computational social science
Check out this essay about the potential of computational social science in today’s issue of Science magazine. A slew of notable social scientists including David Lazer, Nicholas Christakis, Gary King, Michael Macy, and my colleague Noshir Contractor make the case that more funding, attention, and serious energy should be put into the study of social life on computer networks (e.g., the Internet, mobile phones).
The capacity to collect and analyze massive amounts of data has transformed such fields as biology and physics. But the emergence of a data-driven “computational social science” has been much slower. Leading journals in economics, sociology, and political science show little evidence of this field. But computational social science is occurring—in Internet companies such as Google and Yahoo, and in government agencies such as the U.S. National Security Agency. Computational social science could become the exclusive domain of private companies and government agencies. Alternatively, there might emerge a privileged set of academic researchers presiding over private data from which they produce papers that cannot be critiqued or replicated. Neither scenario will serve the long-term public interest of accumulating, verifying, and disseminating knowledge.
Social science research tends to lag real world phenomena but the lack of research emphasis on Internet phenomena (e.g., online activism, Web-based organizations) seems astounding given the amount of time that we, as academics alone, spend communicating and learning through or adding data to online networks. As Lazer et al. argue in this essay, some of this lack of attention can be attributed to funding issues and, correlated with that, inadequate social science training in computer programming.
By the way, David Lazer has a very cool blog about complexity theory and social networks. Definitely worth adding to your RSS feed.