My notes on Mohr, J.W. (2015) Big Data/Big Theory – Part 1. Perspectives 37(2)
It’s often assumed that big data poses a threat to sociological theorising in the traditional sense, with the infamous Wired article on the ‘end of theory’ standing as emblematic of the belief that sufficiently large datasets mean theory can be dispensed with. While recognising the limitations which attend to transactional data, such as the irreducible material which surrounds the digital and the limited range of features of social life which can be digitised, John W. Mohr strikes an optimistic note about what this means for the future of sociological theory:
I think Big Data does have the potential to produce digitally accessib le information that is far richer than anything social scientists have ever had or known before, and that some part of that richness will come from the fact that much of that data is produced within the very flow and practice of daily life itself. Instead of gathering answers retrospectively from standardized survey questions, Big Data can provide texts from spontaneous tweets, posts, or messages that are wound into dynamic conversations between friends or communities, thus allowing social scientists to capture social life in its natural richness as it unfolds in real time. High quality data could mean data that was created authentically, with complete textual (and visual or audio?) content recorded, all types of relational signatures captured, and precise temporal and geo-stamping included.
There are technical objections which can be raised to much of this. The language of spontaneity obscures the role of platform architectures in shaping behaviour. The accuracy of geo-stamping can’t be assumed and it’s hard to imagine how it could be improved much beyond its current unreliable form. There are different degrees to the sense in which digital engagement exists ‘within’ social life. But these shouldn’t blind us to the epistemic gain which can emerge from transactional data and I found it valuable to read this from someone theoretically inclined who sees immense value in this data without believing it means that the sociology should be refounded as social physics. It also has a nuanced sense of the cultural ontology of those domains of social life which transactional data provide a new way of knowing:
Data can allow us to strategically examine different types and forms of meanings, from simple sentiments to complex thoughts, from immediate reactions to deliberative reflections.
I share his interest in “how Big Data is going to have an impact on the intellectual subfield of sociological theory over the next generation or so” and it seems to me this question remains under explored. He argues that the explanatory challenge provided by Big Data will mean that sociologists will need to call upon Big Theory. He offers three reasons for this claim: the paradigm effect, the data effect and the culture effect. These are explored in the second installmment of this essay and I will blog about them tomorrow.