Professor Helen Kennedy was conferred to the Fellowship of the Academy in autumn 2022. She is Professor of Digital Society at the University of Sheffield and Director of the £4m, five-year ESRC Digital Good Network, a project which asks what a good digital society looks like and how we get there.
Helen’s various research interests come together in this initiative, which aims to ensure that scholarly enquiry into digital technologies attends to their impact on society, especially on minoritised and disadvantaged communities. The Digital Good Network’s emphasis on equity speaks to Helen’s commitment to overcoming social inequalities, which has underpinned her research for many years. She’s also interested in ‘imagining and crafting the digital worlds we cannot live without’, to paraphrase the words of US Professor of African American Studies, Ruha Benjamin, as evidenced in the Digital Good Network’s overarching research aim.
Throughout her academic career, Helen has undertaken social scientific research into new digital developments as they unfold, from web homepages in the late 1990s and web accessibility for people with learning disabilities in the 2000s, to social media data analytics in the 2010s and automated, AI and data-driven systems and visual representations of data in the 2020s. She has played a leading role in the establishment of critical data studies as a new field of social science enquiry and her research impact on policy and practice has been broad ranging. Helen is an invited member of Academia Europaea.
Why do the social sciences matter?
It is essential that scholarly enquiry into digital technologies attends to their impact on society, especially on minoritised communities. With all the tech developments happening right now, and resulting fears about existential risk, we need social scientists in the conversation, not only because we understand that technologies are social through and through, but also because we know that risks are being lived here and now by already disadvantaged groups. The challenge is in ensuring our voices are heard.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
There is a lot to enjoy about the work that we do. I enjoy working alongside other excellent people, some of them social scientists, but many of them from other disciplines and sectors beyond the academy. I like finding the time and headspace to think – which doesn’t happen often enough. I also really enjoy working with the next generation of digital society research leaders. A former post-doc recently told me that she had secured a permanent lectureship, and I think I was as happy as she was!
What is the most urgent issue social scientists need to tackle today and within the next three years?
As a digital society researcher, my answer to this question is going to focus on digital tech, specifically how to ensure that digital technology developments work for people, societies, the planet. On the ESRC Digital Good Network, which I direct, we focus on three societal challenges which we see as crucial to ensuring that digital technologies work for people and societies:
- equity, because digital relationships take place in conditions of power asymmetry and structural inequity.
- sustainability, because planetary challenges like climate change demand that we use digital tech in sustainable ways.
- resilience, because wellbeing, especially collective wellbeing, matters for our realisation of a good digital society.
These are urgent issues for social scientists to tackle.
What does being a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences mean to you?
It’s an honour. And it’s very validating. I am a working-class kid – for a while, I could say that there were three degrees in my family and they were all mine: BA, MA and PhD. But then my dad got an open university degree, so that changed. Achievements like becoming a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences are also validating of the kind of work I do – listening to people, connecting their voices to policy and practitioners, recognising inequality, taking the digital seriously. It’s reassuring to more people than me to know that this work is valued.