Methods for Change team profile: Ulrike Ehgartner

15th October 2020

Funded Project:
Methods for Change

In this third and final Methods for Change team profile, we are introduced to Ulrike Ehgartner, one of the main researchers on the project team. Ulrike explains her motivation for joining the Methods for Change project, the value of social science methodologies and how this project will seek to make a difference in terms of how these methodologies can add value to non-academic sectors.

To find out more about the rest of the team, check out the recent profiles of Amy Barron and Laura Pottinger.

Tell us a little bit about your background and research. 

My background is in Sociology and Education. In the past, I did lots of commissioned research, much of which was survey and focus-group-based. Since 2014, I have been based at The University of Manchester, conducting research on questions related to environmental issues, social inequality, agency and behaviour change. I am particularly interested in the conditions that make societal change happen as well as in the meanings that processes of change have to different groups of people. 

What was your motivation for getting involved in the Methods for Change project? 

A key motivation stems from my own research interest in culturally shared ideas about governance and agency for social change. I believe that as social scientists we can make a difference in this regard. Change through research is often understood to happen when others, for example professionals in the industry or in the public sector, take up and use that research. I think this is key to the work of social scientists, and Methods for Change is designed to promote such collaboration. But I also believe that as social scientists we open – or close – doors to social change already through the ways in which we conduct research. The ways in which we approach research questions and how we ‘go into the field’ and interact with our participants are factors which in themselves hold potential for social change. In action research, for example, researchers collaborate with the research participants. The idea behind it is to hand over power from the researcher to research participants. In this way, the research approach in itself breaks with, and reconfigures, predispositions of governance and agency. Our team explores and seeks to uncover this capacity of social science research, and the impact it can have on the wider world.

Why are social science methodologies not currently having the impact that they should? 

I think social science research is too often thought of only as questionnaire or interview surveying to interrogate people’s preferences, attitudes, traits or behaviours. This understanding of our work is reinforced in multiple ways. For example, most social science research that the general population is surrounded by, and perhaps occasionally involved in, is market research, which tries to understand consumer attitudes and expectations – mostly by applying survey studies. Funding programs and universities themselves are also complicit in reinforcing this assumption. For example, interdisciplinary research projects are often set up by research groups of the so-called ‘hard sciences’, who then attempt to ‘integrate’ the social sciences. Being added on to a project, rather than framing it, our work is then often predetermined and limited to input for strategic interventions and instrumental solutions, for which, again, survey studies are well suited. This limited understanding of what social science methodologies can do perhaps also confines what people in various sectors think they can ‘get’ from bringing social science approaches into their organisation or to the communities and customers that they are working with.  

How will the Methods for Change initiative make a difference in this area? 

Methods for Change sets out to raise awareness of wide ranging, creative approaches and tools that are applied by social scientists amongst academics and practitioners. It will collate social science knowledge and experience with various research methodologies and liaise with a range of stakeholders, including those from industry, charities and in the public sector, in order to establish potential applications of our work. Based on these insights, non-jargoned, accessible guides on social science methodologies will be developed and shared with people in and outside of academia. In this way, we push ourselves and our colleagues to think deeper about the application of our work in various contexts and to embrace the diversity and richness of our methods. At the same time, practitioners will be familiarised with, for example, less known visual, participatory and policy-led methods and aided to develop a deeper understanding of how various methods can be meaningfully applied in the social contexts they operate in.  

What types of research methods do you use in your own work? 

Most of the work that I have conducted since I have joined The University of Manchester can be placed within discourse analytical methodologies. Discourse analysis is different from other approaches in the sense that it does not take what people say or write as face value. So, unlike for example behavioral and cognitive approaches of social science, discourse analysis does not consider contents of documents or interview answers as the product of the speaker or writer alone. Instead, it considers how producers of texts reproduce concepts and associations that are available in the public domain of their socio-cultural context. In other words: When people talk, they draw on culturally shared repertoires and, for example, reference common contextual backgrounds, identify protagonists and antagonists, and imply factuality. Discourse analysis reveals what we take for granted and as ‘natural’, sometimes to the extent that we do not even talk about them anymore.

Within this framework, I have applied a wide range of methods, such as document analysis of various types of materials, interviews, and ethnographic approaches. In my PhD research, I used a combination of these methods to establish how professionals working in or with the food sector make sense of sustainability issues and what ‘sustainable consumption’ means to them. I have also experimented with methods of narrative production with a focus on future imaginaries and worked with the Mass Observation Project to better understand the cultural, social and political schemata that ordinary people draw upon when they articulate ideas about the future of consumption.  

How will being part of the Aspect network support the work you’re planning to undertake? 

Although we cover a wide range of research methodologies within our team, there is much more exciting research out there that the wider world should know about! The established network of Aspect partners allows us to bring on board academics from diverse disciplinary backgrounds based at a range of UK partner institutions, such as the Universities of Cardiff, Glasgow, Sheffield and Sussex. These connections have been vital for us to widen the areas of expertise we can draw from. The conversations we have with researchers from partner institutions have proved inspirational to our own learning process and their involvement will enrich the materials we will produce. Also – needless to say – bringing on board people from various places expands the reach of our project immensely.  

Find out more about Methods for Change.

Photo credit: Jelleke Vanooteghem via Unsplash

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