Why should sociologists [and geographers] study digital media?

Deborah Lupton recently wrote a blog post asking, and answering, the question: why should sociologists study digital media? Her answers are interesting, and are couched in the framework for a book project Lupton is working on around digital sociology for next year. What I idly wondered when reading through the list of answers Lupton provides is: would these make sense for geographers if we replace ‘the social’ with something like ‘space and place’ or ‘the spatial’?

Here’s Lupton’s bulleted list of answers:

  • Social life is increasingly being configured through and with digital media.
  • What counts as ‘the social’ is increasingly framed via digital media.
  • Digital media use and practice is structured through gender, social class, geographical location, education, race/ethnicity and age, all social categories with which sociologists have traditionally been interested.
  • Digital media are integral parts of contemporary social networks and social institutions such as the family, the workplace, the education system, the healthcare system, the mass media and the economy, again phenomena that have long been foci for sociological research and theorising.
  • Digital media configure concepts of selfhood, social relationships, embodiment, human/nonhuman relations, space and time – all relevant to sociological inquiry.
  • Digital media have instituted new forms of power relations.
  • Digital media have become central to issues of measure and value.
  • Digital media offer alternative ways of practising sociology: of researching, teaching and disseminating research.
  • Digital media are important both to ‘public sociology’ (engaging with people outside of academia) and ‘private sociology’ (personal identities and practices as sociologists).
  • Digital media challenge sociologists’ role as pre-eminent social researchers: sociologists need to address this.
  • Digital media technologies can contribute to ‘live sociology’ and ‘inventive methods’, or new, creative ways of practising sociology.

There is a hint of disciplinary anxiety about some of this, which is understandable given the contemporary state of academia, but even so I can’t help thinking these questions could be more broadly framed as ‘why social scientists should study digital media’.

Anyway, to answer my own idle question about substituting the focus on ‘the social’ with that of ‘the spatial'”¦ this might work to a lesser or greater extent for some of these questions. As intimated by my comment above, some of the questions are just as much the concern of human geographers (and anthropologists, historians, scholars of politics and international relations [and so on] for that matter) as they are of sociologists. So here’s my attempt at a complementary list of geographically focused answers to the question ‘why should geographers and other social scientists study digital media?’:

  • Space & place and the social are increasingly being (re)configured with and through digital media.
  • What counts as ‘the social’, ‘culture’, ‘place’ and ‘landscape’ are increasingly being framed via digital media.
  • Digital media use and practice is structured through gender, social class, topographical location, contexts of place, education, race/ethnicity and age, all social and spatial categories with which social scientists have traditionally been interested.
  • Digital media are integral parts of contemporary social and spatial networks and social institutions such as the family, the workplace, the education system, the healthcare system, the mass media and the economy, again phenomena that have long been foci for social sciences research and theorising.
  • Digital media (re)configure concepts of selfhood, social relationships, embodiment, human/nonhuman relations, space and time – all relevant to research concerning society and space.
  • Digital media have instituted new forms of power relations.
  • Digital media have become central to issues of measure and value.
  • Digital media offer alternative ways of practising scholarship: of researching, teaching and disseminating research.
  • Digital media are important both to ‘public scholarship’, as engaging with people outside of academia, and ‘private scholarship’, involving personal identities and practices as social scientists.
  • Digital media challenge social scientists’ role as pre-eminent social researchers: we all need to address this.
  • Digital media technologies can contribute to ‘live’ research and ‘inventive methods’, or new, creative ways of practising social science.

I think Lupton provides really good answers to the question of why any scholar should study digital media, they certainly motivate many of my interests in that field.

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