From Digital Positivism to Critical Digital & Social Media Research

A new trend in Internet Studies is big data analytics that has a focus on collecting large amounts of data from social media platforms and analysing it in a predominantly quantitative manner. This obsession with quantification, computationalism, and big data has also manifested itself as a preoccupation with attempts to develop new quantitative digital methods. The trouble with many of these approaches is that they often do not connect statistical and computational research results to a broader analysis of human meanings, interpretations, experiences, attitudes, moral values, ethical dilemmas, uses, contradictions, and macro-sociological implications of social media.

There is a danger that a de-emphasis of philosophy, theory, critique, and qualitative analysis advances what Paul Lazarsfeld termed administrative research, research that is predominantly concerned with how to make technologies and administration more efficient and effective. Paraphrasing Jürgen Habermas (1971; Knowledge and human interest. Boston, MA: Beacon), we can say that the there is a danger that digital positivism advances an “absolutism of pure [digital, quantitative] methodology” (p. 5), forgets about academia’s educational role, falls short of fully understanding “the meaning of knowledge” (p. 69) in the information society at large, and is an “immunization of the [Internet] sciences against philosophy” (p. 67). 

The Westminster Institute for Advanced Studies takes a different approach that investigates and scrutinises the mutual shaping of society’s and the online world’s practices and power structures. It is concerned with the ethical and normative imperatives of society and culture.
The approach gives focus to digital & social media in the context of political economy, politics and law, arts, creativity and culture. The Westminster Institute for Advanced Studies challenges a pure focus on big data analytics by advancing critical, interpretative, creative, artistic, and theory-led research methods and approaches.

As well as theorising and conducting research into digital & social media’s role in society, the Westminster Institute for Advanced Studies also engages in collecting and analysing samples of data from social media platforms. It tends to use smaller samples that are analysed with the help of qualitative and critical analysis methods (critical visual analysis, critical discourse analysis, qualitative text/content analysis, etc.) and critically interpreted with the help of social philosophy. It aims to contribute to bringing about a paradigm shift from big data analytics to critical digital & social media research methods.


WIAS is an academic space for independent critical thinking beyond borders.

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The WIAS has a fellowship programme that hosts critical digital & social media researchers.