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Digital Sociologies

reviewed by Sean Arseo & Jacob Hibel - August 27, 2018

coverTitle: Digital Sociologies
Author(s): Jessie Daniels, Karen Gregory, & Tressie McMillan Cottom (Eds.)
Publisher: Policy Press, Bristol
ISBN: 1447329015, Pages: 520, Year: 2016
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As the chapters contained in Digital Sociologies illustrate (and as the volume’s pluralized title suggests), sociological work that investigates digital realms spans a tremendous and ever-increasing variety of traditional fields of study. However, despite the penetration of the “digital” into the “real” and vice versa, from apps for everything to the Internet of Things, Stephen Barnard reminds us that only recently and sparingly have sociologists begun to carve out a “digital sociology” sub-discipline; until this volume’s publication, the phrase was cited only twice in previous publications (p. 195). The volume’s editors make the case that sociologists in largely disconnected subfields with disparate research questions and diverse methodologies are collectively ushering in a reconfiguration of the sociological imagination itself (p. xvii). In publishing Digital Sociologies, it is the editors’ goal to bring an international, discipline-spanning group of scholars and their works into conversation with one another (p. xviii).

To this end, the editors have divided the volume into three internally variegated parts with broadly articulated themes. Karen Gregory introduces the first section, “Digital Sociology in Everyday Life”, by urging social scientists to avoid succumbing to the allure of seemingly endless new data sources, elaborate analytical methods, and reified digital/real divisions, and to reflexively address meta-disciplinary questions (p. 5). The chapters contained in this section begin the crucial work of engaging with these questions, primarily through the conceptual lens of community. For example, Alexia Maddox reshapes early theory on community ecology by positing a compelling conceptual model of how a “networked individual” (p. 15) experiences a continuous social reality to move beyond the “online-offline dualism” pervasive in much digital sociology research. Although not explicitly centered on community, Trevor Jameson’s observed parallels between TripAdvisor reviews and Othering travelers’ tales pinpoints a twenty-first century Orientalism that reifies racialized divisions for a digital age.

Part Two, “Digitized Institutions,” contains many of the chapters that will be of the clearest interest to education researchers. The authors whose work is presented in this section continually remind readers that the digital world is far from independent of the social institutions that compose the “real world,” and therefore the digital world is subject to many familiar stratifying institutional forces. While the role of institutions in (re)producing social stratification and systematic inequality has historically been a touchstone area of sociological inquiry, Barnard explains that extant research on the digital realm has downplayed this facet, instead emphasizing interactional or interpretive lenses. Digital Sociologies’ second and largest section thus centers on institutions and their digital transformations. For example, Selwyn and colleagues’ review of disparate literature streams on education and digitalization and their call for understanding these processes’ infrastructure (what they call the “code, data, and programmed architecture” [p. 156]) point to the boundaries that digital sociologists can find and continue pushing. The need for such a theoretical roadmap may stem from education’s dramatic technological (and, in turn, social) transformation and digitalization at breakneck speed, as Tressie McMillan Cottom points out in her excellent introduction to the section. As in much of her other work (e.g., Cottom 2016), Cottom explicitly centers higher education institutions’ roles in stratifying populations under the guise of efficient operations through the deployment of algorithmic “classification systems” (pp. 218–220) in her substantive chapter.

Combined with Cottom’s chapter, Kishonna Gray’s piece on black gamers forms the volume’s clearest novel theoretical contribution. Both authors integrate intersectionality with digital studies in a promising expansion of a black cyberfeminist framework. Gray explicates three primary tenets of the framework and demonstrates their utility in understanding black exclusion from white digital spaces akin to dynamics found offline. Gray poignantly captures this sentiment in her chapter on gaming message boards’ discourses surrounding Black video game live-streamers, writing “while discourse is fluid and constantly changing, when attached to physical bodies, any racialized discourse associated with Blackness is always immobile and unchanged” (p. 362).  

Part Three, entitled “Digital Bodies”, comprises chapters that are comparatively less obvious in their connection to education research. In the section’s introduction, Jessie Daniels describes these studies as explorations in “what it means to bring our embodied selves into contact with digital media technologies” (p. 335). Several of the chapters in this section clearly reflect themes and approaches developed in the digital humanities. For example, Yuliya Grinberg and Benjamin Haber ask readers to rethink and re-theorize taken-for-granted assumptions about users’ relationships with data and social media platform infrastructure by exchanging metaphors (“dress” in lieu of “nudity”) or tapping into previously unapplied queer theory, respectively. Elizabeth Wissinger’s interviews with “chic” wearable techno-textiles’ early adopters and innovators and Miriam E. Sweeney’s case study of Microsoft Windows’ search engine Ms. Dewey illustrate how Western conceptions of femininity and race are baked into this new clothing frontier and internet search infrastructure, respectively. Kara van Cleaf convincingly argues that the labor mothers use to maintain “mommy blogs” parallels the labor of motherhood itself as part of a continuous cycle of “attunement” (p. 449).

The editors do not intend Digital Sociologies’ 29 chapters to present a coherent mission statement for a new academic discipline, nor do they aim to establish a singular set of methodological “best practice” guidelines. Instead, Digital Sociologies offers social scientists of all stripes an invitation to think creatively about incorporating the digital world in their research designs by presenting a diverse (if perhaps somewhat diffuse) collection of examples. Although Deborah Lupton warns against dichotomizing data into “big” and “small” categories in her chapter on data collection practices (p. 340), a persistent theme throughout the volume is the call for a methodological turn towards the latter in light of the research world’s growing infatuation with the promise of the former. Accordingly, studies that employ prototypical big data are notably omitted from this volume (save for Barnard’s use of a Google Ngram and Sanjay Sharma and Phillip Brooker’s analysis of racism denial on social media). Many of the volume’s authors extol the virtues of “small sample sizes” of “intimate spaces” (p. 48) which are best analyzed using new and refined tools. Timothy Recuber outlines seven steps for digital discourse analysis with meticulous methodological concreteness (pp. 52–55), but aside from the first step’s recommendation to find a digital data repository for analysis, the recipe mirrors what physical document-based qualitative analysts would do in any strong study. Perhaps more cutting edge is virtual ethnography, of which Alison Mayne’s study is an example. Mayne’s reflections on the ethics of using a secure, member-based cyberspace (a closed Facebook group for knitting and crochet enthusiasts) demonstrate the ongoing negotiations among and between researchers and participants as digital communities increasingly become sites of study. Even activities seemingly best suited for big data analysis, like the global positioning systems-enabled contemporary urban spelunking of geocaching, can be further understood and contextualized using participant observation, as the chapter by Jonathan Wynn demonstrates. Similarly, chapter author Theresa Hunt shows that pairing digital with “analog” methods like in-person interviews, focus groups, and participant observation as part of a larger “triangulation” method (p. 112) opened not only new data sources but lines of analysis that would otherwise have been missed.

Francesca Tripodi’s contribution exemplifies the potential of bringing digital and analog data together in rigorous empirical analysis and innovative theorizing, unifying many of the aforementioned major themes in one chapter. Combining interviews, focus groups, and virtual ethnography of the anonymous college campus-based social media forum Yik Yak, Tripodi demonstrates how ostensibly anonymous posts produce and reinforce college campus communities. Such a project also suggests the immense difficulty of producing outstanding scholarship in this age and through this prism. This work’s strength rests on the foundation of multitudinous data sources, mixed-methodological approaches, and strong grounding in sociological theory.

We recommend Digital Sociologies to social science researchers who are newly considering incorporating digital aspects into their research designs, particularly those who might have previously been disinclined to pursue such work. After all, it will only become more difficult for education researchers to justify turning a blind eye to the digital world as students, educators, and administrators increasingly lead their academic, vocational, and social lives in digital spaces. Digital Sociologies provides examples of boundary-expanding work by researchers from a variety of methodological, theoretical, and disciplinary backgrounds, and in doing so provides an impetus for readers to take similarly bold steps forward in their own work.



Cottom, T. M. (2016). Lower ed: The troubling rise of for-profit colleges in the new economy. New York, NY: The New Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 27, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22485, Date Accessed: 1/23/2022 3:53:30 PM

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About the Author
  • Sean Arseo
    University of California, Davis
    E-mail Author
    SEAN ARSEO is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of California, Davis. His dissertation, entitled “Compliance, Community, and Capital Investment: Local Stakeholder Engagement under California’s Local Control and Funding Formula,” pairs computational methods with case study analysis to examine local educational administrators’ implementation of a decentralizing budget policy in the wake of the Great Recession.
  • Jacob Hibel
    University of California, Davis
    E-mail Author
    JACOB HIBEL is an associate professor of sociology and Graduate Group Faculty Member in Education at the University of California, Davis. His research interests include education, social stratification, and migration. His work appears in sociology, education, and demography journals, including Social Problems, Social Forces, Sociology of Education, Harvard Educational Review, and Population Research and Policy Review.
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