We Are Essex

James' story

James Allen-Robertson

"Most of what I do is about a concern over power inequalities in society, particularly in people’s understanding of their own lives and how the world can be influenced by others with a lot of power."

I am inspired by power inequalities I think. Inherently I think I have this sense of justice in my head, which might be completely subjective, but everywhere I go I kind of feel like ‘that’s fair’ or ‘that’s not fair, it shouldn’t be like that’. Most of what I do is about a concern over power inequalities in society, particularly in people’s understanding of their own lives and how the world can be influenced by others with a lot of power. It’s a thing that worries me and if I see misinformation on social media it physically affects me because I want to do something about it and you can’t always. Behind all of my projects, whether they’re abstract theoretical papers or really practical things with tons of data from websites using strange computational methods, it’s all fundamentally about the question of ‘what are the power inequalities here?’

I was stuck in a rut in terms of my field and I recognised that what I always used to do when stuck in a rut was just do what I was interested in. So I stopped worrying so much about what I should be doing and just did what I wanted to do. The result of that was that I taught myself to programme within a year and changed all of my research projects to computational social science. I’m a nerd through and through. I built my first computer with my dad when I was 5. I’ve had PC’s pretty much all my life, broke them, pulled them apart and fixed them again. So I’ve always had tech knowledge and quite intricate knowledge of how computers work just from having them for most of my life.  I’m interested in how technological design shapes people’s behaviours and perceptions. I see a lot of scholarly work that’s interested in a new device and the social effects, but I want to go a few levels deeper and say ‘what are the mechanisms built into the device?’ and ‘what choices does the user have?’ just to kind of say let’s go a little deeper.

Now, another year on, we have a new degree starting which is BA Sociology with Data Science and it’s going to be tons of fun! It teaches sociology students who have never programmed before

how to create web scrapers, how to take stuff off of Twitter and how to do big network analysis and things like that. It’s my view that technology within society is being driven by people with a very narrow view of how society works and I feel the solution to that isn’t necessarily more technology but to place people with sociological awareness into those sectors. The only way you’re going to do that is by teaching people who are also being taught that awareness the skills that will get them into those industries. I feel like it’s a social intervention as much as about being good for the University. It’s about trying to make changes happen in that sector, even if it's just small incremental changes.

I try to keep in mind what I think is a balance between my own subjective opinion and also real consequences. So I worry that, for example, my research findings are derived from my own ideological leanings, which I think a lot of people’s are, so I remain aware it’s a subjective thing, it’s a biased thing and I could be wrong. I think it’s crucial to have your convictions, but be willing to change them.

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