Towards the social sciences citoyennes ? (long version)

You are browsing through it may be that these lines because you just read the ticket issued in The World, in the book “Sciences & Techno” from Saturday, February 4, 2012, and that you wanted to know a little more ? Then welcome !

The format of this “card blanche” requires the concision, and little can be neither credit nor a fortiori to cite in sufficient detail the research and the publications on which I relied for the draft. The social sciences, like other sciences, are not the product of a solitary exercise and weightlessness of the thought. Also, for the duration of this forum, I suggest you find it here, on this blog, at the time of the publication of each of these ” white cards “, a ticket that is more long in which I’ll expand my remarks, bring a number of add-ins, additional tracks of reflection… and especially the reading suggestions : it will be a way to give back to my colleagues what I have borrowed to write these short notes[1].

For this third ” carte blanche “, I wanted to, for once, not to speak of research and past work, but rather to come (or not) : I noticed, in fact, the current development of experiences of public participation in the production of knowledge in the experimental sciences, such as astronomy or biology, and I was wondering about the “delay” of the social sciences in this area.

Experiences of public participation in the exact sciences

For a start, it is necessary to detail a few experiences that I only mention very briefly. To designate them, I used the English term ” crowdsourcing “, which is not easy to translate. Literally, it refers to the process by which the “crowd” is the “source” of information, in other words, the process in which a significant number of individuals, by their efforts, their time or skills are collected, the collection or processing of information (Batt, 2009). The phenomenon is not totally new, we had already heard, for example, with the project SETI@home (Search of Extraterrestrial Intelligence at home), in which each one, on the principle of volunteerism, could be of the time of calculation of his / her computer for the processing of a mass of data very important. This is why we speak in French of outsourcing distributed : the processing is outsourced, and it is distributed between a large number of participants. But in the case of SETI@home, these participants are computers rather than citizens. Vers des sciences sociales citoyennes ? (version longue)And even in some cases where it corresponds to the human work, we cannot speak of the “citizenship” of science. You are in effect crowdsourcing without even knowing it : every time you transcribe the words written in an almost unreadable in a safety device of the type reCaptcha you help Google to digitize its massive world library (see this article) !

Experiences of public participation in science therefore do not correspond to all the devices of crowdsourcing, but rather to those in which human skills are distributed in a large number of individuals are mobilized on a voluntary basis. Thus, it is the case with GalaxyZoo, a project in which tens of thousands of people contribute to the processing of data provided by the Hubble, in classifying galaxies from a review of the photos taken by the telescope. The example of Foldit is perhaps even more spectacular : in this “game” developed by a research team in biochemistry from the university of Washington, there is a need to “fold” protein structures of the most efficient way possible.

Vers des sciences sociales citoyennes ? (version longue)


The hard work of the players, implementing skills that are more close to those fans of video games as of those of the specialists in molecular biology, has allowed to solve in a few weeks of problems on which the best laboratories faced for several years, and the best of them have been invited to co-sign the scientific publications presenting these advances.

In some cases, outsourcing distributed remains confined to the collection of data or the performance of repetitive tasks, and, therefore, is only to distribute of the time of working time. But in the experiments the most successful, such as those mentioned above, it is to rely on human skills-specific that, while not necessarily the product of long years of scientific studies, are of an efficiency which far exceeds that of the best algorithms. It is these experiences that allow them to talk about the possible development of a science that is more participatory, blurring the boundaries between professionals, amateurs and the general public. The articles and essays bloom the past few years, that prophesy the advent of this open science, “socially robust” (Nowotny, 1999), this revolution “amateurs” (Leadbeater & Miller, 2004), this “citizen science” (Bonney, et al., 2009). In a recent essay, entitled,” Reinventing Discovery (2011), the physicist Michael Nielsen’s dream of a “science network” (networked science), a democratization of science in which the explosion of the Internet would be the engine.

We can even go further : in a vein somewhat similar, the emergence of the “self quantification ” (Wolf, 2010), beyond his character still a bit anecdotal, raises important questions : what movement, born of course in California, brings together a number of increasingly important to individuals who indulge in this strange hobby that involves any measure of self-control (temperature, food consumption, use of time, mood…), and to gather and share these data. What is prefigured here, this is perhaps even more the participation of ordinary citizens in the science, it is a way of passing scientists, a sort of short-circuit epistemological, by which the citizens would do their own science. It is in the area of health, very clearly, that this credo of the “measure yourself” is being developed (see this series of articles by Hubert Guillaud, published in December 2011 on InternetActu)

Citizen science, a novelty ?

In the Face of this enchanted vision, I began by noting in the ticket of the World that the work of the social sciences, it is, of course, to take a step back. On the one hand, the Internet may be the medium, appeared recently, a transformation in which the engine lies in reality in the conjunction, for several decades, the general increase of the schooling and level of degree, and the increase in free time. And on the other hand, this is perhaps not so great a novelty : the science of the lovers is probably as old as science, and the time of the professionalization of science is relatively short and recent, on the scale of the entire history of the production of knowledge. This is true at the individual scale, of course : the story of the great scientific discoveries is full of amateurs (give examples). But it is also true at a collective level : it is enough to mention the famous example of the census Noële of birds organized by the Audubon Society, which involves tens of thousands of observers each year for more than a century, to demonstrate that the participation of the public in the production of knowledge has not waited for the appearance of the Internet.

A historical perspective to view a little less short, on this question of the development of a science participatory, can therefore borrow two complementary pathways. On the one hand, advocacy for the democratization of science is already old (Feyerabend, 1978 ; Chargaff, 1979 ; Von Hippel, 1991). And on the other hand, it is not absurd to consider that, in reality, science has always been this way, even if you do not tell it like this usually : in a recent book (people’s History of science, 2011), the historian Clifford D. Conner strives to rehabilitate the origins, craft and popular scientific knowledge (see the account in Readings), again well before, therefore, the appearance of the Internet. In total, the work of the social science of science, what in English is called the ” Science Studies “, can go to ask to what extent these questions about the motives and challenges of the rise of the demand for democracy in science, do not fall within the logic of the classical fight in the scientific field (Bourdieu, 1976) : new entrants, belonging to a new generation of researchers, are trying to subvert the “normal science” (Kuhn, 1962) based on resources (the public, the web) that is specific to them, and they are trying to impose as legitimate resources in the field.

To the social sciences citoyennes ?

But what I mostly wanted to say in the ticket of the World, it is that the work of the social sciences in the face of these experiences of the “democratization” of scientific work also “strategic” and interested to be, this also should be to ask why the ones currently in the experimental sciences, and very little indeed in the social sciences. I imagine that seen from the outside, our work seems almost by construction as to require the participation of the public : the social sciences to analyze the social activities of individuals, it is their empirical material is elementary, and therefore, in many cases, the data collection devices are based on this participation. This is not required (data can be collected also by the ethnographical observation, or by automated procedures of constitution of the corpus), but it is very often the case : each time, namely, that our surveys are based on questionnaires or interviews to collect the data they need. In some way, therefore, in sociology, too, we were already in the crowdsourcing well before the advent of the Internet… from major social surveys of the Nineteenth century, in fact !

Then, the social sciences have been able to rely on the participation of social actors, not only to collect data but also to interpret them. The actors generally give meanings to their actions, and those can be both of data (the ways of thinking and feeling, as ways of acting, are social phenomena amenable to a sociological analysis) and tracks the interpretative. And in fact, many approaches in the social sciences are based on the taking into account of the subjectivity of social actors, embedded in a tradition of “understanding” (Weber, 1922) of which the seeds are many, ethnométhodologie (Garfinkel, 1967) to the approaches described as “pragmatic” (Boltanski, 2009). But all of my colleagues do not share this position : there are many (and I believe that I am part of) those who believe that the subjectivity of the actors is not the whole of the social. One of the fundamental properties of the social phenomena, already explained Durkheim (Durkheim, 1894), is that they have on us constraints that we have not systematically consciousness. Again, the seeds are numerous, not least that with and in continuation of the work of Pierre Bourdieu and his school, who believed that the “profession of sociologist” (Bourdieu, Chamboredon & Passeron, 1968) was precisely defined, in its very foundations, recognition by the epistemological of what he called the “illusion biographique” (Bourdieu, 1986).

Vers des sciences sociales citoyennes ? (version longue)

The reproduction is prohibited (by René Magritte, 1937)

Recently, Bernard Lahire is certainly one of those who has most systematically criticised the tendencies of some of his colleagues to abandon their interpretative abilities in the name of a “democratic concern” (2005, p. 99), which he considers as a dead end. Are as well referred to as well-the temptations-standing of “sociological intervention” developed in the wake of Alain Touraine, that sacrifice more contemporary, those of former colleagues or students of Pierre Bourdieu, in particular, as Luc Boltanski or Nathalie Heinich. In The spirit of sociological Lahire for example, noted that if he had to give the artist the right to validate or otherwise challenge the interpretations of sociological art, it would probably not be much of the sociology of art More generally, the refusal of the professionalization of the work of interpretation done according to Lahire, and run the risk of submitting to the common sense. And it should also be mention here of the threats that weigh down on the scientific autonomy of the social sciences the turn of judiciary sometimes made by the pretentiousness of some players to defend their monopoly on the inteprétation of their own actions, as demonstrated by the work and the testimonies gathered by Sylvain Laurens and Frédéric Neyrat in 2010 to Investigate : what right ? (see the account in Readings).

But at the same time, also scientifically sound to be such reluctance, it must be acknowledged that sociology or political science for example, it could also be used as a pretext for the maintenance of a hegemonic model of the radical break between professional researchers and social actors, the first continuing to consider the latter merely as the material rather than as practitioners potential of their science. And so, in fact, today, it seems to me that the experience of outsourcing, distributed tasks not only collection, but also analysis of the data, and , a fortiori, of interpretation and of writing, remain extremely timid.

Vers des sciences sociales citoyennes ? (version longue)


Some interesting avenues that could be explored. I’m not going to mention that one here, to finish this post. As we have seen above that in astronomy or in the sciences of nature, the taxonomic work could be quite easily ” crowdsourcé “, in other words shared between a large number of people who do not have specific scientific competence. It is found only in the social sciences we often have a need to classify the social activities to be able to describe, compare and analyze. This is an area in which we can make progress : devices “taxonomy collaborative” could represent an interesting step in the direction of a design for a participatory social sciences. Attempts of this kind have been sketched at the time of review the classifications of socio-occupational categories, which are to explore, from card games, to see how panels of the socially differentiated “play” to consolidate between the different professions (Bush, et al., 2010). And in a register a little similar, it is necessary to pay attention to the experiment conducted by Eric Fleury, researcher in computer science at ENS de Lyon : the latter, called Fellows, is to test models for automatic categorization of social contacts by submitting to the people the combination of their ” friends “, and asking them to assess the degree of cohesion (Friggeri, Chelius & Fleury, 2011).

In another area, that of the sociology of cultural practices, there has been much criticised to the classifications usually used, for example, to classify musical preferences or literary, to be ” legitimists “, in other words do not properly reflect the tastes of the investigators, and not those of the respondents ‘ (Grignon & Passeron, 1989). With the classifications of genres in distinguishing very finely the different kinds of legitimate, but merging into a single broad category of all the popular genres, it was then a nice game of saying that the privileged classes are more eclectic than the popular classes (Peterson, 1992), which may well be in part an artifact of statistics. In this area, there would certainly be some lessons to be learned in the development of what the anglo-saxons calling now the ” folksonomies “(Vander Wal, 2005, 2005; Shirky, 2005), in other words, the devices of construction of taxonomies based on common representations of the social actors, the virtues of which heuristics are potentially very important (Auray, 2007). The interest of folksonomies, for one of the pioneers of these procedures very used for the indexing of electronic documents (Mathes, 2004), is that they make it possible to both collect information about the behavior and preferences of social actors while structuring them according to their own habits of categorization, and at the same time to study these models, taxonomic, their diversity depending on the social status and their transformations through time.

In total, therefore, of any of the foregoing, it will be surely difficult to draw a clear conclusion : on the one hand, by construction, the social sciences seem to be more than any other, likely to resort to the participation of the public, what they do in reality since a long time each time they resorted to their methods of inquiry more common, such as the questionnaire or the interview ; but on the other, and the same by construction, the social sciences can also be seen as less than all the other be able to dissolve in the knowledge common that the social world can produce on itself. But between these two extremes, between, on the one hand its “social sciences citoyennes” probably illusory, and the other to the confinement in the ivory tower, there is surely room for a certain number of experiments to better understand where and how to place the cursor in such a way that all the virtues heuristics of the participation of social actors in the production of sociological knowledge should not be thrown out with the bath water. I found the article in the World , asking : who will respond to the challenge ? Difficult to answer this question… But if you have in mind initiatives that fall within this perspective, or if you imagine the spheres of labour of the social sciences where it would be possible to develop new, do not hesitate to share your information and your thoughts in the comments of this post !


05/02/2012 :

Liliana Lewinsky has translated the ticket of the world in Spanish, you can read this translation here :

Thank you to her !

Bibliographic references

Auray, Nicolas (2007), ” Folksonomy: the New Way to Serendipity “, Communications and strategies, no. 65, pp. 67-89. See online:

Batt, C. (2009), “Digitisation, Curation and Two-Way Engagement, Final Report,” []

Boltanski, Luc (2009), criticism, Paris, Seuil

Bonney, R., Cooper C. B, Dickinson, J., Kelling, S., Phillips, T., Rosenberg, K. V. and Shirk, J. (2009), ” Citizen Science: A Developing Tool for Expanding Science Knowledge and Scientific Literacy “, BioScience, 59 (11), pp. 977-984

Bourdieu, Pierre (1976), ” The scientific field “, Acts of research in social sciences, n° 2-3, June, pp. 88-104

Bourdieu, Pierre (1986), ” The illusion biographique “, Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales, n° 62-63, June, pp. 69-72. See online:

Bourdieu Pierre, Chamboredon Jean-Claude and Passeron, Jean-Claude (1968), the craft of The sociologist, Paris, The Hague, Mouton-Bordas

Bush Cécile, Saint-Pol, Thibaut, Gleizes Francis, Uk, Nicolas, Marical Francis, Monso, Olivier and Wolff, Wolf (2010), Assessment of the European socio-economic classification prototype (EseC) : lessons from the French experience, INSEE, coll. “Working paper Insee, n° F1006. See online:

Chargaff, E. (1979), Heraclitean Fire Sketches from a Life before Nature, New York, Rockefeller University Press

Conner Clifford D. (2011), popular History of science, The breakaway

Durkheim Emile (1894), The rules of sociological method, Paris, Flammarion, coll. “Fields “, rééd. 1988, 254 p.

Feyerabend, Paul (1978), Science in a Free Society, London, New Left Books

Friggeri Adrien, Chelius, Guillaume and Fleury Eric (2011), “Fellows: Crowd-sourcing the evaluation of an overlapping community model based on the cohesion measure” Complex Dynamics of Human Interactions, Vienna, Austria

Garfinkel, Harold (1967), Studies in Ethnomethodology, Englewood Cliffs, N. J., Prentice-Hall

Grignon, Claude and Passeron, Jean-Claude (1989), The erudite and the popular. Pathos and populism in sociology and literature, Paris, Seuil, Gallimard, coll. “Hautes études “

Kuhn, Thomas S. (1962), The structure of scientific revolutions, Paris, Flammarion, 1983

Lahire, Bernard (2005), The sociological imagination, Paris, La Découverte, coll. “Texts to support / laboratory of the social sciences “

Leadbeater, Charles and Miller, Paul (2004), The Pro-Am Revolution. How enthusiasts are changing our economy and society, Demos, 70% See online:

Mathes A. (2004), ” Folksonomies. Cooperative Classification and Communication Through Shared Metadata ” []

Nielsen, Michael (2011), Reinventing Discovery. The New Era of Networked Science, Princeton University Press

Nowotny (1999), ” The place of people in our knowledge “, European Review

Peterson, Richard A. (1992), ” Understanding Audience Segmentation : From Elite and Mass to Omnivore and Univore “, Poetics, 21, pp. 243-258

Shirky, Clay (2005), Ontology is Overrated ; Categories, Links and Tags. See online:

Vander Wal, Thomas (2005), “Explaining and Showing Broad and Narrow Folksonomies” []

Von Hippel, Frank (1991), Citizen Scientist: Collected Essays, Springer

Weber, Max (1922), Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, Tübingen, Mohr

Wolf, Gary (2010), ” The Data-Driven Self “, The New York Times Magazine, April 28, 2010. See online:

[1] For this post, and for the reflections and the bibliographic references that follow, I have a big debt towards three colleagues of the ENS of Lyon with whom I have been around these issues a long conversation for several weeks, so here thanked Patrick Flandrin (physics), Eric Fleury (computer science) and Pablo Jensen (physical) for these exchanges particularly rewarding !

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