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Digital Methods for Social Science: An Interdisciplinary Guide to Research Innovation

Snee, Helene, Hine, Christine, Morey, Yvette, Roberts, Steven and Watson, Hayley (eds.)

AIAA Publishing, (2016)
ISBN: 9781137453655 (hb)

Reviewed by Ibrahima Amadou Dia, Visiting Scholar, Centre for Refugee Studies, York University

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Cover of Digital Methods for Social Science: An Interdisciplinary Guide to Research Innovation The fundamental issue this collection strives to address is whether digital methods should be seen as research methods comparable to mainstream social sciences methods. This book is an excellent contribution to the debate about the implications of mainstreaming digital methods in social research. It revolves around the conceptual, theoretical, methodological, empirical, practical and ethical challenges of computational methods in social research. The authors have successfully addressed the intellectual skepticism and the challenges associated with mainstreaming digital methods in social sciences.

This readable and well-organized book provides a set of guidelines, lessons learned and recommendations for social scientists working on similar topics. Notwithstanding the innovations inherent in digital methods, the full recognition of these methods within the social sciences is still an ongoing debate. The different chapters call into question the false quarrel opposing digital methods and mainstream social sciences methods. Both sets of methods complement each other, and their combination is a source of enrichment of the methodological repertoire of the social sciences.

In a context of increasing innovations, this book reminds us of the vital importance of adopting ethical guidelines to address the ethical implications of digital methods. It also shows the need to strive for theoretically grounded and reflexive digital methods and tools and to consider the political, social and cultural processes underlying the conception and use of digital methods.

This book is divided into four parts, each consisting of three chapters that explore various issues. The introductory chapter revolves around the evolution of digital methods in social research, the dynamics of internet use in social sciences (i.e. online ethnography and “big data” analysis) and the challenges of integrating digital methods in mainstream methods. The introductory chapter also outlines the different parts and chapters of the book. Part I explores quantitative and qualitative research in social media (i.e. Twitter and Facebook), the intellectual skepticism surrounding big data and the immense potential that “thick data” represent for social research. Part II provides insights of investigations that compare and combine data drawing from online and offline approaches and that aim at deepening understanding of complex hybrid social realities. Part III examines the innovative nature of digital methods in social sciences drawing on case studies. The notion of innovation is analyzed referring to issues related to “materiality, embodiment, space, and place.” Part IV provides a snapshot of the theoretical, methodological and ethical challenges and implications of mainstreaming digital methods. The different chapters of Part IV provide a snapshot of the implications of mainstreaming digital social research. A critical reflection of the challenges of digital methods is fundamental to lay the foundations for digital research that are grounded on solid ethical principles and theoretical and methodological frameworks.

Reading this book shows us the increasing difficulty to dissociate digital research from mainstream research and to distinguish digital data from social sciences mainstream data, because of the possibilities for cross-fertilisation and the multiple imbrications of online and offline methodology. Hence the book stresses the blurring of boundaries of digital research (p.9). Those who have an academic or professional interest in the digital methods will find in this book high-quality contributions in respect to “access and gatekeeping; disciplinary boundaries and internal constraints; analytics and tools; methods and concepts; and research ethics” (p. 9). This book will allow them to gain a better understanding of innovations in digital methods, the drivers of these methodological innovations, and the obstacles towards mainstreaming digital methods and tools in social research. Last but not least the excellent editorial work of Sneel et al. should be mentioned and the significant didactic value of this book.

Digital methods are essential for understanding offline and online sociability, and should be an integral part of the repertoire of social sciences: this is the strong message advocated by this book. This book is highly recommended to students and researchers on sociology and social sciences, because it enriches the literature about digital sociology and anthropology and sheds light on the debate about the challenges and opportunities for social sciences in times of increasing digitisation of social life.