Methodological Futures for Sociodigital Research

Main Supervisor Professor Susan Halford, School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, University of Bristol. Second supervisor tbc, dependent on successful project.

This studentship will be affiliated with the Sociology (Bristol) SWDTP pathway. Proposed Start Date October 2022.Please use this link to apply through the ‘Sociology (PhD)’ programme at the University of Bristol

The growth of digital data has become a defining feature of the 21st Century. An ever-increasing range of mechanisms – from social media platforms to electricity meters, sensors and tracking devices to web browsers – capture the digital traces of everyday activities, at multiple scales, in real time and over time.

The specifically digital nature of these ‘new and emerging forms of data’ (NEFD) has fuelled the growth of computational methods (e.g. text mining and machine learning) for interrogation and analysis. It is already clear that these data and methods are having profound impacts on the organization of the economy, politics and society in the present, and are increasingly central to claims that are made about the future. It is less clear if and how these data and methods can be used for social science research on sociodigital futures.  

This PhD studentship will explore the use of NEFD in sociodigital futures research, taking the ESRC Centre for Sociodigital Futures as a site of empirical, ethnographic enquiry. How, where and when can NEFD be used in sociodigital futures research? What are the epistemological, methodological  and ethical tensions, synergies and outcomes of using these data in sociodigital futures research? This will be accompanied by a comparative case study working with one (or more) of the Centre’s non-academic partners currently engaged with NEFD (BT, Defra, *Maybe or NCSC). The precise design, approach, focus and orientation of the studentship  will depend on the interests and experience of the applicant.

The PhD will include: 

• Review of NEFD in use (Y1), documenting different types of data and methods used in social science futures research – systematically documenting the epistemological, methodological and ethical concerns across different data and methods.  

• Ethnography of team meetings (Y1-2) within the Centre and the non-academic case study in which theories, methods, data and their applications are discussed. This will include training activities (e.g. Centre masterclasses) as well as project planning.  

• Selection of ‘live projects’, with the PhD student joining project teams to engage in research activities as a source of empirical enquiry (Y2). Two or three ‘live projects’ will be selected in both cases studies. For each, the key research questions will explore which theories, methodologies and methods and what data is mobilized in those projects, how are tensions and contradictions managed and resolved, and how they shaped the outcomes and applications of project findings. 

Career Development Support & Capacity building  

• The student will be building interdisciplinarity capacity across the social sciences, environmental and engineering sciences, and contribute to the development of theoretical and methodological innovations in understandings of how sociodigital transformations relate to sustainable futures. 

• The student will be supported in developing their research to include short placements with up to two of the Centre’s partners (e.g. BT and Defra) both for the purpose of data collection and to contribute to partner organization projects. 

• Given the focal topic of this PhD, the student will have numerous opportunities to collaborate with different research teams, offering scope for data sharing and the development of co-authored publications. 

Interested applicants are advised to contact Susan.Halford@bristol.ac.uk to discuss their application.