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The technological revolution aiding social sciences

Author  :       Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2014-01-16

The 2013 Annual Forum on the Informatization of Society, attended by 50 important figures of this field, was held on the 14th of December. “China is currently undergoing a period of rapid transition from an industrial society to an information society. During this process, opportunities co-exist with challenges. It will therefore be necessary for the Chinese to transform their ideas towards development”, Zhang Xinhong, director of the Department of Information Research of the State Information Center, said during the Forum.

Information technology is changing by the day, and new terms, like the “internet of things”, “big data”, “cloud computing” and “3D printing” are continuously emerging. This reporter from Chinese Social Sciences Today interviewed some scholars of related fields to find out their views on how new developments in information technology are influencing research in humanities and the social sciences.

New technologies providing services for the social sciences

“The wave of informatization has already gone through two important stages, the informatization of communication and that of the media. It has now entered the stage of the informatization of the productive forces. This stage is marked by the internet of things and 3D printing technology”, says Yang Peifang, chairman of the China Information Economics Society.

Professor Chen Yu, from the School of Information of Renmin University of China, believes that human society is undergoing a great revolution, which depends upon several decades of technological accumulation, development and application. In the field of the social sciences, the development of technology has lead to a complete change in the way academic research is conducted.

Zhang Huaping, vice director of the Institute of Computer Language of the Beijing Institute of Technology and Information, explained that new technologies have brought about three major changes in the social sciences: providing a technical platform for data collection, making it quicker to compute complex models, and providing new methods and points of view for the realization of social simulations.

Jiang Qiping, secretary-general of the Center for Informatization Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, claimed by way of example that cloud computing technology can offer various services for the social sciences, including the provision of a platform.

Currently a large number of researchers with a background in computer technology have started to study information communication, basing themselves on cloud technology. Zhang Huaping focuses on the study of the fundamental theory of social network information and communication. His research provides a dynamic analysis of public opinion, useful for the purposes of national security and social management. It analyzes the paths of propagation, the key nodes and the structures of the spreading of information during specific time periods.

The natural and social sciences drawing upon each other

Information science technology not only influences fields like sociology and communication sciences, but also encourages the natural and social sciences to learn from each other in terms of their research methods and topics of study.

Professor Wu Kun, from the School of Humanities and Social Sciences of Xi’an Jiaotong University, claimed that since the 20th century the emergence and development of the philosophy of information has been promoted by the information technology revolution, the worldwide rise of an information economy and society and the informatization of science and society. Scientists and philosophers have already conducted wide-ranging discussions on the nature of information.The theory of the universality of information has yet to be widely accepted in academic circles. Research on the topic therefore needs to be further deepened.

“The technological revolution has not only produced a series of new methods and topics worthy of research within the social sciences, but it has also changed the basic way of thinking in the field”, Chen Yu said. Technological progress has increased awareness of the need to focus on complexity, transcend simplification, embrace uncertainty and abandon absolutism.

Many of the scholars interviewed claimed that a research method focusing on a single discipline is no longer applicable because of the information revolution, and that the barriers between different disciplines have broken down. The trend in academia is one of increased dialogue and cooperation between the natural and social sciences.

Scholars looking forward to a more wide-ranging interdisciplinary dialogue and research

Scholars in the natural sciences are increasingly turning their attention to interdisciplinary fields like social networks and human dynamics. Some of these researchers claimed when interviewed that they are looking forward to conducting a more wide-ranging dialogue with scholars in the humanities and social sciences.

“If we take journalism and communication studies as an example, we can see that some of the teaching and research has not kept up with the new technologies and methods of the information age”, says Jiang Fei, director of the Communication Laboratory of the Institute of Journalism and Communication of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He added that the development of journalism and communication studies is directly related to information communication technology, and that Chinese scholars should learn more about information technology and try and engage in interdisciplinary innovation.

Jiang Qiping claimed that it will take time for the technological revolution to exert its full influence in the field of humanities and the social sciences. In his opinion, technical experts will be the first to adopt new technologies in their research, and these technologies will later trickle down to other fields through interdisciplinary research. In the future, researchers in more and more disciplines will make use of unconstructed data and find themselves processing mass data, and their research methods will move from simple data sampling to all-round data analysis. There will also be a shift from research on causal relationships to research on data mining and artificial intelligence.


The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 538, 18th December, 2013.

Chinese link:



  Translated by Chen Meina

  Revised by Gabriele Corsetti




Editor: Du Mei

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