‘Live methods’ and the study of the datafied school

The quickly developing nature of data-driven schooling invites us to think expansively and imaginatively about how we ‘do’ our research. This chimes with a growing appetite within the social sciences for a renewal and revitalisation of method. Put bluntly, it is becoming increasingly apparent that social research needs to look well beyond the survey, interview and observation as its main tools of inquiry. These once innovative and insightful techniques now come across as decidedly tired ways of engaging with contemporary social contexts and contemporary social issues. If we are going to properly address our project’s research questions and concerns then we are going to have to do (research) better.

Inspiration can be taken from Les Back and colleagues’ recent writing on ‘live methods’. Here ‘live’ and ‘liveliness’ are used as shorthand for rethinking the spirit in which social research should be conducted – i.e. as a way of doing research “that is alive to the processes by which society is made” (Michael 2012, p.166). One key theme is the need for attentiveness – for social researchers to be alert to the fast changing social processes that constitute the lifeblood of the environments that they are studying. Instead, researchers need to engage in ‘real time’ and ‘live’ research activities and approaches. This suggests employing methods of inquiry that are mobile rather than static – constantly on the move with people and their practices. This involves research that makes use of all our senses in attending to the social world – sound, taste, smell, touch and so on.

In short, this is research that reaches far beyond the ‘qual/quant’ concerns of standard methodological discussions. Instead, one the distinctive features of the ‘Live Methods’ call to arms is its foregrounding of research approaches that are creative, playful and deliberately provocative. Thus researchers are encouraged to be ‘artful and crafty’ – developing empirical methods and ‘cultural probes’ that test and reinvent relations with social settings and environments. Why not make use of design methods that allow people to speculate implausibly but imaginatively about futures? Why not explore the research insights that might arise from fiction-writing, film-making and other creative artistic pursuits? ‘Live methods’ also reminds us of the empirical opportunities that can result from engaging more fully with the digital and coded aspects of research settings. How might researchers make use of the hundreds of smartphone-based recording devices that are present in any public social context? What can be gleaned from exposing and exploring the data trails emanating from even the most inconsequential digital encounter? Researching the datafied school does not have to be a sterile exercise in ‘assassinating’ the life out of social contexts.

That said, the‘Live Methods’ manifesto also offers some valuable rejoinders to the excitable researcher-in-a-hurry. Back and colleagues caution against what they term the ‘trap of the now’. However nimble, creative and puckish one might fancy oneself to be, social research needs to remain attentive to “the larger scale and longer historical time frame”. This is particularly good advice when attempting to keep up with the relentless ‘churn’ of digital systems and ‘real time’ data streams. Nothing takes place purely in the present, however virtual and ephemeral it might appear. Indeed, an undoubted benefit of these playful, creative and sometimes obtuse ways of doing research is their capacity to provide valuable respite from the routine grind of generating empirical data and reaching conclusions. These are methods that can force even the most pressed researcher to slow down, take stock and pause for thought. However lively in its actions and intent, social research should always involve taking one’s time and thinking carefully.



Michael, M. (2012) ‘De-signing the object of sociology: toward an ‘idiotic’ methodology’ in Back, L. and Purwar, N. (eds) ‘Live methods’ London, Wiley-Blackwell