Digital Social Science Vs Digital Humanities: Who does what & does it matter?

Something I have talked about a lot in my posts here is ‘identity’, whether it is how you create your digital identity, how you brand yourself as a researcher or where you fit in post-doc. As a Cultural / Behavioural Geographer the issue of identity is one I find particularly interesting, especially when it comes to how ECRs interact with digital environments. Post-PhD I have spent a lot of time trying to work out where my work fits in. I have come to the conclusion, over the last 12 months, that it straddles the disciplinary areas of technology enhanced learning (TEL) and Digital Humanities. I am rapidly embracing both these worlds and what they offer me in terms of career development. At this current time I see my future in a Digital Humanities Research Centre because that’s where it fits best.

Initially it concerned me that I was moving away from my traditional social science roots as I saw them. If you read my post last month you will see how I strongly articulated the need for ECRs to stand up and wave their social science flags in response to recent attacks. However, as I have talked to people and engaged with these new fields I am finding a great deal of similarities to their work and what I believe social science is. So I am intrigued, excited and at times confused, when I see the nature of developments in Digital Social Science. Specifically, the ESRC’s Digital Social Science programme which is co-ordinated by the National Strategic Directorate for e-social science and the Blurring the Boundaries: New Social Media, New Social Science project (#nssnsm) led by National Centre for Social Research, SAGE and the Oxford Internet Institute.

These social science programmes appear to be focused on methodological developments, both projects talk about exploring new innovations in method and practice; i.e. how we, as social scientists, can use social media applications and techniques to carry out our work. Don’t get me wrong this has been a central facet of my research to date and is the topic of the first half of the training course I run for PhDs and research staff across the UK so I believe it to be important but I see Digital Social Science as more than methods.

My research examines how academics engage and interact with digital technology and virtual environments for research, teaching and learning. Specifically, how communities of researchers form online and how we identify ourselves within these communities. The questions I ask are traditional social science questions, questions which are the mainstay of Human Geography – People’s interaction with space. Just because the space I look at is virtual and not physical does not make it any less relevant to social science. So it leaves me wondering why Digital Social Science has aligned itself with methods so strongly? Why have I been unable to find a Social Science department to be my prospective ‘home’?

This raises the question of whether this matters in practice. Both in terms of what discipline we align ourselves to post-PhD and what this means broadly for the role Social Science can play in understanding our increasingly digital world. For ECRs I would argue that whatever our disciplinary home is we are still undertaking research that is driven by our Social Science roots. For the discipline of Social Science however, I see bigger concerns.

By aligning the discipline to methods we appear to be closing our doors to what Social Science can offer the understandings of our digital world. The Government’s decision to go digital by default for public service information provision raises some important questions that Social Scientists are best placed to address. On the surface this seems to make sense however, under closer inspection those requiring information on welfare reform for example are likely to be in sectors of the community excluded from access to digital services. This can relate to economics, the elderly, those on low incomes, location – rural communities do not have the same access to high speed broadband. The way in which different groups can interact with digital service provision relates directly to questions best asked by / investigated by Social Scientists.

In an era where Social Science is being asked to prove its relevance the development of a broad Digital research agenda could, in my opinion, should be the way forward. Social Scientists have a lot to offer the understanding of virtual worlds, communities and service provision. Lets not ignore this opportunity within Social Science Departments.Lets learn from the Digital Humanists and work together to get a greater understanding of our relationships with all things virtual.

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Sarah-Louise Quinnell

Dr. Sarah-Louise Quinnell is the E-Learning Lead Technologist for Floream Partnerships she works on a portfolio of e-learning projects in partnership with Google, International Olympic Committee and the Institute of Digital Marketing.

She is also a researcher affiliated to the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities.

All views are her own and do not necessarily represent her employer's views or policies.

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Deborah Lupton

I enjoyed your article and agree that social scientists do not seem to have awakened to the huge possibilities and avenues for research related to digital media.I make some similar points here in relation specifically to sociology in my recent blog post:

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