Social Science Bites (general)

It’s said that in the last two years, more data has been created than all the data that ever was created before that time. And that in two years hence, we’ll be able to say the same thing. Gary King, the head of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University, isn’t certain those statements are exactly true, but certain they are true in essence. And he’s even more certain that the growth in the amount of data isn’t why big data is changing the world.

As he tells interviewer Dave Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, roughly 650 million social media messages will go out today. So to someone trying to make statements about what those messages contain, he posited, would having 750 million messages make anything better? “Having bigger data,” King says, “only makes things more difficult.”

Or to be blunter, “The data itself isn’t likely to be particularly useful; the question is whether you can make it useful.” Which leads to King’s real passion: the analysis of big data. It’s not the ‘big’ or the ‘data’ that really turns the screw; it’s the analysis.

In this conversation, King, uses text analysis as an example of this big data analysis. He notes that some of the tools that text analysis uses are “mathematically similar” to another project he worked on, trying to determine health priorities in the third world by figuring out what’s killing people there. In both cases, the individual, whether someone with a disease or someone with a viral tweet, is less important than the trend.

That, explains King, spotlights the difference between computer scientists’ goals and social scientists’ goals: “We only care about what everybody’s saying.” He then talks about work examining social media and censorship in China. While the work clearly falls into an area that King, a political scientist, would be interested in, the genesis was actually as a test case for the limitations of the text analysis program. But it nonetheless gave useful insight into both how the Chinse government censors material, and why.

King is the Albert J. Weatherhead III University Professor at Harvard. He’s been elected a fellow or eight honorary societies, including the National Academy of Science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Academy of Political and Social Science. King also has an entrepreneurial bent – he mentions the company Crimson Hexagon that was spun out of the text analysis work during this interview – and has founded or invented technology for companies like Learning Catalytics and Perusall.

And here’s some, if not ‘big’ data, at least ‘bigger’ data, to consider: This interview marks the 50th Social Science Bites podcast produced by SAGE Publishing. For a complete listing of past Social Science Bites podcasts, click HERE. You can follow Bites on Twitter @socialscibites and David Edmonds @DavidEdmonds100.

Direct download: KingMixSesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 3:00am PST

Which piece of social science research has most inspired or most influenced you?

This question has been posed to every interview in the Social Science Bites podcast series, but never made part of the audio file made public. Now, as we approach the 50th Social Science Bite podcast to be published this March 1, journalist and interviewer David Edmonds has compiled those responses into three separate montages of those answers.

In this first of that set of montages, 15 renowned social scientists – starting in alphabetical order from all who have participated – reveal their pick. As you might expect, their answers don’t come lightly: “Whoah, that’s an interesting question!” was sociologist Michael Burawoy’s initial response before he named an éminence grise – Antonio Gramsci – of Marxist theory for his work on hegemony.

The answers range from other giants of social, behavioral and economic science, such as John Maynard Keynes and Hannah Arendt, to living legends like Robert Putnam and the duo of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (and even one Social Science Bites alumnus, Stephen Pinker). Some of the answers involve an academic’s full oeuvre, while others zero in on a particular book or effort. John Brewer, for example, discusses his own background in a Welsh mining town and how when he went to college he encountered Ronald Frankenberg’s Communities in Britain: Social Life in Town and Country. “That book made sense of my upbringing and committed me to a lifetime’s career in sociology,” Brewer reveals.

And not every answer is a seminal moment. Danny Dorling, for example, names a report by his Ph.D. adviser, computational geographer Stan Openshaw, who took two unclassified government reports to show the futility of nuclear war. And not every answer is even an academic work. Recent Nobel laureate Angus Deaton reveals, “I tend to like the last thing I’ve ever read,” and so at the time of our interview (December 2013), named a journalist’s book: The Idealist by Nina Munk.

Other Bites interviewees in this podcast include Michelle Baddeley, Iris Bohnet, Michael Billig, Craig Calhoun, Ted Cantle, Janet Carsten, Greg Clark, Ivor Crewe, Valerie Curtis, Will Davis and Robin Dunbar.

Direct download: MontageAMixSesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 3:00am PST

Human beings are social animals, notes economist Michelle Baddeley, and as such the instinct to herd is hardwired into us. And so while this has changed from (in most cases) physically clumping into groups, it does translate into behavior linked to financial markets, news consumption, restaurant-picking and Brooklyn facial hair decisions.

In this latest Social Science Bites podcast, Baddeley – a professor in economics and finance of the built environment at University College London -- tells interviewer David Edmond how modern herding often follows from an information imbalance, real or perceived, in which a person follows the wisdom of crowds. The decision to join in, she explains, is often based an astute reading of risk; as she quotes John Maynard Keynes, “It’s better to be conventionally wrong than unconventionally right.” As a real world example of that, she points to the plight of the junior researcher, whose career is best advanced by serving up their innovative insights along conventional lines.

Apart from reputational damage control, there are pluses and minuses to human herding, Baddeley notes there are advantages to finding safety in numbers: “It’s a good way to find a hotel.” But there are pernicious outcomes, too, like groupthink. In that vein, the economist says she finds partisan herding “more prevalent in a ‘post truth age,’” as individuals join thought groups that reinforce their existing world-view. And it doesn’t help, her research finds, that people are more likely to herd the less well-informed they are.

This has also had dire consequences in financial markets (Baddeley was principal investigator on a Leverhulme Trust project focused on neuroeconomic examination of herding in finance), where pushing against the grain makes for a short career for anyone other than the luckiest professional stockpicker.

Baddeley’s early education was in Australia and her first professional work was as an economist with the Australian Commonwealth Treasury. She then completed masters and doctorate work at Cambridge. Her most recent book is 2013’s Behavioural Economics and Finance  and other works include Running Regressions - A Practical Guide to Quantitative Research (2007) and Investment: Theories and Analysis (2003).

Direct download: BaddeleyMixSesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 3:00am PST

For Alex “Sandy” Pentland, one of the best-known and widely cited computational social scientists in the world, these are halcyon days for his field.  One of the creators of the MIT Media Lab and currently the director of the MIT Connection Science and Human Dynamics labs, Pentland studies ‘social physics,’ which takes a data-centric view of culture and society.

In this Social Science Bites podcast, he tells interviewer Dave Edmonds about the origins of social physics in the barren days before the advent of widespread good data and solid statistical methods and how it blossomed as both a field and for Pentland’s own research. Now, with both plentiful data and very sophisticated statistics, “we can revisit this vision of understanding society, understanding culture, as an alive, evolving animal using these modern techniques.”

The key change, he explains, has been in the amount and the diversity of data -- even if that’s a scary thought from a privacy point of view, “But from a social science point of view it’s Nirvana. For the very first time you can look at complicated, real-time continuous interaction of many different groups carrying out real activities.”

Pentland’s own experimental trajectory reflects those advances, with his early work mediated as much by what was lacking (a good way to deal statistically with language) as what was at hand. This led him to study how much of an individual’s behavior was due to older, pre-language signaling and how much due to more modern linguistic structure. But with time and computational advances, his work ramped up to study how groups of people interact, even up to the scale of a city. That in turn created some fascinating and widely cited insights, such as the more diverse a city’s social ties the more successful, i.e. rich, e city will be.

Some of the methodology involved in doing computational social science is also explored in the podcast, as Pentland describes giving an entire community new mobile phones as one part of the data-gathering process (with privacy protecting institutional controls, he notes) even as “we pestered them with a million questionnaires of standard social science things” during the same study period.

Pentland is well-known in both the public and private spheres as a leading big data researcher, with Forbes recently dubbing him one of the "seven most powerful data scientists in the world." In addition to his work at MIT, he chairs the World Economic Forum’s Data Driven Development council and has co-founded more than a dozen data-centered companies such as the Data Transparency Lab, the Harvard-ODI-MIT DataPop Alliance and the Institute for Data Driven Design. Among his disparate honors are as a 2012 best-article award from the Harvard Business Review,  winning the DARPA Network Challenge run as a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the internet, and being honored for his work on privacy by the group Patient Privacy Rights.

Direct download: PentlandMixSesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 1:56pm PST

Between a series of high-profile shootings of black men by police and the election of Donald Trump by a bifurcated electorate, the racial divide in the United States has achieved a renewed public prominence. While discussion of this divide had faded since the election of Barack Obama, it’s an issue that has always been at the forefront of the scholarship of Harvard’s Jennifer Hochschild.

In this Social Science Bites podcast, Hochschild explains to interviewer David Edmonds some of the pertinent data points from her years of using quantitative and qualitative analysis to map the racial, ethnic and class cleavages in America’s demography.

The issues are devilishly difficult to address in, well, black-and-white terms, it turns out, as Hochschild repeatedly answers “yes and no” to various questions. Academics, she explains, tend to generalize too much about these issues, to focus too much on the role of the federal government to the detriment of state governments, and don’t pay enough attention to spatial variations: “Los Angeles doesn’t look like Dubuque, Iowa.”

She depicts a racial continuum of acceptance and opportunity, with whites and Asians at one extreme, blacks at the other, and other communities, such as Latinos and Muslims, populating the expanse in between. While the distance between the extremes seems to be as wide as it’s been for the last half century, she sees some hopes in the middle. She draws parallels for the modern Latino community with that of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe at the turn of the last century: they arrived as ‘lesser whites’ but at this point have full membership in the larger dominant community.

Hochschild talks specifically about the Muslim immigrant community in the U.S., with its wide range of homelands and ethnicities but a generally high level of education. She expects the community’s traditional low level of political activity to change dramatically in the near future. “My guess is that’s going to change over the next decade as they increasingly feel not only beleaguered but in real trouble. From my perspective, I hope there will be more alliances with other groups, but that remains to be seen”

Hochschild is the Henry LaBarre Jayne Professor of Government at Harvard University, where she focuses on African and African American studies. The author of several important books on race and politics, she was also the founding editor of Perspectives on Politics, published by the American Political Science Association, and was a former co-editor of the American Political Science Review. Earlier this year she completed her one-year term as president of the APSA.

Direct download: HochschildMixSesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 3:00am PST

Imagine if we could find the secret to romance and love, the real secret, one vetted by science. Wouldn’t that be … well, what would that be. According to Anna Machin, an anthropologist who actually does study romance, it would be disheartening.

“I don’t want to find the formula for love,” she tells interviewer Dave Edmonds in the latest Social Science Bites podcast. “I think that would be incredibly depressing.”

But Machin, a professor at the University of Oxford and part of an experimental psychology research group run by another Social Science Bites alumnus, Robin Dunbar, is nonetheless fascinated by how evolution has created this thing we call love, using the tools of neurochemistry and qualitative social science. Her research ranges from “our primate cousins” to popular dating sites. And before you insert your own joke here, know that these two examples have more in common than you might think.

Distinct primate-centric patterns quickly emerge in dating site profiles, Machin explains. For men, it’s displaying their value – their status, resources and good genes. For women, it’s their fertility, including youth, and good genes – regardless of their own wealth or status.

Not, she cautions, that we’re exactly like the rest of the menagerie. “The relationships we build, the reproductive relationships, our romantic relationships, are categorically different to those in other animals,” she says. “They persist for much longer, the cognition involved is much more complex,” and the neurochemistry doesn’t explain how we can stick together for such an incredibly long period of time.

Machin’s own academic background is varied, beginning with bachelor’s work in anthropology and English and leading to a PhD, in Archaeology, from the University of Reading (her thesis was on Acheulean handaxes). As an academic, she delights in explaining her work to the public, an avocation that has including working with the TV show Married at First Sight, where she’s used her own scholarship to help participants find life partners.

Direct download: MaychinMixSesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 2:55am PST

The culture of dance clubs has a way of popping up in policy debates around the world. In September, for example, the closure of London’s Fabric nightclub – called “one of the most influential and internationally renowned electronic music venues on the planet” by a major newspaper half that planet away – created a huge debate. In Los Angeles in July, the deaths of three people at the Hard Summer Music Festival -- on the heels of more than two dozen drug-related deaths at raves across the U.S. Southwest in the past decade -- saw enormous (but unsuccessful) efforts to ban the electronic dance music festivals.

Dance culture, then, isn’t just frippery, it’s policy.

That’s no surprise to Karenza Moore, the guest of the latest Social Science Bites podcast. Moore, a lecturer in sociology at Lancaster University, has for more than a decade studied and written about the dance clubs, the music they play, and the drug use she says the culture has “hidden in plain sight.” Her interests are purely academic; Moore describes herself as a “participant observer” with at least 20 years standing on the dance floor.

In conversation with David Edmonds, Moore makes no bones about the prevalence of drugs in the club scene – even if alcohol is the most used drug in the post-rave era. MDMA, whether known as ecstasy , E, Molly, is used as a matter of routine, which she says “needs to be acknowledged.” Her sociological ethnography of the scene and its drug use sees her reject purely prosecution-oriented responses to that acknowledgement. Drawing from what she calls ‘critical drug studies,’ sees, Moore suggests that violence attributed to the clubs is linked to the underground drug trade, not the more-or-less open drug use. “Prohibition causes more harm than good,” Moore tells Edmonds, by placing a matter of public health in the hands of people who have no regulation to abide by.

In the podcast, Moore also talks about the mechanics of interviewing club-goers – seems many have a desire to overshare their exploits – and how long ‘participant observers’ can keep observing in a culture that’s generally reckoned to focus on youth.

At Lancaster, Moore runs the aptly named Club Research as a hub for research on all the drugs, legal, illicit and novel, in the scene, as well the various subcultures and the larger “night-time economy.” A lot of that work appears at her blog, http://www.clubresearch.org/, and is covered in her contributions as co-author to the 2013 book from SAGE publishing, Key Concepts in Drugs and Society.

Direct download: MooreMixSesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 3:00am PST

“One of the values of the social sciences,” argues Michael Billig, “is to investigate what people take for granted and to bring it to the surface.” In this Social Science Bites podcast, Billig, a professor of social science at Loughborough University since 1985, discusses a particular strain of something taken for granted, what he terms “banal nationalism.” That refers to the idea that much of what we would consider markers of the nationalistic impulse pass without notice, the “unwaved flags” we’d only notice if they disappeared.

In his conversation with interviewer David Edmonds, Billig dives more deeply into one particular example of nationalism, the British royal family, and what the British themselves think about the royal  family and the place of the royals in British ideology.  

Drawing on what he learned while supervising the qualitative surveys of average British citizens that formed the basis of his 1992 book Talking of the Royal Family, he suggests that the British people, while much less deferential to the royals than outsiders might think, tend to accept that the RF is a good thing and therefore sympathize with them – as long as the public perceives the family as publicly suffering from their privilege.

As he tells Edmonds, it was while doing that project that he realized he in fact was writing about nationalism when he write that book, which started him down the road to his 1995 book, Banal Nationalism. Since then he’s addressed a number of other topics, including laughter, rock ‘n’ roll, and how to write badly – a topic that concludes the podcast. He also defends the role of social scientists – trained as a social psychologist he prefers to describe himself using the broader term by citing the ephemerality of the findings. “The idea that you may get eternal truths from social science is a bit of a mythology,” he insists. “This is why you always need social scientists.”

Direct download: BilligMixSesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 5:00am PST

It's often remarked that technology has made the world a smaller place. While this has been especially true for those with the wherewithal to buy the latest gadget and to travel at will, but it's also true for economic migrants. Those technological ties are one of the key research interests of Mirca Madianou, a reader in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London.

In this Social Science Bites podcast, Madianou details several foundational shifts "transnational families," those families where breadwinners -- and prospective breadwinners -- head far away to help support their family members back home. She's charted both an intensification of global migration, and also the feminization of migration -- women are as likely to migrate as men. And in the last decade, communication allows those women to "mother at a distance," a very signal change from the days when the only contact a family member might be able to muster at will was a fraying photograph.

In conversation with David Edmonds, Madianou also addresses "humanitarian technologies" -- the ability to reunite people pulled apart by crisis or disaster. While these technologies serve as beacons and also monitors of charitable response, they also provide a forum for emotional discharge, she explains. "... [T]his digital footprint, this digital identity, ... became the focal point for mourning rituals and for grieving, and that was a very important function that social media played."

Madianou joined Goldsmiths in 2013, and for two years before that was a senior lecturer at the University of Leicester. From 2004 to 2011 she taught at the University of Cambridge, where she was Newton Trust Lecturer in Sociology and Fellow of Lucy Cavendish College. She wrote 2011's Migration and New Media: transnational families and polymedia (with Daniel. Miller) and 2005's Mediating the Nation: News, audiences and the politics of identity, in addition to be an editor for 2013's Ethics of Media.

Direct download: MadianouMixSesM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 2:34pm PST

While intentional bias generally is an ugly thing, it's also relatively easy to spot if the will exists to do so. But what about bias where individuals or institutions haven't set out to discriminate -- but the net effect is bias? "[M]uch of discrimination is in fact based on unconscious or implicit bias," says Iris Bohnet, a behavioral economist at Harvard Kennedy School, "where good people like you and me treat people differently based on their looks." At times, even the subjects of implicit bias in essence discriminate against themselves.

The Swiss born Bohnet, author of the new book What Works: Gender Equality by Design, studies implicit bias in organizations. In this Social Science Bites podcast, Bohnet tells interviewer David Edmonds that even good-faith efforts to address this bias has so far found little evidence that many of the structural remedies tried so far do in fact have an effect on the underlying bias. This doesn't mean she opposes them; instead, Bohnet works to design effective and proven solutions that work to "de-bias" the real world.

Bohnet received her Ph.D. in economics from the University of Zurich in 1997 and joined the Harvard Kennedy School in 1998, where she has served as the academic dean of the Kennedy School, is the director of its Women and Public Policy Program, the co-chair (with Max Bazerman) of the Behavioral Insights Group, an associate director of the Harvard Decision Science Laboratory, and the faculty chair of the executive program “Global Leadership and Public Policy for the 21st Century” for the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders. She serves on the boards of directors of Credit Suisse Group and University of Lucerne.

Direct download: BehnetEditM.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 9:05am PST