VCU launching nation’s first master’s degree focused on digital sociology

This fall, Virginia Commonwealth University will offer the United States’ first Master of Science degree in Sociology with a focus on digital sociology. In addition to taking traditional M.S. sociology courses in theory and methods, students will also be able to elect to study questions of social inequality and social justice using online data sources such as social media.

“In our knowledge economy there is a digital analysis divide. A lot of data collected but no one analyzing it and certainly not enough people analyzing it through the lens of social justice,” said program director Tara Stamm, Ph.D., a teaching faculty member in the Department of Sociology in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “As sociologists we need to remain on the cutting edge of ‘doing sociology.’ Our students have an opportunity to develop a craft or skill of data analysis and visualization while retaining context and history of the people the data represents.”

Digital sociology is the study of the social processes that shape technologies like the internet and how those technologies shape social processes — how we work, go to school, form families, understand ourselves and enact social change.

In our knowledge economy there is a digital analysis divide.

As part of the new online program, the students will learn how to shape emerging local, national and global conversations about big data, privacy, algorithms, inequality and social movements.

“We believe that we can develop new ways of doing sociology that are both public and critical,” Stamm said. “Our ideal student is one who works in a data field looking for new tools and new ways of understanding the data they are currently using in their professional lives.”

Digital sociology has proven popular in Australia and the United Kingdom, but the VCU program will be the first in the U.S. to focus on using digital native sources and interpreting it through the sociological imagination.

“We really think it’s the future of sociology,” Stamm said.

Digital sociology, as championed by digital sociology pioneer Deborah Lupton, a sociologist and professor at the University of Canberra, Australia, has four main components:

  • Professional digital practice: using digital tools as part of professional practice to build networks, construct e-portfolios, build online profiles, publicize and share research.
  • Analysis of digital technology use: researching the ways in which people’s use of digital technologies configures their sense of self and their embodiment of social relations and the role of digital media in the creation or reproduction of social institutions and structures.
  • Digital data analysis: using naturally occurring digital data for social research.
  • Critical digital sociology: reflexive analysis of digital technologies informed by social and cultural theory.

 

Graduates in the program will undertake a research project, likely drawing upon data they have generated themselves through online data scraping.

“They’ll start working with their own data and asking their own big questions, and hopefully writing about those in the public sphere,” Stamm said. “We want them using the portfolio services. We want them blogging all the time. We want them really to think about how their social work can be impacted by their writing right now, not after it’s peer reviewed.”

A major component of the program, she said, will be to emphasize the importance of sociologists sharing their research findings and being a part of the public conversation. “We want them to use things like YouTube and blogs and podcasts and tweets and really start to infiltrate the public sphere, specifically, the public digital sphere, with sociological ideas.”

For example, Stamm said, a graduate might study the ways in which people discuss their health problems online, and whether that changes how they interact with their doctors or caregivers.

Or, she said, one taking a more structural and institutional approach might explore Black Lives Matter and its effect and portrayal online.

“So we see all the videos of police brutality, and [videos of] the speeches at [Bernie Sanders] rallies, for example,” she said. “This is content that is generated online that then changes the way that an entire group of people — African-American people — interact and react to the social justice system. [Digital sociology] is a way of studying those social dynamics that are both produced and occur online.”

“There’s a British sociologist named David Beer and he really likes to envision sociology as ‘punk sociology,’ a way of looking outward and being subversive and trying new approaches and ready to engage with alternative forms of knowledge. So it’s this way of kind of disrupting the status quo a little bit,” Stamm added. “I think that’s what we’re going for.”

For more information on VCU’s master’s degree in sociology with a focus on digital sociology, visit: http://digital.sociology.vcu.edu/. For the inaugural fall 2016 class, the Department of Sociology will waive the GRE score requirement.

About VCU and VCU Health

Virginia Commonwealth University is a major, urban public research university with national and international rankings in sponsored research. Located in downtown Richmond, VCU enrolls more than 30,000 students in 233 degree and certificate programs in the arts, sciences and humanities. Twenty-two of the programs are unique in Virginia, many of them crossing the disciplines of VCU’s 11 schools and three colleges. The VCU Health brand represents the VCU health sciences academic programs, the VCU Massey Cancer Center and the VCU Health System, which comprises VCU Medical Center (the only academic medical center in the region), Community Memorial Hospital, Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, and MCV Physicians. The clinical enterprise includes a collaboration with Sheltering Arms Institute for physical rehabilitation services. For more, please visit www.vcu.edu and vcuhealth.org.