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Sociology Research

 

I am Associate Professor in the Sociology of New Media and Digital Technology as well as the Anthony L. Lyster Fellow in Sociology at Queens’ College and Co-Director of the Centre of Governance and Human Rights (CGHR).  At CGHR, I lead the research theme on human rights in the digital age. Starting in October 2022, I will be Deputy Head of Cambridge's School of the Humanities and Social Sciences. 

My research is concerned with symbolic struggles surrounding the media in times of transition, whether democratic or digital, and most recently focusing on the empirical case of human rights fact-finding in the digital age.  The latter is a case study for understanding how truth-claims are created, evaluated and contested, as well as what effects related norms and practices have on equal access to speaking and being heard in public. I am developing two new projects.  The first is on 'Neo-Luddism in the Digital Age: Resisters, Quitters, Destroyers and Visionaries against Contemporary Technologies' (https://www.crassh.cam.ac.uk/about/people/ella-mcpherson1/), with the support of a Cambridge Early Career Fellowship at CRASSH.  The second is with Dr Sharath Srinivasan and Dr Sebastián Lehuedé and is on 'Provocations for Human Rights Practitioners: Technology, Power and Voice'.  It is supported by a Technology and Human Rights Fellowship at Harvard's Carr Center.’ My research has been funded by the ESRC, an EU Research and Innovation Horizon 2020 grant, and the Gates Cambridge Trust. 

I am also involved with policy work, such as in my 2020-21 role as Special Adviser to the House of Lords’ Digital and Communications Committee for their Freedom of Expression Online Inquiry.  I have also contributed research on ICTs and human rights practice as well as on the freedom of expression online for the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. 

Previously, I was a Junior Research Fellow in Sociology at Wolfson College and an LSE Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science's Department of Media and Communications. I earned my PhD in Sociology and my MPhil in Latin American Studies at Cambridge, and my BA was from the School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. 

Research Interests

My research focuses on symbolic struggles surrounding the media in times of transition, whether democratic or digital.  I am particularly interested in the implication of these struggles for, on the one hand, the formation, evaluation and contestation of truth-claims and, on the other, the individual and collective pursuit of good lives.  My most recent research project is an (auto)-ethnographic study of human rights fact-finding in the digital age, focusing on networks of human rights practitioners, humanitarians, technologists, journalists and scholars who collaborate on working with digital evidence.  This research engages with the sociologies of knowledge, media, technology and human rights to examine what implications our practices and discourses to combat digital fakery – and who constructs and deploys them – have for democracy.

In my research and teaching, I am profoundly concerned with the normative frameworks of technologies, their designers and their users, as well as with the ethics of new forms of knowledge generation, such as social media research and big data.  Underpinning this is my own normative concern with self-determination and pluralism in our societies, whether epistemological or with respect to access to solidarity and justice.  My previous research project, an ethnography on the human rights beat at Mexican newspapers, identified the contest for public credibility between state, media, and human rights actors as a significant driver of human rights coverage, and particularly of who gets to be seen and heard – and on whose terms. 

As co-director of Cambridge’s Centre of Governance and Human Rights, I support and engage in praxis research, including by leading The Whistle, an academic start-up focusing on supporting movements and organisations advocating for social change with digital evidence.  As part of this, I collaborate with Dr Mónica Moreno Figueroa on the End Everyday Racism project, which maps the experiences of everyday racism through witness testimonies.

Research Projects

In 2022-23, I will be working collaboratively with Dr Sharath Srinivasan and Dr Sebastián Lehuedé on 'Provocations for Human Rights Practitioners: Technology, Power and Voice', supported by a Technology and Human Rights Fellowship at Harvard's Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.

In Easter term 2022, I am a CRASSH Early Career Fellow, working on a new project: ‘Neo-Luddism in the Digital Age: Resisters, Quitters, Destroyers and Visionaries against Contemporary Technologies’.

Co-lead, End Everyday Racism, Department of Sociology, University of Cambridge (2018+)

Faculty Lead, Cambridge Digital Verification Corps (collaboration with Amnesty International and six other universities, 2017+)

PI, Human Rights Digital Toolkit, collaboration between The Whistle and the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (2020)

PI, The Social Life of Data, developed by The Whistle team (2020)

Teaching

Teaching:

I am on sabbatical in the 2021-22 academic year. 

Courses:

SOC3: Modern Societies II: Global Social Problems and Dynamics of Resistance (‘Digital Societies’ module)

SOC7: Media, Culture and Society (paper organiser)

MPhil in Media and Culture (pathway coordinator)

Graduate supervision interests:

I supervise PhD and MPhil students in the sociologies of journalism, media, technology, knowledge and human rights. 

Key Publications - Book Chapters

Hamilton, M., E. McPherson and S. Srinivasan.  2022. ‘”Deal with Me, Here I Stand!”: Presence, Participation and the Equal Protection of Online Assemblies.’ In F. Viljoen, C. Fombad, D. Tladi, A. Skelton and M. Killander, eds.  A Life Interrupted: Essays in Honour of the Lives and Legacies of Christof Heyns.  Pretoria: Pretoria University Law Press, pp. 327-46.

McPherson, E., I. Guenette Thornton and M. Mahmoudi.  2020.  ‘Open Source Investigations and the Technology-Driven Knowledge Controversy in Human Rights Fact-Finding.’ In A. Koenig, S. Dubberley and D. Murray, eds. Digital Witness: Using Open Source Information for Human Rights Investigation, Documentation and Accountability. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, pp. 68-86. [International Studies Association Human Rights Section’s 2021 Prize for Best Paper]

McPherson, E.  2018. ‘Risk and the Pluralism of Digital Human Rights Fact-Finding and Advocacy.’ In M. Land and J. Aronson, eds.  New Technologies for Human Rights Law and Practice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, pp. 188-214.

McPherson, E. 2017. ‘Social Media and Human Rights Advocacy.’ In H. Tumber and S. Waisbord, eds. The Routledge Companion to Media and Human Rights, London, UK: Routledge, pp. 279-88.

McPherson, E. and T. Probert.  2017. ‘Special Procedures in the Digital Age.’  In A. Nolan, R. Freedman & T. Murphy, eds. The United Nations Special Procedures System. Boston, MA: Brill, pp. 261-70.

McPherson, E., 2015. ‘Digital Human Rights Reporting by Civilian Witnesses: Surmounting the Verification Barrier.’ In R. A. Lind, ed. Produsing Theory in a Digital World 2.0: The Intersection of Audiences and Production in Contemporary Theory. New York, NY: Peter Lang Publishing, pp. 193–209.

McPherson, E., 2012. ‘How Editors Choose Which Human Rights News to Cover: A Case Study of Mexican Newspapers.’ In T. A. Borer, ed. Media, Mobilization, and Human Rights: Mediating Suffering. London, UK: Zed Books, pp. 96–121.

Key Publications - Journal Articles

Key Publications - Other

Grants and Projects

Principal Investigator, ‘A Messaging Chatbot to Support Refugees’ Documentation of Human Rights Violations in UK Asylum Accommodation.’ ESRC Impact Acceleration Account, University of Cambridge (2021-22): £19,771.52

Co-Lead, ‘End Everyday Racism’ Project. University Diversity Fund (2022): £1,497.80

Principal Investigator, ‘Ethics and Governance of Autonomous Systems and Machine Learning in the Digital Society.’ School of Humanities and Social Sciences Research Fund (2016-2018): £39,282

Cambridge Principal Investigator, ‘ChainReact: Making Supplier Networks Transparent, Understandable and Responsive.’ Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Action (2017-19): €2.5m in total, £333,000 at Cambridge

Principal Investigator, ‘Social Media, Human Rights NGOs, and the Potential for Governmental Accountability.’ ESRC Future Research Leader grant and Isaac Newton Trust grant (2014-17): £254,310

Principal Investigator, ‘The Whistle: A Digital Platform for Citizen Witnesses of Human Rights Violations.’ Impact Acceleration Account, University of Cambridge (2015): £10,800

Collaborator, ‘Understanding the Dynamics of Urban Flexibility and Reconstruction.’ Research Award from the Future of Cities Programme at the University of Oxford, (2010-11): £45,000

Research Groups & Affiliations

Awards

Pilkington Teaching Prize for excellence in teaching, University of Cambridge (2022)

Best Paper Award, International Studies Association Human Rights Section (co-author, 2021)

Cambridge University Press Technology-Enabled Learning Prize for Cambridge’s Digital Verification Corps (Faculty Lead of prize-winning team, 2020)

Times Higher Education Award, International Collaboration of the Year, awarded to Amnesty International, Airwars, and the Digital Verification Corps at six universities (contributed as Cambridge’s DVC Faculty Lead, 2019)

Job Title:
Associate Professor in the Sociology of New Media and Digital Technology, the Anthony L. Lyster Fellow in Sociology at Queens' College, Co-Director of the Centre of Governance and Human Rights
Dr Ella McPherson