So why should we use smartphones in social sciences?
To put it short: Because phones got “smart”. However, since the term “smart” simply reflects on the inherent high value we place on “intelligence”, we better provide a closer look at what makes telephones so supposedly smart, and how we can benefit from their capabilities in social scientific research. The first and foremost feature we believe that makes a smartphone “smart” (and our endeavor worthwhile) is that it is programmable. This makes the phone a powerful and incredible flexible research tool. Our own imagination is the limit.
In addition to being programmable, most smartphones offer a couple of impressive features scientists can utilize in their applications. Sophisticated sensing capabilities, such as global positioning, several gigabyte of internal storage capacities, build-in high-speed networking, image, audio and video deliver and capture and automatic gathering of several behavioral data entities. It’s the combination of these capabilities of the device and its programmability that make phones “smart” and a powerful and flexible tool for social research.
How can I benefit from smartphones in social sciences?
There are 5 important advantages smartphones have to offer for social researchers:
Reveal contextual facets of social phenomenons.
Flexible control over behavioral data recording.
Increase ecological validity of behavioral data
Unobtrusiveness of observational data collection.
Cost-effective ways to collect data on a large scale.
Use of smartphones in social sciences
In order to better understand the benefits of the use of smartphones in social research, let's take a look at the possibilities of smartphones. As we mentioned already above, the possible ways of using a smartphone are mainly limited to hour own imagination and creativity. The following routes are thus not meant to be exhaustive, though, it should be able to provide the interested reader a general idea about the usefulness of smartphones in social research.
Enriched self-documentation and experience-sampling
The smartphone is, not only a state of the art media deliver device but comes also with a sophisticated media capturing system. All phones support audio and text capture, and most also support images and video capturing, which can be used for self-documentation. Combined with networking capability, self-documentation can be made available to the researcher in near–real time. Using the programmability of the device or even simply triggers via alarms or short message service (SMS), the user can be prompted to carry out such enriched self-documentation, similar to the experience sampling method where participants usually carry beepers that reminds them to fill out short questionnaires about their momentary experiences, feelings, and thoughts. In contrast to beepers or paper and pencil diaries, mobile phone–controlled experience sampling provides more control over the timing, content, and triggering logic of these questionnaires. Researchers can remotely follow participants’ answers in close to real time, and any experience sample can be enriched with audio or video material by the user. More structured documentation can also be gathered via interactive questionnaires programmed by the researcher.
Understand how behaviors change over time
Smartphones can be useful as the main tool or as a supplementary tool for many of the primary methods of social sciences that try to understand how things change over time, like observations, longitudinal studies or case studies. The validity of many traditional methods, however, are constrained by retrospective and unreliable data collection with associated numerous biases. People might have generated false memories about an event or simply behave differently because they are observed. Smartphones not only can significantly reduce the costs required to record and log mundane everyday activities, but also do not require an observer to be present during the activities. Such unobtrusiveness of data collection reduces the chance of people behaving as they think they should and at the same time minimizes the risk for awkward feelings as a result from being “looked over the shoulder”. What is more, due to the possibility of automatic data collection, data can be gathered throughout a subject’s everyday life, that is when things are really happening. Hence by using smartphones in social research, improvements in efficiency and ecological validity in the search for processual understanding of the studied behavioral phenomenon should be possible.
Investigate communication patterns and strategies
Whenever a phone call or a sms message is received by a user programmers can react to that event in their applications by logging who has called or send a message, when this has happened, the duration of the call and what the content was of the call or message. Since, communication is vital for all kinds of interpersonal relationships and behavioral interactions, smartphones offer a unique way of increasing our understanding about behavior by recording peoples communication patterns and strategies in real life situations and make it accessible to researchers in nearly real time. Constructs such as availability, responsiveness, or interruptibility of a person might be also inferred from monitoring ingoing and outgoing social interactions. Hence smartphones can be a powerful research tool because they offer the unique opportunity to record day to day exchange of social information with various individuals known an unknown.
Study how behaviors are influenced by nearby others
Bluetooth is a very flexible wireless standard enabling devices in close proximity to connect to other devices, and transfer information across a miniature peer-to-peer network. In their applications, developers are not only able to use this network in order to exchange data with other devices, but also to discover other devices nearby. With the right preparations and by gathering the unique ids of those other devices it is possible to detect, for instance, whether there is another person in close proximity a person knows, likes or competes with. By adding information about the social relationship a user has with a person, we are about to reveal important insights in how people’s behaviors might be influenced by the proximity of others and their relationships with them.
Context-dependent triggering rules for data collection
The context of behavior is one central concern to social scientist. Behavior varies as context varies. One important way of using the smartphones sophisticated sensing capabilities is as a trigger for data collection. In most cases we probably do not want to record all behaviors all day long, but only start collecting data when something significant has happened, such as filling in a questionnaire when a certain time interval has passed or the user enters a certain local area, or start audio recording if a person has an encounter with a close friend, or being called by her boss. These context-dependent triggering rules not only provide a great way for a very structured and efficient data collection process, but also might provide vital insights into the context dependency of human behavior.
Interactive and flexible data collection
One main advantage of the modern smartphone is the almost always available network. Together with the ability of sending data in the background to a remote server smartphones enable researchers to remotely follow participants behaviors in close to real time. Together with the fact that we are not only able to send data out of the phone but also into the phone, significantly increases the possible interactivity, flexibility and efficiency of the data collection process. Errors in questionnaires can be spotted and corrected early on without the need for reprogramming the application. Future data collections can be tailored in order to suit the need for new information depending on the information already collected. Participants can be monitored, guided or coached throughout difficult situations.
Investigate peoples daily routines and activities
In their applications programmers have the possibility to access the contact information people have saved in their address book. This information is interesting since knowing peoples contacts gives an important insight into the social network they are part of, such as member size or distance of available members. Programmers are also able to access calendar information such as timing and description of calendar events on the device, which provides interesting insights into peoples day-to-day routines and activities. In combination with the fact that we are able to detect and record in and outgoing social communications we are able to accurately identify people’s communication partners from within their address book, which gives additional information about availability, interaction frequency and communication structure within the social network and one might also be able to link contacts to certain activities which provides additional interesting information about social interactions within the social network.
Monitor people’s movements and mobility
A phone can figure out its location in several ways: by using GPS, cell tower triangulation or Wi-Fi positioning. The actual accuracy of a GPS device is dependent on the hardware used for getting the coordinates and the device's chipset. Accuracy can vary between 60% - 40% of the measures being less than 100 meters away from the expected location on android driven phones and IPhones. Using this geo-positioning capability programmers can write applications that record people’s everyday mobility patterns. Large groups of people can be monitored quite efficiently on variables such as physical interactions, proximity, movement on macro and micro levels, access to certain areas or facilities. Such location-based data can be of profound value for researcher exploring the fields of social psychology, human geography, or sociology.
Collect physiological variables such as heart rate
Many of the human behaviors are initiated, stopped or altered by people’s physiological states. People yell more when they are highly aroused and sleep less when they are under stress. Having access to physiological variables hence would tremendously increases the power and usability of smart phones as a research tool in various areas such as clinical psychology or behavioral economy. However, there is good news and there is bad news. No smartphone to day naturally supports the recording of any variable directly referencing to a persons inner physiological states. The reason is simply because it has no access to it. The good news is, that it is possible to build a bridge between peoples body and the device. For instance we can use the build in Bluetooth interface and hook it up with heart rate monitors with Bluetooth transmitter such as Polar or Zephyr. As long as we are able to create a Bluetooth connection from an external sensor to the phone we can measure basically any internal physical state and further process the information in the phone to hour needs.
Collect socially and culturally diverse data
Homogeneous research samples of volunteers such as students coming to research facilities where they are asked to participate in behavioral experiments often do not reflect the diversity of the population investigated and pose a serious threat to generalizability and validity of scientific conclusions. By the end of next year it has been estimated that the amount of Google’s android phones shipped to users worldwide will exceed 2 billion. Apple will have sold around 1 billion around the same time. Such vast social and cross cultural penetration of mobile phone use can help to overcome the limitations and sampling biases of homogeneous research samples in helping to reach a more culturally and socially diverse population. Hence, using smartphones in social research can play a key role in the quest for more general theories about behavior.
Conduct all kinds of cognitive experiments
Smartphone technology offers high temporal and spatial resolution with built-in millisecond timing of stimuli display with touchscreen responses. What is more, individual iPhones, for instance, are identical for each user, which provides a sophisticated and standardized device for sensitive cognitive experiments. These properties render it an instrument ideally adapted to studying cognitive functions using standard cognitive science paradigms such reaction time measures, lexical decision, memory, attention or priming tasks very efficiently without sacrificing precision. Due to the vast amount of smartphone users, cognitive experiments on smartphones might even uncover laws of mind that have previously been hidden in the noise of small-scale experiments.
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