Desktop Studies: Documents as Research Materials in the Natural and Social Sciences and the Humanities

Christoph Hoffmann in cooperation with Michael Hagner, Chair for Science Studies at the ETH Zurich; funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation

Notes, documents, and literature pertain to every research project in all fields of study. In some cases, such written material is accorded a special status; it forms the (frequently sole) material basis for treating a research question and gaining new insights. In our project, we investigate how, in historical climatology, social sciences, and history, written material is compiled and evaluated for research purposes: how, for instance, data for reconstructing temperature series follow from weather diaries of the seventeenth century, how files from a certain office become documents in an archive and ultimately a source in a historical study, or how surveys are conducted and the collected responses are transformed into data and scientifically robust statements. From a comparative perspective, our interest throughout concerns (1) what challenges are faced in individual contexts when dealing with written material and what practices are developed, (2) what evaluation standards apply for the constitution and analysis of written material in each case, and overall (3) what consequences basing research questions on written material has on scholarly praxis and the validity claims of scientific knowledge.

The project will be carried out in the form of three case studies, in which the observation of recent practice shall be combined with explorations of its historicity. The activities studied deal with fields of research that have immediate significance for everyday life. Historical climatology provides important input for the study of climate change. In their outcomes, social sciences have a retroactive effect on society as a whole. Accounts of the past decisively shape our cultural self-image. In this respect, understanding exactly the circumstances and conditions of this kind of research is a precondition for estimating the scope and validity claims of the findings. Including the humanities and social sciences in the research project creates a new challenge for science studies with its traditional focus on the natural sciences. Furthermore, the comparative perspective allows an accentuation of the congruities and differences between the various fields of the scientific system from the "bottom" up. Of interest here (along with a series of additional aspects) are, for example, the respective concepts of data or evidence in the activities studied and the ideas associated with them regarding the status of the research material under analysis. 

Materials, tools, infrastructure
Kris Decker

Archival practices. Production and transformation of archival material in the Swiss Federal Archives (20./21. Century)
Flurin Rageth

Traces of the public opinion: The questionnaire in the empirical Social Sciences
Anne-Marie Weist (ETH Zürich)