Rethinking demographics in research

I read a blog post on the LoveStats blog today that referred to one of the most widely regarded critiques of social media research: the lack of demographic information.

In traditional survey research, demographic information is a critically important piece of the analysis. We often ask questions like “Yes 50% of the respondents said they had encountered gender harassment, but what is the breakdown by gender?” The prospect of not having this demographic information is a large enough game changer to cast the field of social media research into the shade.

Here I’d like to take a sidestep and borrow a debate from linguistics. In the linguistic subfield of conversation analysis, there are two main streams of thought about analysis. One believes in gathering as much outside data as possible, often through ethnographic research, to inform a detailed understanding of the conversation. The second stream is rooted in the purity of the data. This stream emphasizes our dynamic construction of identity over the stability of identity. The underlying foundation of this stream is that we continually construct and reconstruct the most important and relevant elements of our identity in the process of our interaction. Take, for example, a study of an interaction between a doctor and a patient. The first school would bring into the analysis a body of knowledge about interactions between doctors and patients. The second would believe that this body of knowledge is potentially irrelevant or even corrupting to the analysis, and if the relationship is in fact relevant it will be constructed within the excerpt of study. This begs the question: are all interactions between doctors and patients primarily doctor patient interactions? We could address this further through the concept of framing and embedded frames (a la Goffman), but we won’t do that right now.

Instead, I’ll ask another question:
If we are studying gender discrimination, is it necessary to have a variable for gender within our datasouce?

My kneejerk reaction to this question, because of my quantitative background, is yes. But looking deeper: is gender always relevant? This does strongly depend on the datasource, so let’s assume for this example that the stimulus was a question on a survey that was not directly about discrimination, but rather more general (e.g. “Additional Comments:”).

What if we took that second CA approach, the purist approach, and say that where gender is applicable to the response it will be constructed within that response. The question now becomes ‘how is gender constructed within a response?’ This is a beautiful and interesting question for a linguist, and it may be a question that much better fits the underlying data and provides deeper insight into the data. It also turns the age old analytic strategy on its head. Now we can ask whether a priori assumptions that the demographics could or do matter are just rote research or truly the productive and informative measures that we’ve built them up to be?

I believe that this is a key difference between analysis types. In the qualitative analysis of open ended survey questions, it isn’t very meaningful to say x% of the respondents mentioned z, and y% of the respondents mentioned d, because a nonmention of z or d is not really meaningful. Instead we go deeper into the data to see what was said about d or z. So the goal is not prevalence, but description. On the other hand, prevalence is a hugely important aspect of quantitative analysis, as are other fun statistics which feed off of demographic variables.

The lesson in all of this is to think carefully about what is meaningful information that is relevant to your analysis and not to make assumptions across analytic strategies.

Do you ever think about interfaces? Because I do. All the time.

Did you ever see the movie Singles? It came out in the early 90s, shortly before the alternative scene really blew up and I dyed [part of] my hair blue and thought seriously about piercings. Singles was a part of the growth of the alternative movement. In the movie, there is a moment when one character says to another “Do you ever think about traffic? Because I do. All the time.” I spent quite a bit of time obsessing over that line, about what it meant, and, more deeply, what it signaled.

I still think about that line. As I drove toward the turnoff to my mom’s street during our 4th of July vacation, I saw what looked like the turn lane for her street, but it was actually an intersection- less left- turning split immediately preceding the real left turn lane for her street. It threw me off every time, and I kept remembering that romantic moment in Singles when the two characters were getting to know each other’s quirks, and the man was talking about traffic. And it was okay, even cool, to be quirky and think or talk about traffic, even during a romantic moment.

I don’t think about traffic often. But I am no less quirky. Lately, I tend to think about interfaces. Before my first brush with NLP (Natural Language Processing), I thought quite a bit about alternatives to e-mail. Since I discovered the world of text analytics, I have been thinking quite a bit about ways to integrate the knowledge across different fields about methods for text analysis and the needs of quantitative and qualitative researchers. I want to think outside of the sentiment box, because I believe that sentiment analysis does not fully address the underlying richness of textual data. I want to find a way to give researchers what they need, not what they think they want. Recently, my thinking on this topic has flipped. Instead of thinking from the data end, or the analytic possibilities end, or about what programs already exist and what they do, I have started to think about interfaces. This feels like a real epiphany. Once we think about the problem from an interface, or user experience perspective, we can better utilize existing technology and harness user expectations.

Have you read the new Imagine book about how creativity works? I believe that this strategy is the natural step after spending time zoning out on the web, thinking, or not thinking, about research. The more time you cruise, the better feel you develop for what works and what doesn’t, the more you learn what to expect. Interfaces are simply the masks we put on datasets of all sorts. The data could be the world wide web as a whole, results from a site or time period, a database of merchandise, or even a set of open ended survey responses. The goal is to streamline the searching interface and then make it available for use on any number of datasets. We use NLP every day when we search the internet, or shop. We understand it intuitively. Why don’t we extend that understanding to text analysis?

I find myself thinking about what this interface should look like and what I want this program to do.

Not traffic, not as romantic. But still quirky and all-encompassing.