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Vision Statement for a National Network of Social Observatories

Social Observatories Coordinating Network

November 8, 2012

The United States and the world are changing rapidly.  These new conditions challenge the ability of the social, behavioral and economic sciences to understand what is happening at a national scale and in people’s daily local lives.   Forces such as globalization, the shifting composition of the economy, and the revolution in information brought about by the internet and social media are just a few of the forces that are changing Americans’ lives.  Not only has the world changed since data collection methods currently used were developed, but the ways now available to link information and new data sources have radically changed. Expert panels have called for increasing the cyber-infrastructure capability of the social, behavioral, and economic (SBE) sciences so that our tools and research infrastructure keep pace with these changing social and informational landscapes.  This vision statement is a proposed way to meet these challenges and is a product of six workshops convened to advance cyber-infrastructure for the social sciences.

To ensure that the growing volume and complexity of data can better serve business, government, education, health, and the social and economic needs of society requires a systematic and targeted approach to handling what have become Big Data challenges.  Needed is a new national framework, or platform, for social, behavioral and economic research that is both scalable and flexible; that permits new questions to be addressed; that allows for rapid response and adaptation to local shocks (such as extreme weather events or natural resource windfalls); and that facilitates understanding local manifestations of national phenomena such as economic volatility.  To advance a national data collection and analysis infrastructure, the approach we propose —   a network of social observatories — is sensitive to how local communities respond to a range of natural and social conditions over time.  This new scientific infrastructure will enable the SBE sciences to contribute to societal needs at multiple levels and will facilitate collaboration with other sciences in addressing questions of critical importance.

What should this national network of social observatories look like?

Our vision is that of a network of observatories designed from the ground up, each observatory representing an area of the United States.  From a small number of pilot projects the network would develop (through a national sampling frame and protocol) into a representative sample of the places where people live and the people who live there. Each observatory would be an entity, whether physical or virtual, that is charged with collecting, curating, and disseminating data from people, places, and institutions in the United States.  These observatories must provide a basis for inference from what happens in local places to a national context and ensure a robust theoretical foundation for social analysis.  This is the rationale for recommending that this network of observatories be built on a population-based sample capable of addressing the needs of the nation’s diverse people but located in the specific places and communities where they live and work.  Unlike most other existing research platforms, this population and place-based capability will ensure that we understand not only the high-density urban and suburban places where the majority of the population lives, but also the medium and low density exurban and rural places that represent a vast majority of the land area in the nation.

To accomplish these objectives, we propose to embed in these regionally-based observatories a nationally representative population-based sample that would enable the observatory data to be aggregated in such a way as to produce a national picture of the United States on an ongoing basis.  The tentative plan would be to select approximately 400 census tracts to represent the U.S. population while also fully capturing the diversity that characterizes local places.  The observatories would be responsible for gathering information at a set of tracts (e.g., 20) that are located in proximity to their collaborating scientists.  The individuals, institutions and communities in which these census tracts are embedded will be systematically studied over time and space by observatories spread across the country. During the formative stages the number of census tracts and the number of observatories that might be needed, given the scope of the charge that is currently envisioned, will be determined.

These observatories will study the social, behavioral and economic experiences of the population in their physical and environmental context at fine detail. This endeavor was initially conceived with two broad themes in mind — opportunity/ mobility and change/adaptation — but, in fact, the observatory structure is intended to accommodate a broad range of basic and applied scientific questions.   The observatories are also intended to stimulate the development of new directions and modes of inquiry.  They will do so through the use of diverse complementary methods and data sources including ethnography, experiments, administrative data, social media, biomarkers, and financial and public health records as well as survey research. These observatories will work closely with local and state governments to gain access to administrative records that provide extensive data on the population in those tracts (i.e. 2 million people) thereby providing a depth of understanding and integration of knowledge that is  less invasive and less subject to declining response rates than survey-derived data.

No matter how the nation changes or where its people move, the observatories will provide a nearly continuous snapshot of the country, rapidly depicting how national policies affect local people and places.  This is an all-important task because what happens at the local and state levels matters in a federal system such as that of the U.S. This effort differs from that undertaken by the national longitudinal surveys, such as the General Social Survey and the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. It is not meant to replace them but rather will offer not only a broad national picture of the population but also a deep understanding of the population in specific places across the country with a level of data granularity made attainable by new information technologies that capture micro processes.

What do we gain by having a network of social observatories?

A national framework for studying local contexts. The best neighborhood studies to date feature specific cities such as Chicago or Los Angeles.  The observatories will facilitate comparison across such communities. With a social observatory network, we can contemplate the possibility of a national sample of neighborhood and other local contexts that can be studied at multiple levels and in multiple ways.  For example, because of the national sample frame of census tracts embedded in them, these observatories become ideal locales to examine how  proximal social contexts (a) directly affect individuals’ and families’ social, behavioral and economic functioning or (b) alter social and behavioral relationships, and (c) how individuals and families, in turn, change their environments.  The community context will enable the study of social networks, which cannot be studied within the current survey research model in which clustering of observation is minimal.  It also increases the chance of linking climate change and other natural phenomena with behavioral responses.  Naturally occurring exogenous shocks to some tracts but not all tracts will provide the opportunity for scientists to conduct comparative studies of adaptation and change.  Similarly, a set of experimental trials situated in diverse contexts will afford researchers the opportunity to conduct rigorous comparative studies of interventions.

A national SBE cyber-infrastructure to serve 21st century society. The observatories would provide extraordinary new information about the role of infrastructure and the changing structure of the U.S. economy and what facilitates or impedes individual opportunities and accomplishments; which kinds of investments in infrastructure have the greatest impact on well-being; and how we can design smart cities that facilitate travel, communication, finding jobs, caring for family members, and that enhance business investment. The observatories can serve as a test-bed for the decadal national census that would lead to new methods of data collection.  Because its data are drawn from census tracts, it allows for comparison of new data sources with those from the U.S. Census and lead to innovation in data collection methods. We need to ensure that the SBE sciences contribute to the nation’s welfare with tools of the 21st century.

A national framework for studying social media and its impact on society. An important goal for the observatories is to gain access to the new forms of communication increasingly used by the American people, in order to understand how these new forms of communication are transforming how people think, what motivates them, and how they construct virtual and real social networks and communities.  To this end, the observatories will provide a platform that will be able to incorporate the changing sources of information that are being created by social media companies and mobile devices. The task here will be to increase the granularity of data, provide in-depth context, and integrate information over social, temporal, and spatial dimensions. Developing new cutting-edge approaches to data trawling and web-scraping at these observatories will produce detailed accounts of geographic movement, social networking, and other forms of community building and dynamics that require interpretation while ensuring that social theory and history inform the analysis of tweets and other digital forms of data.

A national framework for interdisciplinary collaboration. These observatories will transform how the SBE sciences go about their work for decades to come by encouraging integration across the SBE disciplines.  The observatory network will explicitly respond to what is now a broad call in many scientific circles to address issues of importance with the best tools available without regard for disciplinary origins. Having social science observatories across the nation with the explicit charge of ensuring that teams of scientists are working together to address questions of national interest will serve to integrate our sciences, and will also serve the nation better by providing diagnostic and policy-relevant solutions at a variety of levels, from local to state to national and international.


We recognize that this project is ambitious.  The challenge is indeed to change the way SBE science is conceptualized and practiced to address changing social realities locally and nationally.  To be successful we will face many important decisions and challenges along the way.  These include: a funding environment that is not expected to radically improve in the near term; an inadequately developed infrastructure for the storage, curation, and dissemination of the increasingly wide types and size of data sources, as noted by several expert panels; concerns with how to protect the privacy and confidentiality of linked data; and the persistence of disciplinary and institutional obstacles to integration across the SBE sciences. To attain the vision proposed here we need the commitment and enthusiasm of the community to meet these challenges and the resolve to make this proposed network of observatories useful to the social sciences and society.

However, the world is not waiting for this effort to be fully built and implemented.  We have learned of a number of communities across the United States that are developing collaborative regional data gathering efforts to document the linkages between people and place that go beyond specific city or state boundaries and that will be increasingly required for better social and public policy in the future.

An Invitation

This Vision Statement represents extensive discussions by a diverse group of SBE scientists, the Social Observatories Coordinating Network*, who now invite the scientific community to help shape the direction of the observatories’ project. We want to ensure that this Vision is responsive to how other scientists envision the social, behavioral and economic sciences meeting the challenges presented by new data, changing research needs, and a changing society; and ensuring that we lead rather than follow in meeting these needs. We will seek input in a variety of ways in the months ahead: through workshops and panel discussions at national and regional meetings, and through a dedicated web site wherein we invite the scientific community to share its thoughts on the Vision Statement.  In the near future we will also solicit brief white papers that can further advance and refine the design of the observatories.

*The Social Observatories Coordinating Network

The Social Observatories Coordinating Network (SOCN) is funded by the National Science Foundation to work with scientific communities in the development and planning of a set of observatories for the Social, Behavioral, and Economic (SBE) Sciences that will be transformative. This network follows up on a set of 4 workshops prior to 2010 and 4 from 2010 to 2012 that engaged the scientific community in initial discussions about the proposed approach.  (Reports from the 2010-2012 meetings are available at the website below.)  Dissemination of what we produce will play an important role, particularly at national professional meetings and other scientific conferences.  The final product will be a report to NSF outlining the views of the various scientific communities and the consensus emerging from these discussions.

Members of the NSF Social Observatories Coordinating Network include:

  • J. Lawrence Aber, New York University
  • Henry E. Brady, University of California, Berkeley
  • Dalton Conley, New York University
  • Susan Cutter, University of South Carolina
  • Catherine Eckel, Texas A & M University
  • Barbara Entwisle, University of North Carolina
  • Sandra Hofferth, University of Maryland
  • Klaus Hubacek, University of Maryland
  • Emilio Moran, Indiana University
  • John Scholz, Florida State University


A complete list of earlier contributors to this project can be found at the website below.

For additional information contact:

Sandra Hofferth:  hofferth at or

Emilio Moran:   emoran1 at

Our objectives and reports from previous meetings are available via