In Praise of Small Data

In a New York Times Opinion piece (Gray Matter, July 19, 2013) Yale researcher Nicholas A. Christakis decried what he frames as a lack of initiative on the part of the social sciences. Christakis claims they (we) have failed to embrace new ideas and perspectives, thus becoming dinosaurs.

He muses that the social sciences (which he fails to distinguish even from each other, not taking into account the incredibly nuanced methods and very different bodies of theory that underlie each of them) lag behind the natural and physical sciences in “adapting.” Like Darwin’s finches, Christakis observes, these “hard” sciences have branched into “innovative departments” with supposedly increased specialization and catchy names for novel paradigms.

First, let me observe that this tendency, like the evolutionary processes Christakis alludes to, is partly motivated by a fierce competition for scarce resources–funding. That’s the climate we’re in. In the case of the social sciences, scarce funding in not a new situation for us. We’re over it already. Further fragmentation of research agendas in the quest for a few thousand bucks here and there is not going to serve anybody’s needs.

Christakis assumes that the social sciences’ failure to jump on the marketing bandwagon is symptomatic of a grave internal and epistemological inertia. I believe this is an erroneous conclusion, and I’ll quote extensively here to illustrate my objection to this characterization. Christakis says “New social science departments could also help to better train students by engaging in new types of pedagogy. For example, in the natural sciences, even college freshmen do laboratory experiments. Why is this rare in the social sciences? When students learn about social phenomena, why don’t they go to the lab to examine them — how markets reach equilibrium, how people cooperate, how social ties are formed? Newly invented tools make this feasible. It is now possible to use the Internet to enlist thousands of people to participate in randomized experiments. This seems radical only because our current social science departments weren’t organized to teach this way.”

These “new types of pedagogy” are neither rare nor new in the social sciences. Our undergraduates are, and have been for as long as I’ve been in academic departments, routinely required to design and carry out sophisticated (if in the relatively compact time frame of a semester or a year) fieldwork projects using current (sometimes novel) methods and theories of their respective disciplines. As an undergrad in linguistics and anthropology I carried out original fieldwork and presented papers. My first year in grad school I was immersed as a research fellow in fully-funded (both NSF and corporate funding) research in sociolinguistics. Later, during my doctoral work in  cultural anthropology, I worked as a paid  consultant on projects associated with my university (with corporate funding) and for a non-profit. I applied for funding, wrote literature reviews, applied to institutional review boards and used expensive equipment,  just like people do in the so-called “hard sciences.” In courses I’ve designed and taught, a semester-long original research project is a non-negotiable requirement.

Twenty years ago my mentor William Labov required all of his sociolinguistics students–grad and undergrad alike–to take his year long intensive fieldwork course. He spent hours of classroom instruction on interviewing techniques and on the nuances of really rich ethnography–how to approach prospective informants, how to engage them, how to get them to invite you into their homes (which we did), how to capture the details (Labov made us draw the neighborhoods and homes where we were doing our research). Only then, armed with the most advanced digital recorders available at the time, did we eagerly fan out across the urban neighborhoods of Philadelphia in teams, doing ethnographic interviews in pursuit of sociolinguistic data. All of this was aimed at the end goal of gathering a large corpus of recorded speech that we would then analyze computationally with highly specific and innovative (at the time) computer programs. This was the cutting edge of linguistic analysis at the time, and Labov treated the undergraduates contributions every bit as seriously as those of the grad students.

In the human sciences we cannot conduct laboratory experiments. It’s much more complicated than beakers and Bunsen burners for us. We must encounter our subjects in the real world and engage them in a natural setting, much as wildlife biologists do when studying wolves or ravens or whales. Sometimes people are willing to participate. Sometimes they are reticent. We must abide by stringent ethical codes and obtain informed consent (which wildlife biologists need not do). We must triangulate our data and learn to analyze multiple layers of behavior, discourse and interaction, which are difficult to tease out from each other.  Sometimes people lie, move away, or lose interest and drop out of our projects. It’s much more difficult for social scientists to get funding because our projects are not what’s “sexy” right now.

Moreover, it’s just not as simple as mining the Internet for data, as Christakis suggests. What makes anthropology and its hallmark fieldwork method, Participant Observation, such a valuable piece of the larger scientific puzzle, is our ability and willingness to intensively focus on smaller social groups and institutions, looking for and analyzing diversity and variation among and within them. Data derived from the Internet offer only one dimension of people’s opinions or experiences. In a virtual data set, it’s much more difficult to intuit when people are misrepresenting themselves, or, more importantly, what any of it means to the subjects. The analysis of meaning continues to be a central project of anthropology because it remains relevant to all aspect of human behavior, cognition, social interaction and evolution.  Polling people over the internet may be useful as a supplemental method for inferring potential scope of patterns, but is simply not a substitute for on-the-ground, face-to-face, small research samples and intense interaction with one’s research subjects over significant periods of time.

The real problem faced by the social sciences is that the natural and physical sciences have co-opted the moniker of “real” science, implicitly devaluing the unique contributions and necessary perspective provided by the social, or human sciences. Contrary to Christakis’s original assertion, in fact, the social sciences have undergone major transformations  and paradigm shifts over the past twenty years. We have seen a similar increase in innovative specialized areas of study: gender studies, queer studies, cognitive linguistics, forensic science, health economics, marine archaeology and many others. However, we haven’t seen as much of a need to splinter, or to market our projects separately. Increasingly the trend across the social sciences is to collaborate, forge cross-disciplinary ties, complement each other’s specialties and works, and write and teach together, valuing the unique contributions of each one.

I respect Christakis’ point of view, but his argument is a specious one. What we have is an image problem, and it’s largely been externally produced. When one branch of the sciences calls itself the “hard” sciences, that implicitly frames the others as the “soft” ones, which is not only a problematic metaphor for some of us, but just patently ridiculous. Christakis’ piece reveals a lack of familiarity with the specialized research methods and pedagogical traditions used in both anthropology and linguistics, and perhaps the other branches of “the social sciences” which he frames as a monolith. I see the value of  “Big Data,” and increasingly sophisticated tools for computational analysis, but we still need a human face on our data.

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Categories: Commentary

1 reply

  1. Dr. Waterman,
    I very much enjoy reading your work. I await your next blog post with eager anticipation.
    Sincerely,
    Your biggest fan,
    Mr. Crosby Clayton
    PS Please remember to bring treats to you’d next lesson.

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