Social science that is concerned with finding out what people do can make use of both obtrusive and unobtrusive methods. Social science that is concerned with finding out what people think – their own understandings of their situations, or their opinions about an issue – has to engage with people directly. Social science research is therefore dependent on getting people to take part in various activities aimed at eliciting simple yes/no answers all the way through to providing detailed, discursive reflections on people’s activities.
It’s not only social scientists working in universities who engage with people in this way. Opinion polls, for example, depend on people answering questions, usually over the phone. Increasingly, all sorts of organisations make use of online surveys to collect information about people's opinions on certain issues'. Thomas Osborne and Nikolas Rose (1999) suggest, in fact, that the rise of opinion polling in the twentieth century is an example of social science actively shaping the phenomena it sought to investigate. For them, by applying survey methods, for example to the investigation of political opinion, social scientists can be seen to help expand the opportunity for the differentiated ‘voice’ of ordinary people to be heard in the public realm. At the same time, opinion polling requires people to take a certain stance on issues if they want to be heard.
In a similar vein, it has been suggested that social science contributes to the development of what has been called ‘the interview society’. According to this idea, the proliferation of the interview in popular culture is another aspect of the democratisation of opinion (Atkinson and Silverman, 1997). This refers to the claim that interviews have become central to how we make sense of who we are. It is a practice that shapes the expectation that people can reveal their motivations and authentic self to expert interviewers, whether this is a journalist, a therapist or detective or, indeed, a social science researcher. This argument holds that qualitative social science methodologies have helped to enact social worlds by shaping a new model of what it is to be a person – a model in which the central idea is that we are all potential informants with something meaningful to say about ourselves and the world around us when interviewed.