A brave new vision of the future of social science

I’ve been typing and organizing my notes from yesterday’s dc-aapor event on the past, present and future of survey research (which I still plan to share soon, after a little grooming). The process has been a meditative one.

I’ve been thinking about how I would characterize these same phases- the past, present and future… and then I had a vision of sorts on the way home today that I’d like to share. I’m going to take a minute to be a little post apocalyptic and let the future build itself. You can think of it as a daydream or thought experiment…

The past, I would characterize as the grand discovery of surveys as a tool for data collection; the honing and evolution of that tool in conjunction with its meticulous scientific development and the changing landscape around it; and the growth to dominance and proliferation of the method. The past was an era of measurement, of the total survey error model, of social Science.

The present I would characterize as a rapid coming together, or a perfect storm that is swirling data and ideas and disciplines of study and professions together in a grand sweeping wind. I see the survey folks trudging through the wind, waiting for the storm to pass, feet firmly anchored to solid ground.

The future is essentially the past, turned on its head. The pieces of the past are present, but mixed together and redistributed. Instead of examining the ways in which questions elicit usable data, we look at the data first and develop the questions from patterns in the data. In this era, data is everywhere, of various quality, character and genesis, and the skill is in the sense making.

This future is one of data driven analytic strategies, where research teams intrinsically need to be composed of a spectrum of different, specialized skills.

The kings of this future will be the experts in natural language processing, those with the skill of finding and using patterns in language. All language is patterned. Our job will be to find those patterns and then to discover their social meaning.

The computer scientists and coders will write the code to extract relevant subsets of data, and describe and learn patterns in the data. The natural language processing folks will hone the patterns by grammar and usage. The netnographers will describe and interpret the patterns, the data visualizers will make visual or interactive sense of the patterns, the sociologists will discover constructions of relative social groupings as they emerge and use those patterns. The discourse analysts will look across wider patterns of language and context dependency. The statisticians will make formulas to replicate, describe and evaluate the patterns, and models to predict future behaviors. Data science will be a crucial science built on the foundations of traditional and nontraditional academic disciplines.

How many people does it take to screw in this lightbulb? It depends on the skills of the people or person on the ladder.

Where do surveys fit in to this scheme? To be honest, I’m not sure. The success of surveys seems to rest in part on the failure of faster, cheaper methods with a great deal more inherent error.

This is not the only vision possible, but it’s a vision I saw while commuting home at the end of a damned long week… it’s a vision where naturalistic data is valued and experimentation is an extension of research, where diversity is a natural assumption of the model and not a superimposed dynamic, where the data itself and the patterns within it determine what is possible from it. It’s a vision where traditional academics fit only precariously; a future that could just as easily be ruled out by the constraints of the past as it could be adopted unintentionally, where meaning makers rush to be the rigs in the newest gold rush and theory is as desperately pursued as water sources in a drought.


2 thoughts on “A brave new vision of the future of social science

  1. Everyone loves what you guys are usually up too.
    This kind of clever work and reporting! Keep up the
    very good works guys I’ve included you guys to our blogroll.

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