Last autumn I was delighted to receive a personal invitation to the launch of the new Centre for Methodological Research at Durham University. Research about research – now that really floats my boat!
The invitation said ‘The aim of the Centre is simply to foster the methodological imagination.’ That appealed to me, because I think imagination is both essential to research and undervalued by researchers. They had two international speakers: Professor Teun Zuiderent-Jerak, from Linköping University, talking about ‘sociological experiments in healthcare’ (cross-disciplinary = interesting, to me), and Professor Charles Ragin from the University of California, who I know from his work on Qualitative Comparative Analysis, talking about ‘noise and signal in social research’ which also sounded interesting. And the email ended, ‘We would very much like you to be involved in this given your expertise and interest in methodological research,’ which was flattering.
Beyond that, I didn’t know what to expect. I was a bit nervous about going to Durham in mid-December, figuring it would probably be three feet deep in snow by then, but in fact it was a mild and pleasant day. I reached the venue on time, spotted a couple of people I knew, and was soon deep in conversation over the sandwiches.
There were about 40 people present, most of whom seemed to be from the north-east. After lunch we headed into a comfortable lecture room and settled down for the talks. Several people from Durham University gave brief introductions, saying the usual things about how delighted they were etc etc. Then we heard from the first speaker, who was indeed interesting, followed by time for discussion.
The discussion was interesting too. There was lots of talk about the importance of being collegiate; working with colleagues across disciplinary boundaries; breaking out of the old silo mentalities. But all the talk was about making these changes within academia. I sat on my hands for as long as I could, but eventually one of them shot out from under my bottom and up into the air. When I was called upon to speak, I made a polite but fairly impassioned plea for people to think beyond the academy walls; pointed out that someone already had, because I’d been invited; and tried to make the case for the contribution that independent researchers outside the academy can and do make to social science research. My comments seemed to be quite warmly received, and I felt cheered, and more optimistic.
After a tea break, we heard from the second speaker, who made some good and different points. Then there was more time for discussion. There was lots more talk about the importance of being collegiate; working with colleagues across disciplinary boundaries; breaking out of the old silo mentalities – and guess what? Once again, all the talk was about making these changes within academia. I didn’t even try to sit on my hands this time, and when I was called upon to speak, I said reproachfully, ‘You’re doing it again!’ This time I went further, and talked about practitioner researchers and community researchers as well as independent researchers, and stressed that ignoring the work of all these people would cause the Centre to miss a number of key dimensions of social research as it exists in the world today.
I also mentioned the need for academics to find resources for work with non-academic researchers.
I wonder whether my words fell on any hearing ears.