On 15 March, we held our third and final Digital Methods as Mainstream Methodology conference at the University of Manchester.
David talked to us about the politics of data circulation and the role of the digital sociologist. He looked at various strands, from the environment that allows data to accumulate, to archives and archiving – including the data classification systems that exist within online repositories such as YouTube and Facebook. He then looked at the algorithms that filter data and, therefore, our social world, saying, “Don’t just look at the books someone has bought on Amazon, but also at how they reached those purchasing decisions, otherwise you’re missing something important.”
David has a new book, Popular Culture and New Media: The Politics of Circulation, being published by Palgrave Macmillan in July 2013. The book will look at these issues, and others, in more depth.
Our second speaker was Noortje Marres, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. Noortje is the brains behind the Issue Mapping Online wiki, and convener of the college’s MA/MSc programme in Digital Sociology. She talked to us about issue mapping as an interface method, looking at the links between technology, science and society, and how these disciplines interact. She detailed how issue mapping deploys methods and tools of network and content analysis, taking us through various mapping programmes, including Twitter StreamGraph and Infomous, to visualise online content and data.
In 2012, Noortje published her book Material Participation: Technology, the Environment and Everyday Publics (Palgrave Macmillan).
After lunch, we heard from Chris Griffin, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Bath, who explored her research project on the culture of intoxification and young drinkers’ habits – what she described as “calculated hedonism as a cultural norm”. She offered a useful distinction between using digital methods and researching the digital world, and looked at how social interaction is used by alcohol manufacturers to forge an emotional connection between their consumers’ lives and their brand proposition. She then went on to talk about a blurring between user generated content and brand promotion in some companies’ online publicity campaigns.
Chris is the author of Representations of Youth: The Study of Youth and Adolescence in Britain and America (Polity Press).
Lastly, Rachel Gibson, professor at the Institute for Social Change at the University of Manchester, joined us to talk about CODE (‘Comparing Online Democracy and Elections’), an ESRC-funded project that undertook a four-country comparative analysis of the use of new media by political parties and citizens. Rachel explored whether the use of new media in this context is changing the nature of political campaigning in that it is democratising and deprofessionalising the process, or whether it was promoting a new mode of electoral campaigning – ‘citizen campaigning’. Rachel offered an interesting comparison of UK and US political websites, how they encouraged citizens to get involved during national election campaigns, what information was given on these sites, and what success they had.
Rachel is the author of The Growth of Anti-Immigrant Parties in Western Europe (The Edwin Mellen Press).
The future of digital methods
Before the end of the conference, we gathered to discuss the future of digital methods with both the day’s speakers and the core team behind the DMMM events. We looked particularly at the impact of Research Ethics Committees at universities in terms of engaging in groundbreaking work that may be seen as unethical – does traditional academia recognise research that is done for the greater good, if it involves having to set up fake profiles online to gather information, or editing the material that is gathered, in order to protect the identities of those who originally produced it online?
In short, is academia behind the times, still seeing digital methodology as marginal rather than central to contemporary research? There were no definitive answers, and individual experience, together with different experiences of individual universities, may differ. But there is certainly lots more to discuss around these issues over the coming months and years.
This is not the end of Digital Methods as Mainstream Methodology – and we look forward to seeing what now emerges as a result of our three conferences. Watch this space.