sociology: don’t screw this up, but we need to seriously hook up with computer science

Every once in a while, you get a free lunch. About a year and a half ago, sociology got a small free lunch. It was announced that the MCAT would now include sociology material. Awesome.

But there is a seriously huge free lunch coming up – the rise of “big data.” Ignore the nay sayers. Ignore the hand wringers who worry if Facebook is hurting our feelings. Look at the big picture. Silicon Valley has created a new social world that requires analysis. And not just the generic stuff you get from your local management consultant. They need analysis from people who understand human behavior and can build arguments. They don’t want data mining. They want theory and real research designs.

Consider this tweet from Elise Hu, a Washington Reporter, who quoted Joi Ito, director of the MIT media lab:

In other words, the world of computer science has stumbled into social science. As usual, many think that social science is garbage, but that is slowly changing. Many are being hired at Google and Facebook. Others are striking out on their own. Many within the social sciences are using computer science.

The big message? This is a huge opportunity. It can change the discipline – but only if we constructively interact with the computer science discipline. My recommendations:

  • Reach out to your colleagues in computer science. Run a seminar or write a grant.
  • Reach out to computer science students. Create courses for them, invite them to be on projects.
  • Treat “big data” was we would other data. It has strengths and weaknesses, but in being critical we can use it in the correct way and raise the level of discussion.
  • Submit to computer science conference. I’ll be honest, computer scientists are not statisticians. There are a lot of fascinating areas of computer science where the stats are very simple or the ideas are basic. We can add a lot of value.

The benefit? CS will get an infusion of good ideas to work through. Sociology will come into contact with some really cool  people, create a bigger audience, and get more resources. We can also get answers to some great questions.

So don’t screw it up, people. This doesn’t happen very often.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 30, 2014 at 1:51 am

12 Responses

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  1. In case anyone is interested, at the Centre for Research in Social Simulation (CRESS) we do some research in the boundary between the social sciences and computer science. We work mostly on simulation, but also with GIS and other computer resources. I’m currently working in my PhD in Sociology (birth and growth of organisations is my topic) but my first degree was in Computer Science (artificial intelligence, learning).


    Jay Cano

    June 30, 2014 at 8:00 am

  2. One of my pipe dreams is a sort of clearing house for CS/Stats graduate students and early career faculty who have the technical competency but no projects to hook up with social scientists who have projects but need coauthors with the technical competency. If such a thing existed, at least one project would get launched off my desk…



    June 30, 2014 at 2:52 pm

  3. I don’t know how long exactly it will take, but there is going to be one huge scientific backlash once it is obvious how many of these computer models do not correlate to reality at all. Yes, you’ll probably manage to get funding this way, but that is politics, not science.



    June 30, 2014 at 2:53 pm

  4. @elisewho @Joi [Mechanical engineers] after the steam engine: "Suddenly what we're doing looks more like applied social science."— Thomas Basbøll (@ThomasBasboell) June 30, 2014



    June 30, 2014 at 4:44 pm

  5. It’s just another fad though, init ?



    July 1, 2014 at 4:08 pm

  6. @ronafitz – Only as much as the Internet itself is a fad. I don’t see how sociology can continue to be relevant if it is not willing or able to deal with the Internet. We can’t continue to pretend that the Internet is not an important part of the social world and that we don’t need to learn how to study it or deal with the types of data it produces.



    July 1, 2014 at 4:47 pm

  7. JD – Fair enough point (I was a little short in my comment). I am not an academic, but as a layman I agree that computer and social scientists working together on interesting, and I don’t doubt important, questions is a positive development. (I assume, not snarkily – but I wouldnt really know)
    But is it really (as per the OP) going to change the discipline ? (Genuine question.) If so how ? What sort of big questions is it going to clarify ? And isn’t this a regular (seemingly every decade or with every new research program) occurence, that a new mode of analysis is going to do X, and then .. it all peters out ?



    July 2, 2014 at 2:23 am

  8. I guess I see the real issue here as being the emergence of a new social space where important social processes are now occurring. We need to be able to account for the Internet to have a full understanding of social life. As I see it, it’s not really about new methods, per se, it’s about a new social space that needs to be studied. New methods are required in order to deal with the types of data that are produced on the Internet, but I don’t really view the methods themselves as the central story.



    July 2, 2014 at 4:31 am

  9. A couple questions out of genuine curiosity: Does ‘the internet’ require us to address fundamentally different types of research questions, or is it just another context wherein we deal with inequality/status attainment/mobility, conflict/cohesion/identification etc.? Are there any examples of sociological studies using this type of data that really address radically different questions? Or is it all just about new data and new methods?



    July 2, 2014 at 8:52 am

  10. Andrew Gelman, by an interesting coincidence, recently posted a cautionary tale about what computer science can do for/to historiography.



    July 2, 2014 at 3:26 pm

  11. […]… “don’t screw this up, but we need to seriously hook up with computer […]


  12. I think Alex is asking the key question


    Jeff Vass (@JeffVass1)

    July 14, 2014 at 9:40 am

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