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How should social science make use of the vast new stores of data generated by modern technologies? Last week in Nature, Deen Freelon and his co-authors David Lazer, Eszter Hargittai, Sandra Gonzalez-Bailon, Kevin Munger, Katherine Ognyanova, & Jason Radford grappled with the methodological and ethical questions of working with data not specifically created for research.

The paper, “Meaningful measures of human society in the twenty-first century,” notes:

“Science rarely proceeds beyond what scientists can observe and measure, and sometimes what can be observed proceeds far ahead of scientific understanding. The twenty-first century offers such a moment in the study of human societies.”

In response to this challenge, the authors pose key questions for researchers to consider when working with pre-existing datasets:

  • What counts?
  • What is the temporal, spatial, structural and cultural integrity of the measure?
  • Who is counted?
  • What is accessible to counting?
  • What is ethical to count?
Read the full paper in Nature


a diagram connecting scientific motivation to designing data collection or defining the use of existing data to construct measures, test, explore, and create analysis.

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