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.

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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:



My interview before my talk:



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

2014 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 3,100 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 52 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

“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)

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Against the criminalization of “pro-ana” websites


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.

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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.

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.

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