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Accessing and Using Big Data to Advance Social Science Knowledge

Accessing and Using Big Data to Advance Social Science Knowledge



The recent excitement about what is being called ‘big data’ represents an opportunity for the social sciences to advance the understanding of human behaviour using massive amounts of data. There are major implications for the social sciences: for example, the social sciences which have traditionally relied on understanding relatively small samples using tools such as surveys can now make use of real-time transactional data on the level of whole populations, enabling them to become much more powerful in answering certain types of questions.

While there is clear attention being paid to the potential of big data, the applications of big data in the social sciences have, thus far, not been well documented: we know very little of how big data is actually being used in the social sciences beyond scattered accounts of the promises of big data, and even less about how access to big social science data is provisioned. Now that social science uses of big data are appearing at an increasing pace, the time is ripe to study what is happening to big social data, where it is being used and, most importantly, how big data is being accessed and where it is travelling. The project will follow ‘big data’ from its public and private origins through open and closed pathways into the social sciences, and document and shape the ways it is being accessed and used to create new knowledge about the social world and the behavior of human beings.


The central issue of this research is to arrive at robust insights with practical implications about how big data about people and their social interactions is accessed, and how big data enables the discovery of new knowledge about society and behaviour: in short, what are the social and scientific implications of large-scale ‘big data’ as it becomes more widely available to social scientists in academia, public institutions, and the private sector? The project will rely on in-depth studies of exemplar cases to understand how social scientists in academia, industry, and government are accessing and using big data to answer old questions at larger scales as well as asking and answering new questions about society and human behavior. The main objectives of the project are to:

  • Undertake case studies of social science uses of big data with a focus on means and modes of access.
  • Support the development and documentation of new methodologies for working with big social science data, such as access, data management, analysis, and visualization techniques.
  • Facilitate engagement with social scientists working with big data through workshops and other events.
  • Organize a conference on big data in the social sciences.
  • Produce findings that report the project’s evidence and make policy recommendations.


This project is supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Key Information

  • Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
  • Project dates:
    October 2012 - May 2014

    All Publications



    • Schroeder, R. (2014) Big Data: Towards a More Scientific Social Science and Humanities. In Mark Graham and William H Dutton (eds) Society and the Internet: How Networks of Information are Changing our Lives. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Conference papers

    • Meyer, E.T., Schroeder, R., and Taylor, L. (2013) Big Data in the Study of Twitter, Facebook and Wikipedia: On the Uses and Disadvantages of Scientificity for Social Research. Paper presented at the proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, August 10-13 2013, New York, NY.
    • Meyer, E.T., Schroeder, R., and Taylor, L. (2013) The Boundaries of Big Data. Paper presented at SIG-SI Symposium, ASIST 2013, November 1-6 2013, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
    • Schroeder, R. and Cowls, J. (2014) Big Data, Ethics, and the Social Implications of Knowledge Production. Paper presented at Data Ethics Workshop, KDD@Bloomberg, August 24 2014, New York, NY.


    • Cowls, J. (2014) Mapping the UK Webspace: the topology of a national web domain. Presentation to ‘Web Archiving and Archived Web — a new Research Method, a new Object of Study?’, Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark, June 2014.
    • Meyer, E.T. (2012) Big Data. Invited talk at ‘NCRM Knowledge Exchange Seminar: Quantitative Methods in Social Media Research’, National Centre for Research Methods workshop series, Oxford, UK, September 2012.
    • Meyer, E.T. (2012) The Internet is Big Data: How internet research has changed our understanding of the world. Invited talk at ‘Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford’, University of Oxford Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Saïd Business School, Oxford, UK, November 2012.
    • Meyer, E.T. (2013) Digital Transformations of Research. Invited talk to the School of Information Management, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, April 2013.
    • Meyer, E.T. (2013) Digital Transformations of Research. Invited talk to the Swedish School of Library and Information Science, University of Borås, Sweden, April 2013.
    • Meyer, E.T. (2013) Digital Transformations of Research. Invited talk to the Technology and Society Division, Chalmers University, Sweden, April 2013.
    • Meyer, E.T. (2013) Long Live the Data. Opening keynote address at TDWG Annual Conference, Florence, Italy, October 2013.
    • Meyer, E.T. (2013) The Big Data Rush: Beyond the Buzz. Closing keynote speech at Digital Practices, InVisible Communities Conference, Leeds, UK, September 2013.
    • Meyer, E.T. (2014) Big Data: The Practice and Potential. External Examiner’s Special Lecture Series, MPhil in International Development, University of Oxford, February 2014.
    • Meyer, E.T. and Schroeder, R. (2013) Big Data and the Uses and Communications Research. Joint invited talk at the International Communication Association, London, UK, June 2013.
    • Schroeder, R. (2013) Big Data and the Uses and Disadvantages of Scientificity for Social Research. Invited talk at the Science Policy Research Unit, Sussex, UK, May 2013.
    • Schroeder, R. (2013) Big Data in the Social Sciences and Its Discontents. Invited talk at the American Association of Geographers Conference, Los Angeles, CA, April 2013.
    • Schroeder, R. (2013) The Data Scientist: On the Origin – and the Evolution – of a Species. Invited talk at the Digital Social Research conference, Oxford, UK, September 2013.
    • Schroeder, R. (2014) Big Data, Big Brother, and Social Science. University of Luxembourg, February 2014.