Scientific theories have been crucial for the development of the humanities and social sciences. Metatheories such as classical social evolution, cultural diffusion, functionalism or structuralism for example guided early anthropologists in their research process. Postmodern theorists rightly criticized their predecessors among other things for their deterministic theoretical models. Their criticism however was still based on theoretical reflections, although many tried to reduce their theoretical bias by combining several perspectives and theories (cf. theory triangulation).
Whereas it was common in the humanities to keep track of “disproven or refuted theories” there could be a trend among proponents of a new scientific realism to put the blinkers on and solely focus on progress towards a universal, objective and true account of the physical world. Even worse, theory could be discarded altogether. Big data might revolutionise the scientific landscape. From the point of view of the physicist Chris Anderson the “end of theory” is near: “Out with every theory of human behavior, from linguistics to sociology. Forget taxonomy, ontology, and psychology. Who knows why people do what they do? The point is they do it, and we can track and measure it with unprecedented fidelity. With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves”.
This approach towards science might gain ground. Digital humanists are said to be “nice”, due to their concern with method rather than theory. Methodological debates in the digital humanities seem to circumnavigate more fundamental epistemological debates on principles. But big data is not self-explanatory. Explicitly or implicitly theory plays a role when it comes to collect, organize and interpret information: “So it is one thing to establish significant correlations, and still another to make the leap from correlations to causal attributes” (Bollier 2010). Theory matters for making the semantic shift from information to meaning.
In order to understand the process of knowledge production we must keep an eye on the mutually constitutive spheres of theory and practice. In the era of big data Bruno Latour’s conclusion: “Change the instruments, and you will change the entire social theory that goes with them” is hence more important than ever.
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