Reassembling Social Science Methods: The Challenge of Digital Devices

  • Ruppert E
  • Law J
  • Savage M
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The aim of the article is to intervene in debates about the digital and, in particular, framings that imagine the digital in terms of epochal shifts or as redefining life. Instead, drawing on recent developments in digital methods, we explore the lively, productive and performative qualities of the digital by attending to the specificities of digital devices and how they interact, and sometimes compete, with older devices and their capacity to mobilize and materialize social and other relations. In doing so, our aim is to explore the implications of digital devices and data for reassembling social science methods or what we call the social science apparatuses that assemble digital devices and data to know' the social and other relations. Building on recent work at CRESC on the social life of methods, we recommend a genealogical approach that is alive to the ways in which digital devices are simultaneously shaped by social worlds, and can in turn become agents that shape those worlds. This calls for attending to the specificities of digital devices themselves, how they are varied and composed of diverse socio-technical arrangements, and are enrolled in the creation of new knowledge spaces, institutions and actors. Rather than exploring what large-scale changes can be revealed and understood through the digital, we argue for explorations of how digital devices themselves are materially implicated in the production and performance of contemporary sociality. To that end we offer the following nine propositions about the implications of digital data and devices and argue that these demand rethinking the theoretical assumptions of social science methods: transactional actors; heterogeneity; visualization; continuous time; whole populations; granularity; expertise; mobile and mobilizing; and non-coherence.

Author-supplied keywords

  • actor network theory
  • big data
  • digital devices
  • genealogy
  • methodology
  • performativity
  • transactional data

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  • Evelyn Ruppert

  • John Law

  • Mike Savage

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