in Collective Stress, CSS, English

Collective Stress in the Digital Age

I recently defended my PhD proposal entitled “Collective Stress in the Digital Age” (here is my paper). I’d like to express my gratitude to my advisor Andrew Crooks and my dissertation committee members (William G. Kennedy, Trevor A. Thrall, Arie Croitoru, and Anthony Stefanidis) for supporting me in this journey. In this post, I would like to talk briefly about its starting point, that is why I chose this topic.

What is Collective Stress?

Collective stress (c.s.) is a state of mental or emotional tension experienced by many people in a society in which they lose or fear losing their expected conditions of life.

What conditions of life do we expect from the social systems we are in? We expect to have an environment where we can meet our needs, at least the basic ones. The more a system allows its people meet their needs, the less stressful individuals become. Not all needs are created equal, though; they could be organized into a hierarchy of relative prepotency –first, we need to meet our physiological needs, then comes our safety.
Moreover, standards of living affect individuals’ expectations from life as well. People living in primitive conditions for a long time experience relatively less deprivation than those who have adopted a “modern” way of life. Besides, before safety and physiological needs, Maslow (1943) considered freedom and justice as preconditions for basic need satisfactions, without which the social system cannot function properly. If these preconditions are in jeopardy, then individuals react as if the basic needs themselves are in danger. If freedom and justice are among the preconditions, what are the events causing collective stress then?

Events (or conditions) that disrupt or threaten the social systems –and thus give rise to collective stress– can be grouped into two: Consensus (external) and dissensus (internal). The former group includes natural disasters, terror attacks, epidemic diseases, loss of markets or sources of supply; while, technological and man-made disasters, economic crises, political breakdowns, and government oppressions belong to the latter.

Why Study Collective Stress?

The impacts of collective stress situations can be devastating and they cause serious multi-faceted problems. Besides, the frequency of such events and their negative impact is on rise.

Collective stress situations are trending

Collective stress situations are trending (see my proposal presentation for better resolution)

Regarding the multi-faceted problems, they can be grouped into four: Psychosocial (e.g. PTSD, demoralization, health problems), sociodemographic (e.g. household destruction, fleeing), socioeconomic (e.g. loss in asset values, productivity drops, socioeconomic gap increases), sociopolitical (e.g. social activism, political disruptions).

Having briefly mentioned practical problems (i.e. the rising trend and multifacetedness; see my proposal for more detail), now let’s talk about some research problems.

Why Computational Social Science?

Due to serious practical problems collective stress situations cause, many social scientists have tried to understand social responses to these events. One of the most challenging tasks they have faced however has been unobservability. Being in the impact area and collecting data is difficult in collective stress situations. Besides, disasters and terrorist attacks are rather rare events. Therefore, as the prominent researchers in the field reports (e.g. Quarantelli, Drabek, and Tierney), the empirical knowledge base is weak. One solution to this problem, I believe, is utilizing recently available “big data”, in particular, making use of social media data with computational methods.

The second main issue is that the digital revolution, as Berry Wellman calls it the triple revolution (social networks, the internet, and mobile revolution), might have altered some of the social norms, including the social responses to collective stress situations. Individuals turn to social media (SM) in both response and recovery phases of an event (Dailey and Starbird 2016); the emotions they express on SM is contagious (Kramer et al. 2014; Oz and Bisgin 2016); on SM, they are exposed to the new media in addition to the legacy media, which increases stress levels (Holman 2014); cosmopolitanization (Beck 2002) effects collective stress in macro-, and networked individualism (Rainie and Wellman 2014) effects it at micro-levels; SM amplifies echo chambers and group identification, which in return increase collective stress levels (Quattrociocchi 2016); last but not least, increased awareness in the digital age raises expectation from the government and the society, and as solutions are delayed, ignored or obstructed, fear turns into anger (Neal 1984). Given some effects of social media on social responses to collective stress situations, earlier findings might have got outdated as new conditions and social norms have emerged.

Besides the old unobservability issue and the new emerging norms problem, for a theory to be scientific it has to be continually tested by new methods and new data (Popper 2002). Therefore, my thesis is that computational social science (CSS) has the potential to significantly advance the understanding of collective stress in the digital age.

I spare the discussion of my specific research questions and my research designs to another blog post. Below is my Ph.D. work proposal in presentation form: