Department of Sociology

Science, Environment and Technologies

Our research interests

Our work on science, environment and technologies develops sociological frameworks to examine a wide array of contemporary developments, with particular concentrations of effort on: the sociology of contemporary communications technologies; the applications of computational technologies in the social and natural sciences; and the sociology of the environment and sustainability. An interest in the sociology of knowledge production, dissemination and consumption in diverse settings cuts across these substantive foci.

The departmental interest in Science and Technology Studies (STS) exemplifies our aim to develop theoretically informed and sociologically robust analyses of issues of contemporary importance, whilst also demonstrating that novel scientific and technological developments can provide the occasion for theoretical development and the explication of new methodological approaches. Our research on science, environment and technologies represents an extensive portfolio of projects funded by research councils, DEFRA, EU, Foresight LINK, Wellcome Trust, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Environment Agency and commercial support.

Current Members

Academic Members

Kate Burningham, Corinna Elsenbroich, Jane Fielding, Nigel Fielding, Nigel Gilbert, Christine Hine, Paul Hodkinson, Paul Stoneman

Research Staff

Thomas Roberts, Maria Xenitidou

Current and recent research

New media and communications technologies are a major focus within the department’s STS research. This focus includes both conventional sociological approaches and innovative engagements with new media practice. One key theme of our new media work is the examination of cultural specificity and the processes of appropriation of new media technologies. Nicola Green's current research focuses on the ways a range of new media technologies impact on discourses and practices of sustainability, and her previous work has included projects on young people and mobile technologies, mobile technologies and surveillance, the globalisation of personal data, and mobile media and technology design. Christine Hine has specific interests in the implications of new media technologies for science policy and practice, the development of disciplines and the dynamics of expertise, and has contributed to development of innovative ethnographic methodologies for understanding new media. Paul Hodkinson also explores new communications media in situ in relation to cultural identity, focusing on young people and new technologies, and the appropriation of new media within subcultural groups. Research in the group is linked to the Digital World Research Centre, with a number of doctoral students co-supervised with DWRC. Our interests in new media interweave with our concerns with the sociology of knowledge and the environment, through projects which focus on the production and consumption of online advice and the emergence of sustainability-oriented online networks.

Nigel Gilbert’s work on the application of computer simulation to social science, especially using techniques derived from artificial intelligence, is at the cutting edge of this field. The Centre for Research in Social Simulation (CRESS) is a world leader in applying a complexity perspective to sociological problems using simulation methods. A series of EU funded projects have developed simulation methods to help in understanding policy issues in application areas as diverse as tax reforms, business strategy, the housing market, the management of drinking water, and the spread of information about epidemics. Current projects include a collaboration with the Universities of North California State and Saõ Paulo on the influence of norms and sanctions on the governance of socio-technical systems; a study of social practices in the context of household energy use in collaboration with UCL, Imperial and Cambridge; and with European partners, three projects to model extortion racket systems such as the Mafia, assess communication strategies to improve risk communication in times of pandemics; and examine the effect of sustainable energy policies on household decisions to invest in solar panels.  A project led by CRESS with contributions from the Departments of Computing and Mathematics and the Centre for Environmental Strategy is working on the application of complexity tools and techniques to understand the development of industrial networks.

The group is also at the forefront of innovations in the use of computational technologies for the production and dissemination of academic research. (See also the Developments in Methodology group). CRESS is the leader of a European project to design internet-based software to support ‘Quality Collectives’, that is, communities that self-organise for their members.  Scientific communities are examples of such communities.  Nigel Fielding has taken a lead role in shaping the emerging field of e-social science, authoring a consultation document commissioned to inform the ESRC’s e-social science strategy in the qualitative domain, and pioneering the use of Access Grid technologies for social science research through research funded by ESRC’s National Centre for E-Social Science. His current work in this area, in collaboration with colleagues in Psychology and in Languages, is evaluating the use of networked video teleconferencing for real-time translation in criminal trials. In his role as consultant to the ESRC ‘Digital Futures’ project, he is advising on the capture and curation of social media data for secondary analysis by future generations of social scientists.

Our work on sociology of the environment and on the public understanding of science explores the social dynamics of problem identification and the diverse modes of engagement with issues in science and science policy. Kate Burningham has conducted research funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on the environmental perspectives of disadvantaged groups, and with colleagues in five other universities participated in ‘Beyond NIMBY: A Multidisciplinary Investigation of Public Engagement with Renewable Energy Technologies’ funded by the ESRC). In addition, in collaboration with Jane Fielding, she has conducted Environment Agency funded projects exploring public responses to flood warnings; public awareness of flood risk and  an assessment of environmental inequality and flood hazard, she worked alongside colleagues at Lancaster University in an ESRC and Hull city council funded study of children and young people's experience and agency in the flood recovery process. Kate is currently working with colleagues in the centre for Environmental Strategy and Psychology on a project entitled ELiCiT:  Exploring Lifestyle Changes in Transition, part of the SLRG (Sustainable Lifestyles Research Group) funded by Defra, the ESRC and the Scottish Government. Christine Hine has explored public understandings of science through examination of online discussions among parents about the treatment of headlice, and Paul Stoneman has analysed public support and use of complementary and alternative medicine, as well as attitudes towards biotechnology.    

Doctoral research

PhD students focus on a range of topics related to the interests of the group, including: epistemological aspects of computational sociology; online social support; popular music and sustainability; the Internet and women’s human rights; emergence and immergence of industrial ecosystems; knowledge communication across disciplines; new communication technologies and travel; agent-based simulation and emergent behaviour; motherhood and sustainability; freegan practices; and social aspects of computer games design.

To find out more, contact members of the group at the:

Department of Sociology
University of Surrey
Guildford
Surrey GU2 7XH
England
Tel. 01483 686986
Fax 01483 689551
E-mail: Christine Hine