The lived experience of interdisciplinarity in social research

By Murray Goulden

My first experience of interdisciplinarity was genuinely exciting to be a part of. To some degree of course the quality of the experience was shaped by the particular focus of research, and the characters of those on the team. But fundamentally, the work of attempting to understand a shared problem, and enact a shared solution, was deeply satisfying, often surprising, very difficult in usually a good way, and only on occasion terrifyingly overwhelming.

As the talk of ‘solution’ suggests, this was interventionary project, tasked with achieving ‘impact’. Public Access Wi-Fi Service (PAWS) was an Internet access model by which existing domestic broadband connections could securely share a small slice of connectivity (2mb) with others living close by. In doing so it would address one barrier to online access, that of cost (and/or credit worthiness). It was never intended to address absences of relevant skills or positive meanings, but previous work suggested that cost was a big enough hindrance for enough of those categorised as ‘digitally excluded’ that it was worthwhile to tackle on its own.

At the time, and still today, this struck me as a noble goal to pursue. We cited a UN report that spoke of digital access as a human right, and whilst acknowledging the limitations imposed by today’s privatised market orthodoxy, spoke of the possibilities of a National Broadband Service. To be genuinely invested in the social value in your project is enormously beguiling, perhaps dangerously so in hindsight.

Our approach felt resolutely socio-technical. Computer scientists would create the software which carried this transformational potential; two sociologists (of which I was one) would study its deployment in a real world setting. We would do it at scale – up to 50 installations – and at the margins – a socio-economically troubled inner city estate. This was ‘in-the-wild’ research of a kind that simply isn’t done (perhaps with good reason given what followed). The ‘wild’ of technology deployments is often rather tame – it is outside the lab, but it’s a world conterminous with the white, middle class and educated inside. By necessity of seeking out the digitally excluded, we had to go further, venturing “across the parking lot” (Kjeldskov & Skov 2014) and beyond.

In hindsight it is easy to disassemble this endeavour and critique the techno-utopianism which lay at the heart of it. That though is not what I want to write about, certainly not directly, not least because PAWS still feels to me to have been genuinely brave, and if it was flawed, it tried. The detachment of side-line critique is easy by comparison.

What I do want to write about is the experience of doing PAWS. Judged by its starting goals, PAWS ultimately failed. We – the sociologists – never really got to study PAWS in its intended setting. Instead, we worked, endlessly, at embedding it in the setting. We rarely got to step back and observe. The work of embedding a research technology in a setting is little spoken of. Rare exceptions include Peneff’s (1988) study of French fieldworkers carving out the necessary agency to adapt formalised, large scale survey instruments to localised conditions, and Tolmie et al. (2009) on ‘digital plumbing’, that is of reconciling deployed technologies with the social worlds in which they are to be set loose. Here I want to highlight three challenges that emerged from this work of embedding. These are discussed in detail in our paper (Goulden et al 2016) [Open Access], where we also offer some means of resolving them. I merely introduce them here.

Problems of time: When, as sociologists, we approached this collaboration with computer scientists, we were aware of a long history of ethnographic work within CS, primarily in the form of the subdiscipline of Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW). We failed to appreciate that PAWS was different from the canonical CSCW study, in which an existing or novel technology is studied within an organisational setting. Perhaps the single most important difference was this question of embedding – in the typical CSCW study, the embedding is being done by the organisation, and the ethnographer is there to study it. We were attempting to do both, simultaneously. Furthermore, our setting – a marginalised inner city estate – was significantly more socially ‘distant’ from us, as middle class white-collar professionals, than any typical office might be. The result of these differences was that the work was slow. There was not prospect here of ‘quick and dirty’ ethnography of the kind which is commonplace is traditional technology-led projects.

The cadence of the work was entirely out of kilter with that of computer science. This is a field in which talk of iterative, “agile” development abounds, where ‘Moore’s Law’ dictates that the capacity of the underlying technology doubles every 18 months, where Mark Zuckerberg extols the mantra of “move fast and break things”. As strangers, and guests, in a foreign land, we could not afford to break anything. It wasn’t that the computer science work was constantly ahead of us. Rather that the development cycles of the two disciplines were rarely in sync, which greatly complicated everything else.

Digital plumbing:  in turning attention to the work of installing deployed research tech in homes and other non-lab settings, Tolmie et al. (2009) were drawing attention to how fundamentally socio-technical this work is. This was all the more so in PAWS, where the division of the work into lab-based ‘technical’ labour, and real world ‘social’ labour was split cleanly between technologists and sociologists. The work of doing the embedding of technology was all our own then. The task did not appear overly complicated – plugging-in additional routers in the houses of those ‘sharing’ their signal, and installing software on the devices of those making use of this signal. The latter commonly threw up all kinds of errors and snags which slowed us down, but in and of itself was rarely insurmountable.

What was more so was the range of the Wi-Fi which underpinned the entire system. Huge amounts of additional labour were generated by the fact that Wi-Fi signal strength was highly unpredictable. Sometimes, due to the specific local material circumstances – the positioning of walls, trees, inclines etcetera – it travelled far further than anticipated. More often it didn’t come close. We had been caught out here not by the labour which falls between disciplines, but by the knowledge. It turns out that real world Wi-Fi performance is a poorly understood phenomenon, beyond perhaps very specific niches. As one of the computer scientists on the team summarised:

Radio physicists know what the answer is in theory; the lab engineers know what the answer is by simulation; computer scientists don’t care what the range is, they care what the throughput or latency is.

The greatest challenge for our fieldwork came when this technical labour combined with the demand for emotional labour. Peneff (1988) speaks of the means by which fieldworkers “cope” with the many ambiguities and tensions of fieldwork, in a setting in which they must execute a formalised task in manner naturalistic enough that the human participant might engage as if it was a conversation with a trusted acquaintance. Trying to deduce why an iPad was refusing to connect to PAWS – instead complaining of an ‘Out of date security certificate’ – whilst simultaneously presenting the required attention and sympathy towards a participant met five minutes earlier, who was now relating her recent ordeal at the local hospital following a heart scare, it was difficult for us not to look on Peneff’s fieldworkers with envy. This simultaneous performance of emotional and technical labour, orientating to both human and non-human, is a challenge particular to this form of fieldwork.

Going native: Doing interdisciplinarity means stepping outside traditional discipline boundaries and making a commitment to meaningful engagement with what may be very different logics of enquiry. There is a balancing act to be done here. As social scientists we should maintain a critical appraisal of the technological programme and its conception of the setting. Perhaps too enamoured by the laudable goals of PAWS, we did not always do this, becoming too close to the project’s “technical boosterism” (Savage 2015).

Within PAWS this was realised in how our original plan constituted its participants. During these initial stages, the greatest concern amongst the project team was that PAWS might fail to find enough residents willing to act as sharers. It was easy to adopt the computer scientists’ concerns that the notion of sharing a resource with strangers would be rejected by many, or that security fears might prove insurmountable. Those using the system were less of a concern: it was thought that the combination of free access to the Internet and a £50 voucher for participating in the research would be sufficiently compelling for those with limited resources.

In hindsight it became clear that in buying into PAWS’ technological programme we had been insufficiently sensitive to the social orientations of those we were seeking out. We were appraising the project through the eyes of the technologists not the members of the setting. Those using the system were liable to be amongst the most marginalised of a marginalised community. The implications of this for the door-to-door recruitment we conducted are made clear in McKenzie’s (2015) ethnography of life on inner city estates (actually conducted on another Nottingham estate just 3 miles away from ours). She writes

it was actually very impolite to turn up unannounced. This practice was always about risk management – there was a lot of fear and suspicion on the estate, fear of the unannounced visitor, which meant the police, the ‘social’, the TV licensing people. It always meant problems, and doors would not be opened if they didn’t know who was on the other side of it. (p. 89)

Our experience of going door-to-door seemed to support McKenzie’s account: potential users of the system were hard to find, and many properties never answered the door, despite knocking on more than one occasion, and often when it was clear someone was home. The result was that we never recruited anything like as many users as we hoped for, and this was ultimately where the project failed to achieve its original goals.


Where PAWS succeed was in demonstrating some of the challenges to be overcome if we are to become serious about doing ‘in the wild’ research. In turning increasingly towards applied, technology-led research, directed towards specific ‘social problems’, we overlook at our peril the work of embedding, both as a task in itself, and in what it implies for interdisciplinary collaboration.

Goulden et al. 2016

Kjeldskov & Skov. 2014.

Tolmie et al., 2009

McKenzie, 2015

Peneff, 1988

Categories: Digital Sociology, Interdisciplinarity

Tags: ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *