Anthropology & Sociology: The Social Worlds of Big Data – University of Copenhagen

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Anthropology & Sociology: The Social Worlds of Big Data

Within the overarching framework of the Sensible DTU/Social Fabric research projects, a team of sociologists and anthropologists from UCPH will conduct a joint subproject, with the overall aim of pushing current boundaries for how to interrelate and cross-fertilize quantitatively and qualitatively based understandings of social networks. This will be done by exploring a several interrelated research questions, themes and methods at the core of current concerns in sociology and anthropology, as well as in the cross-disciplinary fields of computational, digital, and experimental social science.

Empirically, we seek to explain quantitative patterns of observed social practice, e.g. in terms of friendship formation and educational performance, by applying and further developing existing theories of social network patterns and effects. At the same time, we seek to enrich and challenge such quantitative and computational approaches by deploying ethnographic field work to the study of how friendship (and other social relations) emerge, and gradually develop and transform, among university student cohorts.

Based partly on these empirical questions and findings, we furthermore seek first answers to a number of profound methodological questions, of relevance to the future of the social sciences in an age of ‘big data’. Does the rise of computational social science, for instance, lead to a reconfiguration of the increasingly obsolete split between quantitative and qualitative research methods and data – and, if so, with what consequence for explanatory ambitions and models in sociology, anthropology, and beyond? What kinds of social scientific experiments does the Sensible DTU framework allow for, and how might such methodological innovations enrich existing scientific experimental designs?

Finally, we wish to include the Sensible DTU/Social Fabric research projects and the researchers partaking in them into our ambit of research by posing a variety of political and epistemological questions – influenced by Science and Technology Studies (STS) and related fields – concerning the rise of ‘big data’. What ethical, political and institutional challenges and opportunities does the rise of large-scale digital trace databases pose to the social sciences and society writ large? What may be learned about emerging dynamics of cross-disciplinary ‘big data’ research collaboration from the Social Fabric experiment itself?