This book is organized around a progression through four broad research approaches: observing behavior, asking questions, running experiments, and creating mass collaboration. These four approaches were all used in some form 50 years ago, and I’m confident that they will all be used in some form 50 years from now. I’ve dedicated one chapter to each approach. Many of the chapters have a section devoted to further commentary, a technical or historical appendix, and activities that could be used in a class or for self-study. Because of these features, I’m going to keep the main text as simple as possible; you can refer to these other parts of the chapters if you would like more details and citations into the literature.
In chapter 2 (Observing behavior), I will describe what and how researchers can learn from observing people’s behavior. In particular, I’ll focus on digital trace data and administrative data where the researcher had no role in the creation of the data. I’ll describe common features of this kind of data, and I’ll explain some research strategies that can be used to successfully learn from observed behavior.
In chapter 3 (Asking questions), I will begin by showing what researchers can learn by moving beyond observing behavior and start interacting with people. In particular, I will argue that there is great value in doing survey research, even in a world awash with already existing digital data. I will review the traditional total survey error framework and use it to organize the developments that the digital age enables for survey research. In particular, I will show how the digital age can lead to big changes in sampling and interviewing. Finally, I’ll describe two strategies for combining survey data with digital trace data. Despite the pessimism that some survey researchers currently feel, I expect that the digital age will be the golden age of survey research.
In chapter 4 (Running experiments), I will begin by showing what researchers can learn when they move beyond observing behavior and asking survey questions. In particular, I will show how randomized controlled experiments—where the researcher intervenes in the world in a very specific way—enable researchers to learn about causal relationships. I will compare the kinds of experiments that we could do in the past with the kinds that we can do now. With that background, I’ll describe the trade-offs involved in the two main strategies for conducting digital experiments. Finally, I’ll conclude with some design advice about how you can take advantage of the real power of digital experiments and describe some of responsibility that comes with that power.
In chapter 5 (Creating mass collaboration), I will show how researchers can create mass collaborations—such as crowdsourcing and citizen science—in order to do social research. By describing successful mass collaboration projects and by providing a few key organizing principles, I hope to convince you of two things: first, that mass collaboration can be harnessed for social research, and second, that researchers who use mass collaboration will be able to solve problems that had previously seemed impossible. Although mass collaboration is often promoted as a way to save money, it is much more than that. Mass collaboration doesn’t just allow us to do research cheaper; it allows us to do research better.
In chapter 6 (Ethics), I will argue that researchers have rapidly increasing power over participants, and that these capabilities are changing faster than our norms, rules, and laws. This combination—increasing power and lack of agreement about how that power should be used—leaves well-meaning researchers in a difficult situation. To address this problem, I will argue that researchers should adopt a principles-based approach. That is, researchers should evaluate their research through existing rules—which I will take as given—and through more general ethical principles. I’ll propose four established principles and two ethical frameworks that can help guide your decisions. Finally, I’ll describe and analyze some specific ethical challenges that I expect will confront researchers in the future, and I’ll offer practical tips for working in an area with unsettled ethics.
Finally, in chapter 7 (The future), I will summarize three themes that recur across chapters and that will be particularly important in the future.
Social research in the digital age will combine what we have done in the past with the very different capabilities of the future. Thus, social research will be shaped by both social scientists and data scientists. Each group has something to contribute, and each group has something to learn.