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Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change

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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
Email: h.knox@ucl.ac.uk

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. 

Key research questions

Within this broad approach our research questions include the following:

  • Which methods succeed and which fail? What are the powers of different sorts of qualitative and quantitative forms of analysis? How can we explain why some methods become hegemonic in certain domains, and what consequences follow from this? As a part of this, how can we better understand the circulation of methods and findings, and their acceptance/absorption in specific locations? Does this require a better theorizing of location?
  • What kind of invisibilities and absences are rendered by social science methods? How, for instance, does this work in the context of visualities?
  • Is it useful to explore how agency can be located in certain kinds of social scientific methodological repertoires?
  • Is there a ‘bias to coherence’ in a world that might be better understood as filled with alterity, heterogeneity, and non-coherence? What would non-coherent methods look like?
  • What are the units of analysis imagined or assumed in social research methods? If we are moving to a ‘post-humanist’ world, then how is this reflected in method, and how does this map onto political and/or ethical human issues? What is the effect of recent calls for more collaborative research? And how are conceptions of the human, the social, the technological and ‘the natural’ being woven together in new methods?
  • With the proliferation of digital data, are we currently seeing a crisis of standard social science methods based around the sample survey and the interview, and what does this portend for our understanding of socio-cultural change? Does the idea of a descriptive turn or an ontological turn offer a useful way of grasping the role of these methods?
  • What is the transformative and critical potential of social science research methods? To what extent does this require a re-ordering of knowledge spaces, the re-conceptualisation of expertise, of what counts as knowledge, and its institutional locations? Does this, as is sometimes claimed, have implications for ontological multiplicity? And if this is the case, then what are the implications of this for social science research methods?