Big Data Challenge for Social Sciences: From Society and Opinion to Replications

Symposium Paper by Dominique Boullier: “When in 2007 Savage and Burrows pointed out ‘the coming crisis of empirical methods’, they were not expecting to be so right. Their paper however became a landmark, signifying the social sciences’ reaction to the tremendous shock triggered by digital methods. As they frankly acknowledge in a more recent paper, they did not even imagine the extent to which their prediction might become true, in an age of Big Data, where sources and models have to be revised in the light of extended computing power and radically innovative mathematical approaches.They signalled not just a debate about academic methods but also a momentum for ‘commercial sociology’ in which platforms acquire the capacity to add ‘another major nail in the coffin of academic sociology claims to jurisdiction over knowledge of the social’, because ‘research methods (are) an intrinsic feature of contemporary capitalist organisations’ (Burrows and Savage, 2014, p. 2). This need for a serious account of research methods is well tuned with the claims of Social Studies of Science that should be applied to the social sciences as well.

I would like to build on these insights and principles of Burrows and Savage to propose an historical and systematic account of quantification during the last century, following in the footsteps of Alain Desrosières, and in which we see Big Data and Machine Learning as a major shift in the way social science can be performed. And since, according to Burrows and Savage (2014, p. 5), ‘the use of new data sources involves a contestation over the social itself’, I will take the risk here of identifying and defining the entities that are supposed to encapsulate the social for each kind of method: beyond the reign of ‘society’ and ‘opinion’, I will point at the emergence of the ‘replications’ that are fabricated by digital platforms but are radically different from previous entities. This is a challenge to invent not only new methods but also a new process of reflexivity for societies, made available by new stakeholders (namely, the digital platforms) which transform reflexivity into reactivity (as operational quantifiers always tend to)….(More)”.