A social scientist's venture into big data, while still learning much from surveys and fieldwork
Author Archives: paolatubaro
I am an economist and economic sociologist, interested in social networks and their impact on markets, organisations, and communities.
I am also a methodologist and I am interested in matching classical social theories and state-of-the-art statistical and computing methods.
I teach sociology of social networks, digital sociology, and research methods.
Just back from a stimulating summer school on social network analysis and complexity, organised in sunny Cargèse (Corsica). Lots of exciting talks on communities, network dynamics, and complex social structures, with a touch of genuine interdisciplinarity.
Just came back from the Work, Employment and Society (WES) conference 2018, that British Sociological Association (BSA) organizes every other year. Perhaps more intimate and newbie-friendly than the main BSA event, this year’s WES in Belfast was also a positive surprise in terms of its academic content. There were several sessions on the so-called ‘gig economy’ (or as one speaker put it, ‘gig economies‘), the effects of digital business models that often go under the name of ‘uberization’, and atypical forms of work.
Some lessons I am taking home:
A growing number of researchers are studying platform work – not just the most visible forms of it such as Uber drivers and Deliveroo couriers, but also those who are hidden at home: freelancers and to a lesser extent, micro-workers;
The question of how platform workers self-organize, and what can be done to improve their organization capacity, is attracting a lot of attention;
Efforts at establishing standards, fairness criteria and forms of social protection for atypical platform workers are gaining momentum;
There is a lot we can learn from research in neighboring areas: for example the distinction between employee-friendly and employer-friendly flexible work, initially developed for people in employment, is also helpful here.
What is still missing from the picture is information on the ‘long tail’ of smaller, often national rather than international, platforms, and on the workers (especially micro-workers) who use them. Besides, clients and requesters are little known – on all platforms. Estimating the size of the platform worker population remains an unresolved issue – whether at local, national or international level. A common grievance by researchers is difficulty to access crucial data from commercial platforms that use them as their private property.
Research on social networks raises formidable ethical issues that often fall outside existing regulations and guidelines. State-of-the-art tools to collect, handle, and store personal data expose both researchers and participants to new risks. Political, military and corporate interests interfere with scientific priorities and practices, while legal and social ramifications of studies of personal ties and human networks come to the surface.
The proposed special section aims to critically engage with ethics in research related to social networks, specifically addressing the challenges that recent technological, scientific, legal and political transformations trigger.
Following a successful workshop on this topic that was held in December 2017 in Paris, we welcome submissions that critically engage with ethics in research related to social networks, possibly based on reflective accounts of first-hand experiences or case studies, taken as concrete illustrations of the general principles at stake, the attitudes and behaviors of stakeholders, or the legal and institutional constraints. We are particularly interested in novel, original answers to some unprecedented ethical challenges, or the need to reinterpret norms in ambiguous situations.
As part of the upcoming NetSci2018 conference in Paris, I co-organize a satellite event that aims to foster interdisciplinary reflection on how methods from social science can be upscaled to large network structures and on how methods from complex systems can be downscaled to deal with small heterogeneous structures.
The idea is to reconcile two traditions of research that have remained separate so far. Sociology typically handles small but rich networks where a wealth of network attributes results from the complexity of the data collection design. Differences across nodes and edges enable to capture the social processes underlying network structures and their dynamics. Instead, the complex systems tradition handles large but poorly-specified networks. Assuming statistical equivalence of graph entities, a mean field treatment suffices to describe the aggregate properties of the network. Today’s network data-sets contain an unprecedented quantity of relational information within and between all possible levels: individuals, social groups, organizations, and macro entities. Such large and rich network structures expose the implicit limitations of the two above-mentioned approaches: classical sociological methods cannot be upscaled because of their heavy algorithms, and those from complex systems lose track of the multi-faceted nature of social actors, their relationships and their processes.
Our satellite event aims to move forwards, inviting an inter-disciplinary reflection and exploring ways in which these limitations can be overcome.
I co-organize this Satellite to the NETSCI2018 Conference in Paris, 12 June 2018. We are now accepting submissions of proposals for presentations.
Information on the Satellite
In traditional research paradigms, sociology handles small but rich networks where the richness of network attributes is derived from the specific buildup of the data collection process. In the sociological approach, differences among nodes and edges are key to describe network properties and the ensuing dynamical social processes. Instead, the complex systems tradition deals with large but poor networks. Assuming statistical equivalence of graph entities, a mean field treatment serves to describe the aggregate properties of the network. Today’s network datasets contain an unprecedented quantity of relational information at all, and between all, the possible levels: individuals, social groups, political structures, economical actors, etc. We finally deal with large and rich network structures that expose the implicit limitations of the two abovementioned approaches: the traditional methods from social science cannot be upscaled because of their algorithmic complexity and those from complex systems lose track of the complex nature of the actors, their relationships and their processes. This workshop has the aim of developing an interdisciplinary reflection on how methods from social science could be upscaled to large network structures and on how methods from complex systems could be downscaled to deal with small heterogeneous structures.
We invite abstracts of published or unpublished work for contributed talks to take place at the satellite symposium. We expect a broad range of topics to be covered, across theory, methodology, and application to empirical data, relating to an interdisciplinary reflection on how methods from social science could be upscaled to large network structures and on how methods from complex systems could be downscaled to deal with small heterogeneous structures.
Submissions are required to be at most 650 words long and should include the following information: title of the talk, author(s), affiliation(s), email address(es), name of the presenter, abstract. Papers or submissions longer than 1 page will not be accepted.
Abstract submission deadline is March 25, 2018. Notification of acceptance will be no later than April 23, 2018.
Fueled by increasingly powerful computing and visualization tools, research on social networks is flourishing. However, it raises ethical issues that largely escape existing codes of conduct and regulatory frameworks. The economic power of large data platforms, the active participation of network members, the spectrum of mass surveillance, the effects of networking on health, the place of artificial intelligence: so many questions in search of solutions.
Social networks, what are we talking about?
The expression “social network” has become common, but those who use it to refer to social media as Facebook or Instagram often ignore its origin and its true meaning. The study of social networks precedes the advent of digital technologies. Since the 1930s, sociologists have been conducting surveys to describe the structures of relationships that unite individuals and groups: their “networks”. These include, for example, advice relationships between employees of a company, or friendship ties between students in a school. These networks can be represented as points (students) united by lines (links).
Before any questioning on the social aspects of Facebook and Twitter, this research shed light on, for example, marital role segregation, importance of “weak ties” in job search, informal organization of firms, diffusion of innovations, formation of business elites, social support for the sick or elderly. Designers of digital platforms such as Facebook have picked up some of the analytical principles on which these works were based, developing them with the mathematical theory of graphs (though often with less attention to the social issues involved).
Early on, researchers in this field realized that the traditional principles of research ethics (focusing on informed consent of study participants and anonymization of data) were difficult to ensure. By definition, social networks research is never about a single individual, but about relationships between this individual and others – their friends, relatives, collaborators or professional advisors. If the latter are reported by the respondent but are not themselves included in the study, it is difficult to see how their consent could be obtained. What’s more, results can be difficult to anonymize, in that visuals are sometimes disclosive even in the absence of personal identifiers.
Ethics in the digital society: a minefield
Academics have long been thinking about these ethical difficulties, to which a special issue of the prestigious Social Networks journal was dedicated as far back as 2005. Today, researchers’ dilemmas are exacerbated by the increased availability of relational data collected and exploited by digital giants like Facebook or Google. New problems arise as the boundaries between “public” and “private” spheres become confused. To what extent do we need consent to access messages that digital service users send to their contacts, their “retweets”, or their “likes” on their friends’ walls?
These sources of information are often the property of commercial enterprises, and the algorithms they use likely bias observations. For example, can we interpret in the same way a contact created spontaneously by a user, and a contact created as a result of an automated recommendation system? In short, the data do not speak for themselves, and before thinking about their analysis, we must question the conditions of their use and the methods of their production. They largely depend on the software architectures imposed by platforms as well as their economic and technical choices. There is a real power asymmetry between platforms – often the property of large multinational companies – and researchers – especially those working in the public sector, and whose objectives are misaligned with investors’ priorities. Negotiations (if possible at all) are often difficult, resulting in restrictions to proprietary data access – particularly penalizing for public research.
Other problems arise as a researcher may even use paid crowdsourcing to produce data, using platforms like Amazon Mechanical Turk to ask large numbers of users to complete a questionnaire, or even to download their online contact lists. But these services raise numerous questions in terms of workers’ rights, working conditions and appropriation of the product of work. The resulting uncertainty hinders research that could otherwise have a positive impact on knowledge and on society at large.
Availability of online communication and publication tools, which many researchers are now seizing, increases the likelihood that research results may be diverted for political or business purposes. If the interest of military and police circles for the analysis of social networks is well known (Osama Bin Laden was allegedly located and neutralised following the application of social network analysis principles), these appropriations are more frequent today, and less easily controllable by researchers. A significant risk is the use of these principles to suppress civic and democratic movements.
The role of the researcher
Restrictions and prohibitions would likely aggravate the constraints that already weigh on researchers, without helping them overcome these obstacles. Rather, it is important to create conditions for trust and enable researchers to explore the full extent and importance of online and offline social networks – allowing them to capture salient economic and social phenomena while remaining respectful of people’s rights. Researchers should take an active role, participating in the co-construction of an adequate ethical framework, grounded in their experience and self-reflective attitude. A bottom-up process involving academics as well as citizens, civil society associations, and representatives of public and private research organizations could then feed these ideas and thoughts back to regulators (such as ethics committees).
With a group of colleagues from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and in Collaboration with OuiShare, we are studying networking at the event. The OuiShare Fest aims, among other things, to bring people together: we want to see how interactions between participants facilitate circulation of ideas and possibly give rise to future collaborations.
Our inter-disciplinary, inter-institutional SPS seminar (Paris Seminar on the Analysis of Social Processes and Structures) has just started its second edition! Its purpose is to take stock of the debates within the international scientific community that have repercussions on the practice of contemporary sociology, and that renew the ways in which we construct research designs, i.e., the ways in which we connect theoretical claims, data collection and methods to assess the link between data and theory. Several observations motivate this endeavor. Increasing interactions between social sciences and disciplines such as computer science, physics and biology outline new conceptual and methodological perspectives on social realities. The availability of massive data sets raises the question of the tools required to describe, visualize and model these data sets. Simulation techniques, experimental methods and counterfactual analyses modify our conceptions of causality. Crossing sociology’s disciplinary frontiers, network analysis expands its range of scales. In addition, the development of mixed methods redraws the distinction between qualitative and quantitative approaches. In light of these challenges, the SPS seminar discusses studies that, irrespective of their subject and disciplinary background, provide the opportunity to deepen our understanding of the relations between theory, data and methods in social sciences.
Research on social networks is experiencing unprecedented growth, fuelled by the consolidation of network science and the increasing availability of data from digital networking platforms. However, it raises formidable ethical issues that often fall outside existing regulations and guidelines. New tools to collect, treat, store personal data expose both researchers and participants to specific risks. Political use and business capture of scientific results transcend standard research concerns. Legal and social ramifications of studies on personal ties and human networks surface.
We invite contributions from researchers in the social sciences, economics, management, statistics, computer science, law and philosophy, as well as other stakeholders to advance the ethical reflection in the face of new research challenges.
The workshop will take place on 5 December 2017 (full day) at MSH Paris-Saclay, with open keynote sessions to be held on 6 December 2017 (morning) at Hôtel de Lauzun, a 17th century palace in the heart of historic Île de la Cité.
Let us know if you wish to be panel discussant or session chair by 20 October 2017 (send to: firstname.lastname@example.org).
Acceptance notifications will be sent by 31 October 2017.
Registration is free but mandatory: speakers (and discussants and chairs) should register between 15 October and 15 November 2017, other attendees by 30 November 2017.
José Luis Molina, Autonomous University of Barcelona, “HyperEthics: A Critical Account” Bernie Hogan, Oxford Internet Institute, “Privatising the personal network: Ethical challenges for social network site research”
Antonio A. Casilli (Telecom ParisTech, FR), Alessio D’Angelo (Middlesex University, UK), Guillaume Favre (University of Toulouse Jean-Jaurès, FR), Bernie Hogan (Oxford Internet Institute, UK), Elise Penalva-Icher (University of Paris Dauphine, FR), Louise Ryan (University of Sheffield, UK), Paola Tubaro (CNRS, FR).
To understand how people form and reinforce face-to-face network ties at such an event, I fielded a questionnaire with the help of a committed and effective team of co-researchers. It is a “name generator” asking respondents to name those they knew before the OuiShare Fest, and met again there (“old frields”); and those they met during the event for the first time (“new contacts”). Participants then have to choose those among their “old” and “new” contacts, that they would like to contact again in future for joint projects or collaborations.
Interestingly, my good old pen-and-paper questionnaire still gives a lot of insight that digital data from social media cannot provide – just like a highly computer literate community such as this feels the need to meet physically in one place every year for a few days. Like trade fairs that flourish even more in the internet era, the OuiShare Fest gathers more participants at each edition. They meet in person there, which is why they are to be invited to respond in person too.