Experimenting With Social Data

– a one-and-a-half day SODAS workshop at University of Copenhagen (UCPH), September 14-15 2017


  • Please note that attendance for the workshop on Sep. 15 is limited and by registration only. To register, please write to Anders Blok at abl[at]soc.ku.du. Admittance is on a first-come-first-serve basis.


Background: revisiting the experiment

The recent rise of massive digital trace datasets in the social sciences (‘social big data’) has served in part to re-actualize notions and practices of ‘the experiment’ and experimentation (including self-experimentation), as well as their associated and divergent legacies in the history and philosophy of science and beyond. While various kinds of experimental social data practices are flourishing, cross-cutting conversations on attendant issues of methodology, epistemology, and research ethics are still few and far between. At present, for instance, little clarity – let alone agreement – prevails in terms of whether research on and with large-scale digital social data is best thought of in analogy to laboratory or field sciences and their associated differences in styles of experimentation. Meanwhile, conversations in science & technology studies (STS) and related fields has served to open up the experimental form to novel and more heterogeneous interpretations, spanning beyond questions of natural-science epistemology (the experimental event) to issues of ethics (e.g. experiments in living), politics (e.g. the experimental society) and aesthetics (e.g. experiments in genre-crossing).

As organizers of this workshop, we – the Critical Algorithms Lab (CALL) of anthropologists, sociologists and STS researchers, part of the Copenhagen Centre for Social Data Science (SODAS) – come at these questions equally as matters of practical day-to-day research and as profound epistemological, ethical, and aesthetic challenges. Over the past years, we have worked together with physicists, economists, psychologists, health scientists, philosophers and computer scientists on a large-scale interdisciplinary social data science project and experiment, known as the Social Fabric/Sensible DTU. What has become obvious from this experience is that collaborative data-dense projects such as ours are likely to be ‘experimental’ in several senses all at once, and to involve multiple overlapping yet non-identical modalities of experimenting with social data. Rather than a weakness, we consider this plurality inherent to what is productive about an experimental mode of inquiry – and want to engage others in conversations on their aligned and divergent research experiences.

Aims and aspirations of the workshop

In this one-and-a-half day workshop, we thus seek to bring together cutting-edge social data science practitioners, leading experts on the history, philosophy and social study of the sciences, as well as big data artists in an attempt to collaboratively map out emerging contours of the ‘experimental moment’ brought about by new digital data formats in the social sciences and society writ large. Far from seeking to unify ideas and practices of social data experiments, the attempt is the opposite: by exploring productive tensions and subtle differences in the sites, aims, and methodologies of social data inquiry, we hope to initiate a process of collective learning on the many viable forms of experimentation co-inhabiting the current ‘big social data’ moment and their singular conditions of epistemological, ethical, political, and aesthetic efficacy.

What this implies at the practical level is that we invite presentations that are committed, one way or the other, to making as explicit as possible the specific sense(s) of ‘experimentation’ to which they are indebted and towards which their knowledge aspirations aim. We thus seek to avoid a certain tendency, manifest we believe in recent socio-cultural theorizing, for claims to experimentation to attain at best an analogical status – as if the invoked form (the experiment) was itself well understood. Rather, and conversely, we take as our collective starting point a certain ‘experimental’ frame of mind as to what the experiment is and might become in the realm of social data science and beyond. As such, the workshop itself takes on a (meta-)experimental character, with the aim of testing the limits, the possibilities, and the important distinctions and variations contained in invocations of ‘experimentation’ as a privileged route along which to pursue the promise of adequate knowledge held out by large-scale digital social data.


Outline programme

September 14 is dedicated to two public keynote lectures, setting the scene for the workshop. September 15 is the workshop itself, consisting in shorter presentations (15-20 minutes), followed by extended discussions (25-30 minutes) with an invited audience of app. 30-40 researchers, doctoral students and practitioners working on issues of social data. Priority is thus given to the collective exploration of crosscutting themes, in the hope of building up a collective mapping of the current ‘experimental moment’.

(CSS = UCPH Social Science Campus, Øster Farimagsgade 5, 1353 København K)

September 14 (Location: UCPH, CSS, room 35.01.06):

13.30 – 15.00: Evelyn Ruppert, Sociology, Goldsmiths (keynote)

15.30 – 17.00: Dawn Nafus, Senior Research Scientist, Intel (keynote)

September 15 (Location: UCPH, CSS, room 16.2.55):

09.00 – 09.30: Welcome + framing the aims of workshop (Anders Blok/CALL)

09.30 – 12.15: Presentations 1, 2 and 3 + discussions (w. intermittent short breaks)

12.15 – 13.15: Lunch

13.15 – 16.30: Presentations 4, 5, 6 and 7 + discussions (w. intermittent short breaks)

16.30 – 17.30: Collective discussion, crosscutting interventions and wrap-up


Confirmed presenters on September 15 (precise order to follow)

Lise Autogena, Cross Disciplinary Art, Sheffield Hallam University

Scott Golder, Sociology, Cornell University

Casper Bruun Jensen, Anthropology, Osaka University

Sune Lehmann + Ulf Aslak Jensen, DTU Compute, Danish Technical University (+ SODAS)

Anders Kristian Munk, Techno-Anthropology, Aalborg University

Martin Savransky, Sociology, Goldsmiths

Antonia Walford, Anthropology, University College London (+ SODAS)