Harnessing Technology to Advance Movement Research

After spending a semester in Silicon Valley and San Francisco interviewing many techies, computer software engineers, entrepreneurs, and business execs, I left with a lot of questions about the future of sociological research. Several shifts seemed crystal clear to me. First, there is an unprecedented amount of longitudinal data being collected in real time by big business through social media as well as through handheld devices and apps. Second, if as researchers we do not connect with these data sources and find ways to analyze them, we will become irrelevant.  So how do we do this better? And how do we do this in particular to advance scholarship on social movements? Joe DiGrazia, who will be a postdoc at Dartmouth’s Neukom Institute for the next several years, has been doing movement research using data he scraped from Twitter and Google for the last several years. When I spoke with him, he shared his thoughts on how movement scholars can use the data available from social media to inform our research: “I think these types of data can help us understand behaviors and processes that can be difficult to observe using other methods. For example, data from social media and social networking platforms can help us understand how movements mobilize and how the social networks that comprise them are organized. We can look at how ideas spread through these networks and how people are recruited to join movements. There’s also evidence that data on the content of messages posted on social media sites or data on aggregate web search activity can give insights into the attitudes and beliefs of the public or movement participants.”   What kinds of data are available to study movements? “There is a lot of data out there that’s available to researchers. Some of it is data about events and social processes that occur offline. For example, in my dissertation research I was able to construct a data set of Tea Party events by scraping a national Tea Party event calendar over the course of several years. Other people have done work trying to code news stories from around the world into datasets of global events; the GDELT project is one example. It was possible to get this kind of data before the emergence of the internet, but the internet has made it a lot easier.” “Another type of data is the sort that is produced by people’s online activity. This is a new sort of data that didn’t exist before the advent of social media and social networking services. This type of data would include things like people’s behavior on sites like Twitter, Facebook or Reddit or aggregate web search data.”   How would you recommend someone interested in working with big data get started? “Look at the kind of work that’s out there and get some ideas about how you could use these methods to answer research questions that interest you. Then, begin by acquainting yourself with some of the tools necessary to do this type of work. A good place to start is learning a scripting language like Python. You can move on from there to learning things like automated text analysis or web scraping.”   What insights in particular do you see using these new forms of data as contributing to research on social movements? “As I mentioned above, I think these types of data can give us insight into processes, attitudes and behaviors that can be difficult to capture with other forms of data. However, it’s also important to recognize that new communication technologies aren’t just data sources, they are actually changing the way social movements operate. Social movements are using these technologies to spread their messages and collective action frames, to organize and coordinate, and to marshal resources. In this sense, it is going to become increasingly necessary to account for these technologies because they are becoming an important part of the process.”   While a burgeoning area of research on social change, there are inherent challenges to retooling. It takes time and a wide range of expertise. DiGrazia, for example, has teamed up with interdisciplinary scholars from information science, working with Johan Bollen and Karissa McKelvey from Informatics at Indiana University, as well as Fabio Rojas (social movements, orgs) so that he can build upon the array of knowledge and methodological techniques on social media and social change. However, there are multiple benefits to finding ways to harness these new forms of data. First, there is a lot of public data available for free on the internet. Second, using data collected in social contexts with normative constraints and over multiple waves will greatly improve the quality and validity of our data. Third, this is an area which can help make sociology more relevant in the next fifty years to the public, to the government, and to business. Of course there are limitations we will also need to parse out, as Danah Boyd and Kate Crawford have begun to do in their recent paper. How do internet norms differ from other social situations?  Danah Boyd also explores this more in her recent book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. If you are interested in learning more about these kinds of data, Michael Corey and Peter Brandon are hosting an ASA preconference August 15 at Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/DigitalDemography2014). This preconference, “Digitalizing Demography”, will focus on “data collection in the digital age”. Alex Hanna, from the University of Wisconsin is also hosting a Hackathon at UC Berkeley (http://badhessian.org/tag/hackathon).

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