Read a pre-print of our Introduction here.
English versions will be available soon.
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.
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.
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.
Focus is on two inextricably interwoven questions: how do big data transform society? How do big data affect social science practices?
Substantive as well as epistemological / methodological contributions are welcome. We are particularly interested in proposals that examine the social effects and/or the scientific implications of big data based on first-hand experience in the field.
The deadline for submission of extended abstracts is 28 February 2017; for full contributions, it is 15 September 2017. Revue Française de Sociologie accepts articles in French or English.
Further details and guidelines for submission are in the call for papers.
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.
Yes I must admit it: I didn’t keep my new-year-2015 promise of posting more often on my blog… and the annual report I received yesterday from WordPress, showing a couple of peaks of activity and frigthening silence the rest of the year, isn’t something I would be proud to share… but I have a justification! Seriously, it’s not just an excuse – it’s that I’ve been busy trying to change life… and yes, I managed. On Monday 4 January, I’ll start an exciting new position as senior research scientist at the National Center of Scientific Research (CNRS, or in French, Centre national de la recherche scientifique) in Paris. CNRS can be loosely compared to what is, in other countries, a National Research Council, but there’s more to it than international comparisons might vaguely suggest: this is probably the single most desired job in French academia, with a mission “to contribute to the development of knowledge… in all fields that contribute to the advancement of society“. In plain words, that’s basically pure research with almost no teaching apart from some PhD supervision… a dream that would hardly be possible in the UK, where I was before.
I’ll be at the Lab for Computer Science (LRI, Laboratoire de Recherche en Informatique, UMR8623) on the Saclay campus, and I’ll work with the A&O (Learning and Optimization) research team. The interesting thing is that mine is an interdisciplinary position, designed to facilitate dialogue and collaboration between the social sciences and computer science around big data and their use for the advancement of knowledge, policy, and more generally society. I have been especially selected by the sociology section of CNRS to work in a computer science research centre. There, I am asked to develop my personal, long-term research project on the “sharing economy” of digital platforms and how they create value from the social ties in which economic action is embedded: this will require blending my research on data, social networks and the digital economy with machine learning and optimization approaches (more on this later … yes on this blog! promise!).
What else will I do this year at LRI? I am in the organising committee of the Second European Social Networks Conference which will take place in Paris next June, I am finishing a book on so-called “pro-anorexia” websites as the conclusion of my past project ANAMIA, and I am in the Editorial Board of Revue Française de Sociologie.
I won’t entirely forget England though… I’ll keep my doctoral students at Greenwich and continue my engagement at UCL’s Institute of Education as external examiner. Come on, you can’t just disappear after six years! Indeed, I’ll always remember those six years as most productive and fulfilling ones. And however happy I am now to join CNRS, I’ll never forget the expressions of love, sympathy and friendliness I received from colleagues and students when I left Greenwich in December. The cards, the presents, the parties… all beyond any expectations I might have had before! Thank you Greenwich. And well, yes, a big thank you to all those who made it possible – both those in London who made me have a great time far from home for so long, and those in Paris who helped me come back, not without effort, and have welcomed me now.
A great new year is about to start, and I promise I’ll document it more… 😉
Internet platforms carry an unprecedented potential of value creation, exploiting the extraordinary power of data and algorithms to extract and distribute information to an extent never seen before. Information, we know since Hayek’s times, is the fuel that keeps markets going, that eliminates “lemons” and ensures an ever-better coordination between buyers and sellers, borrowers and lenders, or landlords and tenants. At the same time, the internet has channeled the dream of a viable non-market society, since Rheingold’s 1993 revival of the “community” and Barbrook’s 1998 “hi-tech gift economy“. So, can we put this informational efficiency to the service of a more humane economy, based on relationships, solidarity and reciprocation, rather than on the sheer market system?
The so-called “sharing economy” suggests answers, but also displays a tension: the efforts of myriad grassroots associations to develop collaboration as a value and a practice, sharply contrasts the spectacular growth of firms like Airbnb and Uber, now large multinationals, and their alleged cavalier attitude to anti-trust regulations and workers’ rights. If some say Uber is not really about sharing and collaboration, it is difficult to draw the line.
This ambiguity is fostered by a public discourse that focuses on the sharing of assets – the spare room in your home, or a sit in your car – that digital platforms enable. Asset-sharing has economic and social appeal: it increases efficiency by preventing assets from lying idle, while reducing waste, shifting emphasis away from consumerist values (“access is better than ownership“), and facilitating sociality beyond mere consumption.
But it is often forgotten that asset-sharing does not produce value by itself: it involves extra labour. In economic jargon, capital and labour and complementary production factors. In practice, if you want to put your spare room on Airbnb, you must produce an ad, monitor your message inbox and reply swiftly. You must clean the room and do the laundry before and after a guest’s visit. You must show your guests around when they arrive.
More importantly, the very opportunity of asset-sharing changes the incentives that shape labour supply – people’s willingness to sell their time and effort against a payment. Because of the expected compensation, some people will renounce use of a (non-spare) room to accommodate visitors instead, and others will do more journeys to drive passengers around – so it’s not really about sharing unused assets, it is about self-employment and starting a micro-business. A work opportunity as a complement to (and sometimes a substitute for) a main job.
This is where debates on internet platforms and the sharing economy rejoin the growing literature on digital labour — and where the contribution of Trebor Scholz is illuminating. Where others see assets (ie, capital), he sees labour. He shows us that the bottlenecks here are about labour, not capital, and that the success — be it economic or social– of the sharing economy is closely tied to the destiny of labour. Whether it appears on the surface as self-employment, micro-entrepreneurship or salaried work, doesn’t really matter. Trebor reminds us of Marx’s fundamental principle that production relations are central to our (capitalist) society, and value generation rests ultimately on labor. If this very crucial part of the human experience goes wrong, even the best side of the sharing economy – the one that endorses trust, reciprocity, and zero-waste – may fail to perform any transformative effects on society.