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Digital society and social research

WANG TIANFU | 2021-10-29 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Wang Tianfu is deputy dean of the School of Social Sciences at Tsinghua University.

In the 21st century, the rapid development of China’s economy and society highly coincides with the advent of the digital age. It is precisely because of its keen grasp of the development pulse of the digital era that China’s modernization is becoming a force to shift global development trends and paradigms.

Fundamental changes
Digital technologies have triggered fundamental changes in social connections. Firstly, digital technologies have expanded the boundaries of social connections. Secondly, digital networks have facilitated information sharing in social connections. Furthermore, digital information transmissions have improved the timeliness of social connections. Lastly, the convenience of digital connections has led to the dependence of social connections on digital technologies. 
Digital technologies have reorganized the organizational mode of production in the digital era. Firstly, the direct involvement of data, as a new production factor in the production process, has altered the previous production process of value. Digital capital, as a brand-new source of value traded in the market, will become the most valuable resource. Secondly, the transmission of digital information in a networked fashion has transformed market operation. Digital technologies have brought about more efficient information at a lower cost, allowing the development of the efficient and coordinated market exchange mechanism. Thirdly, the structure of production organization in the digital age has undergone significant, corresponding changes. Digital technologies allow the hierarchical structure to be more flattened. Finally, the role, working content, and mode of individuals participating in production have changed drastically. 
Daily lives in the digital age have fundamentally changed as compared to that of the industrial age. First of all, individuals in the digital age are conveniently connected with the world. Secondly, with the acquirement of huge amounts of digital information, the digital age has brought new self-awareness and self-expression to individuals. Third, digital technologies have changed the way people connect with each other and reshaped interpersonal relationships. Digital communication technologies improve people’s ability and diversity of connection, and greatly reduce the restrictions of space on interpersonal interaction. Furthermore, group composition in the digital age has formed a new mechanism. The fragmented personal network in the digital age shows the group characteristics of “networked individualism.” Finally, social participation in the digital age has also witnessed great changes. The network mobilization through social media enjoys higher efficiency at a lower cost, and has become an important way to mobilize social participation.
Technological progress in the digital age has profoundly changed people’s social lives, formed a series of new mechanisms for deconstructing and reorganizing social structures, and also produced unshaped principles of social operation. In the digital society, the digital network penetrates all the organizational forms of the original industrial society, directly carries individuals into the digital network and makes every individual a basic node. This will undoubtedly bring about adjustment and even disintegration of the original social organization structure. Looking into the future prospect of the digital society, communication scholar Manuel Castells  proposes two trends of the “Utopia” and the “Dystopia.” This view shows that the impact of digital technology itself on the whole society has both positive and negative consequences. In the short history of a digital society, the mechanisms of deconstructing and reconstructing society must demonstrate the characteristics of similar contradictions and opposites, and manifest as a series of dialectical paradoxes, which not only predict the possible directions of future social changes, but also provide enlightening ideas for people to thoroughly understand the society.
Research innovation
In the context of the digital society, there are three major objectives of social research: to have in-depth research on new social facts to facilitate our understanding of the digital society; to closely relate social research with social interventions and tackling social issues; and to directly apply the research of digital society to the construction of the digital society. 
The digital era not only provides new opportunities for social research, but also signifies the need to use new research paradigms and methods to study the digital society. From the perspective of research process, the biggest difference between digital society research and previous social research is that big data has become the most novel dynamic basis for digital society research. The research methods of the digital society include not only the digital transformation and expansion of original social research methods, but also the new technologies specially developed for the research on the digital society. Due to the interdisciplinary nature of digital society research and the emphasis on data analysis, interdisciplinary knowledge and specific research technologies have also become important methods in digital society research.
The research on China’s digital society has the following two advantages: first, over the past 20 years, the rapid development of China’s economy and society has highly coincided with the advent of the digital age, forming the most significant “social experiment” model of fundamental social change in the digital age. Second, China widely applies digital technologies to various fields, and has the largest population and the largest number of digital network users in the world, and their activities in the digital society are also the densest, which generates rich data.
Future focus
The emerging digital society research requires new research paradigms, research methods, and research ideas. The digital society research has developed rapidly in the fields of computing method application, empirical experience research, and so on. While continuing to promote empirical research, digital society researchers should seize the development opportunities of this discipline to forge social concepts, social theories, and social thoughts with Chinese characteristics in a digital era, from the perspective of knowledge production.
At least five realms of exploration in the research on the digital society are worth focusing on. First is to extract new concepts from social facts of the digital society; second is to attempt to provide a holistic social diagnosis; third is to maintain a reflective position toward social technologies’ development; fourth is to give big data analysis additional sociological significance; fifth is to positively engage in the construction of the digital society.  
This is an excerpt from his speech at the forum.
Edited by ZHAO YUAN