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Knowing capitalism

What is ‘knowing capitalism”?  What is the methodological debate surrounding ‘knowing capitalism’ and digital data?  How should sociology respond to this changing data environment?

Mike Savage and Roger Burrows defines “knowing capitalism” as:

a world inundated with complex processes of social and cultural digitization; a world in which commercial forces predominate; a world in which we, as sociologists, are losing whatever jurisdiction we once had over the study of the ‘social’ as the generation, mobilization and analysis of social data become ubiquitous. (2009, p.763)

They described how non-academics working for corporations had access to non-public data and conducted detailed analyses about their customers, which caused them to worry about the role for academic sociologists in the digital future. The authors stated that their field had assumed a “deference to the internal authority of academic expertise,” but they did not find this to be the case in practice. They proposed reexamining the fundamental methods, both quantitative (sample surveys) and qualitative (in-depth interviews), to adapt for the digital age. For example, the sample survey developed as a method to gain a wider understanding of the population. However, the digital age brings increased availability and tracking of individual consumers (such as supermarket membership cards) that may eliminate the need to conduct samples. While sociologists should seek and promote access to non-public data, the authors also suggested description and classification as sociological work that would bring renewed value to their audience (whether the government, industry, or society).

In addition, the authors mentioned the ethical restrictions on academic sociologists to preserve confidentiality and anonymity that non-academics do not adhere to. It places this discussion into a larger discourse on privacy versus public data. For example, the familytreenow  website claims to be a genealogical resource, but recent articles spread through social media bring up concerns about personal safety to have this “public” data readily available online because it contains addresses. Hilary Mason also asks, “what is the most evil thing you can do with this?” as both a caution and a driver to think creatively.

Some digital technologies offer social information with fewer concerns, such as blogs and uploaded videos (since users choose to share by posting). Diraj Murthy mentions the drawback of digital ethnography using these sources, however, as access might be stratified by class/race/gender.

Sociology as a discipline might respond through reevaluating the purpose of ethics, namely to do no harm to those studied. When others (government and industry) do not conform to the same ethical standards, sociologists potentially miss out on opportunities to examine localized data. I wonder if it’s possible to position academic sociology as a “safe haven” for data that allows for non-anonymized study and anonymized reporting as an alternative.