The death of the theorist and the emergence of data and algorithms in digital social research

Computer software and data-processing algorithms are becoming an everyday part of Higher Education. How might this be affecting research in the social sciences and the formation of the professional identities of academics? Ben Williamson argues that these are important challenges for social science researchers in HE, asking us to consider how digital devices and infrastructures might be shaping our professional practices, knowledge production, and theories of the world.

Computer code, software and algorithms have sunk deep into what Nigel Thrift has described as the “technological unconscious” of our contemporary “lifeworld,” and are fast becoming part of the everyday backdrop to Higher Education. Academic research across the natural, human and social sciences is increasingly mediated and augmented by computer coded technologies. This is perhaps most obvious in the natural sciences and in developments such as the vast human genome database. As Geoffrey Bowker has argued, such databases are increasingly viewed as a challenge to the idea of the scientific paper (with its theoretical framework, hypothesis and long-form argumentation) as the “end result” of science:

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