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Blog of the Centre for Invention & Social Process, Goldsmiths

The Dangers of Participation: Speaking For the Social in Large-Scale Engineering Projects


2019 Penny Harvery ALPenny Harvey, University of Manchester

The Annual Department of Sociology Lecture, hosted by the Centre for Invention & Social Process.

14th March 2019 17.30-19.00

Ian Gulland Lecture Theatre, Whitehead Building, Goldsmiths, University of London



The lecture offers a critical analysis of the ways in which ‘the social’ is elicited as an interlocutor in projects that seek to deploy technical means to achieve social transformation. The discussion focuses on the staging of an experimental ‘hybrid forum’ that was designed to demonstrate a method to professionals engaged in the design and delivery of large-scale engineering projects. The method cuts across established ways in which such professionals would routinely look for support from social sciences who might otherwise be expected to speak for the social through the techniques of aggregation or abstraction that form the bedrock of quantitative approaches. The hybrid forum by contrast seeks to elicit a complex and dynamic social field, to identify controversies, contradictions and ambiguities. The method is a collaborative process in which the social gradually emerges as a potentially fragile entity rather than a stable form that could be represented and/or spoken for. Beyond the experiment the hybrid forum offers a possibility for participants to reflect on how to configure ‘the social’ as an active participant in projects for social transformation. The chapter will also reflect on the relationship between the hybrid forum and more conventional ethnographic methods where researchers do not attempt to speak for the social but seek rather to extend their understanding of human sociality as a dynamic and intrinsically relational process.

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