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.
This morning, we had a plenary on “Visualisation and social networks in mixed-methods sociological research” at the British Sociological Association conference now going on in Manchester. This session, organized by the BSA study group on social networks that I convene with Alessio D’Angelo (BSA SNAG), builds on a special section of Sociological Research Online that we edited in 2016. Alessio and I chaired and had four top-flying speakers: Nick Crossley, Gemma Edwards (both at the University of Manchester), Bernie Hogan (Oxford Internet Institute) and Louise Ryan (University of Sheffield).
Each speaker briefly presented a case study that involved visualization, and all were great in conveying exciting albeit complex ideas in a short time span. What follows is a short summary of the main insight (as I saw it).
This new Social Processes and Structures (SPS) Seminar aims to take stock of the debates within the international scientific community that have repercussions for 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, no matter their subject and disciplinary background, provide the opportunity to deepen our understanding of the relations between theory, data and methods in social sciences.
The inaugural session took place on 20 November 2016; the “regular” series starts this Friday, 27 January, and will continue until June, with one meeting per month.
All sessions take place at Maison de la Recherche, 28 rue Serpente, 75006 Paris, room D040, 5pm-7pm. All interested students and scholars are welcome, and there is no need to register in advance.
Just attended the 20th conference of AISLF, the international association of French-speaking sociologists, in Montréal. Back home yesterday I found a state of fear and madness (again, alas…). But before that, I enjoyed a nice time with fellow researchers from France and (perhaps even more intriguingly, or simply more newly) from the different countries in which French is spoken, ranging from Canada, Belgium and Switzerland to several African countries. It was a good opportunity to get a sense of what research is done around us.
Lots of good presentations. Interestingly, digital sociology appears to be on the up, as many researchers investigated topics that had to do with digital technologies, their usages, and the ensuing economic and social transformations. That there was no dedicated stream is not in itself a problem: if digital technologies permeate all our lives, they should not be studied in a separate subfield but as part of the sociology of work, of gender, of education etc.
(On this particular point, I am proud to say I was interviewed, with Antonio Casilli, by ICI – Radio Canada, and our contribution was featured by the French Consulate in Québec, a supporter of the event).
The other good thing is the emergence of social networks research in two keynote presentations – by Antonio A. Casilli and Michel Grossetti – which is far from a small achievement, considering that the association does not have a dedicated social networks research group (I would love to see one being created sooner or later… like BSA-SNAG, the group I convene for British Sociological Association).
The five papers in this peer-reviewed special issue explore the potential of visual tools to accompany qualitative and mixed-methods research. Visualization can support data collection, analysis and presentation of results; it can be used for personal or complete networks; it can be paper-and-pencil or computer-based. Overall, visualization helps to jointly understand network contents and network structures.
The special issue is freely accessible from all commercial (non-academic) internet providers.
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.
Network data are among those that are changing fastest these days. When I say I study social networks, people almost automatically think of Facebook or Twitter –without necessarily realizing that networks have been around for, well, the whole history of humanity, long before the internet. Networks are just systems of social relationships, and as such, they can exist in any social context — the family, school, workplace, village, church, leisure club, and so forth. Social scientists started mapping and analysing networks as early as the 1930s. But people didn’t think of their social relationships as “networks” and didn’t always see themselves as “networkers” even if they did invest a lot in their relationships, were aware of them, and cared about them. The term, and the systemic configuration, were just not familiar. There was something inherently informal and implicit about social ties.
What has changed with Facebook and its homologues, is that the network metaphor has become explicit. People are now accustomed to talking about “networks”, and think in systemic terms, seeing their own relationships as part of a more global structure. Network ties have become formal — you have to make a clear choice and action when you add a “friend” on Facebook, or “follow” someone on Twitter; you will have a list of your friends/followers/followees (whatever the specific terminology is) and monitor changes in this list. You know who the friends of your friends are, and can keep track of how many people viewed your profile /included you in their “lists” / mentioned you in their Tweets. Now, everyone knows what networks are –so if you are a social network researcher and conduct a survey like in the old days, you won’t fear your respondents may misunderstand. In fact, you may not even need to do a survey at all –the formal nature of online ties, digitally recorded and stored, makes it possible to retrieve your network information automatically. You can just mine network tie data from Facebook, Twitter, or whatever service your target populations happen to be using.
Data are not a new ingredient of socio-economic research. Surveys have served the social sciences for long; some of them like the European Social Survey, are (relatively) large-scale initiatives, with multiple waves of observation in several countries; others are much smaller. Some of the data collected were quantitative, other qualitative, or mixed-methods. Data from official and governmental statistics (censuses, surveys, registers) have also been used a lot in social research, owing to their large coverage and good quality. These data are ever more in demand today.
Now, big data are shaking this world. The digital traces of our activities can be retrieved, saved, coded and processed much faster, much more easily and in much larger amounts than surveys and questionnaires. Big data are primarily a business phenomenon, and the hype is about the potential gains they offer to companies (and allegedly to society as a whole). But, as researcher Emma Uprichard says very rightly in a recent post, big data are essentially social data. They are about people, what they do, how they interact together, how they form part of groups and social circles. A social scientist, she says, must necessarily feel concerned.
It is good, for example, that the British Sociological Association is organizing a one-day event on The Challenge of Big Data. It is a good point that members must engage with it. This challenge goes beyond the traditional qualitative/quantitative divide and the underrepresentation of the latter in British sociology. Big data, and the techniques to handle them, are not statistics, and professional statisticians have trouble with it too. (The figure below is just anecdotal, but clearly suggests how a simple search on the Internet identifies Statistics and Big Data as unconnected sets of actors and ties). The challenge has more to do with the a-theoretical stance that big data seem to involve.