It's better to be approximately right than to be exactly wrong
- Carveth Read
Social behaviour, its locations, and its artefacts are investigated by a manifold of scientists and disciplines, and the diversity of methods reflects the variety of scholarship. Being the largest social science research school in the Netherlands, we harbour a substantial portion of these methods, and aspire to learn and develop yet more methods in the future.
The Methods Expertise Center wants to facilitate access to, and training in, methods that match the research goals of our PhD students and staff. We do so through presentations, crash-courses, and by making accessible current expertise on the web. We broker methodological demand and expertise. In this role we also give feedback on grant proposals, or recruit experts who may do so. We foster methodological innovation, not for its own sake but related to the substantive content of research projects at hand. The MEC is not a geek squad, though: if you don't know how to solve your practical problem in SPSS, GIS, or ATLAS.ti, follow a course!
The variety of methodological expertise in the AISSR often reflects different ontological and epistemological standpoints. We strive for discussions between these standpoints, pragmatism, and for question-based research. We do not see methods as inevitably linked to a single ontological or epistemological position, but rather as tools to be used and combined given the research questions to be answered.
When we start out with scholars’ needs and means to grasp social life, a typology of methods emerges naturally. First of all, social scientists want to know about the variety of social behaviour in daily life, and study it unobtrusively with a minimum of disturbances on their part. To this end there is a portfolio of field methods, of which ethnography readily jumps to mind. Research on mirror neurons and the biological foundations of empathy shows that ethnography is less subjective than its critics believed, and can yield testable and fairly accurate knowledge, just like other scientific methods can. Moreover, it can be used for those people who can’t be reached through survey methods or the Internet. It can be enhanced through video recordings, and complemented by the analysis of written documents. As the Internet has become an important source of data, which are amenable to automated mining and content analysis. When large numbers of people are studied, either online or offline, and one is interested in systematic comparisons or in magnitudes of certain effects, survey methods are often used as well as statistical models. Geographic methods, in turn, show the spatial distributions of social behaviour and its artifacts. Finally, social badges or phones can provide longitudinal geographic and social data in one stroke. All these field methods of data collection and interpretation are at the core of our interests.
The AISSR has developed a procedure for the ethical review of research plans. The aim is for you to devote time and effort to thinking through and making explicit how your research plans will lead to good research, not only in a methodological sense but also in another sense, call it social, ethical, aesthetic or something else.
One might be easily tempted to choose one method above others, and within the limited time frame of a single project this might be a sensible choice. But bear in mind that drawing boundaries between methods, such as qualitative versus quantitative, has proven to be hopelessly counter-productive. The Methods Expertise Center cultivates bridges, not boundaries.
The general point is that for our brains to comprehend the complexities of social life, we are best served by a multitude of methods that complement each other, such that our knowledge is testable, clear, general where possible, and relevant -- by providing insight in causal relations or otherwise. As no single method serves all these noble causes, the MEC will strive for methodological promiscuity.