„The scientific community is still divided about Big Data“

Before speaking at „Big Data - Big Power Shifts?“, we seized the opportunity to consult Mike Savage, well-known sociologist at LSE, about Big Data's impact on the scientific world

Mike Savage

Mike Savage is confident that Big Data will extensively broaden social scientific approaches in the future (Photo: Vodafone Institute)

Mr. Savage, how would you describe the importance of Big Data for the scientific community?

Savage: It’s one of our fundamental challenges trying to understand how you can use Big Data. And the social scientific community is divided. Some people think it can’t be used for scientific purposes, because you can’t look at issues of causality and you haven’t got information about individual responsibility. But for me it’s very exciting indeed, because you can map out whole populations about a number of criteria in ways that have a much more detailed grasp of key issues. And my interest is looking at issues of social class and big inequalities of society.

What is the chief difference to other social scientific approaches?

Savage: Often in the past, sociologists have used very broad categories trying to grasp those issues. But using Big Data, you can actually deliver small, grained categories. You can actually grind it down to a lot more detail and that launches a much more precise, full understanding procession structure.

What would be your answer, if someone fiercely opposes the implications of Big Data usage in social sciences?

Savage: I have also respect for that. Big Data is often very hyped, there seem to be disincentives towards the problems. Big Data research often has a lot of outs, you often can’t link it easily. There are obviously issues of ethics and confidentiality. So I think the criticisms are reasonable. But I also fear we have to grasp the challenge, because it’s not going to go away. Digital data is expanding more and more. And we need to try finding some way of dealing with it. So just saying that we don’t need to use it is to me a bit too defensive and backward looking.

What personally motivates you the most in working with and on Big Data issues?

Savage: Partly, it’s curiosity really. And partly it’s a challenge to do something new. But I mean: That’s a sociologist. I have been very interested trying to link debates about social structures with geographical structures, looking at issues of location and place. And at much of sociological work, you can’t do much mapping, because you are using sample surveys, where there are not enough cases. And everyone knows: We have to talk about the cases, we have to take the cases. But with Big Data you can actually do both together. You can do mapping and you can do detailed geographical analyses, so it kind of allows synthesis of several disciplines and the possibility of synergies. That is very exciting to me.

Mr. Savage, thank you for the Interview.

Big Data was also key element of our this years’ „Digitising Europe 2015“ event, featuring MIT co-founder Alex „Sandy“ Pentland and bestselling author and entrepreneur Andrew Keen. Here you can find the review.