ISS Looks at Big Data, New/Old Technologies, and the Future of Social Science Research

The Institute for Social Sciences held the second installment of its inaugural conference on Friday, May 1, which focused on the theme, “society counts.” The day-long conference featured two faculty panels, a roundtable discussion, and a keynote session followed by a public reception at the Walter A. Buehler Alumni Center.

Addressing how big data “measures us,” how technology “changes us,” and how social science researchers are impacted by technology, the Institute for Social Science conference fostered a dialogue around the way digital information is changing how we create knowledge. Some presentations used digital data and tools to interpret human behavior, some pointed to the problems of equity, access, and use of new technologies, and others provided case studies of how technologies and ‘big data’ shape the way we live in the world.

This day-long knowledge exchange was an especially fitting opener for the fledgling institute since ISS Director Joe Dumit, professor of anthropology and director of Science and Technology Studies, stressed that “knowledge exchange is the work” of this transdisciplinary research center that focuses on deep collaborations and conversations across UC Davis.

Dumit explained that the ISS intends to not only bring together faculty, staff, and graduate students in innovative social science research, but will transform undergraduate education as well – beginning with the first cohort of students in the Data Studies Program this summer, which offers UC Davis undergraduate students a unique opportunity to take their major and apply it to the world of data, learning how to question, analyze and present data research that is attractive to industry employers.

Big Data: Measuring Us

The first panel featured presentations from Brad Jones (UC Davis, Political Science), Justin Grimmer (Stanford University, Political Science) and Sheryl-Ann Simpson (UC Davis, Human Ecology), moderated by Martin Hilbert (UC Davis, Communication).

Jones explored the “theory, practice, and limits of big data” with examples of data-driven research findings using your “digital footprint” and google trends search information. While Jones celebrated that “social science can happen in new ways with big data,” he ended by pointing towards the limits of predictive technologies – a major application of big data today. Grimmer presented research based on a methodology he developed – part computer algorithm and part hand-coding undergraduate researchers – to analyze thousands of congressional press releases and newsletters.

Simpson presented research co-authored with Nancy Erbstein, assistant project scientist in the department of human ecology, on their curriculum development and outreach project titled, “Big data for whom: expanding access to analysis through youth data literacy and agency,” which works with cohorts of high-school aged youths to evaluate, analyze, and manipulate data.

“Big data has a history where the underlying logics of the term reveal that it is about marketing,” Simpson said. One of the outcomes of seeing like a marketing company is “the drive to produce more data – a commodity,” Simpson continued.

Challenging the neutrality of concepts like “big data,” which had been unquestioned so far at the conference, Simpson turned the audience’s attention towards the political and social consequences of data gathering and proliferating projects. Drawing from geographer Michael Goodchild, Simpson explained that information is “data fit for purpose” – and in the age of “big data,” we only have “medium information.”

Instead, Simpson argued for “interpretive quantitative methods” that draw on connections between data and experience, and incorporate humanistic research practices that focus on “purpose construction and not just data collection.”

Technology: Changing Us

The second panel brought three historically-minded faculty to explore how technology shapes the cultural history of aerial views, the “unspectacular technologies” of daily life, and undergraduate hybrid curriculum at UC Davis. Caren Kaplan (UC Davis, American Studies) presented her book-in-progress on the history of airpower “and its many ways of seeing” through a mixed methodology of layering, deep contextualization, and “uncertain associations” between objects of study.

The “obsession with what is ‘technologically possible’ has led historians of technology astray,” David Henkin (UC Berkeley, History) stated. Rather, Henkin argued for the study of “unspectacular technologies” which exist long before other “highly seductive” technologies. Using the example of the seven day week, Henkin explored how this man-made time construct has profoundly organized most human lives since the 19th century.

Carolyn Thomas (UC Davis, American Studies) presented new research drawn from her experiences as Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Education at UC Davis. Thomas discussed her work as a collaborator on hybrid learning and focused on the Provost Hybrid Course Award workshop series for faculty transitioning their courses. In these hybrid formats, Thomas saw opportunities for “allowing learning to happen through curation,” “guiding students through knowledge and showing gaps for their exploration,” and reinvigorating student/teacher relations through the paradoxical intimacy of video lectures.

Social Sciences: Researching Us

The conference proceeded with a roundtable discussion featuring UC Davis faculty Santiago Barreda (Linguistics), Amanda Guyer (Human Ecology and Center for Mind and Brain), Duncan Temple Lang (Statistics), Cecilia Tsu (History), and moderated by Joe Dumit.

Each faculty addressed the problems and potentials of using new technologies and digital data in their fields. Barreda noted that linguistics is changing rapidly due to the nature of data: “Linguists are confronted with having to test their hypothesis,” he explained. “You can no longer speculate about what people do with speech – you have the ability to capture speech and amass data and then use it.”

Complicating the traditional binary between qualitative and quantitative methods, Dumit explained that data science sits as a kind of “third learning” between qualitative and quantitative methods. Data science does not “end with a number,” rather it requires the qualitative interpretation of information generated through statistics, machine learning, and other kinds of quantitative data methodologies.

The symposium ended with a keynote address from James Fowler (UC San Diego, Political Science) speaking on “The Power of Friends.” Fowler’s talk drew from his widely-read co-authored book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, which explains how social networks influence our ideas, emotions, health, relationships, behavior, politics, and much more.

The final installment of the Institute for Social Sciences Conference series takes place on Friday, May 8, and addresses “Social Networks in Decision Making.” Explore the full schedule here.

– Stephanie Maroney, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral candidate in Cultural Studies