CFP | Digital transformation of social theory

Call for papers to a special issue of Technological Forecasting and Social Change [SSCI 3.226, Scopus, CNRS***, ABS***, VHB***].

This is basically what I want to spend my life working on yet pretty much everything in this CfP irritates me” Mark Carrigan, Digital Sociologist, Social Media Consultant, and Digital Fellow at The Sociological Review

It sounds like if the mafia did academia” Effie Le Moignan, Northumbria University

Digital transformation of social theory

Guest editors

Steffen Roth, La Rochelle Business School and Yerevan State University
Harry F. Dahms, University of Tennessee, Knoxville
Frank Welz, University of Innsbruck
Sandro Cattacin, University of Geneva

There once was a time when leaders could both appreciate books and govern empires without knowing how to read and write (Dutton, 2016; Pascal, 1970). Today’s thought leaders are in a very similar situation. Though hardly ever away from keyboard, we scholars in general and social theorists in particular relate to the dominant media of the 21st century as if we still lived in the Gutenberg Galaxy (McLuhan, 1962), as exemplified in the prevailing use of computers and Internet mainly to write books and articles to store and search for in online libraries. The situation is even more remarkable in that we not only continue to treat the new media like traditional media, but also produce more and more traditional media on the new media. Today, there are publications on the digital transformation of almost everything. Human identity (Nagy & Koles, 2014) is being transformed digitally, along with more mundane aspects of social life such as work (Stone, 2004), production (Potstada et al., 2016), or healthcare (Agarwal et al., 2010); and then again time and space (Berthon et al., 2000), and thus even the globe (Heylighen & Lenartowicz, 2016) and all of our everyday life (Wajcman, 2008); apparently, not even the traditional media (Coyle, 2006; Roth et al., 2017) can escape the digital transformation.

In such a context of inescapable digital transformation, our professional insistence on oral and written language remains consistent as long as we have reason to believe that these traditional media remain dominant even in the new media age (Turkle, 2016). The less committed we are to this belief, however, the clearer it becomes that books and articles on the digital transformation systematically fail to “walk their own talk”. Digital copies of printed theories do not constitute digital theories, just as literature does not constitute mere transliterations of oral speech. Even if smart attempts to tie programming languages back to the traditional forms occasionally result in the discovery of new genres such as code poetry (for an example, see Bertran, 2012), to most of us even these literalised forms of computer language remain as inaccessible as the Bible once was to the majority of the medieval populations. Thus, of all people, we scholars also belong to the illiterate farmers of the information age today, as we harvest our research fields at computer-mediated conferences and virtually augment our stocks of books and papers. The heirs of the medieval monks, our profession of bookworms and elaborate natural language processors itself grew dependent on trust in and reliant on spiritual guidance from a community of cybermonks who shape and administer the increasingly omnipresent knowledge architectures of the future.

Early attempts to alter this situation and to develop at least a prototype of a digitally transformed social theory include social systems theory. As is well known, Niklas Luhmann (1995, 2012, 2013) built his social theory – as much as his theory of society – on the formal language of George Spencer-Brown (1979), and a recently discovered 1961 prototype of the Laws of Forms leaves no doubt that Spencer-Brown developed his laws as elegant solutions to problems in electronic engineering (Roth, 2017). Thus, Luhmann’s social systems theory does not only theorise the digital transformation of society, but also presents an example of a theory whose architecture at least in parts is coded in a digital language. Yet, Luhmann’s digital transformation of theory has remained both superficial and largely unparalleled in the in the wider social theory community.

The digital transformation of punditry (McNair & Flew, 2017) remains an unresolved issue of social theory, which is critical in the light of the rapid digital transformation of social research methodologies and corresponding discussions on an end of theory (Anderson, 2008; Boyd & Crawford, 2012; Kitchin, 2014). In such a context, the secret hope that traditional print and pencil theories will survive the digital transformation, and at best require occasional rewrites and resubmissions, constitutes a considerable risk which we will not manage just by publishing yet another golden open access online-first version of a moderated interaction of two or more preferably established social theorists. Rather, what is at stake is how we not only (re-) activate literature and literati to trace and study footprints of the digital media, but also unfold post-literary social theory programmes within these digital media themselves.

In the light of the above, this special issue does not invite social theories of the digital transformation, but instead attempts at digital transformations of social theory. Manuscripts and other modes of presenting arguments and analyses that are cognizant with the above-mentioned systematic failure to “walk their own talk” are welcome, especially if they promise to illuminate general and/or specific aspects of the digital transformation of social theories, addressing questions and memes of the following non-exclusive type:

  • Digital theoretical languages: What are suitable programming languages for a digital transformation of social theory? Are there particularly promising constellations of natural and formal languages in general or programming languages in particular?
  • Theory debugging: How might debuggers or similar programmes be used to test and fix existing or even facilitate the development of new social theory programmes?
  • Critical updates: What are the most critical updates to be installed on the social theory platforms of the 21st century?
  • Digital detox: Since we do not randomly produce digital copies of analogue content, digital transformation involves an option to jettison the obsolete among the analogue concepts. Which concepts should be confined to literature? Are there any that systematically resits their digital transformation? Are there any that are indispensable for digital theorising?
  • Game over or next level: Toward a computer-gamification of social theory?
  • Communication from elsewhere: Social theory between fashionable nonsense and algorithmic authorship.
  • Old wires in new bottlenecks: What if we took the classical theorists and just threw them in at the deep end of the Internet age to observe what would ensue? (see, e.g. for Karl Marx: Fuchs, 2017)
  • Training the under-/dogs: From social theory programming to double-contingent human-computer interaction (Tanz, 2016).
  • Humanism versus transhumanism: Who or what are the agents in and of a digitally transformed society? Is there a place of agency in such a society at all?
  • Hacking: Is there such thing as theory hacking? What could social theorists in general and critical theorists in particular learn from hackers? For example, what options are there to move beyond brute force attacks on established theory programmes and platforms #problematization; or, how can we imagine phishing for complements for traditional social theories?
  • Empire strikes back: How do, or could, social theories change the trajectory of digital transformation? To what extent is social theory already part or even driver of the digital transformation?
  • Anticipated flashbacks: What might future generations of social theorists think of our traditional or transitory forms of pre- or proto-digital theorising?
  • Anachronisms of digital transformation: Digital transformation as narrative, myth, or any other traditional form of communication.

Please do not hesitate to email to or for informal enquiries on the special issue.

Deadline: 15 October 2018. The full CFP including details on submission period and procedure is available on the TFSC website.


Agarwal, R., Gao, G., DesRoches, C., & Jha, A. K. (2010). Research commentary—The digital transformation of healthcare: Current status and the road ahead. Information Systems Research, 21(4), 796-809. DOI: 10.1287/isre.1100.0327

Anderson, C. (2008). The end of theory: The data deluge makes the scientific method obsolete. Wired magazine, 16(7), 16-07.

Berthon, P., Pitt, L., & Watson, R. T. (2000). Postmodernism and the Web: Meta themes and discourse. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 65(3), 265-279. DOI: 10.1016/S0040-1625(99)00067-0

Bertran, I. (2012). code {poems}. Barcelona: Impremta Badia.

Boyd, D., & Crawford, K. (2012). Critical questions for big data: Provocations for a cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon. Information, Communication & Society, 15(5), 662-679. DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2012.678878

Coyle, K. (2006). Mass digitization of books. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 32(6), 641-645. DOI: 10.1016/j.acalib.2006.08.002

Dutton, P. (2016). Charlemagne’s Mustache: And Other Cultural Clusters of a Dark Age: Palgrave Macmillan US.

Fuchs, C. (2017). Marx’s Capital in the information age. Capital & Class, 41(1), 51-67. doi: doi:10.1177/0309816816678573

Heylighen, F., & Lenartowicz, M. (2016). The Global Brain as a model of the future information society: An introduction to the special issue. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, online first (accessed on July 29, 2016). doi: http://doi:10.1016/j.techfore.2016.02.004

Kitchin, R. (2014). Big Data, new epistemologies and paradigm shifts. Big Data & Society, 1(1), DOI: 10.1177/2053951714528481.

Luhmann, N. (1995). Social Systems. Stanford: Standford University Press.

Luhmann, N. (2012). Theory of Society, Volume 1. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

Luhmann, N. (2013). Theory of Society, Volume 2. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

McLuhan, M. (1962). The Gutenberg galaxy: The making of typographic man: University of Toronto Press.

McNair, B., & Flew, T. (2017). Data trumps intuition every time: Computational journalism and the digital transformation of punditry The Routledge Companion to Digital Journalism Studies (pp. 537-545): Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).

Nagy, P., & Koles, B. (2014). The digital transformation of human identity: Towards a conceptual model of virtual identity in virtual worlds. Convergence, 20(3), 276-292. DOI: 10.1177/1354856514531532

Pascal, P. (1970). Charlemagne’s latin. Neophilologus, 54(1), 19-21. DOI: 10.1007/BF01514680

Potstada, M., Parandian, A., Robinson, D. K., & Zybura, J. (2016). An alignment approach for an industry in the making: DIGINOVA and the case of digital fabrication. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 102, 182-192. DOI: 10.1016/j.techfore.2015.07.020

Roth, S. (2017). Parsons, Luhmann, Spencer Brown. NOR design for double contingency tables. Kybernetes, 46(8), 1469-1482. DOI: 10.1108/K-05-2017-0176

Roth, S., Clark, C., Trofimov, N., Mkrtichyan, A., Heidingsfelder, M., Appignanesi, L., . . . Kaivo-oja, J. (2017). Futures of a distributed memory. A global brain wave measurement (1800–2000). Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 118, 307-323. DOI: 10.1016/j.techfore.2017.02.031

Spencer-Brown, G. (1979). Laws of form. New York: E. P. Dutton.

Stone, K. V. (2004). From widgets to digits: Employment regulation for the changing workplace: Cambridge University Press.

Tanz, J. (2016). Soon We Won’t Program Computers. We’ll Train them Like Dogs. Wired, 17 May 2016, available at

Turkle, S. (2016). Reclaiming conversation: The power of talk in a digital age. New York: Penguin.

Wajcman, J. (2008). Life in the fast lane? Towards a sociology of technology and time. The British Journal of Sociology, 59(1), 59-77. DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-4446.2007.00182.x/full

Short biographies

Dr. Dr. Steffen Roth is Associate Research Professor of Strategic Management at the La Rochelle Business School, France, and Professor of Sociology at the Yerevan State University, Armenia. He holds a PhD in Management from the Chemnitz University of Technology and a PhD in Sociology from the University of Geneva. He was Assistant Professor at the Rennes School of Business as well as Visiting Professor at the International University of Rabat and the University of Cagliari. His research was published in journals such as Administration and Society, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, Systems Research and Behavioral Science, Journal of Economic Issues, Kybernetes, or Futures. His ORCID profile is available at

Dr. Harry F. Dahms is a Professor of Sociology, co-director of the Center for the Study of Social Justice, and co-chair of the Committee on Social Theory at the University of Tennessee, USA. Dahms’s primary research and teaching areas are theoretical sociology (social, sociological, and critical theory), economic sociology, globalization, social inequality, and social justice. He is the editor of Current Perspectives in Social Theory, and director of the International Social Theory Consortium (ISTC). His research was published in Sociological Theory, Critical Sociology, Basic Income Studies, and numerous edited volumes.

Dr. habil. Frank Welz is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Innsbruck, Austria, and the former president of the European Sociological Association (2015-2017). He is a member of the editorial boards of the Austrian Journal of Sociology, Chinese Journal of Sociology, European Journal of Cultural, and Political Sociology, and European Societies. His research was published in journals such as International Sociology, Social Identities, Österreichische Zeitschrift für Soziologie, and numerous books and edited volumes.

Dr. Sandro Cattacin is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, where he is also the Director of the Institute of Sociological Research. He held visiting professorships at Glasgow Caledonia University, University Roma Tre, Politecnico di Milano, or, as a Willy Brand Guest Professor, at the University of Malmö. His research was published in journals such as Voluntas, Journal of Public Health, Studi Emigrazione, Revue Suisse de Sociologie, Zeitschrift für Politikwissenschaft, and numerous books, reports, and edited volumes. His publication record is available at

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