Situating Solidarities: social challenges for science and technology studies


Digital mediation and re-mediation: What prospects for a future STS?

Location C. Humanisticum AB 3.16
Date and Start Time 17 September, 2014 at 10:30


Noortje Marres (University of Warwick) email
Anders Kristian Munk (University of Aalborg) email
Tommaso Venturini (École Normale Supérieure Lyon) email
Mail All Convenors

Long Abstract

During the past decade digital mediation has emerged both as a topic and a resource in STS research. On the one hand digital media have been subjected to the same kind of critical scrutiny that other technological practices have been before them, on the other they have given rise to entirely new ways of doing research within our field. This track welcomes contributions that deploy STS methods and sensibilities in the study of digital science in society; that search for ways to render the reflexive capacities of STS productive for the empirical analysis of digital social phenomena; and that find in STS a direct inspiration for methods development in social and cultural inquiry by digital means. Digital mediation is the core challenge connecting these different endeavours, as it affects at once our objects of study, our methods, and the relations between researchers and researched. This track invites papers engaging this overarching concern while addressing specific aspects of digital mediation from an STS perspective, for example: How could we digitalise existing research practices and how might we derive from digital mediation support for new research practices? What consequences could this have for our collaborations with other disciplines and practices and our interventions in other areas of study? How can we profit from a critical, STS-informed understanding of digital mediation when developing this new catalogue of digital methods? Finally, this track especially welcomes contributions that examine methodological approaches in digital research that are distinctively '"STS": such as controversy analysis and laboratory studies. What does digital mediation and re-mediation mean for the analytic capacities, transformative potential, and societal relevance of these methods?

The papers will be presented in the order shown and grouped 4-4-3-2 between sessions

This track is closed to new paper proposals.


#joinus: The outcomes of a mega event as seen through 300.000 tweets (and a few interviews)

Authors: Morten Krogh Petersen (Aalborg University Copenhagen)  email
Carina Ren (Aalborg University)  email


For the first time ever, a social media symbol - the hashtag "#joinus" - has been chosen as the official slogan for the Eurovision Song Contest 2014 (ESC 2014) in Copenhagen. The ESC 2014 is an example of how televised events are currently entangled with social media platforms, lending themselves to synchronic and diachronic digital method queries. We ask: what kinds of queries into 'the social' might such entanglements engender? In the case of ESC 2014, the partners of the cross-sectorial consortium that conceptualize and organize the great number of events that will support the glitzy show and turn the whole spectacle into a mega event univocally highlight an ambition to turn the ESC 2014 into much more than a song contest. For the involved partners, the mega event also concerns, for instance, city and business development, education, tourism, and citizenship. This signals a current trend towards the joining of resources across sectors in an attempt to further innovation. We explore the ESC 2014 as a cross-sectorial innovation project with a range of desired - and at times conflicting - outcomes. In our presentation, we will discuss how 300.000 tweets containing one or more of five ESC 2014 related hashtags (#joinus, #esc2014, #eurovision, #eurovision2014 and #myeurovisionidea), which we have collected since January 2014 and analyzed with TCAT, might aid or problematize such an exploration.

Definitions and classifications in discursive practice: The construction of geoengineering on Wikipedia

Authors: Nils Markusson (Lancaster University)  email
Tommaso Venturini (École Normale Supérieure Lyon)  email
Andreas Kaltenbrunner (Barcelona Media)  email
David Laniado (Barcelona Media)  email


Geoengineering is a highly contested option in our deliberations on how to deal with anthropogenic climate change. The dominating framing of geoengineering sets it up as an alternative to mitigation and adaption, and as consisting of two main kinds of technology: solar radiation management (SRM) and carbon dioxide removal (CDR), but also these basic definitional and classificatory claims are contested. Critical mapping of how geoengineering is defined and classified is needed.

Wikipedia offers a new opportunity to study the construction of definitions and classifications in discursive practice. The encyclopaedia genre with its discrete, labelled entries provides conceptual quanta that can serve as reference points when mapping the discourse. The hyperlinked network of links and texts of the medium allows us to analyse the construct of geoengineering on Wikipedia as a fractal topology that reveals subtle definitional and classificatory structures.

Two datasets were created tracing the geoengineering construct, shedding light on its internal structure and boundary to its context. The results show that geoengineering is indeed a distinct entity on Wikipedia, but also that it is constructed along a gradient where some articles are closer to the core of the concept than others. The analysis shows a tendency towards asymmetrically associating geoengineering with SRM rather than CDR technologies, whereas the latter are more closely interconnected with climate mitigation and adaptation. Moreover, the SRM and CDR categories themselves are shown to be problematic. The mediation of the geoengineering controversy by Wikipedia thus allows us to critically challenge dominating definitions and classifications.

Techniques of intersection - The mediation of metrics in digital research

Author: Carolin Gerlitz (University of Amsterdam)  email


Social media platforms are characterized by the sheer volume of activity and data, whilst at the same time only offering very limited access possibilities. When studying Facebook or Twitter, questions and techniques of delimitation, i.e. the selection of subsets and the use of specific metrics, are particularly relevant. Whilst sampling and intersection techniques have been thoroughly discussed in the context of social science research, in the context of social media analysis they are far from being fully understood. This paper sets out to study the politics of cuts and connections as mediated through metrics in Twitter research. Social media metrics are often based on material-technical platform features, such as hashtags, retweets, or @replies among others, which also organize user activities and cater to a variety of actors and use practices. Metrics, we suggest, need to be seen as epistemic devices that engage in breaking the practices sprawling on social media platforms apart and put them together again in various ways. Our objective is to reflect on the mediating capacities of different metrics in Twitter research and how they enable various methodological approaches to bring into relation medium-specific objects and activities. Methodologically, the paper draws on a random one percent sample of tweets collected over a period of several weeks and explores how both traditional and emergent metrics operate as connectors or separators. Doing so, samples and metrics are not only used to mediate boundaries, but to explore their making and to elicit a critical reflection on methodological techniques of intersection.

Quali-quantitative friendships: Exploring human relations somewhere between aggregate and individual

Author: Tobias Bornakke Jørgensen (Copenhagen University)  email


For more than two decades effort has been put into the theoretical development of a Quali-quantitative method (Latour et al., 1991; Venturini & Latour, 2010; Latour et al., 2012). As part of a current STS research agenda attempting to rethink the ontologies underlying methods of social science (e.g. Savage, Ruppert & Law, 2013), the Quali-quantitative approach has been suggested as a general way of overcoming the methodological divide between individual and aggregate through the application of digital traces.

Despite this great determination, the world has yet to see a comprehensive operationalization as well as empirical engagement of the method. The paper responds to this absence through an explorative case-work on the development of friendships based on a unique digital (big) dataset containing the continual recordings of 700+ freshman students social interaction and whereabouts (sms, phone, social media, physical proximity, GPS etc.).

The aim of this paper is twofold. Firstly, the article aims at examining the methodological and analytical potential of Quali-quantitative method addressing how the method illuminates the social, in which ways it differs from traditional sociological approaches, and what technical limitations that stand in the way of fulfilling the dream of 'true' Quali-quantitative explorations. Secondly, the paper aims at empirically revealing how tracing multiple channels of social interaction mediates friendships into a socio-technical arrangements and how the availability of digital traces thus forces us to rethink our understanding of human relations.

The publicity of privacy: Two methods for investigating public controversies with social media

Authors: Noortje Marres (University of Warwick)  email
David Moats (Linköping University)  email


This paper outlines a symmetrical approach to the study of public controversies with social media, by way of a case study analysing privacy issues on Twitter. Such an approach pays equal attention to how a social medium like Twitter mediates public controversy, and how public controversies mediate social media, treating the specification of both the object and medium of public controversy as an empirical problem.

Firstly, we would like to test the proposition that social media enable distinctive forms and trajectories of public controversy: what counts as a controversy and how it can be delineated is opened up for questioning in this setting. Secondly we propose that particular controversies may inflect social media in different ways: which actors, terms, and practices help constitute privacy as an object of controversy on Twitter requires empirical scrutiny. We argue that keeping the instability of both the medium and the controversy in view may require a methodological shift in how public controversies are studied.

To illustrate this, we will examine how different publicity practices and processes of promotion, protest and provocation intersect in the making of public controversies about privacy with Twitter. We will do this by examining privacy issues with two digital objects - the Hashtag and the Hyperlink - using two innovative mapping techniques: the associational profiler and the Twitter link mapper. These will be applied in a study of privacy issues surrounding the Edward Snowden leaks, tracing the composition and re-composition of privacy issues in the wake of this event.

The hidden practices & knowledge in social media research: Mapping the rethinking of modes of observation

Authors: Katharina Kinder-Kurlanda (GESIS Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences)  email
Katrin Weller (GESIS Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences)  email


This paper presents results from qualitative interviews conducted with social media researchers from media and communication studies about the methods, objectives and challenges of using data gathered from digital social media platforms. Topics discussed in the interviews ranged from practical aspects, such as methods of data collection, data analysis and data management, to methodological, ethical and epistemological concerns. As was to be expected, the highly interdisciplinary research initiatives were shaped both by the necessity to acquire technical skills (Giglietto et al. 2012) and by researchers having to rethink modes of observation (Karpf 2012). With regards to practical aspects we explore social media researchers 'hidden' - i.e. mostly not evident in publications - practices and tacit knowledge concerning the collected data, its validity, potential and problems. With regards to theory building we focus in this paper on researchers' views of the highly unregulated, developing and ephemeral field that is contemporary social media research. We show the variety in approaches to seeking grounding for methodological, ethical and epistemological issues by referring to the wider sphere of internet and technology studies. We also describe researchers' attempts to map the emerging field by - following lines drawn by methods, institutions, disciplines and funding conditions - making distinctions between different approaches to social media research. We hope to contribute with our study to a better understanding of the empirical, methodological, and theoretical challenges as perceived by media and communication scholars, as we believe that it is here that social science methods are being reassembled (Ruppert/Savage/Law 2013).

Digital technologies as baboon society made durable?

Author: Andreas Birkbak (University of Aalborg, Copenhagen)  email


In baboon society, as characterized by Latour (1996), social life is a complex affair. Each primate has to constantly test its relationships with others in order to interact successfully. Today it could seem that baboon society is being made durable with digital technologies. Social media input is liked and retweeted in front of our eyes, and users find their place in ever-changing hierarchies with Klout scores (Lury 2012). Journalists incessantly check other digital news outlets in order to mimic their output (Boczkowski 2009). Researchers navigate the texts of their peers by means of citation counts rather than keywords (Evans 2008).

Latour's point was that in primate society there is 'no society' in the sense that social order must be constantly produced through interactions. What is at stake for STS if digital mediation is materializing a society-less society? If our concern is social theory, digital methods might offer new opportunities for STS to problematize micro/macro distinctions in sociology (Latour et al. 2012). However, there is also a question of what to make of the ways in which digital representations of alternative topologies are already operative. On Facebook, it suffices to hover the mouse over an aggregated number of 'likes' in order to see a list of full names behind the likes. How do such representations offer new ways in which controversies can not only be traced but also conceptualized? Is the notion of a solid public that is under constant risk of being fragmented being replaced by a more liquid and stretchable digital operationalization?

A map enters the conversation: Digital cartography and its different modes of mattering

Author: Anders Kristian Munk (University of Aalborg)  email


Over the past decade STS scholars have been engaged in a continuous dialogue about the performativity of their methods and the interventions of their research practices. A frequently posed question is how STS can make a difference to its fields of study, what John Law has called its different 'modes of mattering'. In this paper I explore what difference digital cartography can make to STS practice. I draw on three examples from my own work where digitally mediated maps have entered the conversation and made critical, often surprising, differences to the research process. In my first example the map is brought along as an ethnographic device on a piece of fieldwork, in my second example it serves as the central collaborative object in a participatory design project, and in my third example the map becomes the object of contestation as it finds itself centre stage in the controversy it was trying to chart. I use these examples to discuss the potential modes of mattering afforded by digital cartography in STS.

What can research into chronic illness gain from a digital methods perspective? Type 2 diabetes as case study

Author: Adrian Bertoli (University of Copenhagen)  email


Today no study of chronic illness in contemporary society is complete without the inclusion of the digital, yet qualitative research in the field is slow to embrace new methods, instead continuing with existing methods imported onto the web, such as online/virtual ethnography. Deploying STS methods, particularly the theories, concepts and tools of digital methods used in controversy/issue analysis, affords the opportunity to be reflexive about; the limitations of 'virtual' methods, our object of study, and relations between researchers and researched when studying chronic illness in today's world. At the same time, we can open a dialogue with researchers in the field of medical sociology, anthropology as well as health care practitioners to create collaborative opportunities. Chronic illness today is digitally mediated in a number of ways, and this paper will present examples of how search engine results and hyperlink network visualizations created from them can be treated as data used to gain insights into the state of type 2 diabetes according to the range of actors, documents, and themes presented. By putting digital devices and traces center stage, we can show how the results may surprise in new ways and make the case that digital methods add an important and up to now understudied layer to the narratives of chronic illness in the social sciences and humanities, that is the digital layer of contemporary society.

The life, death and rebirth of Gephi: Negotiating methods between social science and computing

Author: Mathieu Jacomy (Sciences Po)  email


I created a monster. A tool that people use to share the most unfathomable and arguably useless visualizations of their research. Nobody can do anything to stop it, and I think this is for the better. Such a monster is not viable. Yet each time it collapses under the weight of its own problems, it is reborn again following the needs of its users. This paper will explain this paradox by exploring the intersection of design, code and social science research.

Gephi is a rather successful open source network visualization and analysis software widely used in social network analysis (and in other sciences like biology). It receives approximately 20,000 downloads per month. I created its prototype back in 2006, though now a community of developers lead by Mathieu Bastian develops it. Over the years I specified or contributed to specifying most of the software's features, and I continue to give dedicated teachings (currently in the Sciences Po médialab) to students and researchers interested in using it. It is particularly through these trainings that I have learned many things about methods in the social sciences: how a simple tool can enable, bend or block a research enquiry, and how engineers can be inventive to help researchers obtain satisfactory findings. In this paper I will explain how we discovered that some unexpected features were decisively useful to social sciences. Technique and method are two sides of the same coin: building a tool is implementing a methodology.

Mapping social science

Author: Torben Elgaard Jensen (Aalborg University Copenhagen)  email


The paper draws on a two-month field study of group of so-called cultural-historical psychologists working at a Danish University. Rather than producing science in the shape of an increasingly long chain of circulating references (Latour 1999; 2013), the group develops a stream of perspectives and concepts that may contribute positively and constructively to the interactions between actors entangled in social and psychological problems. A crucial feature of the psychologists' concepts is that they constantly risk becoming a part of the problem rather than a part of the solution. For this reason, the concepts must be developed and used with an elaborate sense of the problematic interactional situations in which problems unfold.

This type of sense, which the psychologists often refer to as 'being reflexive' is largely invisible in the current accounts of good science. It has no scientometric measure and it is not a value that fits easily into accounts of science as circulating references.

The aim of this paper is to take steps toward making maps or a metric of science on which the cultural-historical psychologists will become visible. For this purpose the Actor Network Text Analyser (ANTA) will be used on various selections of material to trace how the psychologists and their collaborators develop and elaborate their sensitivity to interactional entanglements.

On networks and eating rice with chopsticks

Author: Tommaso Venturini (École Normale Supérieure Lyon)  email


There is little doubt about it: our culture has fallen in love with networks. In part this fascination derives from the role that electronic networks have come to play in our collective life. Yet, reducing our romance with networks to the Internet and the Web would not be fair. Our love for networks largely overflow the sphere of electronic communication. Networks have been sprouting in every corner of popular and scientific culture and, in the last few decades, they have invested social sciences with a particular force.

There are several good reasons why networks have caught our sociological imagination. Networks are versatile tools, combining the affordances of graphs (computation), maps (visualization) and interfaces (manipulation). And networks are the natural format in which the emerging digital traces present themselves to social scholars.

But there is more: networks are fascinating because they promise to dissolve the rigidity of social structures without falling in an undistinguished complexity of interpersonal interactions. A trick that sociologists have found difficult to pull so far. Networks promise to analyze without aggregating; to cluster without categorizing; to order without structuring.

In this communication, I will discuss such promises by reading the description that Roland Barthes gives of the art of eating rice with chopsticks in his book on Japan, the Empire of Signs (1982/1970). By discussing the four functions of chopsticks in oriental culture, I will reflect on the possibility of digital social sciences to overcome the classic micro/macro and qualitative/quantitative distinctions without losing their discriminating capacities.

Pragmatic perceptions - James Gibson as a source for understanding web-based social science

Author: Anders Koed Madsen (Aalborg University Copenhagen)  email


The emergence of web-based social science has been a much debated topic within STS during the last decade. Projects like 'The Digital Methods Initiative' and 'MACOSPOL' have been pioneers in developing analytical software tools that make it possible to repurpose digital traces for STS-inspired research. Alongside this work, STS-scholars have introduced a series of innovative theoretical concepts that have helped to clarify the kind of social scientific insights that digital visualizations can provide their users with. Some of this work have involved looking back at the thoughts of early sociologists like Gabriel Tarde and John Dewey, whereas other have transferred etablished STS-informed understandings of society and technology to this emerging field.

The ambition of this paper is to introduce James Gibson's ecological theory of perception as a relevant - yet underexplored - theoretical ressource for conceptualizing the kind of empirical sensitivity that web-based social science have the potential to deliver. More specifically, the paper argues that Gibson's concepts of 'affordances' and 'invariants' are useful foundations for understanding how digital visualizations offers a specifc 'mode of seeing' that can be a useful supplement to traditional methods in some organizational problem-contexts. The relevance of transferring Gibson's theoretical framework to the context of web-based social science is motivated through a discussion of recent uses of this methodology across organizations in both the public and the private sector.

This track is closed to new paper proposals.