This essay draws on qualitative social science to propose a critical intellectual infrastructure for data science of social phenomena. Qualitative sensibilities—interpretivism, abductive reasoning, and reflexivity in particular—could address methodological problems that have emerged in data science and help extend the frontiers of social knowledge. First, an interpretivist lens—which is concerned with the construction of meaning in a given context—can enable the deeper insights that are requisite to understanding high-level behavioral patterns from digital trace data. Without such contextual insights, researchers often misinterpret what they find in large-scale analysis. Second, abductive reasoning—which is the process of using observations to generate a new explanation, grounded in prior assumptions about the world—is common in data science, but its application often is not systematized. Incorporating norms and practices from qualitative traditions for executing, describing, and evaluating the application of abduction would allow for greater transparency and accountability. Finally, data scientists would benefit from increased reflexivity—which is the process of evaluating how researchers’ own assumptions, experiences, and relationships influence their research. Studies demonstrate such aspects of a researcher’s experience that typically are unmentioned in quantitative traditions can influence research findings. Qualitative researchers have long faced these same concerns, and their training in how to deconstruct and document personal and intellectual starting points could prove instructive for data scientists. We believe these and other qualitative sensibilities have tremendous potential to facilitate the production of data science research that is more meaningful, reliable, and ethical.
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