In Digital Sociology (2017) Noortje Marres embraces the digital under a more technology-led approach; it is an effort to show what may come before “the digital alphabetization process”, that is an introduction to digital methods for sociology. Marres thus prepares the field for introducing new formats of doing research and knowing society; explaining in details, justifying and clarifying, and then justifying again and explaining one more time. The book in itself is an enquiry to “the digital-sociology” (the hyphen here has the same purpose as the hyphen in “actor-network theory”): What is digital sociology? What makes digital technologies social? Do we need new methods? Are we researching society or technology? Who are digital sociology´s publics? Does digital sociology have problems? There is no way one could misinterpret her proposal to Digital Sociology, which forms tight affinities with Richard Rogers’ Digital Methods approach.
The new formats of doing digital research (or sociology) are not just a tool or a technique that we may embrace along the research process, but something we must care in our journey of enquiry society, in the trajectory of pursuit knowledge. Marres calls for “another knowledge culture”; one built on with and in digital technologies, one that must be interdisciplinary. I was indeed delighted in reading Noortje Marres’ book, her fluid and at the same time, simple writing style taught me so much. That is the reason I am sharing some notes (or a sort of summary) on the thought-provoking Digital Sociology.
Introducing Digital Sociology
This book proposes “to develop a more technology-aware way of understanding social life” (p.11). Marres main objective is “to provide an integrated analysis of the practical, methodological, and political problems and opportunities that today’s digital infrastructures, devices and practices open up for the analysis of social life, and to situate these in relation to wider questions about the changing role of knowledge in society and public life” (p.1). Beyond outlining an “intellectual agenda for digital sociology, the book provides “an overview of current debates in sociology, computing and media studies about new ways of knowing society enabled by digital transformations” (p.2) —> and these debates focused in three main topics (p.2):
a) “on the general claim that the digital makes possible new forms of knowing the world:
b) “on the concepts, methods and techniques required for the study of today’s digital societies;
c) “on the normative, political and ethical issues raised by the new, digital forms of social research”
Marres “advocates an interdisciplinary approach to digital sociology” (p.2), her book emphasises sociological sensibilities that should inform digital ways of knowing society; that is methodological skills or what Marres calls “a form of awareness, nothing more, nothing less” (p.44). Curiously, in 2016, I wrote something really similar in a paper (not accepted for publication) and more recently in my PhD research project (July 2017); “the awareness of social media technicity”. I argued that the awareness of social media technicity, together with its practical expertise, is among the best practices to be adopted in digital research. Marres dedicates the first chapters of her book to discuss how methods and instruments orientate digital research inquiries. We may see such emphasis as a call for knowing more and better the technicity of digital platforms; a sign of a method/knowledge-turn.
[chapter 1] What is digital sociology?
The first chapter introduces digital sociology as new forms of social enquiry based on “the digital” or “new digital way of knowing society”. While exploring three visions of digital sociology, Marres also evaluates different definitions of digital sociology, which can “alternatively be characterised in terms of (a) its objects of enquiry (the digital society); (b) its methods; (c) its platforms (new sites and techniques for the public communication of sociology)” (p.3). After that, she discusses “the digital” in digital sociology; accounting the digital as an object, as a method, as a platform and ending the chapter by posing the problems with the digital ways of knowing society (bias, instrumentalism and interactivity).
Marres stands for “a device-aware sociology” (p.41) or the recognition of the participation of technology in the doing of social research. When Marres affirms that the digital informs social enquiry, she is not turning to a technological determinism form, but “to appreciate that technology – among other elements – is co-constitutive of social research, and social life for that matter” (Latout, et al., 2012) p.113. Marres´ definition of digital sociology contradicts more instrumental definitions, for instance as a mere uptake of ‘new data’ and ‘new techniques’ of understanding and intervening in society” or “as a sequence of data capture, analysis and feedback” – pointed out by Dourish and Bell (2011) (p.38). In the same vein, there is also a tendency in new computational social science that “consists of combinations of older and newer techniques, architectures, methods and ways of doing things”, as argued by Duncan Watts (2004) (p.38).
It may sound obvious (at least for researchers that align with Marre´s proposal), but digital sociology “is an attempt to develop sociology, not just ‘of’ or ‘by means’, but ‘with’ the digital (Back, 2010): to practice a device-aware sociology”, and not to treat the digital as a mere instrument (p.40). This helps us to understand why Marres states that “the digital is precisely a bit of object and a bit of instrument of social enquiry, that has “the capacity to reconfigure relations between researchers and researched, between research and its ‘contexts of application’ (p.43). Such recognition sits on top of the grasp of the methodological implications of ‘the digital’ for social inquiry, that is exactly one of the propositions made by Marres in Digital Sociology.
[chapter 2] What makes digital technologies social?
This chapter seeks to respond the question: “what is ‘social’ about digital media technologies?”, and to achieve this goal Marres first introduces some digital framings of sociality as a way of observing tendencies that tell about our digital life. After that, she evaluates three prominent answers or better saying three understandings of sociality: the technology-centric, the data-centric, and the practice-centric. These understanding of sociality are different, but complementary perspectives, and (in a certain way), they make the social that we can see an analyse. Marres also accounts for their perspectives and tensions (see p.58): i) an internal perspective to digital infrastructures, and ii) an external perspective on the digital. For instance, when we look at arrangements and devices – the grasp of social media APIs, we are reading society under an internal view. While, when we observe “the ordinariness of digital ways of things” and practices, we move our attention to an external perspective (see pp.58-59).
After that, the author examines the type of interventions that digital infrastructures, devices and practices make possible in social life (see p.61). According to Marres, having an understanding of the type of interventions together with the three perspectives, it may be an adequate form to respond to “what is ‘social’ about digital media technologies?”. The chapter is finally ended with three important issues of contention (disagreement) of special relevance to digital sociology: power laws, bots, and methodological individualism. In this chapter, Marres also discusses how “the approximation of the digital and the social has significant potential implications for sociality itself” (p.47), and the capacity of the digital “to reconfigure relations between researchers and researched, between research and its ‘contexts of application’, and between society and social science” (p.43).
[chapter 3] Do we need new methods?
In chapters 3 and 4, Marres discusses what methodological approaches can enable us to cultivate “an awareness of how concepts, methods, and instruments that we have to take up in digital research orientate our inquires towards one answer or another” (p.69). She argues that technical computing skills assume a special importance in digital sociology (following the work of Brauer, 2011). The argument is based on the premise that “digital devices do not just make available ready-made data and tools for social research, they can and often need to be actively configured to capture some data and not others, deploy some measures rather than other, and so on” (p.28).
In this chapter, Marres remind us that some sociologists emphasise that online data is NOT ‘natural’, and digital content is often highly formatted (see Lee et al. , 2008) (p.79), which is a way to show how such infrastructures can be opaque, uncertain, unstable or to use Zygmunt Bauman’s vocabulary, “liquidy”. The main argument here is brought through the well-known example of Google Correlate and the prediction of the Flu (see Ginsberg et al., 2009). Marres thus signalizes the key principle of chapter 3: to see the Internet as a sociological machine, that is qualified by digital instruments for data capture, analysis and feedback – consequently “these instruments enable the development of new methods of social enquiry” (see Diminescu, 2012) (p.81). In other words, Marres points out that “digital infrastructures enable methodological innovation in data analysis” p.80. One of her strongest arguments is that the research design and methodology must go both with and against the digital (p.144); in this way, social research methodology is not completely delegated to the forces of technology.
Chapter 3 is divided into i) an overview of arguments for and against the latter statement; ii) the introduction of what she calls “interface methods” (Marres and Gerlitz, 2016) – the question here is whether digital tools “can be configured to further develop methods of enquiry” (p.81) (rather than asking “whether or not digital tools are newer old); and finally iii) a discussion on what goes beyond the method, but actually it is about knowledge. Here is where I completely align with Marres, because the debate around digital infrastructures and digital methods for repurposing Internet research is not only about “new skills or techniques”, is it? This discussion redirects us to particular forms of thinking and type of knowledge, as well. Which raise another the question whether we only need new skills necessary to develop a “device-aware sociology” or also a particular form of thinking. A particular type of knowledge?
Marres also highlights the difference between the digitization of methods and digital methods. The former approach the digital from the outside in, and advocates a much more minimal role for technology in social enquiry. The latter approach the digital from the inside out, which is an open the door to a technology-led approach in social enquiry. Following that, Marres dedicate one section to respond ‘what are the relevant features of digital infrastructures, devices and practices for social enquiry?’ That would be data and traces, interaction and interactivity, and research design. Despite disagreeing about how technology and methodology come together in social research, Marres affirms that there is “a growing consensus” about what features of the digital are important for social enquiry (p.89). Paying special attention to how the process of data collection structures data analysis, and to the importance of the practical aspects of digital research (and I couldn´t agree more!).
In order “to understand what digital networked data are ‘doing’ to social research methods”, Marres stresses that “we must pay close attention to more practical aspects of digital research, such as the use of digital instruments of data capture” (and not only the forms of social analysis they enable) Marres, 2017, p.93
[Chapter 4] Are we researching society or technology?
A discussion on the problem of ambiguity in digital social research is what we see in chapter 4. Starting with the problem of digital bias: data bias (biased data and content), machine bias (bias built into research instruments), and methodological bias. In this latter, Marres exposes the problem on the analysis of topical networks or studies conducted through query-based approaches, by saying that, in this way, the data analysis ends up with the frame given by “the platform eyes” – meaning also the same for researchers and how they ‘view the world’. It seems, though, that if everything related to “the digital” is biased, why should we care about it? Why should we rely on this sort of research? Isn´t any subject of study always framed by a particular view? Isn´t true that the query-based approach serves as a path to grasp the whole? After all, the parts are also a valid view of the world, accordingly, there is no way to get rid of the problem of bias and the instability/ephemerality of the digital platforms architectures.
In this scenario, how should researchers proceed? How to adopt a critical approach to bias? Some opt for mixed sources (both online an offline), others agree in removing the bias or the “sources of noise that must be neutralised” (p.125). As a response to the problem of digital bias, Marres stands for a more ‘affirmative approach’ that “treats digital devices as an empirical resource for enquiry” (p.125), in other words, one that finds ways to affirm the role of bias in processes like issue formation. In so doing, she undertakes the digital (and its bias!) as means of research. The precautionary approach, however, is “helpful in the early phases of research: it works for data reduction” (p.141). For instance, removing bots or main hashtags nodes within a network or blocking links such as Firefox and Adobe Acrobat for hyperlink analysis. In addition to that, Marres introduces three tactics to address the problem of ambiguity in digital research: i) critical extraction; ii) performative deployment, which “proposes that we study society and technology, or socio-technical formations” (p.137); and iii) radical empiricism that proposes “we keep asking this question as part of digital social enquiry: are we studying media-technological or social processes?” (p.138).
To sum up, what Marres introduces in this chapter are different strategies to address the problem of ambiguity and digital bias, which must be embraced through the practice of digital research: i) the digital as means of research (which turn attention to the instrumental capacities of the digital); ii) the digital as object and method (foregrounding “the medium-specificity of social phenomena that unfold in digital settings”); iii) “to empiricize the question of ‘what’ is the object of social media research: social communities, media-technological dynamics, or processes of issue formation?” (p.117). Following the Tomasso Venturi and Bruno Latour (2009), what Marres proposes may also be considered as an oligoptic vision of society, in her case a sturdy but extremely narrow views of the practical doing of digital research. I found myself walking on the same path, but keep questioning: is this the way new media researchers should follow? Marres ends the chapter by affirming: the question whether are we researching society or technology must not be answered too soon. “Instead of assuming a stable object of analysis, the qualification of the empirical object must become part of the object of research” p.142.
[Chapter 5] Who are digital sociology's publics?
The ideal of ‘participation’ in digital societies is the key address for this chapter, and the main reason for that is justified by Marres: participation in “the principal trope that is invoked to distinguish digital societies (Kelty, 2012)”; participation “is what sets contemporary societies apart from what went before, arguing that digital media technologies enable ordinary people to become active contributors to social, cultural and political life, no longer being limited to the role of the audience (Shirky, 2019; Jenkins, 2012)” (p.144). She starts building her argument by explaining the shift ‘from the audience to participation’ – what Marres also called modes of engagement.
“From this vantage point, audience and participation don´t present a strict opposition but a continuum” (p.148). Marres remind us that “society was already participatory”, so, “it is wrong to attribute the capacity to turn people into ‘participants’ solely to digital technology” (p.150). Rather than getting the grips of the move from audiences to participation, Marres discusses “other important transformation of participation enabled by the digital. For instance by bringing up key features of digital participation (valuable, technological and metricized) in order to introduce the ‘digital participation’ as a device of social research.
With digital platforms, participation refers to the ‘trace-ability’, ‘analyse-ability’ and ‘manipulability’ of engagement, in other words, it “occurs when contributions are captured, rendered visible and actionable” (p.158). Marres also reminds us that, on one side, quantitative representations of publics and populations have always been there in social research. For instance, the classic work of Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton on focus groups and opinions research (see Simonson and Weimann, 2003). Meanwhile, on the other side, what changes with digital participation is “more interactive forms of knowing society”, new relations of feedback and modes of response due to the programmability and traceability afforded by digital platforms. Such re-configuration of digital participation also calls for critical studies of “how participation enables the establishment of relations between diverse actors, forms and sites of social, economic and political life” or what Marres calls inter-articulation, and Gerlitz and Lury (2014) named commensuration. p.162.
Marres comes to a conclusion, saying that “while sociology can help us to understand why participation has become such a prominent ideal in technological and media societies, its own efforts to increase participation in knowledge-making are running into difficulties in digital societies. There appears to be a mismatch between the participatory methodologies that sociologists have developed over the last decades, and the methods, techniques and forms of digital social research. Sociologists tend to conceive of participatory enquiry in dialogic terms, as involving deliberation, discussion and debate with and between non-experts and experts. However, digital forms of analysis tend to focus on activities and events, on ‘what people do’ and on ‘what’s happening’, and not only on what they say (Newman et al., 2007)” (p.171). To Marres there is a lacuna in the implementation of such ‘dialogic models’ in digital research;
“while ideals of ‘knowledge democracy’ have become ubiquitous, we are surprisingly ignorant as to how this ideal may be implemented on the level of the empirical apparatus that enables social research. […] We are very good at imagining participatory knowledge in idealistic register but much less so in an empirical one” (p.172).
Sociologists and social researchers, in her view, do not yet know how to respond questions such as ‘how to combine diverse ways of knowing? How to practice social inquiry in more responsive ways and still advance knowledge?’ She ends this chapter by calling for “another knowledge culture”; one built on with and in digital technologies, one that must be interdisciplinary.
[Chapter 6] Does digital sociology have problems?
This chapter is dedicated to addressing controversies about digital architectures for knowing and intervening in society. Marres justifies the aim of this final chapter by drawing our attention to issues in digital research that have been overlooked in recent years; the problems of methodology and epistemic level. Considering the range of social, ethical and political controversies are well-known and much more explored in digital research, such as “data misuse, data theft, user manipulation, stigmatisation, privacy violation, discrimination, flawed quality control and unethical labour arrangements” (p.177). On the one hand, we have social media research as a common and relevant practice, on the other hand, the troubling relations of dependency with the web platforms’ infrastructures – namely GAFA (Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple) (see p.182). What kinds of problems are linked with digital sociology? Beyond ethics and politics, there is the problem of knowledge or forms of knowledge. This, of course, would not indicate that Marres puts aside the ethical problems in the doing of digital research, however, and more, generally speaking, she explains that “the ethical framing of digital risks directing attention away from questions of their contribution to knowledge”: the methodological and epistemic frameworks p.184).
In digital ways of knowing society, the problems of the lack of attention to the epistemic and methodological frameworks “affect both social research and social life in equal measure” (p.185). For instance, “take the problem of data-centrism, the problem that social research risk to attach disproportionate and undue attention to phenomena simply because they are present in the data. In digital societies, however, this problem does not only affect research but equally social life, where the more we rely on information technologies, the more we risk becoming ‘like the drunk who looks for his keys under the lamp post because that is where the light is brightest’” (p.186).
Another topic is what Marres calls methodological laissez-faire; “the ‘can do’ attitudes in digital social research also expresses a particular epistemic orientation to the world” (p.187). She is drawing our attention to the role of a laissez-faire attitude because the digital experiments actually shed-light on “important debates in the methodology of social sciences about the viability of experiments as a method of knowing society” (p.188). At this point, she recalls the importance of the wider dynamics of interactivity that operates across society, knowledge and technology or between digital setting, actions and content (see p.188).
“Digital societies are marked by expanded dynamics of socio-technical interactivity: as methods and concept for rendering social life accountable are implemented in interactive architectures, social, technical and epistemic dynamics of interactivity fuse in ways that require further sociological investigation” [Marres, 2017, p.189]
That is why digital sociologists should embrace more responsive forms of experimental enquiry or, actually, to develop more experimental forms of social enquiry, so strongly argued by Marres in this book: “we should develop experimental methods to investigate the ontological and epistemological disputes arising in digital societies, and contribute to making the issues at stake in them available for collective enquiry” (p.192). Three keywords are used by Marres to conclude her thoughts on Digital Sociology and how we should respond to the issues of both digital societies and social enquiry; “they require situational, contextual and responsive engagement” (p.194).