Reflections on the 2016 Berlin Summer School in Social Sciences – Linking theory and empirical research

This post is from Dr Suzanne Egan, Ewing Post-Doctoral Fellow at the University of Sydney about her attendance at the Berlin Summer School in Social Sciences in 2016. Suzanne completed her doctoral studies in 2015 and was a finalist in the Australian Women’s and Gender Studies PhD Thesis Award (2014-2015). Suzanne is currently working on a number of projects including one aimed at exploring the impacts of the ‘brain sciences’ on the field of feminist services. You can contact Suzanne at suzanne.egan@sydney.edu.au  and see more about Suzanne’s projects at http://sydney.edu.au/education_social_work/about/staff/profiles/suzanne.egan.php#sthash.httucLOI.dpuf

Thanks to the generous funding of the German Academic Exchange Programme (DAD), I was able to travel from Australia to attend the 2016 Berlin Summer School in the Social Sciences and I fully recommend it to others who are thinking of applying for a place in future. For me, it was an excellent opportunity to build networks, gain knowledge about academia and universities in countries outside the Global South and most importantly, the workshop theme – Linking theory and empirical research – was central to my research programme. I also found it both interesting and important to learn more about how concepts and ideas are used in social science disciplines outside of my own – in particular in economics and political science.

I found the way in which the summer school was structured in order to address the key themes particularly helpful. Following an evening welcome reception where we presented our research posters the first week consisted of two academics presenting each day on one of the workshop themes. These were the Epistemological Foundations of Methodological Paradigms (Sanjay Reddy & Gilbert Achcar), Causation and Explanation in the Social Sciences (Macartan Humphreys & Hendrik Wagenaar); Concepts as Building Blocks of Theories (Vera Troeger & Donatella Della Porta); Linking Micro and Macro Perspectives (Bob Jessop & Nina Glick-Schiller). The strategy taken by the organisers of pairing presenters with quite different positions on the given theme worked really well in highlighting key issues and areas of debate and provided many useful questions and areas of discussion when we broke into smaller seminar-style groups each afternoon. Having the respective presenter’s spend time in each of the seminar groups really added to the level of discussion and debate.

While there is not space to comment on all the presentations (though all were excellent – really demonstrating the depth of the lecturer’s knowledge and their facility in their areas of research) two have stayed with me over the past 12 months. The first Professor Gilbert Achar (https://www.soas.ac.uk/staff/staff30529.phpon) an academic located culturally (although not geographically) outside the West. Professor Achar provided an excellent historical analysis of the discipline of sociology, drawing significantly on the lengthy scholarship that exists outside the Western canon as well as one of the most thought-provoking critiques of Edward Said’s scholarship that I have heard to date. Second, the keynote by Professor Karin Knorr Cetina (https://sociology.uchicago.edu/directory/karin-knorr-cetina) whose engaging lecture traversed her own career trajectory, through to the role of intuition in empirical research and her current research on financial markets.  While science studies appear to become increasingly popular in recent years in disciplines such as sociology and feminist studies, Knorr Cetina I discovered began conducting sociological research in science laboratories in the 1970s, contemporaneously with Bruno Latour and colleagues.

One of the things I especially liked about Knorr Cetina, in addition to the obvious rigour of her approach to empirical research, was her respectful approach to the scientists and more recently financial marketers on whom she conducts her research. Learn from them, she said, respect their work, they are the experts in their fields. She was also generous with her advice to us as early career researchers giving many concrete examples of her day-to-day life as an academic researcher as well as some humorous anecdotes and pointed advice to Faculties. Interestingly PhD candidates in the Berlin Graduate School in Social Sciences are referred to as doctoral researchers rather than doctoral students, as seems more usual in Australia.

The second week we worked in four thematic groups based on our respective areas of research. Each day began with a lecture in our seminar groups by a local (most at an early stage of their career)  researcher who then stayed on to provide feedback on the presentations by group members that occurred each afternoon.  Prior to the summer school, the organisers had paired us with another participant so that we could act as each other’s discussant during the presentations.

Berlin_summer_school
Image sourced via Google Images at http://www.fsf.vu.lt

This was my first experience of presenter /discussant format and I highly recommend it both from a presenter and a discussant perspective. Because my discussant had read my paper beforehand and discussed with me my purpose in presenting and the type of feedback I was looking for, they were able to provide their initial feedback and then lead the open floor questions in a directed and purposeful manner. Consequently, the questions asked, the feedback as well as the discussion generated were considerably more in depth and detailed than I have experienced when presenting my work in other forums.  Although I do have to say that presenting after my particular discussant’s paper was a bit of a downer. A paper focusing on one’s methodological struggles is never going to be quite as gripping as research about what do straight people do when they have sex! Essentially a question of how to operationalise the concept of heteronormativity in empirical research and one, which turns the more usual foci in feminist and queer theories on their head.

Something that struck me throughout the two weeks was the seemingly different approach taken to ‘risk’ in Europe and in South America.  For example, there were several doctoral level, as well as senior academics, conducting ethnographic research on either right wing political groups or guerrilla groups. Not one, when discussing their research mentioned any particular problems with gaining ethics approval for their project. Compare this to my, (frankly ‘low risk’) doctoral project involving interviews with sexual assault workers, which took twelve months to pass through the requisite ethics processes, two different ethics committees and seven governance processes. Several years ago, when I attended my first conference in Europe delegates were adamant that they were not going to go down the UK and USA path risk adverse research, policy or practice. Based on the Berlin Summer School it would seem that they have succeeded!

In retrospect, it would have very useful if I had had access to this type of workshop during my doctoral research as I encountered many difficulties with working out how to operationalise the theoretical concepts of a particular social theorist (Foucault) to use as methodological strategies for an empirical research project. Here is a link to my poster about the project Egan Poster Berlin 2016  Even so, I benefited enormously from having the opportunity of presenting the solutions I did come up with and have continued to draw on the ‘learnings’ from the Summer School in my postdoctoral research programme, a key element of which involves examination of the relationship between contemporary social theory, methodology and empirical research.  For example in the semester after returning home I organised a Feminist symposium programme 11 Nov 2016, which focused on the challenges and opportunities afforded for empirical research of recent theoretical developments in feminist theoretical work. Here is a link to my paper sexual assault as trauma: a Foucauldian examination of knowledge practices in the field of sexual assault service provision

The organising team did an amazing job both in the lead up to and during the summer school.  It is an extraordinary amount of work to organise an event like this especially when it is in addition to your own research and study programme! They also did a great job of organising social activities (drinks, dinners, and sightseeing) for us. One practical tip I would give to others would be to try to stay fairly close to the Humboldt University. Although the Berlin public transport system is exceptionally good I still found that by staying a bit further out from the centre I missed some of the social events, as due to jetlag, I sometimes found it too much to go home after classes and then back again in the evening. It was a wonderful experience.

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