Finding a home for the digital in sociological research, methods, supervision and teaching

Kim Toffoletti and Alexia Maddox, Deakin University:

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Kim Toffoletti

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Alexia Maddox

 

 

 

 

 

 

Over the past five years in the discipline of sociology we have noticed that doctoral research projects are frequently engaging with the online behaviours and digital networked technologies embedded in our daily lives. The type and level of engagement varies, with some students analysing digital content (news sites, blogs and social media) using familiar research methods such as content analysis, while others are attempting to better understand and visualise the workings of social networks and digital communities. Data collection is now incorporating an array of digital techniques, such as the use of Skype and Internet Relay Chat (IRC) to reach and engage participants in interviews. Other emerging techniques that are digital from inception include the use of location tracking technologies to monitor behaviours, and studies where participants take and upload digital photos for researchers to analyse. The production and dissemination of new kinds of data (e.g. big data, social media data) are also affording social researchers new opportunities to explain and understand social life and the operations of society while raising a variety of ethical considerations around how these data are derived.

A recent coming together of Deakin academics and doctoral students to discuss digital social research methods raised some important questions around what digital sociology is, whether it is distinct from other types of social research, what it can do, and when it is needed. There is no shortage of sociologists asking these kinds of questions, including many TASA members who attended the first thematic session on digital sociology at the TASA conference in 2013. Yet our workshop prompted us collectively to ask what training is being done for PhDs in digital methods? What do supervisors need to know? As it becomes commonplace to supervise or undertake research projects that employ some aspect of digital culture or require an engagement with digital networked technologies, much more could be done to make existing expertise and resources visible and accessible to academics and students alike.

Through our discussions we saw that the researcher toolkit has both material and digital dimensions and acknowledged that this analytical toolkit now extended beyond thematic analysis through NVivo (a CAQDAS, Computer Assisted Qualitative Data Analysis System) or statistical insights created through the use of SPSS. Indeed, these workhorse tools of qualitative and quantitative researchers are already extending themselves through social media monitoring and social network analysis add-ons. Programs and techniques that assist us to look into digital spaces are being developed by researchers across the social sciences.  At ANU, for example, Rob Ackland has developed VOSON for network data visualisation, social media analysis and web crawling/scraping. In training workshops, he mentors researchers in using a combination of this package and NodeXL for social media network visualisation. In a companion to these sessions, TASA member Timothy Graham (University of Queensland) has developed the SocialMediaLab toolkit. Similarly, at Deakin social scientists are beginning to work with big data analysis software such as Tableau to capture and interpret social behaviour and trends in social media.

As questions of the digital become increasingly central to how sociologists do their work, we suggest that sociology teachers, supervisors and researchers would likely benefit from collaborative professional development opportunities to further explore new techniques, wrestle with ethical issues, and workshop ways to guide students in the ‘how to’ of digital research. Within and across our universities, how can sociologists keep up to date with the dynamic digital landscape and share practical knowledge and resources? What role can we play in educating ethics committees on how social media works? What part might TASA play in addressing and facilitating such initiatives? Although we are not offering any definitive answers here, by identifying potential questions and challenges raised by the digital for sociological teaching, thinking and praxis, we hope to open up discussion among TASA members about whether such initiatives are useful and necessary, for whom, in what contexts, and if so, what forms such supports might take.

 

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