Notes for the Law, Savage, Ruppert paper

Juxtaposed and differentiated both from theory, and from substantive courses, these tell us about techniques for knowing the world. Which to choose. How to use them. How to analyse data. And how to present it.

Think back to the methods/methodology courses you have done or are doing. How does this quote mesh with the messages from such courses?

So the paper encourages us to think beyond methods as just the means for getting at “the social”. More likely, in the courses you have or may soon do, there would have been a separation as mapped in the paper between theory, the substantive focus of the research and method.

Then some useful questions, is it so neat and tidy as the separation suggests?

Is theory really big? Does it actually do the methodological and empirical driving? And method? Is method really just technique? The appliance of science? The questions are rhetorical. The answer is: obviously not.

This line of argument may be familiar. The paper gestures to the broad body of work collectively branded as critical, think Habermas, all the various forms of critical social science, action research, and, more recently, the practice turn. The use of various words can make for confusion, particularly the word practice.

The third point made about the methodological complex is a very brief gesture to the problem of representation which gave rise to the work associated with what is generally dubbed, non-representational1. I have put up some brief notes about non-representational theory.

The point is expanded in a way that will rehearse some of the concerns you may have come across so far, notions of bias, and what, in the various methods that are employed to study the social, is left out. All of which is a preamble to developing the argument about the double social life of methods:

First, methods are social because they are constituted by the social world of which they are a part. This step is relatively easy. It is closely allied to cognate arguments made about scientific methods by researchers in STS. But we also take a second step: they are social because they also help to constitute that social world.

So simply put, methods derive from the social but they also help constitute particular realities of the social.

The paper then works to further develop each of the two lives: that of being of the social and that of helping to constitute the social.

The Methods of the Social: I section traces key ideas about the origins of methods, a useful device for thinking about the origins of the methods you may be considering.

So methods have a purpose and they have advocates. They also build on whatever came before.


So that’s the first argument. Social research methods need advocates and some kind of ecological context if they are to survive. They are tools for knowing the world that are of those advocates and ecological circumstances.

The Methods of the Social: II section opens up the notion that methods also enact or perform the social.

The paper uses previous work on research into attitudes in Europe about animal welfare2. Three dimensions to this work are detailed3 The paper maps the assumptions to mount the argument about the performative work done by this survey.

The paragraph about the health warning4 is important.

The paragraph before the final section called Reflections summarises the argument.

A key point to flow from all of this is the situatedness of methods, i.e. that the will to abstract and generalise from case to case is a lot trickier than text books would have you believe. This argument is totally dependent upon the rejection of the separation of reality and its representation.

There is a lot of performative terrain covered in a small number of words. The notion of collateral realities is a useful device developed by Law5.

And perhaps the key paragraph about how to know things differently is:

Typically we think of (a) representations and findings, (b) the realities that relate to these and (we’re saying) are of them, and (c) their advocates and institutional contexts as being quite separate. But if we really want to understand the social life of method and its force then we need to break this separatist habit. We will need to understand that methods inhabit and help to reproduce a complex ecology of representations, realities and advocacies, arrangements and circuits. So survey methods (we pick on these but once again the point is general) inhabit and reproduce ecological forms that fit more or less comfortably together. And, this is important, these are patterns that don’t take kindly to being disrupted. The implication is that there’s a kind of triple lock at work here. And this, if it’s right, makes it very, very, difficult to know differently, to shape new realities, or to imagine different ‘methods assemblages’ or modes of knowing6. For all of these have to be shifted together.

If you have queries please pop them onto Slack on one of the public channels.

Your notebooks should get a good work out as you read and re-read this paper.

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