What is Digital Sociology? by Neil Selwyn

I’m in the early stages of a PhD on relations between online social network providers and users which brought me to this book. The author, Neil Selwyn, is a professor at Monash with a penchant for speaking his mind. His article ‘Minding our language: why education and technology is full of bullshit and what might be done about it’ fits in with Anna Krein’s shocking piece ‘The Screens That Ate School’ in the June 2020 issue of The Monthly.

In What is Digital Sociology? he is more at arm’s length. I’m full of admiration for the fact that the book is straightforward, when the subject itself is anything but. He spells out the many ways in which things are the same but different – sociology is still sociology, but there is this new world, there are new tools creating it, interacting with it and – for the researcher – measuring it. He raises the pros, but also the somewhat disturbing cons, of Big Data. He talks about the ‘thick’ research which can compensate for that. After discussing the methods ranging from traditional to outrageous that digital sociologists are using, I was relieved that he touched on the ethics of the latter.

Towards the end he asks who are the people doing this digital sociology. The straightforward answer would be ‘digital sociologists’ but, of course, nothing is that simple in this world. Social scientists share virtual desks with computer scientists. Precariously placed under- or un- employed academics compete for attention with their rockstar betters. And maybe some are carrying on their passion the way Einstein did, clerk by day….And disciplines merge in and out of each other. Media studies, philosophy, ethics, IT, economics: you could start out in one of many different places and find yourself coming to this book, as I have discovered.

The book is thorough, as well as clear. It has an excellent, up-to-date bibliography which will take you in many different directions – the book perforce covers much ground, albeit in short form. It’ll make a great undergrad textbook.

Highly recommended for anybody looking for an accessible, jargon-free introduction to this subject and these days anybody who has a life online would do well to understand the issues it discusses. I don’t think, in other words, you need a special reason to read this.

2 thoughts on “What is Digital Sociology? by Neil Selwyn

  1. I hadn’t heard the term digital sociology before so had to look that up. It does sound a fascinating topic but also one in which there could be a lot of smoke and mirrors?

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