Chapter 16 – Situated innovations in e-social science

Bridgette Wessels, and Max Craglia

This chapter discusses a co-construction approach by social scientists and computer scientists in the development of multidisciplinary and collaborative e-social science. The opportunity for this discussion arises from the experience of the authors in conducting one of the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC, UK) e-social-science pilot projects in 2003-04. The project explored the opportunities offered by the Grid in addressing the complex relationship between socio-economic characteristics, neighborhoods and crime, which has vexed the field of environmental criminology for several decades. The collective ethnographic approach adopted by the project fostered reflexive development, which we define as ‘situated innovation’. An interpretive approach allowed us to identify barriers to collaborative e-social science, enabling social science to shape the Grid. Enablers include trusted data and research networks, varied skill-sets and the team’s capacity to innovate. In relation to the meaning of e-social science we pose three questions: (1) What are the relationships between technology, research practice and knowledge in producing e-social science; (2) How do social scientists collaborate in doing multidisciplinary work and (3) Why is it important to deconstruct the relationship between theoretical principles and technique? We address the relationship between these questions in the development of e-social science within a sensitizing framework of three interdependent layers of research, which are infrastructural, organizational and philosophical. The significance of this type of analysis is twofold. First, it moves debates about the development of technology beyond the usual dichotomy of design and use that tends to focus on task-based user research, to a level of analysis that considers the underlying philosophical and theoretical knowledge that underpins social science. Second, it raises questions as to the significance of change in relation to the characteristics of the social sciences to indicate the ways in which the social science community may wish to shape e-social science and its tools.