Taking part in social science
Table 1 provided a rather schematic way of thinking about the forms of participation by ordinary people in social science. Another way of thinking about this issue is to reflect on what the people involved in the different types of social science research actually have to do.
Quite a lot of social science research involves people letting social scientists into their homes, to undertake interviews for example, or, in the case of ethnographic research, to observe their ordinary routines. Participant observation involves researchers accompanying people during their everyday routines, for example when they are at work, riding on a bus or doing the weekly shop. Taking part in a focus group can involve attending a meeting in a particular place, with the venue chosen by the social scientist.
Social science depends on people’s participation in other ways too. For example, censuses are an important source of social science information, undertaken by national governments. The value of census data depends on the willingness of everybody, in principle, to fill in and return a census form.
Not all social science involves this degree of engagement with social scientists. A great deal of social science involves what are sometimes called ‘unobtrusive methods’ (Lee, 2000). These methods do not involve direct interaction or elicitation between researchers and research participants. Using letters or other documents is one example of an unobtrusive method. The rapid development of digital media in the 21st century has vastly expanded the scope of unobtrusive research methods. Many everyday activities, for example what we buy, where we travel and how much energy we consume, can now be surveyed, collated, aggregated and analysed without any direct engagement between analyst and individuals. These sorts of activities can all now be monitored, and perhaps even predicted, by the vast storage and analytical capacity of digital technology. In the era of what has been called ‘big data’, the conventional approaches of social science to data generation and explanation are being rapidly transformed (Savage and Burrows, 2009).
One of the things that most concerns people about these developments is the idea that information about us can be used for purposes that we have not consented to, and can even be collected without us knowing.
Activity 4 Have you ever taken part in a social science research project?
Take a few moments to think about whether you, or someone you know, have ever participated in a social science project, bearing in mind the different forms of participation listed in Table 1. Note your thoughts below.
Activities that you might have taken part in and that might have contributed, directly or indirectly, to social science investigation could include a focus group, a health study or a survey questionnaire. If you haven’t taken part in social science in this way, then you might have voted in an election or filled in a census form. If so, then you have also contributed to social science investigation because election results and census data, though not directly generated by academic researchers, are both important sources of social science description.
Finally, you might have a loyalty card with a supermarket or other retailer that rewards you for shopping with particular stores or outlets. If you have, then again you are contributing to the generation of social science data. Loyalty cards are used by retailers to generate detailed descriptions and understandings of the tastes of their customers.