Sociology and Software


As part of my SSI fellowship I’ve started to have a think about the role of computer programming in sociology. I thought I’d blog about them and invite comments from the wider community!

Sociology is a pretty broad discipline, at Lancaster the department included a number of anthropologists (e.g. the excellent Lucy Suchman  ) while here at Durham the sociology department is more quantitative. It’s actually quite hard to imagine an anthropologist in the Durham sociology department, or a quants person at Lancaster’s (with apologies if I’ve overlooked anybody who is!).

A future blog post will look at anthropology and coding, so for now I will limit myself to (the rest of?) sociology, which still includes theoretical and empirical (qualitative and quantitative). Clearly sociologists will use a variety of tools, especially in their writing.

I’ve heard about Professor Bob Jessop’s personal handcoded database for managing his reading and references which he’d developed decades ago, although use of Endnote is more widespread (my brief flirtation with Mendeley a few years ago seemed to suggest that there weren’t many social scientists using it at the time).

Qualitative tools such as NVIVO NUDIST and ATLAS are used throughout the community to code qualitative data (although this isn’t the same as computer coding, which does lead to some confusion!), and quantitative tools such as SPSS MATLAB and R are commonly used for Quant data. Each of these has a coding interface which is much more similar to computer coding.

The question I’m left to ponder though is who is developing these tools? Is development driven by the community? And are there coder/ sociologists developing new and interesting tools that are pushing the boundaries of what sociologists do? I’m aware of some e-social science projects, although that never really felt that driven by the wider sociology community, and i’m not sure of the ongoing impact…

I feel that this is quite advanced in areas that are using online data but less so elsewhere. In fact I hope to put on a workshop later this summer about web scraping which will promote social scientists to work with online data scraped from the internet.

It would be great to hear about examples of sociologists who code, either in their own time or as part of their role, especially if this is looking at data and areas which aren’t wholly online already.


About digitalscholar

I am a sociologist with an interest in new technology. Previously I’ve worked on a number of projects at Lancaster University and the Open University looking at the use of new technologies and social media by researchers. I was also a social sciences teaching fellow at the foundation centre at Durham University teaching sociology and anthropology. I am now a senior lecturer at the University of West London's Institute for Teaching, Innovation and Learning where I oversee the foundation provision and support retention. I'm sure I'll still be interested in, and occasionally blog about, tech related things. I use this blog to post thoughts about using new technologies in my professional academic life and wider thoughts and links relating to technology more generally.
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3 Responses to Sociology and Software

  1. Em says:

    It’s funny, I’d forgotten Lucy Suchman was in the sociology dept! For me she is very closely linked with computing because of her usability work.

    Anthropology seems very diverse, with some very quantitative work going on. It seems these data-driven approaches are sneaking into academia in many disciplines. A colleague at Bristol co-authored this paper, for example:

  2. anacanhoto says:

    Hi Nick, I don’t know if he codes, but have you checked David Beer, from York Uni? He is a sociologist and interest on issues of data, algorithms and related matters. He blogs over at:

  3. Pingback: Digital Scholarship Blog | Thinking culture

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