Chapter 6: Sloppy data floods or precise social science methodologies? Dilemmas in the transition to data-intensive research in sociology and economics

Clement Levallois, Stephanie Steinmetz, and Paul Wouters

What are the implications of data-intensive research for social sciences? In an influential editorial, Chris Anderson from the magazine Wired predicted a future where scientific advances would result less from theoretical work, and more from brute force mining on petabytes of data. While evolutionary biology and astronomy are cited as two examples of fields which already entered this new age, it is very uncertain whether the social sciences should feel concerned at all by this prediction.

This chapter chooses to examine the situation in two disciplines in particular - sociology and economics - to evaluate to what extent Anderson's claim applies to the social sciences. How is the emergence of new data sources perceived in these fields? Have different types of "big data" had different impacts? (transactional data for sociology, brain imaging data in economics). Is the diagnostic on the desirability of these changes unanimous among sociologists and economists? Comparing the debates and actual paths of research taken in these two cases, we observe that the coming of data intensive research does creates new trajectories renewing existing research practices, but with much more complexity than the sweeping change predicted. This lesson learned for social sciences suggests that a closer look at particular fields from natural sciences could possibly uncover similar, important nuances about the revolution supposedly brought by "big data" science.


Reference list -

Acker, J. 2005. ‘Comment on Burawoy on Public Sociology’, Critical Sociology, 31: 327-331.

Aronowitz, S. 2005 Comments on Michael Burawoy’s ‘The Critical Turn to Public Sociology’, Critical Sociology, 31: 333-338.

Adkins, Lisa, Lury, Celia. 2009. Introduction: What is Empirical? European Journal of Social Theory 12 (1): 5-20.

Alchian, Armen A. 1950. Uncertainty, evolution and economic theory. Journal of Political Economy 58 (3): 211-221.

Anderson, Chris. 2008. The end of theory: the data deluge make the scientific method obsolete. Wired Magazine, July 16.

Beaulieu, Anne. 2000. The Space inside the Skull: Digital Representations, Brain Mapping and Cognitive Neuroscience in the Decade of the Brain. PhD diss., University of Amsterdam.

Bell, Gordon, Tony Hey, and Alex Szalay. 2009. Computer science: Beyond the data deluge. Science 323 (5919):1297-1298.

Berger, Peter. 2002. What happened to Sociology? First Things 126: 27-29.

Bethlehem, Jelke. 2009. The rise of survey sampling. Discussion Paper No. 09015. The Hague/Heerlen: Statistics Netherlands.

Blank, Grant. 2008. Online Research Methods and Social Theory. In: The Sage Handbook of Online Research Methods, ed. Nigel G Fielding, Raymond M Lee, Grant Blank, 537-549. London: SAGE Publication,.

Breiter, Hans C., Itzhak Aharon, Daniel Kahneman, Anders Dale, and Peter Shizgal. 2001. Functional imaging of neural responses to expectancy and experience of monetary gains and losses. Neuron 30 (2): 619-639.

Brunt, Liam. 2001. The advent of the sample survey in social sciences. The Statistician 50 (2): 179-189.

Bulmer, Martin. 1984. Sociological Research Methods: An Introduction. Second edition. London: MacMillan Publishers.

Bulmer, Martin, K. Bales, and K. Kish Sklar, eds. 1991. The Social Survey in Historical Perspective 1880-1940. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Burawoy, Michael. 2004. Public sociologies: contradictions, dilemmas and possibilities. Social Forces 82: 1603-1618.

Camerer, Colin, George Loewenstein and Drazen Prelec. 2004. Neuroeconomics: Why economics needs brains. Scandinavian Journal of Economics 106: 555-579.

Caplin, Andrew, and Mark Dean. 2008. Dopamine, reward prediction error, and economics. Quarterly Journal of Economics 123 (2): 663-701.

Caplin, Andrew, and Andrew Schotter, eds. 2008. Foundations of Positive and Normative Economics.

Cole, Stephen, ed. 2001. What’s Wrong with Sociology? Edison: Transaction Publishers.

Comte, Auguste. 1848. General View of Positivism. Paris.

Coulon, Alain. 2004. L’Ecole de Chicago. Paris: Que Sais-Je?

Couper, Mick. 2000. Web Surveys: a review of issues and approaches. Public Opinion Quarterly 64: 464-481.

Crombie, Alistair. 1995. Styles of Scientific Thinking in the European Tradition: The History of Argument and Explanation Especially in the Mathematical and Biomedical Sciences and Arts. London: Gerald Duckworth & Company.

Crompton, Rosmary 2008. Forty years of sociology: Some comments. Sociology 42 (6): 1218-1227.

Danielsson, Stig. (2004). The propensity score and estimation in nonrandom surveys: an overview. Department of Statistics, University of Linkoeping; Report no. 18 from the project “Modern statistical survey methods” .

Degler, Carl. 1991. In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought. New York: Oxford University Press.

Denis, Andy. 2009. Editorial: Pluralism in economics education. International Review of Economics Education 8 (2): 6-22.

Diekmann, Andreas. 2008. Empirische Sozialforschung. Grundlagen, Methoden, Anwendungen. Reinbek: Rowohlt.

Dorris, Michael, and Paul Glimcher. 2004. Activity in posterior parietal cortex is correlated with the relative subjective desirability of action. Neuron 44: 365-378.

Durkheim, Emile. 1895. Les règles de la méthode sociologique. Félix Alcan, Paris.

Esping-Anderson, Gosta. 2000. Two societies, one sociology, and no theory. British Journal of Sociology 51 (1): 59-77.

Fischer, Michael, Stephen Lyon and David Zeitlyn. 2008. The Internet and the Future of Social Science Research. In The Sage Handbook of Online Research Methods, ed. ed. Nigel G Fielding, Raymond M Lee, Grant Blank, London: SAGE Publication, 519-536.

Fricker, Ronald and Matthias Schonlau. 2002. Advantages and disadvantages of Internet research surveys: Evidence from the literature. Field Methods 14: 347-367.

Friedman, Milton. 1953. The Methodology of Positive Economics. In Essays in Positive Economics, 3-46. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ghamari-Tabrizi, Berhooz. 2005. Can Burawoy make everyone happy? Comments on public sociology. Critical Sociology 31: 361-369.

Glimcher, Paul, Colin Camerer, Ernst Fehr, and Russell Poldrack. 2008. Introduction: A Brief History of Neuroeconomics. In Neuroeconomics: Decision Making and the Brain, ed. Paul W Glimcher, Colin Camerer, Ersnt Fehr, and Russell Alan Poldrack, 1-12. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Gouldner, Alwin. 1970. The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology. New York: Avon Books.

Gouldner, Alwin. 1979. The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class. London: Macmillan.

Gouldner, Alwin. 1985. Against Fragmentation: The Origins of Marxism and the Sociology of Intellectuals. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gray, Jim, and Alex Szalay. 2007. eScience: A Transformed Scientific Method. January 11.

Gul, Faruk, and Wolfgang Pesendorfer. 2008. The Case for Mindless Economics. In Foundations of Positive and Normative Economics, ed. Andrew Caplin and Andrew Schotter, 3-42. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hey, Tony, Stewart Tansley, and Kristin Tolle, eds. 2009. The Fourth Paradigm: Data-Intensive Scientific Discovery. Redmond: Microsoft Research.

Hine, Christine. 2006. Computerization movements and scientific disciplines; the reflexive potential of new technologies. In New Infrastructures for Knowledge Production: understanding e-science, ed. Christine Hine, 26-47. Hershey, London: Information Science Publishing.

Hirshleifer, Jack. 1985. The expanding domain of economics. American Economic Review 75 (6): 53-68.

Hollands, Robert, and Liz Stanley. 2009. Rethinking ‘current crisis’ arguments: Gouldner and the legacy of critical sociology. Sociological Research Online 14 (1).

Horowitz, Irving. (1993). The Decomposition of Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Keen, Andrew. 2007. The cult of the amateur. Bantam Dell Pub Group.

Kern, Horst. 1982. Empirische Sozialforschung. Ursprünge, Ansätze, Entwicklungslinien. München: Beck.

Knutson, Brian, G. Elliott Wimmer, Scott Rick, Nick G. Hollon, Drazen Prelec, and George Loewenstein. 2008. Neural antecedents of the endowment effect. Neuron 58 (5): 814-22.

Krajbich, Ian, Colin Camerer, John Ledyard, and Antonio Rangel. 2009. Using neural measures of economic value to solve the public goods free-rider problem. Science 326, 596-599.

Krugman, Paul. 2009. How did economists get it so wrong? The New York Times, September 6.

Leonard, Thomas. 2005. Eugenics and economics in the Progressive Era. Journal of Economic Perspectives 19 (4): 207-324.

Marx, Karl. 1847. Misère de la philosophie. Réponse à la philosophie de la misère de M. Proudhon. Paris.

Merton, Robert. 1975. Structural Analysis in Sociology. In Approaches to the Study of Social Structure, ed , P. Blau. London: Open Books.

Michels, Robert. 1932. ‘Intellectuals’. Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, ed. ERA Seligman. New York: Macmillan, 8:118-126.

Moody, James, and Douglas White. 2003. Structural cohesion and embeddedness: A hierarchical concept of social groups. American Sociological Review 68 (1): 103-127.

Mundie, Craig. 2009. The Way Forward. In The Fourth Paradigm: Data-Intensive Scientific Discovery, ed. Tony Hey, Stewart Tansley, and Kristin Tolle, 223-225. Redmond: Microsoft Research.

Osborne, Thomas, and Nikolas Rose. 1999. Do the social sciences create phenomena: the case of public opinion research. British Journal of Sociology 50 (3): 367-396.

Osborne, Thomas, and Nikolas Rose. 2004. Spatial phenomenonotechnics: making space with Charles Booth and Patrick Geddes. Society and Space 22: 209-228.

Park, Robert, Ernest Burgess, and Roderick McKenzie, eds. 1925. The City. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Platt, Michael L., and Paul W. Glimcher. 1999. Neural correlates of decision variables in parietal cortex. Nature 400: 233-238.

Samuelson, Paul. 1947. Foundations of Economic Analysis. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Sanfey, Alan. 2003. The neural basis of economic decision making in the Ultimatum Game. Science 300 (5626): 1755-1758.

Savage, Mike. 2009. Contemporary sociology and the challenge of descriptive assemblage. European Journal of Social Theory 2 (1): 155-174.

Savage, Mike, and Roger Burrows. 2007. The coming crisis of empirical sociology. Sociology 41 (5): 885-899.

Savage, Mike, and Roger Burrows. 2009. Some further reflections on the coming crisis of empirical sociology. Sociology 43 (4): 762-772.

Schnell, Rainer; Hill, Paul; Esser, Elke. 1995. Methoden der empirischen Sozialforschung. München: Oldenbourg Verlag.

Schroeder, Ralph, and Jenny Fry. 2007. Social science approaches to e-Science: Framing an agenda. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 12(2), see

Stigler, George. 1968. The Organization of the Industry. Homewood: Richard D. Irwin.

Sund, Reijo. 2003. Utilisation of administrative registers using scientific knowledge discovery. Intelligent Data Analysis 7: 501-519.

The edge. 2008. The reality club: Online discussion on Anderson’s end of theory article

Thomas, William, and Florian Znaniecki. 1920. The Polish Peasant in Europe and America. Chicago: University of Chicago press.

Ticineto Clough, Patricia. 2009. The new empiricism: Affect and social method. European Journal of Social Theory 12 (1): 43-61.

Thrift, Nigel. 2005. Knowing capitalism. London: SAGE.

Turner, Stephen, and Jonathan Turner. 1990. The Impossible Science: An Institutional Analysis of American Sociology. Newbury Park, California: Sage Publications.

Urry, John. 2005. Beyond the science of society, Sociological Research Online 10 (2).

Vehovar, Vasja, and Katja Manfreda. 1999. Web surveys: can the weighting solve the problem? Proceedings of the Survey Research Methods Section, American Statistical Association (1999), pp. 962-967.

Weinberger, David. 2008. Everything is miscellaneous: The power of the new digital disorder. New York: Holt Paperbacks.

Westergaard, Harald. 1932. Contributions to the History of Statistics. London: King and Son, Ltd.

Whitley, Richard. 2000. The Intellectual and Social Organization of the Sciences. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wilson, Edward. 1975. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Wilson, Edward. 1998. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. New York: Alfred Knopf.

Zald, Mayer. 1991. Sociology as a discipline: Quasi-science and quasi-humanities. The American Sociologist 22 (3-4): 165-187.

other stuff -