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Methods of Process Sociology and Innovation Research

1. Social Pattern Analysis. On Methodological Consequences of Time in Social Action.

In her dissertation, Nina Baur assumes (2005) that all social action is embedded in time. She asks, what does this mean for research methods, and which research methods are adequate for examining social processes? She argues that social scientists need a common framework which is not theory itself but which helps to compare social theories and link them with both methodology and research practice. Using such a framework, researchers can classify their theoretical and research goals and determine the appropriate data and methodologies for answering their question. Baur suggests that such a framework should consist of at least four dimensions:

  • Action Sphere:
    What arenas of social action does a research question address, e. g. the economy, the media, the law, politics etc.?
  • Analysis Level:
    Does the research question address the micro-level (individuals and small groups such as the family), meso-level (medium sized groups such as companies, organizations, regions) or the macro-level (whole societies or even the world system)?
  • Space:
    How does the research question address space? Is space seen as a container (something that frames interactions and in which interactions take place) or socially constructed (i.e. influenced and shaped by human actions)? What spatial extension is of interest: a single location, a town, a region, a country, the world?
  • Time:
    How does the research question handle the problem of “time”? To improve the classification process, Baur suggests two sub-dimensions:
        • Time Layer (“Zeitschicht”):
          Social processes differ in the amount of time they need to unfold. They vary in duration (“durée”, as Fernand Braudel framed it). A research question can address phenomena on all time layers, i.e. both long-term, medium-term and short-term developments.
        • Pattern:
          What interaction patterns are researchers interested in? Regularities of social interactions can be cyclical (i.e. always repeating the same script) or transformations (i. e. changing in a typical way). Alternatively, researchers can focus on turning points (changes in pattern). All these regularities of interaction have to be distinguished from events that are pure chance.

Of course, there is interaction both within and between dimensions, e.g. between long-term and short-term developments or between space and time. Researchers have to specify for each dimension, which aspect of the dimension they address (e.g. micro- or macro-phenomena, short-term or long-term developments and so on). This enables other researchers to decide if and how their own research comparable with other research. For example, to allow for international comparison, two research projects have to be congruent in what action sphere, analysis level, time layer and pattern they address, but differ on the dimension “space” (i.e.: address to different geographical areas). To allow for historical comparison, research projects have to be the same except for the point in time they address and so on.

Once researchers have decided how they position their research question within the framework, they can decide which data they need and which analysis procedure is appropriate for answering their research question. In order to illustrate this point, Baur has investigated the possibility of handling the “time”-dimension in social research:

Data are only appropriate if they give information on the research focus specified by the above research framework.

  • Analysis procedures can describe (i.e. identify, characterize, typify) patterns in data, or they can be used for causal analysis, linking different strands in the matrix.

Baur has analyzed important historical and sociological qualitative and quantitative analysis procedures in order to assess how well they can grasp the time dimension. The quantitative procedures she has studied are cohort analysis, time series analysis, event history analysis and optimal matching techniques. The qualitative methods she has investigated are Grounded Theory, Biographical Research, the Cases Studies Method and qualitative historical methods. Confronting these analysis procedures with the above frame-work, she concludes:

  • For (almost) every theoretical problem, an appropriate analysis method exists. However, researchers need to swap methods flexibly between and within the qualitative and quantitative paradigm. Thus, to grasp the full scale of social problems, mixed methods are needed.
  • When investigating long-term social change (e.g. modernization, the development of the welfare state), the boundaries between sociology and history become fluent. Thus, sociologists can learn from historical methods. Sociology should especially draw on the potential of process-generated data.

The Book has been awared with:

  • DGS Dissertationspreis
    (Prize of the German Sociological Association for one of the two best Ph.D. theses in German Sociology between 2004 and 2006)
  • E.ON Kulturpreis Bayern (“E.ON Cultural Prize of Bavaria”)
    for the best Ph.D. thesis of Otto-Friedrich-University of Bamberg in 2004/2005 (2004: 51 Ph.D. theses / 2005: 67 Ph.D. theses in Bamberg)

2. Description of Research Field

(The description of the research field is currently only available in German.)

3. Selected Publications

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