(Some theoretical drivel around what I refer to as ‘advanced capitalism,’ and the proliferation of symbolic data empirically associated with it …)
One of the empirical outcomes of advanced capitalism has beeen the proliferation of symbolic data. This outcome is often associated with major technological change. For example, the proliferation of symbolic data comes from very specific advancements in the technologies of social-data gathering. We can quickly document business models built on accumulating data-bases of human interaction: pictures (instagram), searches (Google), quick comment (Twitter), likes (Facebook) and so on. Already, these social data companies have come to be categorized more broadly as “Big Data.”
Under these circumstances, sociology as theory and practice faces new challenges. For example, sociology based on the web, with free and open access, will be prepared to study and understand the social world as it is and as it will be. In terms of the sociology of business, sociology based on the web will be better prepared to collect and analyze the symbolic data on which businesses rely.
The unit of analysis promoted by the proliferation of symbolic data is at the interactive level between (a) qualitative meanings of images/performers and (b) audiences. This interaction (between image/performance and audience) is central to the structure of advanced capitalism to a depth greater than it was to the structure of industrial capitalism.
My most current definition of advanced capitalism is in terms of four institutional features: intellectual property, globalization, finance, and communication media. These institutions start to take form in the 1970s. Of these otherwise independent features, I tend to take as most singularly “deterministic” the role of finance, specifically the transformation of US monetary arrangements in the early 1970s. But this emphasis on US finance as “deterministic” would only be a speculative theory. Establishing that US monetary changes happened and are important in a few particular ways is the empirical goal. For example, see the recent book by Greta Krippner (here is a link to her 2005 article “The Financialization of the American Economy”).
some possible theoretical implications
—US social theorists tend not to use capitalism as their subject. Why is this? Am I right to even think this?
Block is a notable exception. Alexander probably is, too, though I think of his subject more as democracy than capitalism. But how can you really divide capitalism and democracy, in terms of having a social theory of one or the other?
I ask the question about capitalism-as-subject because sociology was built upon social theory having to do with the onset of capitalism, by people like Weber, Durkeim, Marx (and I would add Adam Smith).
—the value of qualitative data and qualitative empirics
The idea of advanced capitalism, and the proliferation of symbolic data associated with it, appear to make an empirical case for the use of qualitative renderings of these data. Symbolic data tend to be images or text, and these data can be kept in full form and presented wholly, replete with a context, in order to extract meaning; indeed, to place uncovering “meaning” at the center of the analysis. Keeping symbolic data “whole” and analyzing “qualities” of objects is a major part of my own analytical project. But this isn’t the only way to analyze symbolic data, nor is it even the leading way. Big Data is successful, to this point, insofar as it turns symbolic data into numerical data fit for highly skilled modeling. An example of a sociologist who does very interesting work abstracting numerical data from symbolic data (and who maintains a web presence!) is Neal Caren.
My position is not that qualitative data are more (or less) valuable than quantitative data. My position is that under the conditions of advanced capitalism and the proliferation of symbolic data, the ability to analyze qualitative data is more valuable than it otherwise would be. Keeping symbolic data “whole” is not always deemed efficient, but political and economic actors need insight into the contexts of their own personal fields of action. The kind of population-level studies made possible by quantitative analysis of symbolic data often is not relevant to any particular actor within the population. Actors need contextualized data. I am an advocate of Bourdieu’s model of habitus+capital+field, not only as a theory but as an analytical technique to draw empirically based insights about the context of particular fields of action.
This idea, that capitalism can change over time, throws a difficult wrench into many established theories of economic knowledge. Marx’s theories, of course. But also any theory that uses a strict definition of what makes a capitalist market a capitalist market. The idea of advanced capitalism suggests that what makes a capitalist market changes over time, and capitalism itself changes. In terms of classical theorists (including Adam Smith, Weber, Durkeim, and Marx), the idea of advanced capitalism — or the more provable idea that capitalism simply changes — best connects with the way Weber envisioned the nature of capitalism.