institutionalizing computational social science

The following is a guest post by Alex Hanna, a Phd candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Fabio’s earlier post on the academic brain drain prompted some good discussion in the comments about students who have computational skills who leave academia for positions in Silicon Valley. Some of the tension in the discussion surrounded whether those students would be better suited for those jobs and how we need those people within the social sciences to handle all the new “big data” that’s coming our way. As someone who’s worked in industry a few times, I don’t exactly think it’s my bag. I’m fairly confident that I’d like to stay within academia. To that end, I want to use this post to think through a few institutional ways that sociology could be changed to be made more amenable to computational social science. By “amenable” I mean trying to incorporate the types of methods and data into the mainstream of sociology research. The exact goals may be a little murky, but a few examples could suffice: publishing big data articles in ASR/AJS or having tenure-track job searches for these types of scholars that are initiated within sociology (and not as a cluster hire or as a search initiated in computer science). I encourage you to add your own below; I’m sure institutional scholars have many, many ideas about this. And I’m sure there’s a lot of fiscal realities that makes all of this sound slightly utopian or maybe even Polyannish. But, taking a cue from Erik Olin Wright, real utopias and so on.

This is also presuming that there’s a critical mass of sociologists that actually want to see the incorporation of computational methods. I know Fabio and Christopher Bail have voiced their support, and there’s that Lazer et al. piece in Science that’s been cited a few hundred times (it’s pretty telling that it was published in a journal like Science), but I don’t know how to gauge this kind of thing outside of my computationally homophilic networks.

1. A Computational Sociology Section
This is a suggestion that socprofessor brought up in the comments of the original article. Some folks wondered if this would actually produce the desired change. I haven’t been around long enough to know about the dynamics of sections and whether they stir up much enthusiasm around their subfield. If anything, it establishes a base of operation of computational social science within the main disciplinary organization.

2. Interdisciplinary collaborations
I know “interdisciplinarity” is the kind of terrible buzzword that administrators love but academics fear. But partnering up with like-minded individuals with different research questions is generally going to be a fruitful strategy. A hard part of this is first getting over the differences in language and jargon. Another hard part is that computer/information scientists may be much more concerned with innovative methods rather than the substantive questions they can answer. And that’s probably mostly where the social scientist’s effort will be needed the most. There’s been some success stories with this kind of arrangement: the Big Data Social Science IGERT at Penn State is trying to hook together social sciences, stats, and CS.

3. Reducing barriers to publication in non-sociology journals/conferences
The norm in many physical sciences, including CS, is to make conferences the main venue of publication, although they do have their analogues in journals like PLoS One (accordingly, a lot of the discussion here will repeat the comments on this OrgTheory post). Conference papers are peer-reviewed, have relatively quick turnaround rates (1-2 months), and low acceptance rates. The kind of research occurring in those conferences speaks directly to myriad standing questions in sociology. For instance, one of the hot topics in political communication at the moment is the focus on political polarization online. But one of the most relevant and well-cited pieces on the topic isn’t published in Political Communication or similar journals, but in a 2011 conference paper by a few folks in the Complex Systems lab at IU.

But there’s a lot of barriers to publishing in these venues. One of them is simply cost. It costs anywhere from $400-600 to register for one of these conferences, which are also often held in lovely international cities. This is, of course, a far cry from the $100 it costs for a student to register for the North America-bound ASA. PLoS One has a publishing fee which is around $1,000. It just often isn’t feasible. There are some institutional entrepreneurs who are willing to take the risk of making these venues more attractive to social scientists; danah boyd has written about the difficulties in doing so for a particular conference. It’s certainly not easy, and it’s something that needs people willing to take risks on both sides.

This is one reason I got very excited about Sociological Science. I envisioned that it’d be a place with a publishing model similar to conference proceedings but speaking directly to sociological concerns. But it also doesn’t solve the problem of being able to engage in other research communities systematically.

4. Considerations in hiring/tenure
Less of a separate point and more of something that ties to items 2 and 3, there doesn’t seem to be much institutional incentives to do the things above. I’m not sure how cross-discipline collaboration is viewed in terms of hiring/tenure decisions, but in any proseminar I’ve sat in on, no one has encouraged collaboration as a means to look more attractive on the job market. And I imagine the same goes for conference proceedings and PLoS One articles.

There’s, of course, a lot I’m glossing over here. Creating new collaborations in a time of reduction of state funds for universities and an NSF under siege by Congress isn’t making anyone’s work any easier. But I hope that there are some feasible moves that we can make to integrate computational sociology as part of the discipline.

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Written by orgtheoryguest

July 3, 2013 at 4:25 pm

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  1. […] is a cross-post from a piece written for […]

  2. A section (or revised title to the Mathematical Sociology section) is a good idea for two reasons: a) it’s relatively easy to set up if there’s a critical mass of interested sociologists among the ASA; and b) it legitimates the enterprise. Evan Schofer reports on the effect for GTS nicely:


    July 3, 2013 at 5:54 pm

  3. The Mathematical Sociology section which, along with Rationality and Society, is one of the two smallest sections in ASA and currently below the minimum size for full section viability, has refused prior suggestions about merging with other sections. In particular, Mathematical Sociology and Rationality and Society have repeatedly refused suggestions that they merge. My view is that much of what the people currently in the Mathematical Sociology section do is computational, although typically simulations rather than big data analysis, and that extending the mandate of that section to encompass the new currents in computational sociology is both intellectually reasonable and a much more sustainable path to professional recognition than trying to create yet another small and struggling section.

    The political path to expanding the mandate of Mathematical Sociology is to attend the section meetings and talk to the people there about whether they’d be open to an expanded mandate.

    The political path to a new section involves several years of organizing, coming up with at least 300 people willing to pay dues to get a charter, and then battling annually to keep the section dues coming so the section does not get put on probation.

    Evidence that you have collected signatures for a section in formation might persuade Mathematical Sociology that you have a real constituency that would join them; evidence that you tried to work with MS and they turned you down would probably increase sympathy for the petition at the ASA committee on sections.


    July 3, 2013 at 6:39 pm

  4. As an incoming student, my mind immediately moves to consider how relevant programming skills might show up more often in curriculum. I’m mostly interested in ethnography and comparative historical methods, but I spent this last fall getting familiar with R, geeking out on Hadley Wickham presentations, and just generally trying to get a sense for how developments in the computational sciences might aid me in answering new kinds of questions, or accessing and analyzing new kinds of data on social lives. When deciding on which program to attend, I put a fair amount of weight on the presence of people, be they faculty or graduate students, like Alex, who are actively involved in cultivating computational social science. I think a substantial portion of my peers would be interested in gaining skill sets in this area as well, provided the opportunity to do so.

    So, my question is this: how could sociology departments act to promote training in this area so that new generations of sociologist are equipped to utilize computational methods of inquiry and analysis, and in the short term, better trained to support projects like those that Fabio mentioned in the previous post on this subject? Maybe this would be part of the interdisciplinary effort that you mention, Alex, as it would likely require connecting sociology students with other departments where training in this area exists?

    Also, I can think of more than a few students who have good training in linguistics and/or languages going into sociology programs. For students with these kinds of backgrounds, it might be easier to catch on to some of the basics of programming. In addition to attracting students who already have skills in this area, perhaps sociologists with an interest in growing this subset of the discipline could encourage students with profiles that mean a lesser learning curve to seek out opportunities to develop programming skills?


    July 3, 2013 at 6:41 pm

  5. Nice post. I’m actually in the position to help somewhat; olderwoman, perhaps we should talk. One possibility is to expand the pre-conference that Rat&Soc and (I think) Math Soc are having. This is the second year. Why not a third? We could make it more networky and computational social science (a la Sunbelt) going forward. We could invite the information technology section too. We could gather co-sponsorships from computational social science centers, such as Penn St. and UMASS. We could also help each other by encouraging section members to join allied sections. A pre-conference might be a good place to work on these issues, present stuff, and strategize about institutionalization. It also gives us another day in SF. It is likely that I’ll be working on the pre-conference idea next year in any event.


    July 3, 2013 at 7:01 pm

  6. PS I’m wading through the ASA program and see that the section on methodology has a session on big data and network methods.

    newsocprof, I’m not the right person to put a lot of energy into organizing this but we can talk if you want to pick my perhaps out of date brains on this.


    July 3, 2013 at 8:11 pm

  7. Alex, how much of your (2) do you think is fulfilled by complex systems centers like those at Northwestern, Michigan, and Notre Dame? It seems that as a data-generating technology (I think I’m stealing that term from Randall Collins)”Big Data” so far has almost exclusively benefited networks and textual analysis people. Do you think it has much potential beyond that?


    July 3, 2013 at 8:33 pm

  8. oops, i appear to be dyslexic, sorry socprofessor for calling you by the wrong name


    July 3, 2013 at 8:49 pm

  9. Re: point #2: this seems to me like one of the essential issues. Many of us have research interests that could work with Big Data approaches but do not have the time or resources to learn the techniques; at smaller colleges, we may not have colleagues with the skills or interests to pursue such work in any discipline. Smaller college faculty also may not face the same penalties for publishing in the “wrong” journals, though the cost could be an issue. I could imagine a system for fruitful collaboration between young experts in “big data” methodology from whatever discipline and more senior scholars with relevant research questions that could lead to interesting publications.


    July 3, 2013 at 9:01 pm

  10. Regarding #1, a quasi-irony that you are probably already aware of is that there was a “Microcomputing” ASA section. In an alternate timeline of sociology, that section probably evolves into “computational social science.” Instead, it morphed into CITASA.


    July 3, 2013 at 9:13 pm

  11. Well, one possibility might be to push CITASA to be more inclusive towards computational social sci. I’m not that familiar with CITASA, but the section’s claimed area is entirely consistent with a lot of comp soc sci. No worries, olderwoman.


    July 3, 2013 at 10:33 pm

  12. A p.s. to olderwoman’s p.s.

    There’s also a thematic session on Saturday of ASA called “Studying Social Dynamics in the Digital Age,” featuring Duncan Watts, Matt Salganik, Damon Centola, and Lada Adamic, at least partially on “big data.”


    July 4, 2013 at 5:22 am

  13. Goldsmiths has a digital sociology MA. Evelyn Ruppert and others of Goldsmiths are now also starting a journal called “Big Data and Society”.


    July 4, 2013 at 8:43 am

  14. @Anon1 – I think those programs are definitely where a lot of the innovation will come from. There’s also a few programs that a commenter on Bad Hessian posted:

    socprofessor – CITASA is indeed inclusive towards these methods (I’m presenting a paper at their open session during this year’s ASA), but the focus of that section seems more substantive rather than methodological. Lots of STS and Science, Knowledge, and Technology people are very active within it.

    I also do like the idea of having a pre-conference in conjunction with existing sections.


    July 4, 2013 at 2:59 pm

  15. I’m for some sort of organization. Why don’t we set up a website/listserv/Facebook group/Twitter hashtag and get going? If there ends up with two hundred people interested in forming a section, we go that direction. Even if it fails at increasing acceptance, I’d still like to know what people are working on and borrow some of their tricks.

    neal caren

    July 4, 2013 at 10:49 pm

  16. Sounds like a start. The most inclusive option is probably a listserv. I’ve created one here:!forum/computational-sociology. Maybe #compsoc would be a good hashtag if you’re into the tweeters.

    Join away!


    July 5, 2013 at 12:46 am

  17. Hi all- I’m now on the CITASA council and will certainly try my best to represent the interests of everyone here in this capacity. I may be in the minority on the issue of institiutionalization, but I do not perceive a great deal of resistance to big data research among mainstream sociology. To the contrary, my read is that there is considerable enthusiasm, but also a lack of knowledge about how to evaluate this new type of research.

    I suspect the lack of big data publications in the top journals is a combination of this factor as well as a lack of high quality big data research that is written to engage a mainstream audience (for example, texts which engage in important questions within computer science or computational linguists but do not adequately explain why mainstream sociology should care).

    There are many more things to discuss- I’ll switch to the google group that Alex created. Thanks for a nice post, btw.


    July 5, 2013 at 2:21 pm

  18. Christopher,

    I think you’re probably right. People aren’t opposed fundamentally to it, but are having a hard time thinking through how to assess this type of work, and don’t know how to interface with existing outlets.


    July 6, 2013 at 5:26 pm

  19. […] many. Increasing knowledge of gene-behavior links. The appearance of “Big Data,” which we’ve argued about on this blog. The demand for experiments from the policy […]

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