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From 6–8 September 2018, the Research Network “Qualitative Methods” of the European Sociological Association and the Research Committee “Interpretive Sociologies” of the Swiss Sociological Association invite qualitative researchers to St.Gallen, Switzerland to discuss and address matters of unexplored realities in qualitative research.

This conference invites qualitative researchers to address and discuss questions concerning ‘unexplored realities’ in three directions. (1) A first focus concerns the other senses than those we usually rely on—the auditory and visual sense—those that are not easily captured in language. Should we even attempt to study realms for which we may not have an adequate language (yet)? (2) The second focus concerns social spaces and domains of contemporary societies which constitute—for some or most of us—unknown subuniverses or backstages, kept marginalized, secret, or out of focus from public attention. (3) And thirdly, it concerns hidden and concealed domains, potentially inconvenient and uncomfortable realms that those involved in our research might not want to have exposed.

(1) Neglected senses and sensitivities: The dominant senses that organize qualitative social research methodologies have been and still are the auditory and the visual: We hear participants and ourselves talk, we see action, we transcribe spoken into written language, we read documents, watch video recordings, and look at images. Modes of conserving, evoking, and remembering the social phenomena we aim at understanding rely heavily on the auditory and visual senses. Taste, smell, touch, a sense of body movement, but also feelings and emotions are often conspicuously absent in many presentations of social research findings—be it because they are difficult to turn into data, be it for the difficulty to express them in language, be it for our lack of training and sensitivity in dealing with them. The first conference focus concerns sensory realities that are largely unexplored: How do we methodologically proceed to study them? How can we incorporate these dimensions into an interpretive understanding of social reality? How can qualitative studies based on such an understanding inform and enrich our understanding of contemporary social phenomena? If a strength of qualitative research is to study and represent social reality in its complexity, how can we develop research methodologies that include more than the visual and auditory sense?

(2) Unexplored social spaces and practices: For both, the wider public and social scientists, many social domains remain relatively unknown territories for a diversity of reasons. There are groups and organisations that may prefer to operate in relative secrecy. It may concern milieus and subcultures that are marginalized. It may concern social positions and population segments that are silenced. It may concern ‘exclusive’ social domains which are (kept) inaccessible for the majority. And it may simply concern social spaces which have been largely neglected by academia or the wider public, not deemed ‘necessary’ or ‘worthy’ of attention and exploration. In short, it concerns realms of the everyday life-world which remain relatively unexplored, accessed by a few and understood by a few. Simultaneously, as Erving Goffman and others have demonstrated, virtually any social setting—whether unexplored or well explored—is divided into front stages and backstages. It is in the relative secrecy of backstages where actors relax from their front stage performances, where they organize support, and where they devise strategies for acting on the front stage. Generating backstages and keeping them intransparent and concealed for front stage audiences are standard social practices.
Bringing our attention to social realms that have largely remained unknown or unheard of is one of the classic endeavours of qualitative research. Participants are invited to reflect upon the manifold methodological challenges posed by studying such realities. How do we negotiate access to hidden practices and backstages? What kind of backstages should we aim at getting access to? To what extent should we—and to what extent are we legitimized to—expose backstage practices if they concern contested and sensitive issues? How do we represent these realities? Any qualitative methodology engaged in in-depth explorations of social domains needs to account for these questions.

(3) Hidden and concealed domains: Any social practice—qualitative research included—is embedded in belief systems and ideologies. For various reasons, practices and their effects may run counter to such belief systems and may consequently be neglected: concealed due to potentially inconvenient consequences, (un)knowingly ignored, or conceptually nihilated into non-existence. How do we deal with domains to which the actors in the field have turned a blind eye on? How do we deal with domains to which the research participants want us as researchers to turn a blind eye on?

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