Methods and methodology in WebSci

Last week I promised a post about the talk I gave at the Montpellier Web Science meet-up. This is that post!

I considered using the slot to discuss the specific research I’ve been doing recently, but decided instead to talk in a more holistic way about methods and methodology. I think this fit well with one of the themes of the day — WebSci and education.

I took a mixed methods approach during my EngD: by ‘mixed methods’ I refer not just to using qualitative and quantitative methods, but also to conducting lab work and field work. Doing that was tough, but very rewarding: my results were much stronger as a result.

However, traditional disciplines often leave us unequipped to deal with mixed methods: for example, as a Computer Scientist, I had access to lots of information and support for conducting quantitative work, but far fewer resources in the qualitative arena. In addition to issues of education about specific methods, there’s also the question of how we understand overall methodology: it’s all very well to comprehend ten different research approaches, but if I don’t know how to combine them in a sensible way, I’m not as well equipped as I may think.

So: Web Scientists need a diverse palette of methods to choose from, and an understanding of what methods are appropriate when.

This is especially important when you consider that in the field of Web Science we’re trying to draw on tools and techniques from multiple disciplines. Communicating across disciplines is hard: consider the assumptions we make on how to do research (for example: engineers like to build things!), and subtle and not-so-subtle differences in the language we use (try talking about ‘deconstruction’ to people from multiple disciplines: they will understand the word in very different ways!). The Q&A after my talk turned into a discussion of how to facilitate such cross-disciplinary communication.

And how do we do that? Well, it’s essential of course to go in with an open mind and some humility: if you think you know everything, you aren’t going to learn a lot. In addition to that, I suspect that actively conducting cross-disciplinary research is a sound approach: I’m talking about learning by doing. For example, how better can you learn about how a sociologist will tackle a problem than by working with one?

What about Web Science and education? I know that Southampton Web Science PhD students have two supervisors from two different disciplines, which seems like a very sensible way to expose students to different epistemologies. Meanwhile, I think it’s important that we as a community engage in a dialogue towards identifying some core methods and methodological approaches. Perhaps this is a topic for discussion at next month’s Web Science Curriculum workshop

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