Talking to Grandma isn’t social science

Yolande StrengersYolande Strengers is a social scientist, Senior Lecturer and ARC DECRA Fellow in the Centre for Urban Research, School of Global Urban and Social Studies, RMIT University. 

Her recently published monograph is titled ‘Smart energy technologies in everyday life’ (Palgrave Macmillan 2013).

Among other things, she’s interested in smart energy technologies and how they’re changing how we live.

She tweets at @yolandestreng.


Building sign that shows the 'Innovation Professor of Suitability' in building 15, level 2, room 07

Professor of Suitability, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

On a bad day, I feel like the social sciences are under siege.

Anyone, it would seem, can do social research. And anyone can make claims about the social world and human condition.

But on what theories and methodologies are these claims founded? What are the consequences for society when everyone is a social expert?

There is nothing wrong with having an opinion, but when opinion holds equal weight to rigorous social science research, or when opinions and dominant paradigms about human action underpin that research, we have a serious problem. Actually, we have several.

In this post, I consider where the problems lie, and how social scientists can begin to reclaim their turf.

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Deadlines schmeadlines

Photo by Levi Saunders | unsplash.com

Photo by Levi Saunders | unsplash.com

[An earlier version of this post appeared on the RED Writing Blog.]

My greatest achievements in academia are produced by my fear of shame and humiliation.

I said this to a colleague recently, and we had a good laugh.

The moment has stayed with me, though, because it’s kind of true.

Our lives are filled with commitments, and we carve our days into brightly coloured slices with the aim of fitting everything in.

The fact that we live lives where we need to ensure we ‘fit in’ relaxing and spending time with friends and family disturbs me on a level that this post isn’t up to articulating.

Instead, I want to talk about deadlines.

Everyone has them. Very few like them. Deadlines set for me by others tend to be much more effective, usually, but I still find myself standing at the edge of the abyss. You can ask for extensions from others, or allow yourself to extend a deadline, but nothing good really comes of doing that.

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Why you should think about thumbnails

My thumb

Selfie (thumbnail), by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

I help artists write grant applications. If you are a practising artist or designer, or you run a grants program that they might apply to, read on…


References for artworks should include thumbnails.

At the moment, following standard referencing rules, a reference list for artworks might look something like this:

With thumbnails, the same list looks like this:

 Boy and girl against brick wall Unidentified photographer 1946, Untitled, Gelatin silver print, 3.5″ x 3.5″, Lee Harris Papers, Anacostia Community Museum, USA, PH 2003.7078.053. Published: Smithsonian Institution on Flickr Commons, 19 May 2008, http://www.flickr.com/photos/smithsonian/2583389433/
 Wistful girl with flowers, soldier in background Unidentified photographer ca. 1915, Untitled, Gelatin silver print, hand applied color, 13.6 x 8.7 cm, George Eastman House Collection, 1973:0126:0015. Published: George Eastman House on Flickr Commons, 3 November 2008, http://www.flickr.com/photos/george_eastman_house/2999562537/
 Young women with hat, stole and umbrella Unidentified photographer n.d., 200714701, Nova Scotia Archives. Published: Nova Scotia Archives on Flickr Commons, 30 October 2014, http://www.flickr.com/photos/nsarchives/15667281365/

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Are academics good (research) administrators?

MurielSwijghuisen-smDr Muriel E Swijghuisen Reigersberg is a visiting fellow at the Music, Mind and Brain Centre, Psychology Department, Goldsmiths’, University of London.

She has a doctorate in applied ethnomusicology focussing on Australian Aboriginal choral singing. Her current research looks at the relationship between music, health and wellbeing from an ethnomusicological, cross-cultural perspective.

Muriel is also a research development officer and occasional acting head of research office at Goldsmiths’, University of London. In this capacity, she oversees the University’s UK grants portfolio, sits on the University ethics committee as a full member, and works on the implementation of the UK government’s open access mandates (among a great many other things). She is on Twitter as @murielSR.


Now, there’s a question.

Being both an academic with a doctorate who still conducts her own research whilst holding down a successful post in research administration, I might be qualified to offer a perspective.

My career trajectory also provides an immediate answer to this question, which is: ‘Yes, academics can be good (research) administrators.’

In my experience, however, academics are not all good at research administration. The reasons for this vary from a general antipathy towards engaging with what is seen to be a form of oppression and managerialism to a genuine personal inability to deal with bureaucracy.

Let’s face it: some people are just terrible at paperwork. And being terrible at paperwork tends to have very little to do with whether you are an academic or not. It’s a personality trait.

In my 09:00-17:00 administrative world, I have often come across the suggestion that ‘our academics’ (sometimes you’d think they are a different species altogether) are incapable of filling in forms accurately and in a timely fashion. Why might this be, I then wonder? I seem to manage form-filling quite well, despite my academic handicap.

Another vague and somewhat circular argument that’s put forward is that academics should not be expected to engage with administration because of their brilliant academic status. Being a Dutch social scientist based in the UK, I question whether the British class system is responsible for such attitudes here. When I spend time with my academic peers at conferences and other such events, I am regaled with tales of woe recounting the oppression, ignorance, and administrative managerialism they face. The usual culprits responsible for causing this lamentable hardship are ‘the University’ or ‘Central Services’ – whoever, or whatever, they are. The world of administration seems to be a faceless mystery to many academics.

To demystify this world a bit – my world of being an academic and administrator – I’d like to offer a more nuanced perspective.

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Hardest things we learned in 2014

The Research Whisperers have had a big year, both on the blog and Twitter, and in their everyday whispering jobs.

This year saw an increasing number of Research Whisperer gigs where lovely people invited us to speak about research + social media, crowdfunding, precarious academic workers, and strategies for grant funding.

We had a lot of fun at these events, and it has been a privilege and pleasure to be involved.

We like the idea of pausing and reflecting and the last post for the year is a good time for it. Last year, we talked about what was best for us in 2013.

This year, we thought we’d talk about what was hardest.

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In defence of the crowd

This post was originally submitted as a comment, in response to Milking the Crowd, by Melonie Fullick at Speculative Diction.

A view of the climate change protest crowd in Melbourne

So many people II, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Melonie has written a thoughtful piece that highlights some of the potential issues with crowdfunding. It is a debate that is worth having. I’m pro-crowdfunding, but I’d be the first to admit that there are issues to be sorted out.

There are specific problems around crowdfunding, but I don’t think that lack of peer review is one of them. While government research funding is usually peer reviewed,  industry and philanthropic funding sources generally aren’t. They are competitive, but they aren’t peer reviewed. Industry funding applications are often selected by a manager or committee, on advice from an in-house expert. They are then approved by a board of directors. Some large philanthropic schemes use peer review, but most don’t. In Australia (and, I’m guessing, elsewhere), most funds are distributed by committee, perhaps on advice from a program manager, who apply a score based on their selection criteria.

Non-expert publics do not have the same priorities as peers in your field, just as industry research sponsors and philanthropic organisations do not have the same priorities as peers in your field.

Crowdfunding is, as you point out, a campaign for donations. Donations to universities for research (which include scholarship funds, professorial chairs, building funds as well as research project funds) are never peer-reviewed, in my experience.

Moreover, this absence of peer review can be recast as a benefit of crowdfunding. There are some areas of promising work that find it very difficult to gain peer support, in part because the go against the common wisdom and, sometimes, because they are reworking areas that are perceived to have been ‘done’ already. There are also some types of research, such as replication studies and taxonomy work, that find it very difficult to secure government funds. The Australian Research Council, for example, explicitly says that it will not fund:

“compilation of data, computer programs, research aids and tools; descriptive data compilations, catalogues or bibliographies; or teaching materials.”

These restrictions don’t apply to crowdfunding.

The Australian Research Council also won’t fund anything less than A$30,000 per annum. In part, this is because peer review is expensive. Crowdfunders are happy to fund small projects: top-up funds, student projects, outreach programs, all sorts of things that it wouldn’t be worth peer-reviewing via a government funding scheme.

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Escaping the ivory tower- if only for a little while

dani-barringtonDr Dani Barrington is a Research Fellow jointly appointed by Monash University and the International WaterCentre.

Her work focuses on water and sanitation in developing communities, meaning she is often referred to as ‘The Toilet Lady’ by strangers and ‘Sani Dani’ by at least one of her friends.

She tweets at @Dani_Barrington.


Detail of Borugak Jagyeongnu, an enormous Korean water clock

The water clock, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Put your hand up if you feel guilty leaving the office at 5pm.

Keep it up if you feel it makes you a ‘bad’ academic.

I realised a few weeks ago that I consider myself a ‘bad’ academic for having a healthy work-life balance. And this really p*ssed me off.

I made a deal with my supervisor when I decided to apply for a PhD: I was over the undergraduate student lifestyle, and I would only do a PhD if I could treat it as a ‘real’ job, where I worked normal hours and took normal holidays.

Otherwise, I was going to accept a graduate position in an engineering firm (the fact that professional engineers may not have a healthy work-life balance was not apparent to me on graduating in 2007, pre-Global Financial Crisis, especially when taking an engineering position in Perth seemed the ‘safe’ option).

I LOVED studying for my PhD – I was making a fortune (well, compared to my previous casual income of $100 a week plus Youth Allowance), I got to work on stuff I was interested in, and I travelled overseas to conferences.

Yet, throughout my PhD, I kept attending seminars where I was reminded that if I wanted to continue in academia I was going to have to dedicate my entire life to the cause, including working weekends and potentially neglecting family obligations.

As a result, I wasn’t that interested in staying in academia when I finished my PhD.

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