Jan Blommaert

Jan Blommaert on digital culture in 2018 and 2019

The Editors

Digitalization and digital culture are not only reshaping the world we live in, they also reshape social sciences and the humanities in particular. Diggit Magazine was curious about the impact of digital culture on academia. Now, at the end of the year, we at Diggit Magazine thought that we could use the traditional end-of-year question-format as a pretext to seduce researchers from all over the world and from many different sub-disciplines to reflect on this impact, and to look back and forward. 

Instead of the traditional end-of-year questions, we thus asked them about the impact of digital culture on their research practice and their field of research in general. And we of course also asked them what they expect to happen in 2019. The traditional end-of-year questions, but reinvented from an academic, and more specifically, a digital culture studies perspective. 

In this interview, we ask Jan Blommaert to reflect on the impact of digital culture on his field. Jan Blommaert is Professor of Language, Culture and Globalization and Director of the Babylon Center at Tilburg University, The Netherlands. He is the author of numerous books such as Discourse, a critical introduction and The Sociolinguistics of Globalization. According to Wikipedia, he is considered to be one of the world's most prominent sociolinguists and linguistic anthropologists.

When did you notice that digitalization was substantially reshaping your research field?

I can’t really recall this with any precision, so it probably wasn’t a moment but a span of time in which I gradually became aware of such changes. The point of entrance was literacy, and the persons with whom I discussed such changes were Gunther Kress and Brian Street. I was writing a book on grassroots literacy while I was working with Gunther and Brian in London, 2005-2007, and the growing awareness of new, very advanced and technologically mediated online literacies informed my analysis of handwritten documents from Congo: I could now see them as ONE economy of literacy alongside others, coexisting in a globalized world.

The digital layer of social conduct is still often treated as superficial, an add-on of relatively restricted relevance to offline ‘real’ social behavior.

Literacy became, in the age of the Web 2.0, a layered and heavily stratified phenomenon in which existing inequalities were rapidly enlarged: the massive spread of online keyboard literacy turned longhand grassroots literacy into an even less-valued resource. And this had lots of practical effects, for instance when asylum seekers in Western Europe had to rely on their grassroots literacy in asylum or other legal procedures. 

I suppose that this was my first insight into digital culture and how it affected entire fields globally, such as the sociolinguistics of literacy. But I started realizing the fundamental impact of digital culture later, when we turned towards superdiversity as a framework for addressing the complex new sociolinguistic economies and repertoires of newly structured populations almost everywhere. Digital discourse production and digital modes of interaction could not be overlooked whenever one considered superdiversity. And in fact, it was by including the online world into our superdiversity framework that we were able to see entirely different dimensions to globalized mobility: the mobility of translocal interaction, enabling modes of integration in several societies simultaneously. 


Can you give a concrete example of the impact of digital culture on your research domain? 

Let me give perhaps an unusual example: anachronisms. Much of what we assume and take on board in the way of sociological/cultural imagination in our field is still deeply anchored in the codes for conduct in an offline world. We still think about humans as essentially sedentary and living in communities in which face-to-face conversation is the prevalent and most important mode of communication.

The digital layer of social conduct is still often treated as superficial, an add-on of relatively restricted relevance to offline ‘real’ social behavior. Hence the frequently used dichotomy between the ‘real’ offline world and the ‘virtual’ online one. It takes a while before scholars take online phenomena for what they are: social facts as ‘real’ as any other social fact, and in need of a well-founded description and interpretation.


What was the most remarkable change in 2018 regarding digital culture and your research?

I suppose I will give the same answer next year too: the incredible agility and wisdom of my students when it comes to digital culture. The anachronisms and the slow speed of adjustment characterizing the academic world are definitely not theirs: they lead me into new and adventurous domains whenever I meet them, and they show me, empirically, how ‘real’ that virtual world is in actual fact.


What do you expect will change in 2019 regarding the impact of digital culture on your research?

I am committed to continue what I have been doing for a while now: examining the theoretical foundations of our fields of study in view of a full incorporation of digital phenomena as evident, normal aspects of social reality. And while doing that, I also intend to continue to actively seek the continuous challenges offered by my students and colleagues.

In other words: I want to push ahead and be pushed ahead in 2019. It’s such fun.