Photo by Travis Jon Allison (CC)

Photo by Travis Jon Allison (CC)

Post by Gerben Moerman:

On the fantastic website a large range of very different forms of citizen science is presented. People from all over the world can tag or code black holes in space, the surface of the moon, animals in the Serengeti and diaries of soldiers during the Great War. Zooniverse is not the only site where this kind of online collaborative interpretation projects is taking place though. There are other smaller scale projects, such as biologists in Melbourne tracking sightings of Platypuses, or large-scale projects such as Euro Birdwatch. Even games are built around folding proteins on, including player rankings and a hall of fame.

Interestingly, in the social sciences there are hardly any online projects using citizen science. See for example this list. It is odd that the field in which citizenship is so actively under scrutiny does not involve citizens en masse in the interpretations it produces.

We can argue that we do involve citizens as interviewees, respondents and even chroniqueurs of their own lives in several mass-observation studies. (e.g., but even such mass-observations are mainly focused on the collection of data rather than its interpretation.

Why is there a lack of involving lay people in the interpretation of social data? I guess there are many reasons, but the most salient one is that we study the social world. In contrast with other sciences

social research is itself part of the social world, something that should never be forgotten (Hammersley 1992, p. 163).

This classic statement can be understood in two contrasting ways: 1) social scientists as social beings influence their own research and field or 2) citizens can grasp the sense and nonsense of a social scientist’s interpretations, and that scares us.

We see traces of this anxiety in critiques of the usability of member checks and even more in the discussions on key informants, collaborative ethnography and other participatory research methods. Part of the critique is around the argument that “these participants are not social scientists, and so they can’t properly interpret the social world they live in!” Although that is what qualitative researchers influenced by phenomenology study all the time, there is a sense of truth in it. Citizens are not trained in a sociological gaze, let alone in Foucauldian, or ethnomethodology inspired interpretative actions. They will bring in lay perspectives, and we need to deal with those.


So what can we do?

We can do what we have always done, and wait until other fields take over and start reinventing the sociological wheel. This has happened with computer science, and big data. Or we can try using the lessons learned from other citizen science projects, small-scale participatory research, epistemological perspectivism (Cornish et al. 2013), and even teaching interpretation. We are lucky to be social scientist, because even if citizen science fails completely, we can at least study from studying the phenomenon … even in solitude.




Cornish, F., Gillespie, A. & Zittoun, T., 2013. Collaborative Analysis of Qualitative Data. In U. Flick, W. Scott, & K. Metzler, eds. The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Data Analysis. London: Sage, pp. 79–93.

Hammersley, M., 1992. What’s Wrong With Ethnography? London: Routledge.

Wuchty, S., Jones, B.F. & Uzzi, B., 2007. The Increasing Dominance of Teams in Production of Knowledge. Science, 316(5827), pp.1036–1039.