One Year In Research, Part I: Giving Birth to a Research Project

I have now been at the Department of Science and Technology Studies at University College London for one year.  This is a length of time which traditionally provokes retrospection, so I’m going to do a couple of posts reflecting on the early parts of the PhD process.  This one is about the development of my specific project on online science enthusiast communities; the next will be about the PhD student experience more generally.

At the same time as I made a physical movement into UCL, I also made a disciplinary movement from history and philosophy of science to more sociological science and technology studies.  As a sociologist, I am therefore one year old.  I can just about walk unaided, but if I try and say anything it comes out as an adorable mess.  Nonetheless, after months of playing with theories and questions and methods I can triumphantly announce:




*Fanfare dies down awkwardly*

My research question is this: How are meanings of science constructed in interactions within Online Science Social Groups (OSSGs)?  Now I know it’s catchy, but there’s also a serious point underlying it.  To do a brief deconstruction:

  • ‘OSSGs’ (© Me, 2014) are interactive websites in which users discuss ‘science’ broadly, for general fun rather than specified normative/practical output. Think of I Fucking Love Science, rather than activist groups.1
  • ‘Interactions’ is a deliberately vague term referring to any use of the site. I say deliberately vague because, although starting from the view that ‘people come to OSSGs to be educated about science’ or ‘people come to OSSGs to engage with science’ would make it a damn sight easier to pin myself onto a specific field of academic literature, it would also miss the huge and chaotic variety of things that go on within websites.  Amusing memes can lead to education which can lead to socialisation which can lead to activism.  C’est la internet.
  • ‘Meanings of science’ – this is where it gets clever (ish). The word meaning has a double meaning.  Think of the question ‘what does science mean to you?.  This could be translated as ‘what do you think science means literally?’, with answers like ‘science is a body of knowledge’ or ‘science is a method of investigation’.  Or it could be translated as ‘what significance does science have for you?’, with answers like ‘science makes me feel clever’ or ‘science makes more things possible for me’.  The interesting question is how these two relate – watch this space [disclaimer: for quite a while].

That’s a rushed job, but I reckon to fully flesh that out would take roughly 7595 words.  But as I’ve argued before, I think that an autobiographical account is a valuable alternative narrative to the more recognisable literature review, so that’s what I’m going to offer here.  Once upon a time, I entered university doing a natural sciences degree, intending to focus on physics.  Then Really Not Fun Maths started happening, I began missing words, and I moved into History and Philosophy of Science.  I’d also always been interested in science communication, so I naturally ended up looking at work relating to the popular sphere.  It was during this time, in the dingey back alley of a library somewhere, that I was first offered a try of Public Engagement with Science (PES).  This is a discipline dedicated to moving away from one-way transmission of scientific knowledge from labs to the rest of the world (usually via media or governmental organisations), and opening up conversations where experiences and perspectives from people who aren’t scientists can still contribute to science and science policy.  And it’s good stuff.

This first PES scholarship I encountered was heavily focussed on political issues, particularly around science policy.  This is unsurprising, given this makes up the vast bulk of PES literature.  But, without wanting to downplay its importance (as I’d quite like to stay in my department for a bit longer) this didn’t quite reflect the world of science I was familiar with – a space of enthusiasm, not necessarily directed towards any practical output.  In one of those ‘reading a paper which changes everything’ moments, I was introduced to a wonderful paper on “The Value of Science Dialogue Events that Do Not Inform Policy” by Sarah Davies, Ellen McCallie, and colleagues.  This corroborated my impression that the PES literature was dominated by policy-based concerns; but the authors approached this from a different angle to my early ideas by drawing on personal experience of museums, science centres, and other fun science-themed days out.  This brought in the element of enjoyment and enthusiasm I recognised, but it was still quite formal and orderly.  There were still the ‘scientists’ and the ‘audiences’; and the conversations were still prompted by exhibits or lecture topics or so on, carefully designed and evaluated by professional designers and evaluators.  Again there’s nothing wrong with this per se, but it’s still a different world from the spontaneous conversations and pub arguments I associate with science, where it was never quite clear who was right and there weren’t professionally-placed prompts.  In those circumstances, I suggest, you see different ‘meanings’ of science emerging; ones prompted less by the sight of a museum exhibit or the aims of a political consultation, and more by the personal factors of the people who happen to be present.

So I’m not looking at social media because I’m interested in social media in itself, or because I like to put procrastination-beating on hard mode, but rather because it serves as an observable and recordable proxy to these sorts of chaotic and unstructured conversations.  An alternative would be to sit in pubs waiting to overhear sciencey conversations; but that throws up two methodological problems, namely ‘beer funding’ and ‘my liver’.  And I’m not looking at social media because I want to improve social media as a tool of science engagement.  Again this is in contrast to much of the literature on political consultations and museum-esque engagement, which does seek evaluation and improvement.  These more structured case-studies are great from that point of view: they allow you to see what happens when different factors are varied or tried out, and allow you to combine unobstrusively watching participants with directly asking them about their experiences.  But that doesn’t necessarily make them good at describing the more unstructured stuff happening around, outside, and between their studies.  The risk, I feel, is focussing on details of particular cases and pushing aside the bigger picture.

But that’s starting to sound like the actual literature review, so I’ll end by noting two reasons why I think I find this question interesting and important (for now).  Despite being more about describing than evaluate-and-improving, I do intend this project for a sort of second-order betterment – trying to provide something broad and diffuse that a range of other projects can more easily draw on.  And that’s looking away from the structure of settings and instead towards the people taking part in them.  After all, the presence of people is one of the factors constant across pretty much all engagement activities, and seeing how such people behave in situations of minimal structure could help give a bit of empirical flesh to the imagined audience of public engagement.  The appeal of this approach predates even my encounter with PES scholarship.  Back in my physics days I definitely appreciated the theoretical side more than the applied – much as I saw the obvious direct importance of applied physics, I was always drawn to the broad and diffuse ideas underneath and between all those applications.  Self-psychoanalysis suggests that’s going on in my social science life too.  What interests me is that these are the two personal interests that motivated me into this project in the first place, and despite the year of playing around they’ve resurfaced just as I finish reading around and sally forth to data collection.  Maybe that’s yet more evidence that personal factors simply can’t be pushed out of scholarship, but instead are to be welcomed and built on.  Or maybe that’s just me refusing to grow up.

1 = Though of course the interesting thing is how these can feed into one another…

2 = The great thing about the internet, of course, is that you can still do that.

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2 Responses to One Year In Research, Part I: Giving Birth to a Research Project

  1. Pingback: Whewell's Ghost

  2. Hello Sideways,

    Here are the questions/comments I have in relation to your talk at Stories about Science, which I really enjoyed by the way. Sorry for the essay in advance – I’m sure none of this is anything new to you!

    It occurs to me that there are lots of interactions that you can’t scrape for on facebook. You spoke about the IFLS page, and I agree it’s very clear that visible interaction such are sharing, liking and commenting in it’s various forms surrounds funny or contentious posts. I think that is probably true regardless of the facebook page, however, it’s certainly true on the more political pages I am involved with – so it’s a comment about social media comms generally and how we interact with it, rather than science/education specifically.

    What I’m interested in is the more invisible interaction – the ones that a lot of big pages are working hard for – clicks through to external sites, which is generally where the educational stuff lies. How are you accounting for that, if you are able to at all? Have you thought about contacting/are you in contact with any of these large science pages, with a view to looking at investigating that further?
    As a side note, have you compared IFLS with I Fucking Hate Pseudoscience?

    I wonder how often these more invisible interactions relate to posts existing in the middle of that contentious/funny spectrum, that are more solidly about research and news that people may be reading, and clicking on and even learning from and using, but for whatever reason do not comment on, or like, or share. Some posts are not ‘likeable’ because they may be negative for instance.

    I suppose what I’m trying to say is that social media is designed to boost and reward ‘popular’ content, which currently is defined very specifically. And pages therefore have to work within that remit toward whatever agenda they have. Across the board.

    An observation: With a great deal of facebook pages, the like count is directly related to the name of that page. Page likes are becoming statements in themselves, not merely subscriptions. When someone sees a post their friend has liked from a page like “I Fucking Love Science” even if they didn’t engage with the post, they may be drawn to the name, and want to wear that as a badge.

    Facebook is forever changing, but for a long time when you liked a page it came up in your friends feeds. I once liked a page and in my feed it read ‘Sofia like “Nerds with Vaginas”‘. This created a flurry of likes from my friends. But I barely see that page anymore, because I don’t interact with it (even if I wholeheartedly agree with the statement I made in liking it).

    Facebook algorithms are dictating our streams, which in turn affects the posts pages put out. Their struggle (I know from experience) is staying in people’s feeds whilst creating the posts they want to share. It’s a fine balance, and often we can find that the agenda is no longer being set by the page, but by the audience it has attracted.

    I don’t expect an essay back, by the way!

    Thanks for reading,

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