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When Methods Meet

Big Data and Action Research


In this 15-minute film David McArthur and Jo Ferrie discover a surprising degree of common ground between a very new group of methods relating to research using ‘big data’ and action research which has been in existence for several decades. To begin with, both face challenges over definitions. There are many different ways in which research using ‘big data’ is understood, with some emphasising the different forms of data (such as Twitter data) that have recently become available, while others highlight machine learning or some other aspect of methodological innovation. In a similar way there are various definitions of action research, with different emphases placed on working with partners outside of academia and action being oriented to bring about social change. At the outset of action research it is often unclear where the process will lead, what types of data will be produced and how they will be usable in pursuit of a social justice agenda. The character of ‘big data’ as naturally-occurring data that may be available in real time also gives the analysis a potentially unpredictable quality, and the possibilities that are opened up by big data for more people to become involved in social science fits well with the philosophy of inclusivity that is central to action research. Both approaches appeal to the idea of ‘citizen social science’. This does bring challenges, such as the need for extensive negotiations with various stakeholders in the research that is undertaken and the types of outputs that it is intended to produce, which will not necessarily be conventional academic outputs.  Both approaches also generate interesting debates about data ownership, and also about the effects on researchers of being close to the issues being researched, many of which will have a direct policy relevance, as well as being close to the human dimension of a topic.

Academics in conversation: Dr Jo Ferrie, University of Glasgow (webpage: and Dr David McArthur, University of Glasgow (webpage:


  • Ferrie J. and Wiseman, P. (2016) Exploring the concept of waiting for people with Motor Neurone Disease. Time and Society published online first 16.08.16.
  • Ferrie, J. & Watson, N (2015) The psycho-social impact of impairment: the case of Motor Neurone Disease  Editor:  Shakespeare, T. Disability Research Reader, Routledge
  • Ferrie, J., Robertson-Rieck, P. and Watson, N. (2013) Living with MND: An Evaluation of Care Pathways Available to Adults with, or Families or Carers of, Adults with Motor Neurone Disease in Scotland. MND Scotland Available:
  • Johnson, T. P., & Smith, T. W. (2017). Big Data and Survey Research: Supplement or Substitute? In ‘Seeing Cities Through Big Data’ (pp. 113-125). Springer International Publishing.
  • Tasse, D., & Hong, J. I. (2017). Using user-generated content to understand cities. In ‘Seeing Cities Through Big Data’ (pp. 49-64). Springer International Publishing.
  • Thakuriah, P. V., Tilahun, N. Y., & Zellner, M. (2017). Big data and urban informatics: innovations and challenges to urban planning and knowledge discovery. In ‘Seeing Cities Through Big Data’ (pp. 11-45). Springer International Publishing.
  • Mark Birkin’s presentation on ‘what is big data?’ at the 2016 Research Methods Festival can be accessed at


We have created a downloadble resource sheet for this video. It has a transcript of the conversation, the list of references, and suggested seminar questions.