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Building Cyberinfrastructure Capacity for the Social Sciences

Today’s guest blog post is by Dr. Emilio Moran. Dr. Moran is Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Indiana University and Visiting Hannah Distinguished Professor, Michigan State University.

emilio-moran_profileThe United States and the world are changing rapidly.  These new conditions challenge the ability of the social, behavioral and economic sciences to understand what is happening at a national scale and in people’s daily local lives.   Forces such as globalization, the shifting composition of the economy, and the revolution in information brought about by the internet and social media are just a few of the forces that are changing Americans’ lives.  Not only has the world changed since data collection methods currently used were developed, but the ways now available to link information and new data sources have radically changed. Expert panels have called for increasing the cyber-infrastructure capability of the social, behavioral, and economic (SBE) sciences so that our tools and research infrastructure keep pace with these changing social and informational landscapes.  A series of workshops for the past three years has met to address these challenges and they now invite you to provide them with feedback on the proposal below and you are invited to attend a Special Event at this year’s AAA meeting in Chicago, Saturday, November 23, 2013 from 1215 to 1:30 pm at the Chicago Hilton Boulevard C room.

Needed is a new national framework, or platform, for social, behavioral and economic research that is both scalable and flexible; that permits new questions to be addressed; that allows for rapid response and adaptation to local shocks (such as extreme weather events or natural resource windfalls); and that facilitates understanding local manifestations of national phenomena such as economic downturns.  To advance a national data collection and analysis infrastructure, the approach we propose —  building a network of social observatories — is a way to have a sensitive instrument to measure how local communities respond to a range of natural and social conditions over time.  This new scientific infrastructure will enable the SBE sciences to contribute to societal needs at multiple levels and will facilitate collaboration with other sciences in addressing questions of critical importance.

Our vision is that of a network of observatories designed from the ground up, each observatory representing an area of the United States.  From a small number of pilot projects the network would develop (through a national sampling frame and protocol) into a representative sample of the places where people live and the people who live there. Each observatory would be an entity, whether physical or virtual, that is charged with collecting, curating, and disseminating data from people, places, and institutions in the United States.  These observatories must provide a basis for inference from what happens in local places to a national context and ensure a robust theoretical foundation for social analysis.  This is the rationale for recommending that this network of observatories be built on a population-based sample capable of addressing the needs of the nation’s diverse people but located in the specific places and communities where they live and work.  Unlike most other existing research platforms, this population and place-based capability will ensure that we understand not only the high-density urban and suburban places where the majority of the population lives, but also the medium- and low-density exurban and rural places that represent a vast majority of the land area in the nation.

To accomplish these objectives, we propose to embed in these regionally-based observatories a nationally representative population-based sample that would enable the observatory data to be aggregated in such a way as to produce a national picture of the United States on an ongoing basis.  The tentative plan would be to select approximately 400 census tracts to represent the U.S. population while also fully capturing the diversity that characterizes local places. The individuals, institutions and communities in which these census tracts are embedded will be systematically studied over time and space by observatories spread across the country. During the formative stages the number of census tracts and the number of observatories that might be needed, given the scope of the charge that is currently envisioned, will be determined.

These observatories will study the social, behavioral and economic experiences of the population in their physical and environmental context at fine detail. The observatories are intended to stimulate the development of new directions and modes of inquiry.  They will do so through the use of diverse complementary methods and data sources including ethnography, experiments, administrative data, social media, biomarkers, and financial and public health record. These observatories will work closely with local and state governments to gain access to administrative records that provide extensive data on the population in those tracts (i.e. 2 million people) thereby providing a depth of understanding and integration of knowledge that is less invasive and less subject to declining response rates than survey-derived data.

To attain the vision proposed here we need the commitment and enthusiasm of the community to meet these challenges and the resolve to make this proposed network of observatories useful to the social sciences and society. For more details on our objectives and reports from previous meetings, visit http://socialobservatories.org/
Please contribute your ideas at the site so that the proposal can benefit from your input and come to Chicago for the Special Event on Saturday, November 23, 2013. We are particularly interesting in hearing how this platform could help you in your future research. This is an opportunity for anthropological strengths in ethnography and local research to contribute its insights in a way that will make a difference for local people and for the nation.

Emilio F. Moran, co-Chair of the SOCN
Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Indiana University and
Visiting Hannah Distinguished Professor, Michigan State University

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