By Ranjana Das
As the Worldwide Web turned 30 this month, I delved into the history of Surrey Sociology’s sustained engagement with it, extending more broadly into research on technologies and society. Colleagues sent in information about projects, memorandums, and emails from decades ago, producing an illustrious history that I have tried my best to develop into a timeline below. As my colleague Christine Hine pointed out to me – such a history perhaps falls into three strands – (1) investigating social and cultural dimensions of digital technologies, (2) working with computer science and designers and (3) innovating research methods to interrogate and capitalise on digital.
Surrey Sociology is a department which started working with a version of networks and the net way back in the 1980s, and today, as we approach the very end of the 2010s, has kicked off its Digital Societies research group which has placed datafication and the internet of things amongst other areas not just at the centre of research on platforms in the department, but also into the curriculum. In what follows, I first try to sort through the many memories and snapshots sent in by my wonderful colleagues to produce an indicative, but not exhaustive timeline. I then follow the timeline with a few observations of my own on the grand trajectory of research linked to the web in this department.
- Nigel Gilbert establishes the Social and Computer Sciences Research Group at Surrey in 1984. David Frohlich, now head of Digital World Research Centre is also part of the group at this time.
- Innumerable graduates of the MSc programmes in Social Research Methods begin keeping at the forefront of methodological developments since it gets founded in the 1980s.
- The Department organises the first conference in the world on qualitative software. It is held in 1989. Later, the CAQDAS NP is founded as a result of discussions at the conference.
- Nigel Gilbert is instrumental in ensuring that the Sociology Department is networked and the first in the Faculty to do so. It is installed in 1990.
- Jane Fielding acts as the Systems Administrator in the Department helping to design the network and get it installed on a Unix Sun Server and keep it running using a networking software called PC-NFS.
- Nigel Gilbert and colleagues work on an experiment in group working on mailbox systems
- The CAQDAS Networking Project launches its website and free resources in 1994. This has advice, resources and links to demo versions of qualitative software packages. The qual-software list the department hosts is the only dedicated list for qualitative software in the world, with no commercial ties to any developer.
- The Department is the founder of Sociological Research Online, which was the first social science academic journal to be available online in the world (first issue published on 29 Mar 1996). We still host the Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation (first issue published on 31-Jan-1998).
- The Department founds and hosts until 2002 an email distribution list for the UK sociology discipline called SOCBB. After 2002, it was transferred to Jiscmail, where it still continues to this day.
- Christine Hine’s world-leading Virtual Ethnography and Ethnography for the Internet are published and become highly-cited, ground-breaking pieces of work. She establishes world leading expertise in the development of ethnography in technical settings and in “virtual methods” (the use of the Internet in social research). In particular, she develops mobile and connective approaches to ethnography that combine online and offline social contexts.
- Nigel Gilbert works with colleagues on measuring wiki viability, with an empirical assessment of the social dynamics of a large sample of wikis.
- Paul Hodkinson publishes on online discussion forums and web sites and goths in his work with the Goth sub-culture. He continues work on digital spaces with new work on interactive online journals and individualisation, and on online journals as virtual bedrooms.
- Nigel Fielding sets up the first Access Grid Node in a Sociology department anywhere in the world. AGN is a networked video-teleconferencing technology involving wraparound life size video screens, multiple microphones and high fidelity stereo sound. The AGN is funded by ESRC and it is used to conduct group discussions in real time between participants in the UK, US and New Zealand, to deliver lectures to remote locations, and to deliver teaching sessions on online methods.
- The Sage Handbook of Online Research Methods is first published, edited by Nigel Fielding and colleagues, and including his work on remote interviewing. It also contains work by Christine Hine, with the second edition carrying work also by Sara Bulloch and Christina Silver.
- Nigel Gilbert and colleagues conduct QLectives – a project bringing together top social modellers, peer-to-peer engineers and physicists to design and deploy next generation self-organising socially intelligent information systems. He also works on peer to peer value to facilitate the creation of resilient and sustainable CBPP communities.
- Paul Hodkinson works on young people’s identity and privacy on social networking sites.
- Mike McGuire produces a range of projects on cybercrime and the dark web.
- Ranjana Das concludes a network on the future of audiences in the face of intrusive technologies and publishes The Future of Audiences: A Foresight Analysis.
- Ranjana Das also starts a new Final Year module – Data and the Digital in Platform Societies bringing Datafication, Platformisation, Smart Cities, the Internet of Things, Wearables and Data Justice into the departmental curriculum.
- Jo Smith produces research on misogyny in online spaces and Emily Setty investigates young people’s practices around sex, relationships and technology.
- A large body of funded work is done by Nigel Gilbert and CRESS colleagues, including the current Home Sense project, on the use of sensors in social research (itself a collaboration with the University’s 5G Innovation Centre), and previous work such as Whole SEM (which also involves Tom Roberts, who is developing research on digital technologies in the home)
- A strand on digital health develops in the department and centres on the way digital technologies increasingly are integrating with people’s everyday management of aspects of life related to health and wellbeing, from sleep monitoring, to the use of social media for information and support. It also includes work that explores the playing out of health controversies on social media. This includes work by Rob Meadows on sleep-tracking, and Rob Meadows and Christine Hine’s research on sleep and social media. Ranjana Das and Paul Hodkinson begin research on the intersections of platforms and perinatal mental health with projects on mothers (Das) and fathers (Hodkinson and Das) – each considering the potentials and pitfalls of platforms, algorithms and social media spaces for those struggling with perinatal mental health issues. This work generates numerous papers, talks and draws attention from the NCT charity.
- Recognising such a clear history of engaging with technologies in society, numerous colleagues come together to kick off the Digital Societies research group which is launched in December 2018.
Such a timeline of research, spanning four decades now, highlights the centrality of the digital at Surrey Sociology and that much is certain. But a few other things are worth noting.
- First, despite not being a ‘digital’ studies department, we have consistently placed issues at the intersections of technology and society in our interdisciplinary curriculum, not just our research. As well as being embedded throughout the curriculum, this includes cutting edge specialist teaching on datafication, algorithms and the internet of things as well as the broader role of the internet in society, the analysis of media and digital technologies and the relationships between crime and technology. This means, that we have continued to encourage generations of students and researchers who might not otherwise be identifying as ‘digital’ scholars, to keep the digital in the frame, when studying Sociology, Criminology and Communications. This has generated fabulous work on its own, of course, but it has highlighted the inseparability of the social and the digital, and such work continues to unfold in this department.
- Second, our structural contributions, through our networks, groups and public courses have built significant capacity in a wider sense. Through these things Surrey Sociology has built a substantial track record of facilitating inquiries about the technology and society intersection – which sits in line with the University’s focus on connecting societies and culture, one of our grand challenges in research, and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences priorities on living and working in the digital age and the digital innovation research theme. We also sit in alignment with the fabulous work being done by renowned University Centres such as the Digital World Research Centre and the Centre of Digital Economy.
- And last, throughout the curriculum and across the projects we have done over these three to four decades, we have indeed participated in the conversations of the day – from the arrival of networks to the internet of things. But we have not simply participated in conversations of the day – we have kept in mind the best interests of communities, individuals, societies, institutions – and we have been critical and inquisitive in what we do – and we have continued to champion society’s best interests in our sustained engagement with the digital.
So a very happy birthday to the Web at Surrey Sociology, where there is much more wonderful work yet to come!