Bringing Data Down to Earth: Christine Borgman’s New Book

I interviewed Professor Christine Borgman last year for Voices from Oxford about issues covered in her forthcoming book, which has now been published. Entitled Big Data, Little Data, No Data: Scholarship in the Digital Age (OUP 2015), it represents a very clear eyed, mature, and incredibly informed perspective on the real opportunities and problems facing the treatment of data across the sciences, social sciences and humanities. I have a personal interest in Christine’s work, as she was a Visiting Fellow at the OII and then an Oliver Smithies Visiting Fellow at Balliol College during my time at these Oxford centers for scholarship. Moreover, she critically looks at OxIS, the Oxford Internet Surveys, which I helped shape. But you don’t need my endorsement. Her book has glowing endorsements from major figures in the field, including Jonathan Zittrain, John Leslie King, and Gregg Gordon, President and CEO of the Social Science Research Network.

Prof Borgman at the OII
Prof Borgman at the OII

I may not agree with every aspect of all of her key arguments, but these issues are genuine points of controversy within the scholarly community, such as around appropriate standards, and trivial in relation to her basic thesis, which is brilliant. What I would like to point out are two truly remarkable aspects of her book.

First, she has provided one of the first and only books that offer a critical perspective on big data at a time when this subject remains high on the hype cycle, dominated by breathtaking perspectives on the future prospects of mining this new resource. Borgman certainly does not dismiss the real value of big data, but she provides a methodologically and information-science informed perspectives on the problems confronting the effective use of big data, which is juxtaposed with other kinds of research, even research that does not claim to use any data. Very few critiques of big data have the breadth of comparative coverage across all kinds of data, from ethnographic to survey to big data sets. Most of us are steeped in one or the other approach, but all of us should welcome insights that flow from looking across the range of data used in scholarly research.

Secondly, Professor Borgman is able to cover the humanities, social sciences and sciences in equally informed ways. As an information scientist with tremendous breadth and experience, she is able to speak with as much authority on issues of the digital humanities as on digital social research and e-Science. But its broader than that: Think of the matrix of methods covering all kinds of data in the humanities, social sciences and sciences and start naming the authorities who could give keynotes in each field. Christine will be one of the few on your list. As Christine points out, even C. P. Snow left out the social sciences. (Thanks, Christine, for covering the social sciences, and in such an equivalent way.)

I hope this book is incorporated in courses beyond the information sciences, and include methods courses across the sciences, social sciences and humanities. It could be a key book for courses on the philosophy of science as it provides a rich understanding of how scholars actually do their work across these contrasting substantive and methodological fields.

See my VOX interview with Christine at: http://www.voicesfromoxford.org/video/data-in-the-digital-domain/228

 

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