Questions of research method, whilst not a standalone research programme, have come to form a core part of the ongoing research and knowledge production at SWOP. SWOP – as a research institute has continuously engaged with critical questions relating to research methods – from debates about public sociology to the concept of critically engaged sociology and beyond. More recently, there has been a rethinking of some of these terms and renewed experimentation with ‘method’ that often happens across disciplinary boundaries. The shifting of SWOP’s research agenda and programmes has necessitated an ongoing engagement with changing methodologies and research practices. This experimentation with method runs across different projects at SWOP with new ones, such as the Land, Labour, Life programme, taking up questions of method and rethinking theory as central components of its work.

In returning to ‘methods’ – the focus has been on widening how societies are studied beyond the boundaries of specific academic disciplines. This is what drives the three themes undertaken in the rethinking of research methodologies.

The first is concerned with comparative research methodologies. This entails engaging and experimenting with comparative approaches in certain research programmes, often with colleagues from other institutions and locations. SWOP has a long history of working comparatively on several projects – most recently in the Popular Politics  programme on the BRICS project which runs across the BRICS countries, the Just Transition from Coal programme and in the Land, Labour, Life programme which sees a close collaboration with colleagues primarily based in Mexico. These experiences require ongoing experimentation and reworking of comparativist methods and research production. This engagement with comparative research methodologies is not just about doing research but ways of working together, using new approaches in an open-ended manner, collaborative, and comparatively. The rethinking of comparative research methodologies contributes to broader work on pedagogy and curriculum development.

The second strand of this work of method took the form of a workshop series- Questions of Method facilitated by Prof. Gillian Hart (Distinguished Professor Wits University and UC Berkeley). This series focused on the interconnections between theory and method- focusing on the centrality of comparison. The three-part workshop series looked primarily at modes of generality, critical ethnography, relational comparison and conjunctural analysis.

The final strand took the form of another workshop series, Research, Society and Knowledge Production. This series brought together longstanding discussions, and points of contention, about research methods, the field and how knowledge is produced within research institutes based at universities. The series also engaged with the need to shift research methods as the proverbial “field” was altered entirely by the covid-19 pandemic. It touched on gender, race, class, power relations, ethics, and positionality when undertaking research. Additionally, the series looked at the processes of field research and the related practices of writing and knowledge production to reflect on unequal hierarchical relationships in the research process, the meaning of a research community, and pertinent questions about developing a voice and a sense of intellectual ownership. While the workshop series was internal to current and former SWOP staff, students and research associates- the questions and themes brought forward are carried through to allow for greater public engagement. These questions and themes will also form part of SWOP’s continued engagement with rethinking research methodologies.