Call for Papers: The digitalization of the social and the socializing of the digital

International Conference at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, June 7th & 8th, 2012

The “social” as a unique issue – distinct from the state, politics, law or culture – was the central concept around which the new discipline of the social sciences has been formed. For Durkheim, for instance, the social constitutes the space of relations between individuals that is irreducible to the sum of these. For others, the social is based on association (from socius: companion, associate). It therefore contains all that is likely to associate, including the connections and interactions that can engage humans and nonhumans, subjects and technical objects. It is the study of the social and the exploration of its various forms that was (and still is) the basic project that constitutes the social sciences.

For more than a decade, much has been written about the so-called “digital revolution”. Today, information and communication technology is present in most areas of social activity. As a result, digital mediation pervades almost all social relations. Administration, education, culture, friendship, love – in all these different practices, digital interfaces play a crucial role, although it is sometimes not completely clear how and to which extend. According to several analysts, the rise of digital interfaces has given birth to new modes of relations – particularly in the field of emotional relationships where the growing digitalization seems to generate significant changes at present.

But how does this digital revolution affect the constitution of the social? How can we conceptualize the social in the digital age? Is digital media a new basis for association and the constitution of the social? And if so, does this raise the classic question of the social sciences concerning the very “nature” of the social in a new way? In recent years, rich and extensive work has been devoted to these questions. In reviewing these works, to main axes seem to appear: the digitalization of the social and the socializing of the digital.

The concept of the digitalization of the social answers to the proliferation of digital interfaces in social activities and interactions. Many common activities use digital interfaces as an intermediate or are affected by them. They are mediated by computer screens, keyboards, touch devices, digital protocols or search engines. These interfaces seem to play an increasing role in the creation, maintenance and extension of social relationships: based on computer algorithms that compare personal data, people meet on social networking or online dating sites. Links and relationships between individuals are created with the help of digital interfaces.

But this digitalization of the social also intervenes in the chains of intermediaries in a way that is largely beyond the visibility and the practical scope of most users. It offers the possibility to measure online activities, to quantify, classify and store them in databases. Users may utilize this information to observe themselves and the behavior of others. But data can also be saved and used without their knowledge. The digitalization of the social encourages practices of social control and surveillance on an interpersonal as well as an institutional level.

Therefore, the diagnosis of a digitalization of the social goes often hand in hand with a critique of these transformations. Many observers have shown how forms of control and surveillance increase when the social is reconfigured through digital interfaces. In this perspective, the social is “colonized” from the outside by technological processes, thereby multiplying forms of surveillance, rationalization and reification as well as reinforcing power relations. Furthermore, these processes allow new forms of appropriation and exploitation of the contributions of users online.

There is, however, also a second perspective on the same processes, that of the socializing of the digital. Here, on the contrary, digital interfaces do less appear as places where the social is configured but rather as a space where it emerges, where different forms of usage and innovative social experiments are created. Digital interfaces are regarded as incorporations of social forms, of already existing ways of relating. Digital activities are social at their very core. A social network site for example must incorporate in its technical architecture an already existing concept of friendship, and an online dating site must relate to the established forms of building up emotional relationships in our society.

As a result, the perspective of the socializing of the digital implies less critique of control, surveillance and power, but rather analyses the ways in which the social is adopted and reconfigured by the digital. Far from being “colonized” by the machines, the social is in fact right at the very heart of them (Latour). Such a perspective goes often hand in hand with a rather positive view of the current changes. The socializing of the digital is regarded as a process that allows more egalitarian forms of sociality, especially by supporting the freedom of speech and expression and by making power relations more transparent. Furthermore, there are hopes that the social would become more “dynamic” in the digital age.

These different views on the current developments raise many questions for scientific research:

  • How to describe, analyze, and understand this double move of the digitalization of the social and the socializing of the digital? Should we examine these processes separately or together? How and with which conceptual tools?
  • What are the implications of these developments? Could there be a superposition of the social and the digital, or is the one colonized by the other?
  • Is the socializing of the digital of the same importance than the digitalization of the social? Which of both processes finally “wins the battle”?
  • What are the differences that can be observed between the social spheres – on the market and in the sphere of work, with regard to emotional and intimate relationships or in culture and politics?
  • Does the increasing importance of digital interfaces support the rationalization and reification of social relationships? How does this proceed, in which social spheres and with what consequences?

The international conference at the University of Lausanne on June 7th & 8th, 2012 will try to answer some of these questions. It brings together experts in the sociology of technology, media and social theory as well as empirical research projects that analyze current developments in the field of digital activities and interfaces. The conference languages are French and English.

We invite the submission of proposals (about 2500 Characters) to Olivier.Voirol{at}unil.ch and Kai.Droge{at}unil.ch. The deadline is March 15th, 2012. The organizing committee will notify you about the acceptance two or three weeks later.


Organizing committee:

Olivier Voirol (UNIL) Olivier.Voirol{at}unil.ch
Kai Dröge (UNIL) Kai.Droge{at}unil.ch
Alba Brizzi (UNIL) Alba.Brizzi{at}unil.ch

Supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and the Institute of Social Sciences (UNIL).

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