Social Science & Social Futures: Fast Scholarship, Emerging Technologies & the Future of Inquiry

Social Science & Social Futures: Fast Scholarship, Emerging Technologies & the Future of Inquiry

Mark Carrigan and Will Housley

Distributed networked technologies have transformed communication, produced new forms of ‘data’ and have had a significant effect on the way in which knowledge is produced. From crowdsourcing data annotation and the feature identification of massive data sets as an aspect of ‘citizen science’ to the use of Twitter to exchange ideas and links to recently published papers with other scholars and scientists around the world; initial analyses and thought pieces can also be shared and promoted quickly with networked scholarly communities (and beyond) at little cost. These and related developments generate a number of issues including how, in this case, social scientists communicate with wider publics through digital means and how the social science community reacts and responds to the opportunities, risks, and challenges presented by the digital revolution.

One of the features of digital communication is the velocity through which new ideas, analyses, and findings can be communicated and shared. This landscape disrupts traditional models of social science communication and has generated a number of complex inter-related concerns. This special issue of Discover Society, building on a panel organized by the Digital Social Science Forum at Social Media & Society in summer 2016, seeks to explore these concerns while also representing a model of how to move beyond them. Under our broad theme of digital futures, we have gathered a range of interventions across a diverse selection of topics. Our intention is not to offer any sort of final statement on the the social implications of emerging technology, indeed such an ambition would be patently absurd. Instead, we are seeking to provide a space within which new ideas can coalesce, inviting dialogue about the commonalities and differences between emerging tendencies within the many different domains of social life encompassed in this issue.  Such a project is by its nature tentative, incomplete and fast. This is one example of how the affordances of digital technology enable speculative pre-inquiry conversations, offering new ways of assembling people and topics liable to generate systematic work at a later date.

Indeed, the changing tempo of knowledge production is key to understanding our rapidly changing conditions and how we ought to intervene in them. One way of handling the complexity of these changes has been through casting the debate surrounding social science communication in the digital age in terms of ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ scholarship. This framing is also realized in the context of wider changes in the organization and management of the University that is sometimes characterized in terms of ‘the accelerated academy’ which, in turn, can be linked to forces associated with wider societal acceleration and transformation.

An obvious risk posed by this framing is that the idea of a ‘fast’ social science inevitably gives rise to shallow scholarship. In recent years, we’ve seen a proliferation of calls for ‘slow scholarship’, ‘slow science’ and the ‘slow professor’ that indicate a widespread sense that increasing speed and worthwhile scholarship are antithetical. The link here is far from inexorable; but failing to recognise the possibility would be foolish. There are a number of assumptions which these accounts of scholarly-speed-as-pathological share:

  • Fast scholarship cannot be critical scholarship. Critique is associated with a withdrawal from the world, the cultivation of a detached orientation which is imperiled by speed. In its absence, social science will simply reproduce the faded frames which we must move beyond.
  • Fast scholarship cannot be quality scholarship. Such scholarship is associated with the mastery of established literatures, usually the outcome of established disciplinary modes of inquiry. In its absence, social science will simply reinvent the wheel at best, producing torrents of verbiage without any social efficacy or intellectual advancement.
  • Fast scholarship cannot be sustainable scholarship. Such scholarship is associated with temporal autonomy, underwritten by secure employment within stable institutions. In its absence, social scientists may work in short bursts of frantic activity but the possibility of a vocation is foreclosed, with all this entails for scholarship itself.

We are very sympathetic to these concerns, if not the assumptions themselves. Far from representing a threat to social science in the context of the wider ‘accelerated academy’, we suggest that these conditions obtain to varying degrees at present. Critique is often ritualistic and shallow, performing old certainties in a world in which the critical stance has gone mainstream (witness, for example, the critique of media bias offered by Trump supporters). Academic reading practices have been in diminution for a long time, with deep reading now the exception rather than the rule, a state of affairs far from unexpected given the exponential growth of scholarly output in recent decades. Scholarship is already experienced as unsustainable by some in the contemporary occupational context, a fact jointly attested to by surveys indicating pervasive overwork/stress and the growing discourse of intellectual crisis.

It is not fast scholarship which is unsustainable, but rather the contemporary edifice within much of the social sciences currently exists. We can see signs of institutional crisis throughout the globe, with social science under what could become existential threat in Australia, Japan and the United States. The latter case will likely prove instructive; as the attacks on the social sciences were taking place during an Obama  administration characterized by one of its key figures as the most social scientifically literate in history. We can only imagine how social science research will fare in the climate created by a Trump administration backed by Republican majorities in both Congress and the Senate.

The importance of autonomous social science has never been greater, with political polarization increasing rapidly against a backdrop of socio-economic stagnation and accelerating social change. But the conditions under which academics labour militate against the social efficacy of the knowledge they produce, in spite of increasingly dominant calls for ‘impact’ and ‘engagement’.

The roots of these problems lie far deeper than the scholarly communications system, but nearly all of them are intensified by modes of communication and credentialisation that are generating a number of pressures and contradictions. These include the following:

  • The quantitative increase in publication encourages ever-narrower specialisation, as new journals define themselves in relation to an already crowded intellectual market place.
  • This also intensifies existing access problems, particularly as newer and more specialised journals might not be widely accessible, with the political economy of journal subscriptions currently in a state of flux.
  • The slow speed of publication hinders discussion and debate about new developments, albeit at a rate that varies between fields.
  • The increasing importance of the established prestigious leaders within a field or discipline, something which manifests both qualitatively and qualitatively, enacts epistemic discipline as ambitious researchers compete for the limited number of slots available within that journal by adapting themselves to what they perceive as its intellectual standards.
  • It also creates competition between journals, as lesser ranked journals take instrumental action with the intention of improving their impact factors (and increasingly, orientated towards improving their scores as well).

What we present here is a take on the current challenges and issues surrounding scholarly communication and practice in the digital age; we accept it is worthy of more systematic scrutiny than a blog post allows. Perhaps one way of thinking about these challenges is that it represents a signature of change that we have not been able to, at least at an organisational level, respond to coherently due to the speed at which these changes have occurred and disrupted established occupational and social science communication practices.

We do not envisage the end of journals or monographs (and it would certainly not be something we would like to see) but a more diverse ecology of social science communication is emerging that is inclusive of blogs, rapid fire online articles and ‘enhanced publication’ where links to data and analysis are enabled through publication on platforms that are able to support links and connections to raw data and analysis that help aid replication and inspection of data/materials by peers.  Rather than casting these somewhat feral forms of self-publication in a zero-sum relationship with traditional forms of scholarly communication, we urgently need to explore how they can be used together. The future must surely be a matter of both/and rather than either/or. To the extent this is already happening, it poses important questions about the character and future of scholarship which invite systematic answers.

This in turn may form the basis of what Dutton and Jeffreys have identified as networked and distributed research practice wherein scholars and researchers begin to collaborate on data, analysis and publication across research groups, laboratories and research teams. Digital technology can support this and scale up academic practice in ways that ameliorate the pressures of acceleration; whilst at the same time producing forms of innovation and collaboration that can improve research practice and application to real world problems. Whilst many STEM disciplines have embraced networked collaborative research, social science remains less organised in this regard and more reliant on ad hoc procedures for sharing and collaborating around research related practices inclusive of data analysis and the communication of results and the interpretation of findings. But merely encouraging social scientists to embrace these opportunities is likely to prove insufficient while journal publication remains the hegemonic form of scholarly output, as opposed to becoming an important phase of an open, dialogical, multi-faceted and cross-platform process.

An additional way in which a new ecology may extend itself is through ‘citizen science’. In the case of ‘citizen social science’ the treatment of social-media-as-data often requires gold standard annotation and feature identification for machine learning; especially if one hopes to build an automated tool that can scope masses of big social (media) data. The use of crowdsourcing tools such as ‘crowdflower’ have been deployed in recent years which, by definition, involve making use of ‘publics’ and ‘the wisdom of the crowd’ often with little demographic knowledge of the participants who annotate often culturally significant and contentious material (e.g. racist or sexist tweets for studies concerned with automating the identification of hate speech, at scale, on public social media platforms). To this extent ‘citizen social science’ holds great promise as a form of constructive participatory public sociology but also, at the same time, remains work in progress.

Finally, the new ecology may also facilitate the development of expert social science panels that draw on multiple forms of expertise from across the globe. The use of panels in social science has a long history; if one is able to tackle the problem of participation, panels offer a versatile vehicle through which to ascertain and document social science interpretation of real time data, events and the anticipation of consequences as part and parcel of establishing some form of social science forecasting capability. During a period of rapid socio-technical change and uncertainty the establishment of social science panels supported by reliable networked digital technologies could herald a golden era of deliberation and the application of social science knowledge to real world events and problems. In many respects, networked deliberation might not only deal with the demands of acceleration, but also realise the potential of social science pluralism to make sense of rapid social change in ways that can contest the digitized mysticism and irrationality of the post-truth moment, that often thrives on the ability to make claims quickly and move on without being held to account to shared standards of rational accountability.

To conclude, accelerated scholarship and emerging digital technologies have already transformed the research and social science communication landscape. We can expect even more change over the next decade and the emergence of new forms of social scientific practice and knowledge organisation alongside more traditional forms of scholarly practice. We envisage an augmentation of traditional scholarly practices through new technologies alongside the development of distributed networked collaborative practices of the sort identified above. This establishes the possibility to facilitate and sustain ‘slower’ forms of individuated work alongside ‘faster’ but more collaborative practices in ways that respond to organisation and the true potential of communication in the 21st century.

Mark Carrigan is a Digital Sociologist and Social Media Consultant. He recently completed a postdoctoral fellowship in the Centre for Social Ontology at the University of Warwick and is Digital Fellow at The Sociological Review. He convenes the Independent Social Research Foundation’s Digital Social Science Forum and co-convenes the Accelerated Academy with Filip Vostal. He’s an assistant editor of Big Data & Society, associate social media editor of the International Journal of Social Research Methodology and a founding member of the editorial boards of Discover Society and the Journal of Applied Social Theory. He is the author of Social Media for Academics, published by Sage in early 2016. He is a regular blogger and podcaster. 

William Housley, is a sociologist, based at the Cardiff University School of Social Sciences, who works across a number of research areas that include language and interaction, social media, the social aspects of disruptive technologies and the emerging contours of digital society, economy and culture. Professor Housley was a co-founder of COSMOS and is currently working on a number of ESRC funded projects that relate to digital society and research; he co-convenes the Digital Sociology Research Group at Cardiff University, is co-editor of Qualitative Research(SAGE) and serves on the editorial board of Big Data and Society (SAGE).