PhD studentship proposal: combining biographical research with social network analysis

Proposed supervisors: Graham Crow, Lynn Jamieson and Gils Viry (University of Edinburgh)

The perceived over-reliance of social researchers on the use of surveys and interviews and the development of a wide range of methodological innovations has led to an embarrassment of riches for researchers when considering how to undertake their enquiries. Not only has methodological pluralism become the order of the day, in the process filling the researcher’s ‘tool box’ to overflowing; there has also been growing recognition of the potential brought by mixing methods. However, if the list of choices involving single research methods is large and growing, it follows that the number of potential combinations that could be brought together is vast and becoming potentially unmanageable. The NCRM typology of research methods in the social sciences lists literally dozens of methods, and if even if only one dozen of these were selected and only simple pairings of methods allowed, there would still be 132 possible combinations, such as behavioural research and case study research, or conversation analysis and event history analysis. Some pairings are well-established (e.g. interviews and observations) while others may be hard to conceive as remotely plausible because of the gulf separating them (e.g. ethnography and structural equation modelling), but in between these two extremes lies a broad field of potentially interesting and imaginative combinations of methods which have yet to be brought together in practice.

This proposal identifies the combination of biographical research with social network analysis as its focus. These apparently discrete methods, concerned respectively with the collection and analysis of oral histories, interviews and documents through which an individual life can be known and understood, and the collection and analysis of material relating to patterns of connectedness between members of social groups, actually turn out to have much in common. This is especially the case where biographical research is undertaken in a way that emphasises the connectedness of the people being studied with significant others in their lives, and where social network analysis grapples with the challenge of investigating how the networks of key individuals within them evolve over time. There is nothing in the principles on which the two approaches are founded that prohibits intercourse with the other, and much to recommend the idea that biographical researchers will ask interesting and fruitful questions of social network analysis and vice versa. Both approaches are enjoying rising popularity as measured by downloads of ‘What is?’ presentations on the NCRM website (Molly Andrews on narrative interviewing and John Scott on Social Network Analysis ) and while some biographical analysis can focus overly on one individual while some SNA can become highly mathematical, it remains the case that both can contribute to realising Charles Wright Mills’s view of sociology as the study of where biography meets history.

It is proposed that this investigation of the potential, and also the pitfalls, of bringing biographical research and social network analysis together can be done through focussing on one person’s academic life and networks as a case study. That person is Ann Oakley, whose academic career began in the 1960’s and is on-going. She is one of John Scott’s Fifty Key Sociologists (Scott 2007). In the course of her career she has had a trajectory through numerous research projects involving dozens of co-authors and collaborators, although her networks do not stop there because people significant in the understanding of that trajectory also include research participants, colleagues, adversaries and policy-makers in academic and political debates, research funders, research users, and ‘ghosts’ of people no longer alive, such as her father Richard Titmuss, and her father’s contemporary about whom she wrote a biography, Barbara Wootton (A Critical Woman, 2011). Oakley has herself already provided much information about her academic life which is in the public domain, such as her semi-autobiographical Taking It Like A Woman (Oakley 1984), her reflections of the significance of her father’s influence in Man and Wife (Oakley 1996) and Father and Daughter (Oakley 2014) a book already enthusiastically reviewed  and she is also among the pioneers of social research about whom the UK Data Service has in-depth life story interviews and in addition she is one of 60 feminist contributors to Sisterhood and After: the Women’s Liberation Oral History Project at the British Library  Her archives will also be going to the British Library, with that process starting in mid-2015.

But such material is capable of being supplemented through the collection and analysis of additional material, including interviews with significant others in her networks about how those networks developed. By being told from other points of view and with the purpose of exploring the relative merits of biographical research and social network analysis, such interviews have the potential to reveal much about the methodological practices of researching and writing lives. Ann Oakley will be an active participant in the research as it seeks to provide answers to its core questions, how do social networks figure in the telling of a life, and what is the nature of the individual in the analysis of a social network? Besides interviews with Ann Oakley and with key significant others in her academic networks past and present, additional material to be drawn upon in the research will include published material that sheds light on the ways in which biography can be told (for example through the poetry, novels and short stories that she has published), archival material relating to projects, publications, conferences and correspondence. It will also grapple with how to conceptualise things other than people (such as feminism as a set of ideas and as a social movement) in both biographical research and social network analysis. And it will do this with the purpose of connecting to key issues in qualitative longitudinal research, such as how do social networks and the people who make them up change over time, and what methods are best equipped to capture these things?

It is envisaged that Year 1 of this +3 studentship starting in October 2015 would be devoted to familiarisation with the issues, undertaking further training in required methods, refining the research design, and securing ethics approval; year 2 would be devoted to the fieldwork and preliminary analysis of findings; and year 3 to completion of analysis and writing up, along with taking opportunities for further training that are at the heart of the subject matter of the research.

This is a standard ESRC studentship and can only be offered on a +3 (PhD only) basis. It can be full or part-time. You should have an upper second or first class honours degree in a relevant social science discipline and an MSc with ESRC recognition for research training or equivalent. Candidates with biographical or social network research experience, either in a substantial research component in their undergraduate degrees, an ESRC recognised research training Masters course, or other prior research, will be at an advantage. You must also meet the ESRC requirements for residential eligibility.

Interviews will be held by Skype if necessary, otherwise in Edinburgh in early March. The University year commences in September 2015.

Please apply with a CV, the names of two referees, and a statement of application which makes clear why you are interested in the project, and what skills, attributes and understanding you are likely to bring to it. Applications must arrive by Monday 2nd February before 5 p.m. and should be sent to and ALSO COPIED WITHOUT FAIL TO


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