History, drawing and power: essays towards reflexive methodological pluralism in sociology

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


There is growing consensus around pluralism as the orientation of the social sciences in general, and British sociology in particular, towards research methodology. However, the profession of methodological pluralism, is not always apparent in research practice. This thesis seeks to explore the dimensions of a truly pluralistic sociology. It takes as its starting point Pierre Bourdieu’s central methodological arguments for pluralism and reflexivity in all aspects of research practice, which involves using “all the techniques that are relevant and practically usable, given the definition of the object and the practical conditions of data collection” (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992, p. 227). Each paper explores the implications of this mandate for a different facet of research methodology.

The first paper examines the social survey method in the UK and the US and its relationship to the social world that it sought to account for. Through a secondary review of historical literature, I observe how the social problems that demanded explanation, practical/technological constraints and advances, and the cultural climate shaped the development of the method, with the processes of institutionalisation, professionalisation and economisation shaping its trajectory in recent history. Methodological history, I argue, enables survey practitioners to reflectively appraise the idiosyncrasies of the method’s development, current practices and future prospects.

The second paper problematises the compartmentalisation of sociology’s diverse methodological repertoire within the data collection stage of research. I explore how a creative, multi-modal method – storyboarding – can serve as a useful tool to the researcher in the pre-empirical processes of conceptualisation and research design. This is exemplified through examining the challenge of operationalising trust. Using Bourdieu’s notion of the construction of the sociological object, I argue that the use of creative, visual/multimodal methods serves to highlight where conceptual slippages, suggests new aspects of that concept and approaches to its investigation, and facilitates the researcher’s reflexive exploration of their own relation to the object of research.

For Sociology to achieve genuine methodological pluralism, it is not sufficient to apply a wide range of methods: the implications of those methods in practice must also be continually questioned. The third paper argues that there lacks a sufficient theoretical account of the micro-dynamics of power in focus group discussions, while much of the standard guidance on their conduct serves to control interactions in a way that sanitises them of these dynamics. I exemplify an approach using Bourdieu’s concept of fields to address these deficiencies, based on focus group discussions which used photo elicitation to examine national identity among South Sudanese diaspora in the UK.

These papers indicate that the attitude of ‘relentless self-questioning’ that Bourdieu describes as reflexivity is key to the achievement of pluralism. Pluralism sits in the tension between a permissive view as to what constitutes knowledge, and the constraints of methodological reflexivity and ethics: issues that are bound up in the relationship between the researcher and the researched.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Southampton
  • Edwards, Rosalind, Supervisor, External person
  • Madise, Nyovani, Supervisor, External person
Thesis sponsors
Award date23 Oct 2017
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2017


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