SM&Society Day 1: Conceptual Challenges in Interdisciplinary Social Media Research

flickr photo by ianguest https://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/28144230192 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Following welcomes and the opening address by Evelyn Ruppert to set the scene, the first day consisted of workshops.

Although billed as a workshop, the unforeseen absence of a key player meant this session became more of a panel discussion. With such esteemed and knowledgeable panellists as Evelyn Ruppert, Susan Halford and Les Carr, and chaired by Mark Carrigan, we were nevertheless unlikely to be short-changed.
Evelyn opened the batting, providing a brief history of ‘Big Data’ and how the term became accepted by and incorporated into the academy. The field of practices which address it are still emerging, but invariably demand a range of capabilities, hence the need for interdisciplinary teams. When the data are gathered, analysed and patterns begin to emerge, it is often the social scientist who helps to provide the interpretation. Whilst the computational or algorithmic elements of this often need to be black-boxed by the social researcher, perhaps the reverse might be true for a data scientist who is unaware of the social issues (even if unwittingly?). This then encouraged us to consider whether there is too much black-boxing and what the effects of this might be on our analyses.

Susan and Les shared what they learned from their interdisciplinary experiences of setting up Web Science doctoral and other programmes. The substantive theoretical commitment required in a venture of this sort can potentially generate an initial set of hurdles to overcome; people from different disciplines inevitably bring to the table very different ontologies and epistemologies. Computational specialists for example have a much narrower theoretical base from which to draw, but in addition to the multiplicity that social scientists have to contend with, there’s also the degree to which different theories may be applied depending on the questions asked. For many computational specialists, the work often ends with the user; for the social scientist, that is where it begins.

When opened to the floor, the discussion ranged far and wide, but the difficulty of attempting interdisciplinary work was made only too clear. In particular the significance of power imbalances between disciplines and how they may be competing for cultural capital within the academy. How some disciplines are blessed with apparently greater status historically because of the research publication processes or the ease with which they’re able to draw down funding for research. The silo mentality which then arises makes interdisciplinarity so much more difficult. This left me wondering whether there might be a case for addressing this at an earlier stage in the academy? At undergraduate level perhaps? I appreciate my naivety is doubtless getting the better of me, but I can’t help being taken back to my undergraduate years at the end of the 70s. Materials Science, the subject I chose, was very much the infant (interdisciplinary) sibling to the big brothers and sisters of metallurgy, ceramics and polymer science. I get the impression that, with the decline in heavy industry the UK has experienced in the intervening time, and the extent to which new composites have become significant, interdisciplinary Materials Science may have come of age. Perhaps other disciplines might have something to learn?

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