I attended the Social Research Association annual conference today to better understand how innovations in social research can support social justice. I wanted to share some highlights for people who were not able to attend.
It was an interesting event with 120 delegates from a wide range of sectors, methods, and interests.
The conference started with Professor John Curtice explaining how social research data trends showed that the leave vote was inevitable – and yet that intel was not used then or now. For example people over 65 without a degree were the most likely group to vote leave – so what does that mean we should do as a society? Knowing such trends, for me, is just not enough – we need to get to meaningful action too.
I attended a workshop on Big Data by Tom Smith from the Office of National Statistics who outlined its promising potential to transform the research landscape. This was well countered by Gerry Nicolaas from the NatCen for Social Research however with profound questions about the quality of such data sets (Flikr photos – really?), the ethics of accessing this data, its production of ‘what’ results rather than ‘why’ results, and abandonment of theory as an underpinning. Whilst I can see the cost and time benefits of this type of research, it seems to be a tool only open to large corporates or governmental organisations who can buy or coerce organisations into sharing it, rather than being accessible to small scale front line researchers like me. There are inherent issues in who can access it, but potentials in how it could perhaps be used to great advantage if focussed on questions of social justice. For me, the jury is out on Big Data.
Prof Jennifer Rubin CEO of the Economic and Social Research Council portrayed the complexity of the context for contemporary research, a sentiment echoed by Prof Trish Greenhalgh from Oxford University. The world in incontrovertibly complex and the speakers proposed that social research is the only method capable of responding to these complexities. This does resonate well to social justice where all issues are nested and interconnected and where human impact needs to be considered against public attitudes and objective data. I fully believe that democratic knowledge production through co-produced, participatory action research can bring about change for the people who most need it.
The final workshop I attended was a practical session on why and how to communicate research findings in infographics – this for me was the most potent session. These visual formats have the potential to make research findings immediately accessible by a range of stakeholders. This is exciting and potentially transformative!
I am left feeling that social research continues to be an important form of research that will increasingly be needed to address the increasingly complex needs of society. Some new tools, some new debates, but many of the old issues remain – status, standing, scope, knowledge democracy and funding.
I’d love to hear what you think…..