Social Science Bites

Data about us as individuals is usually conceived of as something gathered about us, whether siphoned from our Facebook or requested by bureaucrats. But data collected and displayed by the tracking applications on our iPhones and Fitbits is material we collect by ourselves and for ourselves.

Well, maybe, says sociologist Gina Neff, who with Dawn Nafus (a senior research scientist at Intel Labs) wrote the recent book, Self-Tracking. In this Social Science Bites podcast, Neff tells interview David Edmonds that such information – your information -- is widely available to the device or software maker. Now combine that with social network data – and many apps essentially require you connect those dots – and what results is an unintentionally rich portrait of the user.  And that digital you, your doppelgänger, gets shared widely, whether you want it to or even if it’s an accurate depiction, at times making the difference in decisions of whether you worthy of that job or ought to be insured.

Neff said she thinks of tracking devices as a sort of “bait and switch,” since their outputs aren’t wholly your own. As anthropologist Bill Maurer has said, data doesn’t have ownership so much as having parents.

But Neff doesn’t approach smart devices as a Luddite or even that much of an alarmist; she bought first-generation Fitbit when they were brand new and virtually unknown (all of five years ago!). She approaches them as a sociologist, “looking at the practices of people who use digital devices to monitor, map and measure different aspects of their life.”

Many people with and without activity trackers feel they already track their lives – through a tally they keep in their head. Think of the item of clothing – say those ‘skinny jeans’ - you wear when you feel you’re particularly slim. “One of the things that motivated us in thinking about the book were these qualitative measures that help people understand their lives and give them a sense of tracking that is more empowering in some ways.” And one of the findings is that a low-common-denominator approach to the devices can prevent people from really taking control, or customizing the collection, of their own data. “For too many people,” Neff says, “they can’t access and control their own data on the devices in order to begin to frame the next question.”

Her findings on smart devices surprised her several times. For example, she explains, many of today’s digital artifacts are anchored in much older sociological practices. She cites Lee Humprheys’ examinations of how Twitter use lines up with how diaries were used in the 19th century: “Lo and behold, some of those same short entries – ‘Had breakfast late,’ ‘It rained today’ – that we think of as disposable and part of the digital era really are much older.”

Neff was also taken aback at who the audience is for self-tracking. “I thought I was going to study just these kind of geeky, West Coast, Silicon Valley, male types who wanted to engineer everything about their life. And boy, was I wrong.” Users are much more diverse, and often less self-absorbed; some people are using the devices to stay on top of medical concerns, and other just want to be more productive in everyday life. And their devotion can be ephemeral – Neff said studies find 60 percent of activity trackers get disused within six months.

Neff is an associate professor, senior research fellow, program director of the DPhil in information, communication and the social sciences at the Oxford Internet Institute. Self-Tracking, which reviewer Simon Head at The New York Review of Books described as “easily the best book I’ve come across on the subject,” is her third book. Earlier volumes were 2012’s Venture Labor: Work and the Burden of Risk in Innovative Industries, which won the 2013 American Sociological Association Communication and Information Technologies Best Book Award, and 2015’s Surviving the New Economy (with John Amman and Tris Carpenter).

Direct download: Neff_MixSesM2mp3.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 2:00am PDT

Sociologists Les Back and Shamser Sinha spent a decade following 30 migrants in London, a study that forms the narrative in their new book, Migrant City. But the book, which includes the names of three of their subjects as additional co-authors, doesn’t focus the lives of 30 characters, but 31.

“In the end,” Back tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “Shamser Sinha and I learned so much about not only the experience of migration, but about London as a space and a place that is made through migration. So this is not really just a migrants’ story; it’s the story of London but told through and eyes, ears and attentiveness of 30 adult migrants from all corners of the world.”

Given the focus on immigration at present – whether into the European Union from the developing world, into Britain from the rest of pre-Brexit Europe, or into the United states from points south – Edmonds inquires whether the immigrants were in London legally or not. They were both, although Back notes that migrants in general often pass between the two states. The question itself allows Back to expound on the way that that binary colors so much of the conversation about immigration.

“The idea of the immigrant itself holds our thinking hostage very often; that’s one of the big points we wanted to make. It’s so coded, it’s so symbolic in our political culture, particularly the legal/illegal ones that bear down on the public debates – the good migrants vs. the unwanted ones.”

Sinha and Back’s work was part of a larger European Union-funded seven-country study of migration in Europe. The pair’s longitudinal ethnography In, and of, London was accompanied by a conscious effort not just to “mine” the 30 migrants of their personal experiences and data; the sociologists were “doing research alongside people, instead of just in front of them and on them.”

Many of the migrants were happy to become more than mere subjects, hence the writing credit for three of them.

“To say that the participants are co-authors, on the one hand, is an attempt to honor their contribution,” Back recounts in explaining the unique two-plus-three byline. “On the other hand, we felt there was a bit of sleight of hand, because at the end of the day Shamser and I spent 10 years listening to people, thinking about the way they documented their own lives and observed their own lives and the way we made sense of that. At the end of the day, Shamser and I pulled this piece of writing together and shaped it. So it would be wrong to not acknowledge that.”

Back describes both the alienation the migrants experienced, but also their “enchantment” with being a London, a city which had often loomed large in their lives well before they set off to live there. “Very often, those young people were here because British interests, or London’s interests specifically, had been alive in the places where they grew up, their hometowns and their far-off places. ... They are here because we were there, or continue to be there.”

A native Londoner, Back is a professor of sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is both a student of Goldsmiths, having done undergraduate and postgraduate studies there, and since 1993 has been on the faculty there.

In that time he’s written number of books, including 2007’s The Art of Listening;  2002’s Out of Whiteness: Color, Politics and Culture (with Vron Ware); and 2001’s The Changing Face of Football: racism, identity and multiculture in the English game (with Tim Crabbe and John Solomos). In 2016, his Academic Diary: Or Why Higher Education Still Matters, was the first book ever published by the then new Goldsmiths Press.


Direct download: Back_MixdownM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 2:00am PDT

Placing more nutritious food on a more visible shelf, informing lagging taxpayers that their neighbors have already paid up, or asking job seekers what they plan to do next week (instead of what they did – or didn’t – do last week) – these are all well-known examples of behavioral spurs known as ‘nudges.’ Much of the reason such examples are known is because they emanate from the work of the Behavioural Insights Team – the so-called nudge unit. The United Kingdom’s government set up the unit in 2010 (two years after Cass R. Sunstein and Richard H. Thaler’s Nudge was published) to address “everyday” policy challenges where human behavior was a key component.

Experimental psychologist David Halpern, the unit’s chief executive, has led the team since its inception and through its limited privatization in 2014. In this Social Science Bites podcast, Halpern offers interviewer David Edmonds a quick primer on nudging, examples of nudges that worked (and one that didn’t), how nudging differs between the UK and the United States, and the interface of applied nudging and academic behavioral science.  

“We tend to use mental shortcuts,” Halpern explains, “to figure out what’s going on. Now most of the time those mental shortcuts get us to where we want to go, it looks like, but they are subject to systematic error.” This can matter, he continues, because humans don’t always act in their best long-term interests, even as many policies are built on the assumption that they will.

Enter the nudge, “A gentle instrument that is not a financial incentive or a legal mandate or a requirement – a much gentler prompt or intervention.” Looking at the tax-payment nudge, he notes, “It doesn’t infringe on your basic human rights; it just reminds you that other people are more virtuous than you thought they were.” And as a result, more people pay up than would if they received a more-traditional scolding letter.

While the prompt may be low-key, the applications – and results -- often are not.

“These are actually big social policy issues,” says Halpern. “My own view is you try and create almost collective mechanisms to set up. You can inject into that process an understanding of behavioral science and how people make decisions, and then we can collectively choose rather than just a few clever folks out in Whitehall or in Washington.”

He spends some time discussing the difference in nudging between those two hubs. What he terms the “North American view” the focus is on “choice enhancing, while in the UK “we take a slightly broader perspective, which is trying to introduce a more realistic model of human behavior.” This is further demonstrated by the enactment process on each side of the Atlantic. In the U.S. version of the Nudge Unit, the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, executive orders were used to enact nudging policies that had worked in experiments. In the UK, “We went down the route of “God, we don’t actually know if this stuff works, so why don’t we run – wherever we could – randomized controlled trials.”

“Our work,” Halpern concludes, “is very hard-edged empirical. In fact, history may judge that the most important thing the Behavioural Insights Team brought was actually a very, very strong form of empiricism.”

Before leading the Nudge Unit, Halpern was the founding director of the Institute for Government and between 2001 and 2007 was the chief analyst at the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit. In 2013, he was appointed  as the national adviser to What Works Network, which focuses improving the use of evidence in government decision making.

Describing himself as a “recovering academic” (although he does have a visiting professorship at King's College London), before entering government, Halpern held tenure at Cambridge and taught at Oxford and Harvard. A fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences since 2016, Halpern has written or co-authored four books, including 2005’s Social Capital and 2010’s The Hidden Wealth of Nations.

Direct download: HalpernMixSes_M.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 4:00am PDT