Panel 24

Questioning the material and infrastructural dimensions of social research: methods, tools and practices

Organizers: Attila Bruni (1); Paolo Magaudda (2)

1: University of Trento, Italy; 2: University of Padua, Italy

Topics: Methodological challenges in a more-than-human world

Keywords: research practices, digital tools&methods, infrastructure, online ethnography

In the last decade, social research practices have intensely evolved. The increasing digitalization of everyday life (including the prominence of internet-based interactions and the proliferation of social media and digital platforms) led to the introduction of new digital tools, techniques and artefacts for data collection and analysis. At the same time, also the traditional material infrastructure of ethnographic and qualitative research (pen, notebook, camera, tape recorder) has been sided by new digital devices and technologies (smartphone, software for qualitative analysis, online data repositories).

While a reflexive turn in social research led to problematize the supposed neutrality of the researcher and of the accounts that s/he produces, the same cannot be said in reference to technologies, infrastructures and artifacts today adopted by researchers and research collectives. From a STS perspective, tools, artefacts and techniques are not just inert objects, but active elements in building the relationship with the field and in constructing research outcomes. New digital tools and methods (e.g. data mining, topic modelling, or sentiment analysis), together with the rhetoric that sustain them, require to be understood for their non-neutral role in producing knowledge, carefully inspecting their scripts and internal logic, as for any other technique, software, or epistemic object. As it is common in STS, the point is not whether digital tools are new or old, but how can they be configured to further develop social research and how do they configure social research itself. For instance, several new research tools basically rely on old forms of statistical analysis; and big data or so called ‘naturally occurring data’ are not ‘natural’ at all, as digital contents and actions are often highly formatted and standardized. This also applies to search engine query data (which very much depend on the way the search engine itself works), and to software for qualitative analysis (with their own internal logic) or online ethnographies (where the digital infrastructure set the possibilities of action and observation). In a few words, the current reshaping of digital methods, online ethnographic works and the data generated with these approaches raise much more questions and controversies that they aspire to solve:

Accordingly, main topics of interest of this panel include, but are not limited to:

  • Technical and material infrastructures of social research in today’s digital society;
  • challenges and changes in research practices since the adoption of digital-based research tools;
  • materialities of digital ethnography, digital methods and software-based analysis;
  • maintenance and repair practices in research infrastructures and artefacts of social research;
  • challenges posed by platforms, social media and other internet-based environments to established methodologies in social sciences;
  • technical standardization and interpretative situatedness in data collection and analysis.