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Social Life of Methods (SLOM)

Core question: What do methods do?

What do social research methods actually do? And how are they shaped by the social world? These are the questions that we are exploring in our Social Life of Methods (SLOM) research theme.

These two questions are not simply technical. They are also political – methods are not a neutral toolkit that can simply be picked up and put down. The efficacy and value of methods changes over time and for this reason it is important to recognise that research methods are vital players in the social world. They do not just describe society, but help to create it anew.

The focus of SLOM is to find out how.

Convenor: Dr Hannah Knox

There are many new methods

Social Research methods have proliferated in recent decades.  Social researchers are increasingly encouraged to innovate in their methodological practices in ways that have led to both the invention of new tools for research and new ways of thinking about the kinds of knowledge that social research can be expected to produce. Digital technologies have extended the kinds of social research tools used by social scientists (social network analysis, online questionnaires, real-time research using digital devices and new visual methods) whilst web-based communication is opening up social research methods to new audiences.

The locations in which we might find social research methods have also multiplied. They used to be based primarily in universities and government research agencies. This is where sociologists, demographers and anthropologists traditionally worked. But we now find social research methods being invented and circulated in the private sector, in community organisations and in new disciplinary fields. One of our key questions is therefore where are the contemporary sites of social research? Where are social research methods being invented? How are they being verified? How is the knowledge that they produce being validated? And how are they travelling between different fields or communities of practice?

The proliferation of methods and their relocation in different institutions has led to some to argue that social research methods are being democratised. Perhaps this is right. Perhaps it isn’t. But one thing is sure: research methods and the social are both changing: and those methods aren’t innocent. They are helping to change the social world itself.

The social is being remade in those new methods

Professional social science does lots of innovative work on methods, but until recently the reasons for the transformation in the nature and location of social science methods and their broader sociological effects has been of marginal interest. The Social Life of Methods has worked hard to initiate an important conversation about the way in which social research methods are invented, travel and have effects in the world. The Social Life of Methods is not just about what methods we use and how we use them, but about the kinds of methods we need to develop and promote if we are to ensure the continued relevance of university based social sciences.

SLOM brings together social researchers working both within and outside academic settings to reflect on how social science methods are implicated in the organization, administration and transformation of social and economic life. We reflect theoretically on how ideas from STS, the anthropology of expertise, postcolonialism, Foucauldian genealogy, political economy and Bourdieusian field analysis can help illuminate the social life of methods.

As a part of this we critically explore and characterise the diversity of knowledge spaces. We talk of knowledge spaces as practices that simultaneously enact:

  • institutions (audiences, knowledge producers, and systems of circulation);
  • representations of the social world;
  • the possibly variable realities enacted together with those institutions and representations.

Finally, we reflect on how we might contribute to methodological innovation, and especially to links between the qualitative and the quantitative in the pursuit of answers to questions about the nature of society, culture, humanity and economy. 

Read more: Key research questions

See more: SLOM:LAB blog

Digital data

Digital data