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Virtual Methodology?

Virtual Methodology?
Report on the workshop
5th February 2000
CRICT, Brunel University


The aim of this workshop was to examine whether new technologies are the occasion for a new approach to methodology, and if so, what that new approach might be. Crucially, does addressing the new technologies involve small-scale tinkering with methods, or is there an opportunity for a more radical reconceptualisation of methodology? This workshop provided a forum to consider these issues across a range of research topics, and to examine the central question as to whether there are features of the new technologies or the ways in which they are employed which occasion a new approach to methods and methodology.

The workshop was attended by more than 40 participants, including researchers from Japan, US, Canada, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands and comprising established academic researchers, PhD students and a representative from Intel. In an introductory session, Christine Hine sketched out three positions on virtual methodology to be considered during the meeting:

Research in science and technology studies tends to raise problems with the first of these positions. If, as this field has consistently argued, the apparent effects of technologies are not determined by the technology itself, but are the contingent upshots of sets of social relations around the technology, then why should the case be any different for research methods or methodologies? It seems paradoxical to be studying contingent social processes around the technology whilst arguing for determined effects on research methods. At the same time, however, it appears that there might be more fun to be had than the third position seems to suggest. There is undoubtedly much from existing ways of research that should not be swept aside. However, the straightforward "business as usual" model seems to deny both the anxieties and the innovations which this meeting addressed.

These possible positions were fleshed out in presentations from Don Slater (Goldsmiths), David Niece (SPRU) and Yvonne Waern (Linköping). In the afternoon participants were able to discuss these issues in relation to their own research experiences, in discussion sessions on: online informants; studying use in local context; and virtual objects of research.

In concluding remarks, Steve Woolgar suggested that, rather than being mutually exclusive choices, the three positions on virtual methodology described in the introductory session might express our ambivalence about the new technologies. Rather than opting straightforwardly for one of these options we might rather move between them. Woolgar suggested that it was far from surprising that there should be no consensus on the definitive virtual methodology: "This is entirely in tune with what we know from many years of social studies of science. It is only rarely possible to discern a consensual version of "the" methodology that informs scientific practice. Indeed, in general, science does not succeed by following methodological rules. Synoptic statements about "the" methodology are better understood as symbolic acts designed for public consumption. They are the formal face of scientific procedure, which some scientists tend to emphasise when they are talking in honorific situations or giving public versions of what it is that they do. Methodology, according to research in social studies of science, is actually about muddling through. I agree with David (Niece)'s observation, about the kinds of anxieties associated with talks about methodology. Yes, of course, because when we talk about methodology we are implicitly performing who we are, what's the point of what we're doing, which community we belong to, which rules we will allow our work to be adjudged by and so on. And so it is no coincidence, it seems to me, that talk about methodology brings out the moral. It is an extremely anxiety-ridden concept. Methodological tools, in particular our claims about which one is better than another, involve bids for security of membership to a community of research practice." This ambivalent position in relation to virtual methodology fits well with findings emerging from the Virtual Society? Programme on what virtual means and how virtual and real are related: "Virtual tends to be used in interesting ways to mean "almost", that is not quite a real society. In particular, as Marcus (Leaning) put it very well, to what extent can you take real world methods and apply them to the virtual world? Well, an interesting key finding from the virtual society research is that it is not a matter of substituting. The new technologies tend only rarely to substitute for existing activities and organisations. Much more commonly, the virtual ends up sitting alongside the real. Remember the paperless office? We've got email but we still don't have the paperless office. Maybe there's a lesson here for virtual methodology: whatever its techniques and ways of doing things, they won't necessarily substitute for the ways we've been doing things before. They may sit alongside them. How do they relate to the things they sit alongside? Virtual society research suggests that far from displacing the old ones, the new technologies actually feed, stimulate and energise "real" activities. A (by now) classic example is the more you put electronic journals online, the more you increase subscriptions to real journals. Or, the more you put virtual art galleries and museums on the web, the more people actually go to see the real paintings. So the interesting analogy is that our engagement in virtual methodologies may actually stimulate more use of, or more thinking about, the existing (real) methodologies with which we are already familiar."

Following the success of the meeting a mailing list,, was set up. This list currently has 120 subscribers. The text of introduction, presentations and concluding remarks, together with key points raised in discussion sessions, is available at

Christine Hine
Brunel University



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