1 June 2012

Ethnographic research in a world of big data

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putting people first
by experientia

Reacting to the Wired Magazine article that suggests that “the data deluge makes the scientific method obsolete,” Jenna Burrell, sociologist and assistant professor in the School of Information at UC-Berkeley, lists some questions that she (and maybe other ‘small data’ people) have about the big data / data analytics trend:

  • What do researchers consider the most compelling examples, the ‘showcase’ applications of big data that involve study of the social world and social behavior?
  • To what end is such a research approach being put? What actions are being taken on the basis of findings from ‘big data’ analysis?
  • The data analytics discussion appears to be US-centric debate … how well are researchers grappling with the analysis of ‘big data’ when dealing with data collected from across heterogeneous, international populations?
  • How do ‘big data’ analysts connect data on behavior to the meaning/intent underlying that behavior? How do they avoid (or how do they think they can avoid) getting this wrong?
  • How might the analysis of ‘big data’ complement projects that are primarily ethnographic?

For good measure, she also provides a couple of interesting, probing takes on big data:

Jenna Burrell is an assistant professor in the School of Information at UC Berkeley. Her book Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafes of Urban Ghana is forthcoming with the MIT Press. She completed her PhD in 2007 in the department of Sociology at the London School of Economics carrying out thesis research on Internet cafe use in Accra, Ghana. Before pursuing her PhD she was an Application Concept Developer in the People and Practices Research Group at Intel Corporation. Her interests span many research topics including theories of materiality, user agency, transnationalism, post-colonial relations, digital representation, and especially the appropriation of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) by individuals and social groups on the African continent.

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