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Thoughts and Hallucinations

Method Innovation at St. Kate's

The "methods fair" at Oxford, sponsored by the UK Economics and Social Research Council, more or less like the U.S. National Science Foundation, turned out to be a mind trip, literally, since I was honored that they would fly me all that way to be part of it.

Most interesting was the special session on the first day, run by Nigel Gilbert and Maria Xenitidou, on innovation in social research methods. It was a mix of different kinds of researchers from different countries. I'm still wondering why three of the nine invited speakers were American anthropologists, including one of Austrian origin, all of whom were working for themselves outside the university.

The chemistry and cooperative attitude were at the top of the scale as far as our collective desire to think about the question. There was the predictable deconstruction around questions like, what is a method, what is innovation, what is successful diffusion. I included an old philosophical joke in my talk--When faced with a contradiction, make a distinction.

What I thought was interesting, in the end, was a kind of complexity model of the organization to support innovation, or at least that's how I saw it through my biased eyes. The model meant to maximize the chances for conceptual evolution, "concept" meaning a new way of seeing a problem with implications for how to approach it.

The first requirement was continuing support to allow time for innovations to develop, compete, marinate, and find their time for application. The anthropologist Anthony Wallace wrote about this in 1982 in The Social Context of Innovation.

The second thing is what the organizational complexity types call "generative relationships" (David Lane) or "complex adaptive responses" (Jose Fonseca ). You could add in Vygotsky's "zone of proximal development," too, if you wanted. The general idea is a group who are similar enough to communicate but different enough to disagree, continuously, in interesting ways.

The third thing is a shared problem orientation, some problem that everyone agrees is worth thinking about and acting on that has defied previous attempts to solve it. Without a shared problem to anchor the arguments and experiments, the discussion will float back into the philosophical joke and sprout distinctions.

The fourth thing is personal security and trust. Threatened and paranoid participants will be so obsessed with playing defense that there'll never be a good game. (The conference was held during the World Cup semi-finals).

And finally, aligned interests will ensure diffusion. The innovating group itself will of course have aligned interests, otherwise they wouldn't be participating. But diffusion means the innovation will spill out of the innovating group into social networks of all kinds. Ideally the aligned interests won't just link up academics with other academics. It will link up all kinds of people with academic, organizational, and political/economic interests in the problem as well. Many are the examples of what in retrospect could be considered significant social science innovations that changed both academics, policy, practice and civil society.

Workshop participants might well react to this blog by wondering what I was smoking during the session. What I heard over the day, though, was an argument for an organizational structure that made conceptual evolution not just a possible but even a likely event. I've been involved in organizational moments like this, rarely, and only for comparatively brief periods of time. In my experience they were exhilarating and useful beyond the social moment.

Why not make the time and space and organization possible so such things happen all the time?

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