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Citizen social science methods for social research

Citizen Social Science is a form of participatory social research which engages the wider public directly in the social research process.

Man at train station

The methodology covers a range of activities but centrally involves citizens taking a role in different phases of social science research including, for example, data gathering, coding and analysis. Citizen Social Science can be as simple as volunteers gathering observation data as they go about their usual activities but can include higher levels of participation and involvement including in the design and write up of social research.

Crowd-sourcing experts

Citizen Social Science has close links with citizen science where volunteers contribute to research such as, for example, observing galaxies, weather and environmental monitoring including air pollution, finding fossils and counting wildlife. Volunteers are also already being engaged through gaming tools to help code data such as, for example, identifying cancer cells from images within a game. These crowd-sourcing approaches are a way of increasing research capacity to large-scale data problems.

Citizen participation

Citizen Social Science uses such crowd-sourcing and other citizen involvement techniques to address a social research question. We can see precursors to Citizen Social Science in the Mass Observation movement in the UK in the early 20th Century where volunteers submitted reports of observations they made of local life. 

The role of the citizen in Citizen Social Science is different to volunteering to participate in a research study such as giving an interview, joining a focus group or responding to a survey, as it is about citizens gathering and coding data about the world they observe around them. The citizens are the observers.

Citizen Social Science based approaches can help address un-researched areas and gather data that may otherwise go unrecorded or ‘unnoticed’. In challenging research contexts social research relies on first had testimonies and different ways of seeing. Citizen Social Science based methods can support citizen led data gathering.

Many citizens are already creating digital data from their own daily activities and communications, such as, for example, through online searching and purchasing records, life logging and through social media communications and citizen journalism. Much of the data is generated as a necessary transaction that is secondary to some (other) interaction. Whilst such data is self-published it can be held on restricted access databases.

There is the potential to mobilise citizens to participate in social science research in a more active way.

  • Citizens can be engaged in contributing as observers and collecting purpose specific data for social science research.
  • Citizen volunteers are already participating in research to track human rights abuses as part of organized projects.
  • Many citizens are already generating social research data through contributing to open sources such as Open Street Map and reporting issues of concern, for example, via such tools as StreetLink and FixMyStreet.
  • Research has also already used Citizen Social Science based methods to record levels of street begging, as part of research into forced labour.

Citizen Social Science methods link to initiatives in the areas of open science and open government. There are also links to the debates about what it means to be a citizen, the idea of responsible citizenship and what has been termed the ‘monitorial citizen’.

Researchers at the University of Manchester – together with citizens and other civic society partners - are exploring the scope for the use of Citizen Social Science based methods.

The research programe is examining the opportunities for using Citizen Social Science methods to tackle intractable social issues.

Questions addressed

The research programme is asking tough questions – including how to overcome the challenges of Citizen Social Science based methods in creating robust research designs and establishing best practice in terms of data quality.

  • How are different kinds of expertise valued and how can different ways of seeing complement each other?

The research also examines the impact of being Citizen Social Scientists on citizens themselves.

  • How do different people observe and what are the ethical issues raised including potential conflicts of interest, privacy and confidentiality.

More broadly the research examines how Citizen Social Science based methods can contribute to the policy evidence base and to a more emancipatory model of social science research.

  • Can Citizen Social Science be a tool for action by building a community of citizens?

Contacts

Dr Kingsley Purdam and Liz Richardson lead this interdisciplinary programme of research. Please direct any queries you may have by email to

kingsley.purdam@manchester.ac.uk or to liz.richardson@manchester.ac.uk