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Big Data, Businesses and the Social Sciences

Pierre-Michel Menger
p. 55
Cet article est une traduction de :
Big data, entreprises et sciences sociales

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Source: La lettre, no. 39, March 2015

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1Prof. Pierre-Michel Menger, Chair of Sociology of Creative Work, organized a workshop on 2 June 2014 on the social, economic and scientific issues surrounding the uses, sharing, markets, and regulations of mass digital data.

2The mass production of digital data allows us to exploit information in unprecedented quantities. Many human activities can now be analysed with new means. The digital traces left by users of search engines, social networks or online shopping sites generate an exceptional mass of information, not only concerning Internet uses in general, but also on individuals’ interests, consumption practices, and political or religious orientations. Beyond Internet, a comparable production of mass digital data is operated by a growing number of connected objects (human presence sensors, geolocation, bank cards, biometric passports, travel cards, etc.). Signal digitization is multiplying the sources generating information, and the means to store and to connect it. All of these unstructured mass data form what is called big data.

3The big data phenomenon stands out for three reasons. First, it applies to all aspects of social and economic life. Second, it disrupts all usual distinctions between private and public, personal and relational, secret and disclosed, passive and explicit consent, customs, and trust. Finally, it owes its expansion to its inherently relational nature, which brings together all the previously discrete dimensions and areas of activity generating information. Social science questions relate first to the value creation process. How do companies capitalize on digital data? What operations do they implement to capture data, and then to format and analyse or sell them? Who are the consumers in the big data economy? The focus is on the sharing of the value created: in a two-sided market economy, personal data are collected without monetary compensation, as the service offered to consumers appears to provide symmetry of benefits. But the value of the collected data is growing with personal data exchange and marketing technology. Users of Internet and of connected objects can thus be seen as quasi-collaborators of digital companies. What does this “informational contribution” mean? Should individuals’ digital activities be considered as work, in the sense that this contribution is behind a part of large digital companies’ spectacular productivity gains? These considerations raise a broader question on the transformations of work in an increasingly connected world, dominated by the Internet giants like Google, Facebook and Twitter. Finally, the ethical dimensions of the collection and exploitation of data for multiple known and more often unknown purposes are now central to the invention of a digital democracy.

4This workshop, organized according to three areas of reflection, investigated the implications of these developments for the social sciences. As it was open to fields other than the sociology of work and markets, informaticians, jurists and political analysts were also present. The approach consisted first in outlining the social uses of mass digital data, whether strictly academic, commercial or private, while situating them in a socio-historical perspective and assessing the phenomenon’s “revolutionary” nature. Second, big data were discussed as a field of research for the social sciences: what do these objects reveal about the social world in which they are deployed, and how can they be studied? Finally, the potential use of mass digital data as research tools for the social sciences was addressed: what perspectives do they open for sociology, economics and the humanities, and what practical issues surrounding storage, exploitation and interpretation do they raise? The industrialization of mass data impacts on the economic, political and scientific uses of information and demands a requalification of the value of the informational goods produced on such a large scale.

Videos of the symposium are available at, on the professor’s page.

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Pierre-Michel Menger, « Big Data, Businesses and the Social Sciences », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 9 | 2015, mis en ligne le 28 septembre 2015, consulté le 27 mars 2017. URL :

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Pierre-Michel Menger

Sociology of Creative Work

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