“You Social Scientists Love Mind Games”: Experimenting in the “divide” between data science and critical algorithm studies

Published in:
Big Data & Society

In recent years, many qualitative sociologists, anthropologists, and social theorists have critiqued the use of algorithms and other automated processes involved in data science on both epistemological and political grounds. Yet, it has proven difficult to bring these important insights into the practice of data science itself. We suggest that part of this problem has to do with under-examined or unacknowledged assumptions about the relationship between the two fields—ideas about how data science and its critics can and should relate. Inspired by recent work in Science and Technology Studies on interventions, we attempted to stage an encounter in which practicing data scientists were asked to analyze a corpus of critical social science literature about their work, using tools of textual analysis such as co-word and topic modelling. The idea was to provoke discussion both about the content of these texts and the possible limits of such analyses. In this commentary, we reflect on the planning stages of the experiment and how responses to the exercise, from both data scientists and qualitative social scientists, revealed some of the tensions and interactions between the normative positions of the different fields. We argue for further studies which can help us understand what these interdisciplinary tensions turn on—which do not paper over them but also do not take them as given.

David Moats, Nick Seaver