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 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.
Today, my chapter on “Formalization and mathematical modelling” is published in a new series of three reference books on History of Economic Analysis (edited by G. Faccarello and H. Kurz, Edward Elgar). The chapter draws heavily on key ideas I developed as part of my thesis on the origins of mathematical economics. But this was a long time ago and reading it again today, I see it in a different light. I notice in particular that economics developed its distinctive mathematical flavour, which makes it neatly stand out relative to the other social sciences, at times in which social research was data-poor – and it did so not despite data paucity, but precisely because of it. William S. Jevons, a 19th-century forefather of the discipline who was clearly aware of the relevance of maths, wrote in 1871:
“The data are almost wholly deficient for the complete solution of any one problem”
“we have mathematical theory without the data requisite for precise calculation”
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).
A new, master’s level programme of study in Survey and Data Science is to be offered jointly by the University of Mannheim, the University of Maryland, the University of Michigan, and Westat. Applications for the first delivery are accepted until 3 January, for a start in Spring 2016. Prospective students are professionals with a first degree, at least one year of work experience, and some background in statistics or applied mathematics. All courses are delivered in English, fully online, to small classes (it’s not a MOOC!). Tuition is free, thank to support from German public funds at least for the first few cohorts.
What is most interesting about this master is its twofold core, involving both more classical survey methodology and today’s trendy data science. Fundamental changes in the nature of data, their availability, the way in which they are collected, integrated, and disseminated, have found many professionals unprepared. These changes are partly due to “big” data from the internet and digital devices becoming increasingly predominant relative to “small” data from surveys. Big data offer the benefit of fast, low-cost access to an unprecedented wealth of informational resources, but also bring challenges as these are “found” rather than “designed” data: less structured, less representative, less well documented (if at all…). In part, these changes are also due to the world of surveys changing internally, with new technical challenges (regarding for example data preservation, in a world of pre-programmed digital obsolescence), legislative issues (such as those triggered by greater awareness of privacy protection), increased demand by multiple users, and a growing need to merge surveys and data from other (such as business and administrative) sources. It is therefore necessary, as the promoters of this new study programme rightly recognize, to prepare students for the challenges of working both with designed data from surveys and with big data.
It will be interesting to see how data science, statistics, and social science / survey methodology feed into each other and support each other (or fail to do so…). There is still work to be done to develop techniques for analyzing data that allow us to gain insights more thoroughly, not just more quickly, and help us develop solid theories, rather than just uncovering new relationships that might eventually turn out to be spurious.
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.
Official statistical surveys are still the best sources of data in terms of quality. Practically, they are the only ones that apply random sampling and the legal obligation to respond makes the actual sample very close to the targeted one. No other approach to data collection can hope to do as well.
The European Union Statistics on Income and Living Conditions (EU-SILC) is an instrument aiming at collecting timely and comparable cross-sectional and longitudinal multidimensional microdata on income, poverty, social exclusion and living conditions. It started in 2003 with a small group of participant countries, and was enlarged in 2004. It is one of the richest sources of information on the daily life conditions of Europeans.
EU-SILC data are available for research use, but many barriers exist and these data are actually underutilized. On the one hand, the fact that access is legally authorised does not make it practically straightforward – the application process can be lengthy and costly. On the other hand, the very handling of data requires some specific knowledge and skills.
The Data without Boundaries European initiative, aimed at moving forward research access to official data, organises a training programme on EU‐SILC with a specific focus on the longitudinal component. Local organization lies with Réseau Quetelet, host of the training course is GENES ‐ Groupe des Écoles Nationales d’Économie et Statistique both in Paris (France).
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.