CfP: Ethics as Methods in the Era of Big Data

Ethic as method in an era of big data

Special Issue of Social Media + Society

We invite contributions to a special issue of Social Media + Society devoted to a critical examination of the future of Internet research practices in the era of computational or big data analytics, with particular focus on how ethics can be configured through methodological approaches.

Although we are promiscuously catholic as far as theoretical approaches are concerned, we are especially interested in contributions that pay specific attention to the socio-technical and political economic dimensions of “platform politics” and their ethical implications for research practice, as elaborated in the following questions. These questions constitute only some of the possible entry points into the discussion and we welcome other ideas:

* Ethics have been traditionally situated as prior to methods; that is, as philosophical groundings that guide practice. If we situate method in the same time/space as ethics, would a different set of practices emerge? This question becomes relevant in an era when ethics are being reconfigured to better meet the contingencies of particular digital situations. For example, in situations wherein algorithms function with similar agency to humans, our methodological choices for deciding what counts as data or what might be considered a participant in a social interaction have ethical consequences. If every method decision is an ethics decision and vice versa, how might we rethink the relationship between the methodological and axiological?

* Ethics are a series of activities that follow from a particular ethos. Etymologically, ethos is about emplacement and orientation. If we take this as a starting point, where is the place from which ethics emerge? What are the ethics of abstraction within this broader understanding of ethos as place? What ontological and more particularly, methodological premises currently guide inquiry practices in the beginning of the 21st century? Are these being transformed in some ways? What levels of abstraction and reconfiguration are involved in the collection of humans (and their data) as data?

* How do processes of mediation constitute an ethos of methodological emplacement? All social research entails a particular assemblage of media forms and practices that lay the foundation for methodology. In addition, all practices are situated in particular social, economic, institutional, and disciplinary frameworks. All methodologies, therefore, are situated and mediated. How do ethics get played out over multiple layers of mediation? For example, qualitative researchers commonly abstract lived experience in multiple ways, through inscription of observations, recording of interviews, and often qualitative data analysis software. Quantitative social science likewise depends on methods that extract particular data from the context; sample through variable selection, survey instruments and statistical software packages; and so on. Each assemblage of mediation produces different objects and subjects of research, as well as different definitions of validity, reliability, and so on. What kind of mediations and situations envelop social media platforms and big data analytics? What kinds of research subjects and objects do they suppose and/or propose? What ethical practices do these mediations facilitate, constrain, or require?

* If social computing research entails a different configuration of epistemology, ontology and methodology than other modes of empirical research in the human sciences, what are the implications for the model of “informed consent” that is currently the litmus test of the ethics of human subject research? How are we to understand the ethical implications of the power relationship between a corporate entity that is legally construed to be a sovereign subject with the rights of a person (in the US) and the “subjects” of research who are disarticulated from their personhood through a cloud of data analytics?

* Should we revisit the old epistemological debates between quantitative and qualitative social science? The discussion of corporate research ethics, particularly since Facebook’s “emotional contagion” experiments of 2014, exposed many rifts between on the one hand social media platforms and the teams that perform analytics on automatically-generated large data sets; and on the other hand, qualitative oriented social scientists in internet studies. One participant in the debates described the latter group as being comprised of ‘those whose research is primarily rhetorical,’ in contrast to the social computing researchers whose work is more ‘objective’ because of its reliance on data driven experimentation. To what extent is the popularity of data- and evidence-driven models returning to modernist criteria for quality such as validity, reliability and generalizability? What might be the ethical consequences of privileging certain kinds of validity? Of particular salience here would be the social computing emphasis on the extremely large number of cases afforded by social media platforms. Does the comparatively huge number of ‘cases’ in big data analytics necessarily entail a higher degree of validity, however defined? Further, does the employment of A/B experimental models also enhance validity and rigour?

Other thematically resonant topics include (by are no means limited to):

* Discussion of epistemological sticking points that might help explain the particular, and some might say peculiar, transformation of human activity to data points that can be analyzed separate from the temporal, textural, and emplaced lived experience.

* Emergent ideas of ethics and labor practices involved in the exchange of personal data for platform and interface services.

* Discussion or problematization of regulatory driven models of ethical practice that create pre-formed boundaries and regulatory norms; privilege particular activities and methods according to specific definitions of such concepts as informed consent, definition of human subjects, and protection of privacy; and fail to address the complexities of contemporary socio-technical relations of social media platforms.

Primary Editors of the Special Issue:

Andrew Herman, Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada

Annette Markham, Aarhus University, Denmark


Submit 750 word abstract for consideration: May 15, 2016

Receive Invitation to contribute: June 15, 2016

Submit full paper for peer review: November 1, 2016

Receive results of peer review: January 15, 2016

Submit revised manuscript: March 1, 2017

Style/Form of Paper

We encourage a range of style for papers. You might choose to make a position statement, defend a manifesto, or develop new models and tools for thinking. You might choose a creative reporting of an empirical study. We are as promiscuous in style as we are in theory, and seek to make a critical intervention with this special issue. The paper length is somewhat shorter than is typical to compel contributors to make strong but precise arguments or critical analyses that might provoke debate and further conversation among readers.

Abstracts (submit by May 15, 2016) should be no longer than 750 words, not including references.

Please submit abstracts via email to Attach the submission as a PDF file. Please include proposed title, author name(s), 750 word abstract, and references.

Full papers (submit by November 1, 2016) should be no longer than 6,000 words, including references.

Manuscripts should follow the SM+S guidelines which are available at

Authors should cite their own work as they would any other author, both in text and in the Reference section, being careful not to indicate that the work they are citing is their own. Manuscripts that use (Author) will be returned.

SM+S uses APA style citation. Guidelines at:

Accepted manuscripts will not incur any open access fees.

To submit your manuscript you will need to make an account at You will then login to this account, select Author Center, and then under Author Resources, you will click where it says “Click here to submit a new manuscript.” This will begin the submission process.

The system will guide you through the submission process, but here are some instructions for specific questions:

It is imperative that in Step One of the submission page you select “SI: Ethics As Method” for submission type.

In Step Four of the submission process, you will answer “No” to the question “Has this manuscript been submitted previously to this journal?”

If you have any questions, ideas, or want to discuss this in advance, please feel free to contact either of the editors: amarkham [at] dac [dot] au {dot} dk or aherman [at] wlu {dot} ca.

Categories: Digital Sociology

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