The power of survey data: Eurostat Users’ Conference

survey3In the age of big data, social surveys haven’t lost their appeal and interest. Surveys are the instrument through which governments, for a long time, have gathered information on their population and economy to inform their choices. Interestingly, surveys conducted by, or for, governments are the best in terms of quality and coverage: because significant resources are invested in their design and realization, and especially because participation can be made compulsory by law (they are “official”), their sampling strategies are excellent and their response rates are extremely high. (Indeed, official government surveys are practically the only case in which the “random sampling” principles taught in theoretical statistics courses are actually applied). In short, these are the best “small data” available — and their qualities make them superior to many a (usually messy) big data collection. It is for this reason that surveys from official statistics have always been in high demand by social researchers.

Continue reading “The power of survey data: Eurostat Users’ Conference”

Data and social networks: empowerment and new uncertainties (in Italian)

I gave a presentation on the topic of “Data and social networks: empowerment and new uncertainties” at the Better Decisions Forum on Big Data and Open Data that took place in Rome on 12 November 2014. The event brought together six speakers from different backgrounds on a variety of topics related to data, and participants were businesspeople, public administration managers, journalists, data and computer scientists.

Here is a video of my talk:

 

 

Unfortunately as you will have noticed, the slides are not always very clearly visible, so it’s better to download them from their original source:

slide-1-638

 

My interview before my talk:

 

 

See? I am trying to stick to my 1st-January commitment of blogging more this year…

“Pro” ana? Sociability and support in eating disorder online communities

This article was first published on Discover Society, November 2014.

Last June, a group of Italian MPs proposed jail terms and fines for authors of so-called “pro-ana” (anorexia) and “pro-mia” (bulimia) websites. These are self-styled online communities on eating disorders which are viewed as promoting extreme dieting and unhealthy eating practices. France and the United Kingdom preceded Italy’s attempt to pass restrictive legislation as far back as 2008-9, and many internet service providers also endeavoured to ban these contents.

But the potential spread of health-hazardous behaviours is probably only one side of the coin, and these websites might also channel health-enhancing assistance, advice, and support (Yeshua-Katz & Martins 2013). In fact a closer look reveals that website users carefully manage their online socialisation to address their health challenges. Online social spaces enable discussion around the illness and constitute a complement, albeit an admittedly imperfect one, to formal healthcare services. There is no rejection of standard health norms in the name of some extreme ideal of thinness but rather a need – or perhaps, a cry – for extra support.

A social science approach brings out these results. The effect of web interactions on health does not only depend on website contents, but also on how people actually use them, share them, and access resources through them. The social, rather than just clinical dimension of eating disorders, recognized long before the advent of the web (Bell 1985, Orbach 1978), becomes ever more relevant in the current context and calls for a more comprehensive view of the “ana” and “mia” social universe.

SupportANAMIA(Credit: Roberto Clemente)

Continue reading ““Pro” ana? Sociability and support in eating disorder online communities”

Against the criminalization of “pro-ana” websites

ItalianMPs

A bipartisan group of Italian MPs has recently put forward a bill proposing jail time and hefty fines for people encouraging eating disorders on the web. A primary target of the new measures are the so-called “pro-ana” and “pro-mia” websites.

The very premises of the proposed law are flawed, and it is based on very thin evidence. With a multidisciplinary team of researchers from French and British Universities, I have studied these websites since 2010 (ANAMIA project). Our results suggest that the the bill, if approved, would be ineffective (websites migrate) and harmful (making these communities more isolate and difficult to reach by health practitioners).

This is not only an Italian affair, but the sign of a more general concern. In the past, UK and France have unsuccesfully endeavoured to ban or restrict these sites. At stake is our societies’ approach to mental illness and whether criminalizing it is the right response.

Antonio A. Casilli and myself have written a story on this topic on Medium, entitled An open letter to the Italian Parliament, against the criminalization of “pro-ana” websites. A dangerous new law could turn into a public health disaster. Our point is that such laws do not create a suitable environment for betterment and well-being of individuals living with eating disorders. The results of recent studies allow better understanding of these online communities.

For more information, please see here.

How many friends do you have?

How many people do you know? How many friends do you have? You may have tried to count your contacts on Facebook or other social networking websites. You may even have felt a bit weird realizing that your “real” friends — those you can rely on — are just a handful. As unexpected it might seem, business professionals have this question in mind too: they want to get a sense of the potentially useable social capital of their associates and employees.

Social research has investigated this matter intensely and can offer insight. There are, in fact, two aspects to be considered: the size of personal networks and the effects of online communication on socialisation.

The size of personal networks

A personal network. Hollow circles represent face-to-face contacts, filled circles represent online contacts. Green = emotionally intimate, blue = very close, yellow = close, red = not-so-close.
A personal network. Hollow circles represent face-to-face contacts, filled small circles represent online contacts, nested circles are both face-to-face and online. Green = emotionally intimate, blue = very close, yellow = close, red = not-so-close.

Let us first start with the size of personal networks. A milestone in this debate is the so-called “Dunbar’s number“, based on a 1992 study of Oxford anthropologist Robin Dunbar. The idea is that human cognitive capacities as measured by the size of the neocortex lead to a network size of around 148 (with some range of variation). The original study compared the size of the neocortex in various groups of primates and humans and referred to cohesive communities. The resulting limit indicates the number of people with whom one can maintain “stable” social relationships, i.e., know who each contact is, and how they are related to one another.

Other parts of the brain may be involved too, suggest neuroscientists: Lisa Barrett and her co-authors (2010) found a correlation between amygdala volume and social network size in humans. (I understand that the amygdala is the part of brain that regulates emotional responses and aggression, while the neocortex to which Dunbar referred is the part of the brain that presides higher mental functions.) (see this Blogpost for further information).

In social network analysis perspective, it is also important to define which social network we are measuring. Peter Marsden (1987) distinguished “core” networks from whole personal networks, pointing out that even when people have many friends, there are only a handful with whom they “can discuss important matters”. In this sense, core networks may not include more than five or six people. So if you thought you had very few friends, you shouldn’t feel weird after all… apparently the Portuguese have a saying, “You have five friends, and the rest is landscape.”

On the other hand, your full network also including mere acquaintances and weaker ties may be much larger than Dunbar’s: counts of full networks taken by Peter Killworth, H. Russel Bernard, Chris McCarthy and co-authors in the 1990s – 2000s went up to about 1500 for the average American. From these, they extracted more meaningful measures of networks that are really relevant for people’s daily lives and came up with other numbers: they found a mean personal network size of 290 (twice the Dunbar number!); more recently, Matthew Salganik and his co-authors (2010) have come up with an even larger size of 610 (twice Killworth’s number…).

Overall, an issue that emerges from many of these discussions is that cognitive capacities (however defined) matter primarily because they are associated with a basic limitation of all living beings –time is finite. Therefore, increasing the size of one’s personal network implies that less time is available for each contact: the size of the overall network increases, but the size of the core network doesn’t. Weak ties may gain at the expense of strong ties.

Continue reading “How many friends do you have?”

Sociology in 2014: rediscovering methods

I was back last week from the annual conference of British Sociological Association (BSA) in Leeds, and as usual, I try to put down my impressions as long as they’re still fresh in my mind. I wasn’t very quick, though, and the BSA’s members newsletter has already come out with comments and short reports about the plenaries, the prizes awarded, and the conference overall. While the conference is described as having been “very vibrant and sociable”, with “exciting conversations” during the breaks and a “diverse mixture of topics” that “reflected the breadth of interests”. My own feelings, I confess, are a bit more mixed.

Leeds
In 2012, the BSA conference was followed by a lively debate after an article, by Aditya Chakrabortty on the Guardian, where he complained about the discipline’s lack of engagement with the financial crisis. He pointed to the BSA press releases featuring research on “older bodybuilders”, and to time devoted to the “holistic massage industry” at the conference, as evidence of what he saw as a retreat from public space. The BSA took the criticism very seriously and, apart from responding to the Guardian, put in place a massive effort to encourage public engagement. The 2013 conference was entitled “Engaging Sociology” and many sessions were dedicated to showing that the profession means it. Confrontation and comparison with economics was open and clear. A major project on social class was presented with all honours. The Sociology journal released a call for papers for a special issue to “Sociology and the Global Economic Crisis”.

Leeds2This year, the “Changing Society” title aimed to stress continuity with last year’s efforts; yet it seems to me that we are back to business as usual. I had the impression that many paper presentations were on topics similar to the body builders and massage that Chakrabortty talked about. That’s why, as I said, my feelings are mixed.

Continue reading “Sociology in 2014: rediscovering methods”

Qualitative networks

Social Network Analysis (SNA) is booming, and many think it’s because of internet networks and big data. Yet social networks themselves are not new: people have always formed ties to one another, and online platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn only offer channels for networked interactions to occur. Counts and fancy visualisations of myriad likes and shares do not tell the whole story either: networks are primarily about exploring how ties connect us as individuals and as organisations or groups, and how our social relationships affect our lives and behaviours.

In this sense, smaller studies can still have much to teach us. These include not only quantitative, but also qualitative approaches. “Social” networks involve a world of meanings, feelings, relationships, attractions, dependencies, which have traditionally been at the heart of qualitative research and are amenable to a mixed-methods approach.

In this perspective, with the Social Network Analysis Group of the British Sociological Association (BSA-SNAG), I am organising a one-day small conference on “Mixed Methods Approaches to Social Network Analysis”, exploring how the combination of SNA and qualitative methods can enrich and deepen our understanding of network content in conjunction with network structure. The event will take place on 12 May 2014 at Middlesex University, London, and the programme is available here; to register online (deadline 30 April!) click here.

The transformative powers and the politics of data visualisation: a case with personal network data

Data visualisation is still relatively uncommon in the social sciences, and is not normally expected to be part of the standard work of a scholar (contrary, some would say, to what happens in the sciences, where visualisation is sometimes necessary to figure out the properties of objects whose existence is proven, but which cannot be seen). Yet data visualisation has an extraordinary history of accomplishments even in the social realm, as cleverly documented in a forthcoming article by James Moody and Kieran Healy; and classics such as Pierre Bourdieu valued it and attempted to use it in at least some of their work, as Baptiste Coulmont interestingly reported in a blog post.

Yet the digital age offers new opportunities for data visualisation, that are largely unexploited in the social sciences. It becomes not only a tool for the researcher — to explore data prior to conducting statistical analyses, or to present results once the work is done —  but also for the general user, the study subject, the beneficiary of any policy under discussion, and the general public. As theorists in the arts and digital humanities (but not much in the social sciences, I am afraid) have noticed, the Internet and all digital infrastructures are becoming today interfaces with databases, and users of all types are immersed in a world of data in a way that was unknown before. This means that data visualisations can have new and more transformative uses, empowering study subjects and people in general, by offering them intuitive and aesthetically appealing tools to better navigate this digital world. But it also involves new dangers, as to who sets the agenda and what aspects or characteristics of the data are being stressed; data are not just objective, ‘raw’ materials but mediated ones, and the choice of how to make them perceptible by the senses is not neutral.

At the annual conference of the British Sociological Association today in Leeds, in the Methodological Innovations Stream, I am presenting data visualisation work I have done with colleagues Antonio A. Casilli, Lise Mounier and Fred Pailler, as well as data visuliaser Quentin Bréant, as part of the research project ANAMIA. We developed three tools — one for data collection, one for data exploration and preliminary analysis, one as a basis for heuristics and presentation of results. The first was for our study subjects, the second for us researchers and our colleagues, the third for us and the larger public. My slides are available:

Front

 

Whose fantasy are you living in? Your employer’s or Mark Zuckerberg’s?

A now classical result of the sociology of social networks is the distinction between formal social structures defined by kinship, inherited hierarchy or companies’ organisational charts, and informal structures arising from nets of friendship, trust, solidarity, similarities and dissimilarities. As far back as 1954, John A. Barnes (who incidentally, is credited with coining the wording ‘social networks’) in a renowned study of a small community of fishers in a Norwegian parish demonstrated that exogenously defined positions such as those arising from political administration, economic activity or family are insufficient to explain the social structure of the community, which largely depends on less codified relationships of friendship and acquaintance. In organisational studies, it appeared that the formal chart of a company and the actual networks of advice, trust or communication of members may differ widely, and surveys aimed at eliciting network ties (with ‘name generators’ for example) became a privileged means to bring to light the ‘company behind the chart‘ (Krackhardt & Hanson 1993) and to make ‘invisible work visible‘ (Cross, Parker & Borgatti 2002). Social network scholars advised managers on how, by using employee questionnaires, they could generate network maps and get to the root of many organisational problems. Another major finding was about the emergence of informal roles – the leader, the deviant, the broker – and their important contribution to driving the behaviours and outcomes of human groups, beyond all prescribed, formal authorities (Johnson, Boster & Palinkas 2003).

FormalInformal

The formal chart of a company and the network obtained by asking each employee, “With whom do you discuss work-related issues?” Central individuals (who receive most nominations) are NOT the formal leaders.
 

The research and consultancy activity that built on these ideas had a strong impact on organisational culture worldwide, especially as companies tended to flatten and rely on teams and cross-divisional, project-based work, so that managers’ authority mattered less and understanding these informal networks became a potential key for success. Many would admit today that the organisational chart is the fantasy of the employer, not an actionable tool, and even less so a reliable reflection of reality. But then, what are the advice, trust, and communication networks mapped by the researcher – shouldn’t we say they are the fantasy of the sociologist? These networks are built from questionnaires and therefore rely on the subjective responses of participants; and it is well known in the area of survey design research, that question wording orients responses, that different cultures and groups tend to interpret questions differently, and that people may give biased answers due to forgetting, deliberate concealing of sensitive information, ambiguity of definitions, and diversity in perceptions. The survey is the traditionally primary tool of investigation of the social networks scholar, but brings with it its limitations and distortions.

One may think that the formal organisational chart and the informal advice (or trust or communication) network are just two different ways of construing social structure and objectivating it. They are informed by different political and epistemological orientations: those of (old-style) employers for the former, those of social researchers (and perhaps enlightened employers) for the latter. The resulting formal-informal dichotomy would then be the result of a cleavage between two competing approaches to the management of organisations (and more generally of human groups or communities), one more hierarchical and functional, the other flatter and more collaborative.

Continue reading “Whose fantasy are you living in? Your employer’s or Mark Zuckerberg’s?”