One American sociologist who has influenced the way I think about data is Jeffrey Alexander. His last two books helped me know better how and why to collect social-psychology data. The books are ‘The Performance of Politics: Obama’s Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power’ and now ‘Performative Revolution in Egypt: An Essay in Cultural Power.’
He also has a blog, where he raises questions like:
“How does public opinion work in dictatorship that isn’t able to dictate? When democratic opinion is thriving and robust but when the democratic institutions don’t exist? When civil society is filled with intensive communication, but there is no way for the civil sphere, filled to brimming with idealistic demands for justice, to regulate the state, when the public can’t elect new representatives or threaten power holders with humiliation, threats backed up by the rule of law?”
Alexander’s questions point to a particular theoretical premise: that Democracy is no longer a mere political process in the Robert Dahl and Seymour Martin Lipset vein, but a much broader social force in the John Dewey/Jurgen Habermas mold. Participatory democracy is not a mere idealistic vision but an empirical context of our time. With more participative cultural forms come new data. One must deal with the democratization of social life, and the proliferation of symbolic data — or, in Alexander’s terms, “performative” data — to make objective sense of current events. While Alexander focused on political contexts of democracy, I would suggest too that US business and economic actions are similarly shaped by the socialization of democracy and the extraordinary reach of cultural forms of power.
Anyway, back to data, here Alexander discusses a data-collection method he calls ‘media ethnography,’ which he used in the Egypt book:
“I knew from that beginning of my research that I would approach this social movement entirely through published texts aimed at expanding or restricting sympathy with the movement. I used newspaper and television texts in four Western countries (the U.S., the U.K., France, and Italy) and print, television, and social media in Egypt, in both English and Arabic. This is what I call a “media ethnography” because, unlike most studies of social movements, it does not involve personal contact with the groups—in this case the revolutionaries and their supporters and opponents.”