Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Talking to Grandma Isn’t Social Science

Emile Durkheim
Emile Durkheim (Photo: Wikipedia)
by : https://theresearchwhisperer.wordpress.com/2015/02/17/reclaiming-social-science/ 

Yolande Strengers is a social scientist, Senior Lecturer and ARC DECRA Fellow in the Centre for Urban Research, School of Global Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University.

Her recently published monograph is titled ‘Smart energy technologies in everyday life’ (Palgrave Macmillan 2013).

Among other things, she’s interested in smart energy technologies and how they’re changing how we live. She tweets at @yolandestreng.

On a bad day, I feel like the social sciences are under siege. Anyone, it would seem, can do social research.

And anyone can make claims about the social world and human condition.

But on what theories and methodologies are these claims founded? What are the consequences for society when everyone is a social expert?

There is nothing wrong with having an opinion, but when opinion holds equal weight to rigorous social science research, or when opinions and dominant paradigms about human action underpin that research, we have a serious problem. Actually, we have several.

In this post, I consider where the problems lie, and how social scientists can begin to reclaim their turf.

Talking human

Aside from the weather, one thing we all love to talk about is ourselves. Most of us are full of claims about people: why we will or won’t change, what’s wrong with society, or what needs to be done to improve the human condition. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Indeed, a key success of the social sciences is their accessibility: simply by virtue of being human, everyone can speak our language.

But this comes with its problems too. Tom Nichols recently wrote about the ‘death of expertise’ in the social sciences: as people have experienced increasing access to their social networks and a wide diversity of google-driven, one-click social ‘research’, the social sciences have lost some of their credibility. Everyone feels they’re an expert.

This issue extends to professional settings too, where science and engineering disciplines are increasingly legitimised to speak human.

Zoe Sofoulis commented on this issue several years ago in her project on cross-collaboration between urban water managers and Humanities, Arts and Social Science (HASS) researchers. HASS researchers, she argued, ‘are not legitimised to “speak science” whereas scientists and engineers - being humans themselves - can “speak human” whenever they wish without obligation to refer to any specialist expertise about people, culture and society.’

The challenge comes when we assume that understanding people is easy and unproblematic. Bridge-building and surgery require accepted forms of engineering and medical expertise, but anyone can do a survey and make claims from it.

When findings from a DIY survey are held up as being of equal weight to rigorous qualitative or quantitative fieldwork, we’re all in trouble. Just as the foundations of any bridge I try to build would likely crumble, so too will the foundation of our society, if we base our policies, decisions, and programs on dodgy social research.

Talking about grandma

A related, and perhaps more worrying, problem is the absence of any social research at all. When I talk to people about my research, they naturally want to relate it to themselves and their own experiences. This is all well and good. Unless, of course, they begin to discredit or dismiss actual social research using anecdotes from their own life experience.

I first encountered this ‘grandma phenomena’ in one of my PhD interviews with an electricity utility engineer. I was asking about householders’ increasing reliance on air-conditioning, whether it was necessary, and what utilities could do about it. He started talking about his grandma. She simply wouldn’t be able to cope without air-conditioning, he explained, and so there wasn’t a lot that could be done. End of story.

The point is not to dismiss grandmas (bless their ironed hankies), their enormous wealth of knowledge, or their legitimate vulnerabilities to heat. But it’s troubling when anecdotal stories about relatives get used by people who make decisions to validate or dismiss certain courses of action for large swathes of the population.

Talking numbers

After grandmas, there is a disturbingly large jump in the next commonly assumed form of ‘valid’ social data. We move from the small scale (grandmas) to the large (statistical or big surveys).

The reliance on large-scale representative and statistical pieces of social research reflects our long-running preoccupation with large numbers and Big Data (a social phenomenon in itself). What we often forget is that large numbers come with compromises: corners must be cut.

We normally can’t sit down and ask 10,000 or even 500 people about every detail of some aspect of their lives; so, we have to provide ‘options’ and ‘choices’ in surveys. These are usually predicated on dominant theories and assumptions about people. By asking questions premised on theories and assumptions, we create and reproduce the reality on which these are founded. Profound indeed.

There’s nothing wrong with large numbers per se - all social research has its uses - but when the only form of social data we take seriously has a number attached (or a grandma story) we ignore other forms of legitimate and valuable social expertise.

In-depth research, which is what I specialise in, is open-ended and participant-directed. It can reveal new insights and take you in surprising directions. It can challenge existing assumptions and reveal new ones. It can manifest and propose new realities.

My point isn’t to paint large-scale research as ‘bad’ and in-depth studies as ‘good’. As I’ve said earlier, all social research can be valuable. But if qualitative research isn’t accepted as ‘valid’ evidence in policy circles, then only very specific points and voices are being heard.

Talking theory

Oh yes, the dreaded T-word. The thing about theory is that it’s everywhere, whether we like it or not. When we talk about ourselves in terms of our actions, values, beliefs, behaviours or attitudes, we are understanding ourselves and how we change through a certain theoretical perspective. We are, in effect, talking theory.

Pervasive theories dominate our understanding of the social world, and are often built into DIY and large-scale research without much acknowledgement. Elizabeth Shove has termed these dominant theories the ‘ABC’ (Attitudes, Behaviour, Choice) paradigm [1]. ABC language permeates policy and change programs, to the point where it sometimes seems impossible to see alternatives.

The social sciences, however, have a plethora of models, theories, and paradigms for understanding social action and change. They all lead us in different directions, and prioritise different solutions and strategies.

Reclaiming the social sciences

How, then, do social scientists confront these challenges?  How do we distinguish ourselves and our research from the continual swathe of opinion? How do we resist what Ian Hacking refers to as the ‘avalanche of printed numbers’ [2], or carry out research that extends beyond dominant paradigms of people and societies?

The first thing we need to do is be more rigorous: to not let opinion seep in, and to be vigilant about our own assumptions and ‘pet theories’ of human action and social change.

Outside academia, social science faces a different set of challenges characterised by increasingly ‘bite-sized’ and piecemeal pieces of commissioned research, and diminishing funding available for substantive projects. It is a challenging time, but one that needs the full integrity of the social sciences to forge new pathways and possibilities.

Social scientists can speak more than human

If this all sounds like a call for social scientists to remain seated in their ivory towers and stop playing with other disciplines, it’s not. Social scientists can, and need to, collaborate with other disciplines and professions, but the terms on which this is done call for a similar level of rigour.

There is a tendency to ‘blackbox’ social scientists into the ‘human side’ of interdisciplinary projects. As a social scholar of technologies and infrastructures, this is a frustrating box to sit in.

Pioneering projects transcend disciplinary boundaries by informing the design and development of technical projects right from the beginning. For example, they question how the design of an electricity grid (or the nature of energy reforms) connects to how we use our washing machine or run the air-conditioner.

I can hear the sceptics now: ‘but isn’t she just giving us her opinion?’ Well, yes. ‘Aren’t these claims based on anecdotal stories and personal experience?’ Well, sort of. ‘Isn’t that a bit hypocritical?’ Well, maybe. ‘How can all this possibly be achieved?’ I’m still trying to figure that out.

Still, I am a social scientist and that means I speak from a position of particular expertise. I am trying to embed these concerns in my own research and, hopefully, that counts for something. Just not in the big, statistical way.


[1] Shove, E 2010, ‘Beyond the ABC: climate change policy and theories of social change’, Environment and Planning A, vol. 42, pp. 1273-85.

[2] Hacking, I 1982, ‘Biopower and the avalanche of printed numbers’, Humanities in Society, vol. 5, pp. 279-95.

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