School of Computing Research Colloquia

Big data analytics: reflections from the social science/humanities borderland

Helen Kennedy (Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds)

Abstract: Nowadays, it seems that everyone is doing big data analytics. Multinational corporations, commercial companies, public sector organisations, arts and community groups, charities and social movements can all engage in social media monitoring and benefit from the resulting insights, it is claimed. As with all prior ‘new’ technological developments, attitudes to big data and social analytics are polarized: in one corner, the celebrants, and in the other, the pessimists and critics. This paper proposes a social science/humanities research agenda that occupies the space in-between, bringing together hitherto dispersed forces. These include critical approaches, focusing on the political economy of social media platforms, for example. But to fully comprehend the social life of big data and social media analytics, it’s necessary to move beyond this critical paradigm, to ask a series of questions about the messy, material conditions in which such practices take place. Where does data go? How is it enacted? What new forms of labour and expertise arise? What do users think and do? The paper outlines some of the author’s own research which attempts to enact this agenda (focusing specifically on the project Digital Data Analytics, Public Engagement and the Social Life of Methods). I conclude with reflections on how to conceptualise these computational developments that increasingly shape our social world.