5 Tips for Sociologists Who Want to Study Digital Technology Use

Thanks to Connor Gilroy, Andrew Lindner, Paul Morgan, CJ Pascoe, Amber Tierney, and Nga Than for feedback.

Sociology is increasingly wading into the study of digital technology use. As a graduate student, I remember searching for terms like “digital” or even “technology” and next to nothing would come up in our disciplinary journals. Sociologists are among the world’s experts in matters of social life and inequality, and I’m so excited for more people from the field to extend our theories and approaches to today’s digitally mediated world.

But we all know that good science emerges from a network of support, and in that spirit I thought to surface a few tips for sociologists who are thinking of venturing into the study of digital technology:

Social scientists study how social forces animate digital technology use

A common misperception is that the focus of our work is to study digital objects without regard to the ways people create and use them. This leads to thinking that digital technologies have inherent agency and power to command shifts in human behavior. This is a fallacy known as technological determinism. Instead, what social scientists like us do is study how social forces shape human behavior. If you’ve read Sewell’s theory of structure piece, it’s like thinking that a factory building is somehow inherently creating wage labor. A factory is an inanimate pile of bricks. People assemble those bricks in ways that make a building used for labor, they create processes to hire people, and put them to work within that brick building. Social phenomena make the bricks a factory.

So as sociologists what we study is how social forces animate digital technology use and digitally mediated interaction. Consider, for example, the “screen time” debate. A technologically determinist view would contend that devices have a magnetic power over people that draws them into mindless viewership. Instead, a sociological lens might examine how people working at technology companies design devices in specific ways, or consider that certain challenges facing families lead to particular uses of devices, etc. This centers the discussion of digital technology on people — our domain as sociologists. DiMaggio et al. (2004) wrote a great overview of possible research directions that draws on this perspective. Cassidy Puckett and I recently applied this thinking to education research, too.

Computational social science is not the study of digital technology use

Relatedly: I love my computational social science friends, but sociology as a discipline needs to remember that computational social science is a methodological approach and is not inherently the study of digital technology. It refers to the use of particular digital tools to study human behavior.

For example, computational approaches could track people’s movements to understand how viruses spread. In this case, computational approaches are quite helpful but may have little to do with understanding digital technology use. Alternatively, a research question that has a lot to do with the study of digital technology use could center on understanding whether and why people turn to digital media as a source to understand virus prevention.

Age is not a prerequisite for studying digital technology use

You do not have to be a young person to study digital technology. Young people are not all inherently gifted at using digital technologies. People of all ages use digital technologies with different levels of comfort and skill. In my opinion, you do not even have to be a regular user of many digital technologies to study it. What you need to be is a social scientist trained in research design and data collection and analysis methods. That’s it. That’s what we do. This is why all sociologists can study digital technology use.

Further, do not use terms like “digital native” or “digital immigrant” — these terms are used casually to characterize assumed generational differences in digital technology adoption, skill, and comfort with use. They reify divides that don’t necessarily exist. And most important, they diminish the experience, and study, of immigrant life.

“Users” are human beings, and they are not mindless consumers

People use digital technologies. “Users” portrays people reductively as data points. Further, when people use digital technologies they are not mindless automatons that just eat up screen time. Nope. They read and write blogs; they watch videos and comment on them; they play video games and make worlds within them; and they create social environments online to hang out with others and collaborate. Sociologists started writing about this a decade ago, though I’d contend that scholars have made similar arguments in pre-digital times, too.

Read work by scholars outside of sociology who study digital technology

Sociologists are not the first to study digital technology. In fact, we are late to it. This is why we must draw on the work by those who have studied digital technology in order to advance what we know about its use. Scholars in fields like Communication, Anthropology, Human-Computer Interaction, and Informatics have led the charge for years on this front. Some of my favorites include work by Dourish and Bell (2007), Nakamura (2007), Ito et al. (2009), Brock (2012), Sterne (2003) and Gray (2009). These scholars will help sociologists avoid reinventing the wheel. (Like…racism, classism, sexism, etc., are not simply left to analog.)

More sociologists are also trying to summarize and interpret these interdisciplinary literatures — and speaking for myself, I can tell you it’s tricky, but rewarding, work! I’m so impressed by how scholars like Jessie Daniels, Ruha Benjamin, Tressie Cottom, Angèle Christin, Forrest Stuart, Jen Schradie, and many others, accomplish this while drawing in subsets of sociological literature pertinent to their domains of interest.

Given how many folks have already studied digital technology use, you can perhaps see how sociologists new to this domain are not likely to be in the business of inventing a new theory of the digital world. We can consider the conceptual and methodological strengths of how scholars in other fields tackle the study of digital technology use. Then we can extend the theories and approaches we have in sociology to digitally mediated life. In doing so we will make important contributions.

Photo by Julius Drost

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