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The Social and Political Life of Methods

This blogspot was written by Elizabeth Silva as part of CCIG Forum 35 (Wednesday, 3 December 2014) it asks: "What are the key methodological challenges for critical social science?"

I want to suggest a new acronym for CCIG – let us use SPLOM, Social and Political Life of Methods, building on the better known Social Life of Methods, SLOM, to give a firm accent on the exploration of issues of power, bringing these to front stage as political matters of social and cultural change.

I will firstly refer to the history of SLOM, then I will outline some of the legacy it builds on, and thirdly I will make some suggestions for the further development of a SPLOM trajectory within CCIG.

SLOM in CRESC

CRESC is the acronym for the Centre for Research on Socio-cultural Change, an ESRC funded centre for 10 years – 2004-2014 – jointly developed by the University of Manchester and the Open University.

In early 2009, in the wake of the second phase of CRESC’s development, Evelyn Ruppert (1) and Mike Savage (2) proposed a cross cutting theme of the Social Life of Methods. In mid-2010 this was the focus of CRESC’s annual Conference in Oxford (3). The key aim of the theme was to explore how social science methods are themselves implicated in the organisation and administration of social and economic life. The agenda to develop this aim includes the recognition that methods of social research are themselves agents of social change; and it addresses the link between social formations and the construction of objects and subjects of study. Taking seriously the idea that research methods have a role among other agents of social change, the proposal explicitly claims that methods enact change in variable, complex, and un-anticipated ways, with cultural values embedded in their conception and practice.

Following this assumption (which is by no means new, as we’ll see), the innovation and the challenge consist in unravelling what are the social changes implicated in the methods we use. I suggest this is a quest for us to continue in CCIG.

Legacies on which the SLOM idea builds

The history of methodological debates reveals complex cultural processes marked by entrenched social divisions. This is central to the ways in which people ‘know’. SLOM is set against the positivistic distinction between the subject/object and the idea that ‘reality’ is objectively given and revealed by social science methods. The focus on methods as social agents addresses epistemological assumptions and their creations: what is knowledge and what knowledge creates. These questions, to be examined in a renewed framework, are as old as social sciences themselves: how to account for social life, how should society be conceptualised?

A number of approaches have been developed sharing these concerns. We can list structuralists, functionalists, Marxists, interactionists, phenomenologists, ethnomethodologists, grounded theorists among these. While these approaches sometimes add to one another and can be developed on the basis of texts, discourses, narratives, or in some cases on the basis of also numbers and statistics, the greatest divide in social sciences about ways of knowing has been that between quantitative and qualitative methods. The division pervades some of the approaches listed above.

I will give a brief outline of historical developments.

Early social sciences used a number of qualitative approaches. Quantification prevailed in the wake of official recognition of Social Sciences in the USA in the 1920 and 1930s (though there were some small but important qualitative studies exceptions) (Hammersley 1989). But after the 1960s the qualitative approach gained in strength (Bryman 1988). This was energized by emancipatory social movements in the late 1960s. Radical critiques of the neutrality of science appeared in line with the political left’s concern with making visible the experience of the ‘oppressed’. Feminism made a huge influence in setting new paradigms for knowing (Oakley 2000). Three main areas of engaged criticism and new elaborations can be outlined, pertaining to the fields of: 1. Statistics, 2. Feminist Studies, and 3. Science and Technology Studies (STS). These three are linked and are all part of the legacy SLOM builds on. I’ll consider these three areas.

Statistics

In light of the current reflections about the uses of big data in academia I have been strongly reminded of a collection of essays I have always held dearly. It is a 20-essay volume edited by John Irvine, Ian Miles and Jeff Evans, Demystifying Social Statistics, published in 1979 by Pluto Press. The collection is set against the understanding of statistical data being portrayed ‘as asocial products practically untouched by human hand: the role of the statistician (being) simply to clinically collect and preserve the facts.’ (Irvine et al, 1981:1). The authors set out to show that ‘… statistics are not collected, but produced; research results are not findings, but creations.’ (p.3). This means that statistics, like all data, ‘whether produced in the course of academic research or by state bureaucracies, are structured by the conceptual framework that is applied as well as by the technical instruments used in their production.’ (p.5). The editors claim that this needs to be investigated, as the development of social statistics – and we could say here ‘of social research’ in general - has significant implications for political practice.

It appears relevant that the authors involved in this critique of the making of ‘realities’ with numbers were members of the Radical Statistics Group, the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science, International Socialists, Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at Sussex University, Industrial Sociology Unit at Imperial College (precursor of the department where I did my PhD), Radical Philosophy, Trade Union Socialist Group, and the Faculty of Social Sciences at the Open University (where CCIG is based). It included people working in various disciplines, sharing with radical wishes to create a socialist society eradicating oppression.

Feminist Studies

Feminist academics working in science studies areas became early critics of the supposedly value-neutral, objective, dispassionate, disinterested perspective of science. It was disputed that social values of researchers are supposed to protect the results of investigations from the distorting lenses created by the values of researchers and their cultures. Sexism and anthropocentrism were taken on. The belief that science needed to be protected from all politics was challenged. It was shown that movements for emancipatory social change cannot develop within this sort of presumed ‘objectivity’. Experience and standpoints, as situated perspectives, emerged as central in the processes of knowing (4).

To briefly account for Dorothy Smith’s (1987) argument: in our societies women have been assigned kinds of work men do not want to do, and this gender division has consequences for what can be known from the perspective of men’s and women’s activities. In a nutshell: men are relieved of the work of taking care of their bodies and the local places where they exist, or the children they have. The freedom achieved from this enabled them to engage more fully in the world of abstract mental work. The more successful are women in the maintenance of the everyday routines of home, workplace, childcare, care for the elderly, and so on, the more their work becomes constructed as natural, as a labour of love, instinctual and outside of the conception of ‘culture’. Women’s work becomes incomprehensible, inexpressive, unaccounted for. There is a line of fault between the lives of women and the dominant conceptual schemes. The women’s movement key focus is on this disjuncture. The work goes on to claim that activities related to women – and to the oppressed/dominated – should be understood through concepts that arise from women’s experience, or that of the dominated. Conceptual schemes carry perspectives, points of view, which create particular understanding of ‘reality’. How would our understanding of the world be transformed if it were structured by questions and concepts arising from these ‘invisible’ and discredited experiences? The question is: whose experience counts most when knowledge is produced?

I am only able to be brief in here. The theory of knowledge arising from these reflections is far richer (see excellent account in Oakley 2000). Arising from women’s perspective, or from that of the dominated, the theory regards that perspective is an important part of the data, is evidence of knowledge claims. In the context of this intervention, feminist politics was shown to be a valuable guide to academic investigation: it shows that no method is ever capable of eliminating social bias. Depending on from where you start priorities will shift, the identification of key concerns will change, as well as the ways of tackling these, and so on. Our understandings of our own lives and of our worlds, and of the rest of the world, are part of the story of how we know.

Science and Technology Studies

Mike Savage (2013) notes that SLOM is indebted to researchers in STS and anthropology. It responds to the increasing salience of ‘methodological devices’. He draws a parallel between SLOM and the ‘material turn’ as it appears in Appadurai’s (1986) edited collection The Social Life of Things. This connection is particularly relevant regarding the political aspect of methods as Appadurai remarks that a focus on ‘things’ sheds light on the link between exchange and value (embodied in commodities- goods - things), thereby on politics.

Methodological devices are ‘knowing devices’ (Law and Ruppert, 2013), being part and parcel of the world in which they circulate. This means that they are not simply tools of social science that can be more or less successful to disclose social realities. Each instrument/tool of social investigation – interviews, focus groups, social surveys, etc… - makes assumptions about the character of the social. It is paramount to reflect about how these are consequential. As Law and Ruppert (2013:238) say: ‘methods for knowing and handling the world have their own social life’.

These concerns are thus presented as part of an expanding repertoire of generating research materials via visual methods, new data sources, inventive methods… all of which are expanding understanding and modes of knowing. Matters regarding the politics of method appear strong in this context. This has been a concern in recent works of, for example Steinmetz (2004) and Savage (2010). My intention here is to stress that these are not new concerns at all.

Historical changes to note are how the politics of method feature in critical social sciences and academic feminist engagements and how they feature in contemporary neo-liberalism and big data debates. There are common threads here regarding the social life of methods. To highlight three recognitions:

  • that science is activated by the social agendas it provides resources for
  • that all research is done, always, in a political context
  • that what is known and the act of knowing are intrinsically linked

In this outline a trajectory is clear: from feminist agendas, and the related emancipatory reviews of statistical analyses in favour of the less favoured social groups, a stronger political engagement to knowledge production is clear aiming to develop a social science for people, not of people.

To conclude I would suggest CCIG could focus on some questions to develop a focused concern about SPLOM following the research programmes. These could include:

  • How have methods been implicated in the formation of relationalities and understandings of families/communities? Or of other relevant matters of concern… for example, the psychosocial?
  • What do researchers consider to grasp the formations they are concerned with?
  • What are the new data sources and methods for generating and analysing that specific data?
  • How are social sciences research and methods being challenged, and reconfigured, by developments in the availability of data by the commercial and government sectors?  How do these developments relate to the particular concerns of the research programme?
  • How can discipline boundaries be made more permeable between the humanities and the social sciences in the particular areas concerned in the research programmes, so a richer understand of matters may be achieved?
  • How have new communication practices changed ‘accounts’ of social phenomena?
  • What new challenges emerge with the contemporary visual, mixed, digital… methods and devices?

Central to all these questions is attention to methods as social and political agents – what do methods do? what do methods make possible? And, essentially, the concern pervading investigation is about what is not foreseeable, that which may surprise the researcher and the further challenge knowing.

 

References

Appadurai, (ed.) (1986) The Social Life of Things. Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bryman, A. (1988) Quantity and Quality in Social Research. New York: Unwin Hyman.

Hammersley, M. (1989) The Dilemma of Qualitative Method. London: Routledge.

Haraway, D. (1985) ‘Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s’. Socialist Review 80: 65-108.

Harding, S. (1986) The Social Question in Feminism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Hartsock , N. (1983) Money, Sex and Power: Toward a feminist historical materialism. New York: Longman.

Irvine, J. Miles, I. and Evans, J. (eds) (1981) (orig 1979) Demistifying Social Statistics. London: Pluto Press.

Law, J. and Ruppert, E. (2013) ‘The social life of methods: Devices’ Journal of Cultural Economy 6:3, 229-240.

Oakley, A. (2000) Experiments in Knowing. Gender and Method in the Social Sciences. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Savage, M. (2010) Identities and Social Change in Britain since 1940. The Politics of Method. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Savage, M. (2013) ‘The “Social Life of Methods”: A Critical Introduction’, Theory, Culture & Society 30(3): DOI: 10.1177/026327641348616 (downloaded OU 24 Oct 2013).

Smith, D. (1987) The Everyday World as Problematic. Milton Keynes, Open University Press.

Steinmetz, G. (ed.) (2004) The Politics of Method in the Human Sciences: Positivism and its Epistemological Others. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

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(1)Evelyn Ruppert is currently Professor in the Dept of Sociology at Goldsmith College, University of London

(2) Mike Savage is currently Professor in the Dept of Sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences, University of London.

(3) The 2010 CRESC conference focused on four streams: 1. The device. 2. The challenge of big data. 3. Engaging the visual. 4. Transformative practice: history, discipline and movements. The idea of ‘subaltern’ method was here developed.

(4) Exemplar texts are Hartsock 1983, Haraway 1985, Harding 1986, Smith 1987.