Snapshots of Change: Assessing Social Transformations in Qualitative Research

Workshop, October 23–24, 2015


Dr. Yasmine Berriane, Dr. Aymon Kreil, Thiruni Kelegama, Prof. Dorothea Lüddeckens, Dr. Melek Saral


URPP Asia and Europe


URPP Asia and Europe, Room WIE F-07, Wiesenstrasse 7/9, 8008 Zurich


The study of “change” is a central research topic in social science. While this topic has been an inherent concern of the literature on modernization or globalization for instance, it has become all the more visible today in contexts in which collective claims for social and political change fill the news, as was the case during the recent uprisings in the Arab World and the crisis in Europe. Consequently, many theoretical works have offered general frameworks for change, while historical, sociological and anthropological research has been attempting the same on a more restricted scale. In order to gain terminological purchase on these processes of transformation, notions such as development, transition and rupture, as well as reconfiguration and continuity through change have gained much prominence.

However, how can we concretely assess social change when we conduct qualitative research which is based on case studies, and has a limited scope of inquiry both in terms of time and space? This question concerns especially researchers who use ethnographic methods of investigation and who are consequently bound to analyse ‘snap-shots’ of the studied societies while relying mainly on testimonies or on secondary literature to grasp possible transformations. The debate surrounding the pertinence of such methods is not new. It dates back at least to the disputes led by the functionalists on the relevance of diachronic research in anthropology. The question of how to set time-frames exists also among historians for whom periodization is an object of constant struggle and has evolved, for instance, around the question of how to connect different temporal and spatial scales and how to identify points of rupture in history. The complexity of human societies makes it difficult to know which elements to consider as relevant. Very often the multiple dynamics that are observable at any one time give an incoherent picture, where no clear direction is discernible.

The URPP Asia and Europe, University of Zurich, with the financial support of the UZH-Graduate Campus, the Zürcher Universitätsverein (ZUNIV), and the Jerg Legat Foundation is organising a workshop on this issue gathering international scholars and UZH researchers. It will also include a poster session for early stage researchers from the University of Zurich. On the basis of concrete empirical examples, we would like to focus on the available means that enable us to overcome obstacles encountered when studying change through qualitative research. We are particularly interested in the three following dimensions:

  1. What kind of data enables us to assess social change in qualitative research?
  2. How should we approach the ways actors conceptualize change? What are the benefits of imposing an epistemological break with these conceptualizations and what do we gain or lose by studying them as an object of inquiry in their own right, to be described in their socially and historically situated settings?
  3. How do we position our research in relation to different temporalities and scales of change: short- and long-term approaches, individual and collective temporalities, local and global? How do we connect these different scales? The presentations and posters should be supported by concrete examples showing the method employed. The scope of relevance of the assessed change should be another aspect to scrutinize, as well as the lines of causality which are drawn consequently.