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Digital Social Research: Methods Core

Key Information

Course details
Compulsory course for MSc and DPhil; Michaelmas term
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Professor Andrew Przybylski, Professor Ekaterina Hertog


This course is a reflexive and praxis oriented advanced methodology course for social scientists. The core ideas are mostly based on sociology and social anthropology, but also reflect on research design in the emerging fields where social problems are addressed with data (network science, data science, computational social science, statistical physics). We focus on the way in which social theories are brought into relation with evidence (whatever the source and particular method of data collection and analysis).

There are four core ideas that the course is based on:

  1. Social research is ultimately about constructing social theories. The outcome of social research should not be more data, but more new ideas.
  2. Positivism, and unbroken chain of induction (induction proper), is not a possibility: social research ultimately relies on the creative spark of a theoretical idea, deployed in iterations of deduction (we can call this abduction).
  3. Designing social research is difficult, to a large part because publications convey a ritualised sequence of the research process that is impossible to practice (and is never practised). Instead of a process, this course imagines research as iterative interplay between data and ideas. What distinguishes the professional researcher from the amateur is the capacity to organise complexity by deploying patterns of practice in this iterative interplay.
  4. Social sciences must critically relate to ideas of objectivity, and need to reflect on relevance, social engagement, and possibilities of activism.

The core concept of the course is pattern of practice: instead of learning blueprints of proper research, we learn patterns of practice that flexible and discovery-centered expertise can be built on.

Course Objectives

  1. Introduce a range of methods and tools that can be applied to a wide array of social science research issues.
  2. Instil a balanced view of opportunities, problems and prospects in social science research methods on the Internet and related technologies.
  3. Appreciate the ethical, legal and social issues related to digital social research and more generally, the use of social research methods to study ICTs and their social implications.

Learning Outcomes

Students taking this course should be able to formulate their own research project (in the form of a research proposal), starting by identifying and clearly exposing a research question, offering a theoretical argument, and deducing observable implications.

The course prepares students to approach social research in a pragmatic way, reshaping the research question and the argument in iterations of repeatedly engaging in empirical data collection.

The course should also sensitise students to the social relevance of their research, and connections to possible interventions and activism.

Ultimately, the outcome is that students build their own toolkit of cognitive patterns in social methodology – tools that help them organise and manage the complexities and contingencies of a research project.