The International Journal of Social Research Methodology has a new blog and we’re seeking contributions. We’re hoping it can be a vibrant space in which emerging methodological debates can unfold, tentative ideas voiced for the first time and professional discussions held in a public forum. This recent post on complexity and health inequalities gives a sense of what we’re interested in, though we’re open to any suggestions you may have. Please get in touch via the contact form if you would like to discuss. Myself (social media editor) and Brian Castellani (co-editore) will work with you to develop the post.
The Board of the International Journal of Social Research Methodology (IJSRM) is pleased to announce the launch of our new Seminar Competition. Our aim is to support the development of critical and innovative approaches to on-going and emerging methodological debates across a range of approaches, both qualitative and quantitative, and including mixed and comparative methods, as these relate to philosophical, theoretical, ethical, political and practice issues. Seminars may consist of single or multiple day events. Topics can include any area of social research methodology.
Available funding £1500
Guidelines for Applicants
We are seeking proposals that are concerned with debate and critical development of original cutting edge work of methodological significance. Seminars may bring together established and new researchers. They should be collaborative in approach across different institutions and disciplines and may include colleagues from relevant, non-HE, organisations. Proposals should have clear goals and outcomes with evident concern to the methodological contribution of the Seminar. In addition, a core purpose of the Seminar series is to engage with, and contribute to the development of an international community of social researchers. Accordingly, proposers may consider how their events can be recorded for non-participants and posted on the IJSRM multimedia site. Proposers should also consider including the production of new papers for potential publication in IJSRM. Such papers will be subject to the normal review procedures of IJSRM with no guarantee of publication.
We are open to suggestions for format either in the form of a single day seminar or in the form of multiple days across the year 2016. It is expected that the funding will be used towards meeting the cost of room and equipment hire, hospitality, consumables and travel for speakers. It is expected that there are no costs for delegate attendance
How to Apply
Further details and an application form can be obtained from Alice Edwards, Journal Administrator, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Closing date for applications: 30 November 2015
All submissions will be reviewed by a Committee drawn from the Board of IJSRM and will be assessed against the following criteria:
– Contribution to the development of methodological innovation and debate;
– Relevance to the aims and scope of IJSRM;
– Projected outputs and impact;
– Value for Money
– All successful seminars will have a named Principal Organiser and named Co-Organiser. The Principal Organiser will be responsible for all promotion and management of the programme of work, including arrangements for the venue, rooms, facilities, dealing with expense forms, submitting claim forms for event costs to IJSRM.
– Travel, at standard return rail fare rates and reasonable subsistence for speakers is permissible. Fees will not be paid to speakers.
– Delegates will not be paid expenses for attendance.
– The events will be promoted by the Principal Organiser and co-organisers through their research networks, institutions and departments. All communications with participants and publicity of events will acknowledge sponsorship by the International Journal of Social Research Methodology.
– Further promotion will be undertaken by Taylor & Francis as appropriate.
The closest thing I have to an historiographical principle is to always be suspicious of what Charles Taylor calls ‘subtraction stories’. While he uses the concept to refer to congratulatory stories of rational emancipation in which human beings have gradually dispensed with myths and illusions that served to limit them, it can equally be applied to refer to narratives of gradual decline in which we have progressively lost touch with the authentically human. To call something a subtraction story does not entail that we think the story is false so much as that it is simplistic. In the more sophisticated forms of subtraction stories, elements that are empirically accurate serve to reinforce the plausibility of an account that is appealing on a narrative level but analytically deficient.
The temptation here is to flip to the opposite extreme, responding to the obvious simplicity of a subtraction story by denying its claims in their entirety. For instance, to respond to those who say we have lost everything by claiming that we have lost nothing. While the inverse position might be more sensible than that which it is a response to, it’s no less questionable to me because it reproduces the narrative structure which is the underlying problem. There’s a certain temptation to these positions, with the bold pronouncements of epochal change (or lack thereof) which they license. I think sociologists are far too prone to them. In practice, I lean much more towards the pronouncement of change rather than its denial because I think things are changing in a significant way. But I think this narrative temptation inheres in any attempt to offer accounts of social change that go beyond the merely descriptive.
There’s a great post on Daniel Little’s blog which uses a critique of analytical sociology and critical realism to explore a premise which he argues they both share: ontology dictates methodology. As he frames the issue:
Both groups have strong (and conflicting) ideas about social ontology, and both think that these ideas are important to the conduct of social-science research. Analytical sociologists tend towards an enlightened version of methodological individualism: social entities derive from the actions and nature of the individuals who constitute them. Critical realists tend toward some version or another of emergentism: social entities possess properties that are emergent with respect to the individual activities that constitute them.
Both groups tend to design social science methodologies to correspond to the ontological theories that they advance. So they tacitly agree about what I regard as a questionable premise — that ontology dictates methodology.
I want to argue for a greater degree of independence between ontology and methodology than either group would probably be willing to countenance. With the analytical sociologists I believe that social facts depend on the availability of microfoundations at the level of ensembles of individuals. This is an ontological fact. But with the critical realists I believe that it is entirely appropriate for social scientists to examine the causal and structural properties of social entities without being forced to attempt to provide the microfoundations of these properties. This is an observation about the locus and nature of explanation. There are stable structural and causal properties at the social level, and it is entirely legitimate to investigate these properties in full empirical detail. Sociologists, organizational theorists, and institutional researchers should be encouraged to investigate in detail the workings, arrangements, and causal properties of the regimes that they study. And this is precisely the kind of investigation that holds together researchers as diverse as Michael Mann, Kathleen Thelen, Charles Perrow, Howard Kimmeldorf, and Frank Dobbin. (Use the search box to find discussions of their work in earlier posts.)
This is an issue I’m very interested in but have struggled to come to any firm conclusion about. My most serious attempt to think through these issues is this working paper. On the one hand, I find Margaret Archer’s argument that social ontology regulates the kinds of entities which can be admitted into explanation intuitively plausible. On the other hand, I find myself intuitively hostile – even actively irritated by – the style of social theory that someone like Dave Elder-Vass sometimes lapses into, in which he appears to argue that sociological investigation is unable to proceed adequately until social theorists have provided the domain specific ontology sociologists need to undergird their activity.
I guess a lot depends on what we take the claim about ‘regulation’ to mean. Does ontology regulate methodology? Should ontology regulate methodology? Could ontology regulate methodology? I think a similar ambiguity can be found in Little’s own framing of the relationship between ontology and methodology in the aforementioned post:
Ontology is not irrelevant to methodology; but it provides only weak constraints on the nature of the methodologies social scientists may choose in their pursuit of better understanding of the social world.
Is this an empirical statement about sociological practice? If so then we’re in the domain of the sociology of social theory – a notion that I’ve played around with in the past and at some point in my life, when I’ve read an awful lot more than I have at present, intend to come back to. If it’s not an empirical claim of this sort then what is it? This is the question that interests me and it’s one I don’t feel I have a sufficiently firm grip on to try and answer – descriptive claims about sociological practice unavoidably include normative claims within their scope (i.e. describing what sociologists actually do includes descriptions of what their theories tell them they should do) and yet as such a purportedly neutral sociology of social theory comes to constitute a move within the same game.
I’m very interested in the possibility of an ethnographic study of how sociologists actually use theoretical concepts as part of the research process. But at the same time I find the possibility of the neutrality this would entail to be rather implausible… I guess this is why I’m so confused (and yet fascinated) by questions like the relationship between ontology and methodology. The tendency seems to be for explicitly normative claims about what the methodological implications of social ontology should be. My problem is not with the normativity here but rather with the slipperiness of the grounding, if any, in facts of the matter about sociological practice. I’m interested in the sociology of social theory as a normative project – how do sociologists actually use theoretical resources and what conclusions can we draw about how they should use them in light of such a state of affairs? This is a project which unavoidably confronts a messy reality, in which an underlying impulse towards theoretical tidiness (which I think animates the work of many social theorists even if they reflectively deny it – I’ve had a post about the psychodynamics of social theory which I’ve intended to write for ages) runs headfirst into the tangled reality of empirical research.
I guess what I’m saying comes down to this: can we incorporate what sociologists actually do and what social theorists think they should do within a unified frame of reference?
I just came across this great post by Helen Margetts on the LSE Impact Blog from a few months ago. It’s worth reading the post in full but what really caught my imagination were the five recommendations she makes at the end. I don’t think the methods training I received was bad but in retrospect I think it was hugely limited (and consequentially limiting). This needs to be addressed institutionally because otherwise conversations surrounding ‘big data’ are likely to become absurdly lopsided over time, as successive cohorts of data scientists are trained in a way that is relatively insulated from the traditional concerns of the social sciences. I think Helen’s third point is important as a matter of technical proficiency but perhaps even more crucial as a precondition for sustained interdisciplinary communication. So while my current strategy of gradually working through Code Academy might be useful for me, it’s not exactly a scaleable solution for the social sciences more broadly (though it does fit worryingly well with the privatisation of upskilling in order to ensure one’s own occupational viability in a changing labour market). These are Helen’s five recommendations:
- Accept that multi-disciplinary research teams are going to become the norm for social science research, extending beyond social science disciplines into the life sciences, mathematics, physics, and engineering. At Policy and Internet’s 2012 Big Data conference, thekeynote speaker Duncan Watts (physicist turned sociologist) called for a ‘dating agency’ for engineers and social scientists – with the former providing the technological expertise, and the latter identifying the important research questions. We need to make sure that forums exist where social scientists and technologists meet and discuss big data research at the earliest stages, so that research projects and programmes incorporate the core competencies of both.
- We need to provide the normative and ethical basis for policy decisions in the big data era. That means bringing in normative political theorists and philosophers of information into our research teams. The government has committed £65 million to big data research funding, but it seems likely that any successful research proposals will have a strong ethics component embedded in the research programme, rather than an ethics add on or afterthought.
- Training in data science. Many leading US universities are now admitting undergraduates todata science courses, but lack social science input. Of the 20 US masters courses in big data analytics compiled by Information Week, nearly all came from computer science or informatics departments. Social science research training needs to incorporate coding and analysis skills of the kind these courses provide, but with a social science focus. If we as social scientists leave the training to computer scientists, we will find that the new cadre of data scientists tend to leave out social science concerns or questions.
- Bringing policy makers and academic researchers together to tackle the challenges that big data present. Last month the OII and Policy and Internet convened a workshop in Harvard on Responsible Research Agendas for Public Policy in the Big Data Era, which included various leading academic researchers in the government and big data field, and government officials from the Census Bureau, the Federal Reserve Board, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The discussions revealed that there is continual procession of major events on big data in Washington DC (usually with a corporate or scientific research focus) to which US federal officials are invited, but also how few were really dedicated to tackling the distinctive issues that face government agencies such as those represented around the table.
- Taking forward theoretical development in social science, incorporating big data insights. I recently spoke at the Oxford Analytica Global Horizons conference, at a session on Big Data. One of the few policy-makers (in proportion to corporate representatives) in the audience asked the panel “where is the theory”? As social scientists, we need to respond to that question, and fast.
At last year’s International Association for Critical Realism conference, I saw perhaps the most impressive conference presentation I’d witnessed in my five or six years of going to conferences regularly. Jamie Morgan demolished the notion of ‘norm circles’ offered by Dave Elder-Vass and he did so in a way which made a whole host of important meta-theoretical points about the purposes of social theory (while also avoiding making the whole exercise feel at all personal, despite the fact he was kicking down something Elder-Vass had spent the last five or six years building up).The overarching purpose of the exercise was to ask what constitutes progress in social theory. As Morgan says in his write-up of this paper, “it is an issue that becomes significant for any social theory that survives long enough to become a general and recognized position with a range of proponents” (115). As a theoretical position becomes entrenched, internally differentiated into multiple strands with varying degrees of complementarity, it becomes increasingly important to ask what constitutes a progressive development in that position.
On this sort of meta-theoretical level, I’m not sure critical realism is in particularly good health (even if there are events taking place at an institutional level which could leave it stronger than ever). The internal differentiation has become quite pronounced. There’s the obvious distinction between ‘basic’ critical realism*, dialectical critical realism and the meta-reality stuff. But we might also distinguish between systems theoretical strands, relational realism, Marxist orientated realism. Or even perhaps in terms of disciplinary divisions which express themselves in divergent interests, sensitivities, proclivities etc (e.g. sociology, human geography, economics, philosophy). Only the first set of distinctions are ones that are established sites for explicit identification (e.g. I have pretty much zero interest in anything other than ‘basic’ critical realism) but this doesn’t mean the other distinctions aren’t real. They are differences and fault lines within the theoretical corpus, encountered in unpredictable ways through engagement with critical realist thought. Furthermore, there are explicit identities and social networks which emerge, unfold and change across these fault lines (and in turn contribute to the restructuring of this internal differentiation). Some of these stem from supervisory arrangements or recurrent face-to-face meetings (e.g. there’s a definite network connected to Tony Lawson and the Cambridge Social Ontology Group) to the other end of the spectrum, with networks which might be ‘virtual’ or even in some cases ‘imagined’, constituted through textual engagements with real effects but nonetheless in the absence of personal relations.
This multi-dimensional complexity is something likely to grow with an intellectual movement (which I think is a more accurate term than ‘position’) that is sufficiently entrenched, intellectually and institutionally, to avoid gradual dissipation. But very particular risks inhere in security of this sort, as an intellectual movement becomes sufficiently settled to give rise to successive generations of theorists. These are amplified by the necessity for individual scholars to establish a career, with the attendant pressures to publish widely, find some novel framing of an existing issue and generally to capture the attention space within an environment where a publications arms race mitigates against holding anyone’s attention for long. These broader circumstances can tend to distort what counts as ‘progress’, making it ever more important to be explicitly clear about this as a guiding norm on a meta-theoretical level. Jamie Morgan’s argument is very helpful in understanding the intellectual implications of this:
This then is considered progress – lacks, inconsistencies, tensions and contradictions are highlighted and some development then follows. This development is typically inferred to be, by virtue of the very process, more ‘adequate’. However, the meaning frame of adequate here can gradually become ambiguous. Though realism in particular is sensitive to epistemic fallibility and to the potential for an epistemic fallacy – and ultimately ontology is theory so one is careful to never assert a definite identity between ontology and reality – the originating point of the exercise is to under-labour for more adequate accounts of reality. As such, one can ask in what sense the development has actually enhanced one’s understanding of or capacity to undertake further explanatory investigations of reality … ‘Adequacy’ can be directed towards internal projects of social theory addressing aspects of social theory for purposes other than demonstrated adequacy for accounts of reality. They can be about finding difference or reformulating what is actually similar, where both may perhaps be in some sense a non-problem. Furthermore, they can involve the pursuit of categorizations or taxonomies that are then justified as no more than ‘consistent with the existing realist ontology’. The development may then focus on placing an existing alternative framework over the same conceptual terrain – the matter of dispute can then become difference among the positions and where one set of potential weaknesses is traded for another in terms of conceptual critique. (116-117)
This is an extremely clear and succinct formulation of what I was struggling to say here. I take Morgan to be saying that a criterion of ‘progress’ is necessary because of the worrying tendency for intellectual movements to tilt towards discursive elaboration, as elaboration comes to hinge on internal points of agreement and disagreement in a way that contributes to the ideational density of the theoretical corpus. It becomes an arcane world, with its own taken for granted axioms, obscure vocabulary and in group / out group distinctions. Sound familiar? This is why the link between theoretical research and empirical research is so important (I say as someone who’s clearly a much better theorist than I am a social researcher but pursues the latter nonetheless). Realist theorists have a tendency to make pronouncements about the ontological regulation of empirical research, which I largely agree with though the point can be overstated. However I think a much more important (and interesting) issue is the empirical regulation of ontological research.
So an important question to ask is: what is ontology for? What is social theory for? What is sociological theory for? These are the questions I’m naturally drawn to, though they’re also ones which tend to be suppressed by structural and cultural tendencies towards growing ideational density in any established theoretical position. As a body of ideas becomes ever denser, more rife with internal distinctions and specialised vocabulary, it’s very easy to lose sight of the underlying question: what is the point of this body of ideas?
*The term ‘basic critical realism’ rather irritates me.