The social sciences have a rich history of using large data sets. Demography can be traced back to Antiquity. Edmond Halley, of Halley Comet fame, developed the life table as the basis for actuarial science.
Indeed, the social sciences are naturally “data hungry” because individual and group behavior depends on a rich context for action. If one wants to understand comparatively behaviors such as consumer choices or judicial decisions, the historical, social, and economic contexts are going to provide critical information.
Recent technological changes now offer scholars powerful new means for studying the wide range of context-dependent human experiences, from interpersonal communication to global politics. Digital traces are being produced in abundance by our electronic devices and online interactions. Public records are being digitized, linked, and made accessible. Corporations are sharing data in hopes researchers can help them answer challenging questions. Online surveys are transforming we know what people are thinking and feeling. All of these changes can illuminate context and the social sciences are rushing to capitalize on this potential.
Social science research has responded to newly available data with ambitious efforts to understand even the most complex social phenomena. At Northwestern, scholars from across the social sciences are using new data sources and analytic techniques to research topics that will change and improve society. Below, you can read about their discoveries.