Posted by: clholoman | January 7, 2013

What’s Your Number?

I draw your attention (especially if you are a social scientist–and I know you’re out there) to an interesting paper that has kicked up a bit of a stir the last few days. Gary King, a prominent Professor of Government at Harvard, and a star among the more quantitative types. Here’s the paper. It points to the effects of “big data” on the social sciences–what they can do for society and (mostly) how they are practiced in institutions of higher education.  (The second half is about how to build a research center like his at Harvard, which is kind of interesting as an application of what he is saying, but given Harvard’s resources, may be of limited utility to others.) For those of us who grew up (as academics) during an earlier period of qualitative/quantitative battles, and especially for those of us who have not necessarily stayed current with that part of the field, it’s a nice primer, I think.

It’s short, so you can read the whole thing, but here are some interesting excerpts.

The social sciences are in the midst of an historic change, with large parts moving from the humanities to the sciences in terms of research style, infrastructural needs, data availability,empirical methods, substantive understanding, and the ability to make swift and dramatic progress. The changes have consequences for everything social scientists do and all that we plan as members of university communities. […]

An important driver of the change sweeping the field is the enormous quantities of highly informative data inundating almost every area we study. In the last half-century, the information base of social science research has primarily come from three sources: survey research, end of period government statistics, and one-off studies of particular people, places, or events. In the next half-century, these sources will still be used and improved, but the number and diversity of other sources of information are increasing exponentially, and are already many orders of magnitude more informative than ever before.[…]
Social scientists are now transitioning from working primarily on their own, alone in their offices — a style that dates back to when the offices were in monasteries– to working in much more highly collaborative, interdisciplinary, larger scale, lab-style research teams. The knowledge and skills necessary to access and use these new data sources often do not exist within any one of the traditionally defined social science disciplines, and are too complicated for any one scholar to accomplish alone. Through collaboration across fields,however, we can begin to address the interdisciplinary substantive knowledge needed, along with the engineering, computational, ethical, and informatics challenges before us.
Many examples of the types of research that improved social science infrastructure makes possible are given in King (2009, 2011), but here’s one from research at IQSS I was lucky tobe able to be able to participate in. Fewer than two decades ago, Verba, Scholzman, and Brady(1995) amassed the most extensive data set to date on the voices of political activists, including 15,000 screener questions and 2,500 detailed personal interviews, and wrote a landmark book on the subject. Shift forward in time and, with new data collection procedures, statistical methods,and changes in the world, a team composed of a graduate student, a faculty member, and eight undergraduate research assistants were able to download, understand, and analyze all English language blog posts by political activists [ed. note: !!] during the 2008 presidential election, and develop methods capable of extracting the meaning we needed from them (Hopkins and King, 2010).Even more recently, a team of two graduate students, a faculty member, and five undergraduates downloaded 11 million social media posts from China. [Ed. note: !!!] […]
A promising side effect of this change in research style is that the most significant division within the social sciences, that between quantitative and qualitative researchers, is showing signs of breaking down.

And finally, a word of comfort to me and my like-minded (UofC?) brethren:

Keep a Role for Theorists.Since most of the advances in the social sciences have been based on improvements in empirical data and methods of data analysis, some argue that the theorists(economic theorists, formal theorists, statistical theorists, philosophers, etc.) have no part in the type of center we are talking about. This makes no sense. In every social science field, and most academic fields, a friendly division exists between theorists and empiricists. They compete with each other for faculty positions and on many research issues, but all know that both are essential.The empiricists in your center need to interact with theorists at some point, and the theorists will benefit by being better able to condition their theories on better empirical evidence.

Finding the snarky footnote about theorists is left as an exercise.

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