Web-scraping as a Social Research Method

One chapter in the book deals with web-scraping as a technique for gathering and sorting through information about the world. However, this technique can be applied in many ways, effectively repurposing information we can find online to say things about society. Noortje Marres & Esther Weltevrede (2013) have written on precisely how such a technique might feed into the work of doing social scientific research methodologically:

Marres, N., & E. Weltevrede (2013) Scraping the social? Issues in live social research, Journal of Cultural Economy 6: 313–335.

Building on this work, others have sought to consider web-scraping as a social issue, commenting on the use of these techniques by various stakeholders in various different kinds of social problem, or have even used web-scraping techniques themselves, e.g. Lupton (2014) on the use of web-scraping systems to gather healthcare information from patients’ social media accounts, or Brooker et al.’s (2018) study of weight stigma in reader comments left beneath a Guardian news article on obesity (where the comments were captured as data via web-scraping), or Milian’s (2016) study of promotional materials deployed by Canadian community colleges which itself uses web-scraping to build a data resource.

Lupton, D. (2014) The commodification of patient opinion: The digital patient experience economy in the age of big data, Sociology of Health & Illness 36(6): 856–869.

Brooker, P., Barnett, J., Vines, J., Lawson, S., Feltwell, T., & K. Long (2018) Doing stigma: Online commenting around weight-related news media, New Media & Society 20(9): 3201–3222.

Milian, R. P. (2016) Modern campuses, local connections and unconventional symbols: Promotional practises in the Canadian community college sector, Tertiary Education and Management 22(3): 218 –230.

Using these as a starting point for thinking about webscraping as a social research method,

Can you design and undertake a small-scale research project using data scraped from the web in order to speak to a topic in your own research interests?

The possibilities really are endless here; this might be something like using forum posts to talk about gender identity in video gaming, or studies of Islamaphobia in the content of online news articles, or rhetoric around healthcare in digitised transcripts of politicians’ speeches (something I allude to in the book as an example). So, choose a topic, find some web data to scrape, and see what sense you can make of it!