Ethnography's future in the big data era
SourceInformation, Communication & Society, 23, 11, (2020), pp. 1625-1639
Article / Letter to editor
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SW OZ RSCR CAOS
Information, Communication & Society
SubjectAnthropology and Development Studies
This essay explores knowledge claims about Big Data/BD from an ethnographic viewpoint. This epistemological exploration was triggered by social scientist/BD analyst Seth Stephens-Davidowitz' best-selling book Everybody Lies (2017). In my reading, it portrays BD in a way that evokes affinity with ethnography: as a naturalistic research practice that makes visible small subpopulations and discloses people's hidden motives. This threefold assertion rests on misguided conceptions however. To the ethnographic researcher, 'naturalism' refers to a reflexive practice, but the BD researcher associates it with researcher invisibility. The term 'population', which has a statistical meaning in BD, has a theoretical connotation in ethnography. Finally, 'motives' in BD are about direct interpretation of revealed preferences as social facts, whereas the ethnographer considers them to be expressions of social behaviour that require a Verstehende interpretation. A BD revolution may be unfolding, but that does not make ethnography obsolete; ideally, both can be combined in a symphonic social science.
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