Theory In, Theory Out: The Uses of Social Theory in Machine Learning for Social Science

Jason Radford and Kenneth Joseph
Frontiers in Big Data
May 19, 2020


Research at the intersection of machine learning and the social sciences has provided critical new insights into social behavior. At the same time, a variety of issues have been identified with the machine learning models used to analyze social data. These issues range from technical problems with the data used and features constructed, to problematic modeling assumptions, to limited interpretability, to the models' contributions to bias and inequality. Computational researchers have sought out technical solutions to these problems. The primary contribution of the present work is to argue that there is a limit to these technical solutions. At this limit, we must instead turn to social theory. We show how social theory can be used to answer basic methodological and interpretive questions that technical solutions cannot when building machine learning models, and when assessing, comparing, and using those models. In both cases, we draw on related existing critiques, provide examples of how social theory has already been used constructively in existing work, and discuss where other existing work may have benefited from the use of specific social theories. We believe this paper can act as a guide for computer and social scientists alike to navigate the substantive questions involved in applying the tools of machine learning to social data.

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