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?