ‘other centred’. The problem with the selfie is that although we take snaps of ourselves, the purpose of these photos is to assert our existence to the world of others. Everything relies on being seen by others. The generalised other, the other out there, the other I have never met, holds the key to my existence.

Against this situation, I think a better move would be to look inwards, and affirm yourself to and for yourself. Thus, I think that what would be truly radical today would be to avoid the selfie, avoid Facebook, and avoid Twitter, and focus on true reflexivity, where you can think, and be by yourself, and no longer have to rely on the cybernetic other to ‘like’ your existence.

What Does Data Do?

@DavidIanSkinner on the socio-technical ‘racialization’ our police service’s Big Data

Sociologists have rightly highlighted the key role of digital data in contemporary organisation and government. In their critical engagement with the Big Data debates and elsewhere, sociologists focus on the constructed and politicised character of data. But, in doing this important work, they have largely taken at face value a technocratic, functional view of data: i.e. that it is an instrument for knowing, operating, administering and organising. But perhaps we also need to be more curious about the varied, intended and unintended, social effects of data.

I will explain this by discussing my research into the police national forensic DNA database (NDNAD). My primary interest in the NDNAD has been the use of racialized data (that is data organised using racial/ethnic categories) in the operation, governance, and contestation of the database. As I wrote in an article in Sociology last year the NDNAD is racialized in a number of different ways. This can be seen firstly in the disproportionate numbers of people from minorities on the database: some estimates suggest that upwards of 70% of all ‘black’ men in the UK aged between 18 and 35 have profiles stored on the database. The DNA profiles in the NDNAD are routinely classified by “ethnic appearance,” which enables the monitoring of this disproportionate representation of non-white “ethnic minorities”. However this classification also facilitates research aimed at developing techniques to “ethnically profile” unknown suspects using crime scene DNA.

This double-edged role of data in monitoring and profiling underlines the slipperiness of ‘race’ in these processes. This is further stressed by the varied systems of categorization at play. Until recently profiles were assigned an ethnicity on the judgment of a police officer using Police National Computer witness identification codes. Meanwhile, data used to discuss the disproportionality of the racial composition of the NDNAD was derived using a different set of categories (the 16+1 Census classification) and a different means of classification (self-identification).

Susan Leigh Star’s notion of the boundary object is over-used and often abused but in this case it is helpful, as is Star’s sister concept of boundary infrastructures (discussed here). In the NDNAD ‘race’ is a bio-social-informational hybrid that depends on its mutability and overt contingency to operate across institutional contexts and locations: the custody suite; the forensic laboratory; the parliamentary committee and so on. This hybrid is at once an operational, administrative and research object. This blurring is interesting (and not just because it illustrates the contemporary propensity to repurpose data) since it has been an effective means of deflecting criticism of the use of race data in UK forensics.

It could be tempting to view race data as an add-on to the main business of the NDNAD: the collection of genetic material; its translation into digital profiles; and the storage, searching and matching of those profiles. However the ethical work around the database has been crucial to its successful operation. As it grew in size during the last decade it faced a serious crisis of legitimacy. Discussion of race data has been a continual feature of political debates about the NDNAD and of the systems of governance of the database set up to address that crisis. The data (its collection, publication and discussion) has been used to generate public trust in the NDNAD and associated scientific and policing practices by demonstrating openness, ethical scrutiny and compliance with equalities legislation.

The NDNAD seems an open-and-shut case of the coming together of socio-technology and institutional racism. Yet in parliamentary committees and in the internal systems of NDNAD governance, discussion of discrimination and structural disadvantage has been largely avoided or postponed. It is striking how data features in this. Firstly the comparison with different race data sets on arrest and incarceration are used to suggest that, since the disproportionality of the NDNAD is comparable to that in other aspects of criminal justice, the database itself is race-neutral. Secondly, there is a continual focus on the inadequacy of the existing race data and the categories used to construct the data; thus final judgment on the fairness of the database always awaits better, fuller information. Thirdly what ethical discussion of ‘race’ and the database has taken place has transposed consideration of racism into discussion of people’s right to self-identify the ethnicity of their DNA profile.

The example of the NDNAD should therefore make us think more broadly about the performativity of data and the inseparability of the technical and the discursive in socio-technical infrastructures of data. Race data says and does many things in the NDNAD and has been used to obscure its racist outcomes. Moreover the collection and discussion of race data has other stigmatizing and legitimating effects, suggesting to those who operate the system and beyond that, however hard they try to be fair, they cannot help but confront the reality of black criminality.

Digital Sociology at the British Sociological Association Conference

If you are attending the BSA conference in Leeds this week, these sessions might be of interest to you:

‘The Social Life of (Digital) Methods: roundtable discussion’, Conference Auditorium 2, Friday 25th, 5-6pm

As an inaugural conference session for the BSA Digital Sociology study group, this roundtable discussion explores digital methods and their implications for sociological research.  The following speakers will be taking part:  Susan Halford (University of Southampton), Deborah Lupton (University of Canberra), Noortje Marres (Goldsmiths, University of London), Mike Savage, (London School of Economics and Political Science).

All the speakers have made significant contributions to the work on the social life of methods, and to the developing field of digital sociology. Furthermore, the topics under discussion have wider purchase for sociology as a whole at a time of disciplinary uncertainty in a context of rapid social change.  The roundtable will cover a diverse range of topics under the broad theme of the ‘social life of methods’ including the ‘crisis of empirical sociology’, the significance of ‘big data’, the history of sociological methods, the digital turn in social life and the problems and prospects for a critical social science under contemporary circumstances. This session will
not only address the conference theme of ‘changing society’ but will do so in a way which explores how the repertoires of social research are both shaping and being shaped by these broader changes within social life.
The session will be chaired by Evelyn Ruppert (Goldsmiths, University of London)


‘An Invitation to Digital Public Sociology’, Roger Stevens Lecture Theatre 1, Thursday 24th April, 11-12.30pm

This session asks what ‘public sociology’ entails in a world of facebook, twitter, youtube, slideshare, soundcloud, pinterest and wordpress. What affordances and constraints do these tools entail for the task described by Michael Burawoy of ‘taking knowledge back to those from whom it came, making public issues out of private troubles, and thus regenerating sociology’s moral fibre’? What implications do these tools have for the relationship between the public and private in the occupational biographies of individual sociologists and, through aggregation and collective organisation, the discipline as a whole? In addressing such questions it seeks to draw out the continuities between the emerging field of digital sociology and the longer-standing concerns of public sociology. In doing so it addresses the claim made by John Holmwood at the previous year’s conference that the task of sociology in an age of austerity is to ‘occupy debate and make inequality matter’ and argues that the digitalisation of social life entails profound challenges and opportunities for sociological inquiry.

Speakers: Jesse Daniels (City University of New York), Deborah Lupton (Canberra University), Sue Scott (University of York and University of Edinburgh)

There will also be a session on the ‘Quantified self and self-tracking: data, self and health‘, more details can be found here.