“social floating”: a skill for researchers?

In my Masters research into the experience of recent graduates living and working in Orkney, one of my key findings was that to operate successfully in the working world graduates needed to develop the skill of ‘social floating’.

‘Social floating’ is a concept first defined by Corbett (2007) in his research on Canadian school pupils. What he found was the ability to mix with different groups but not to over-identify with any one social group was a characteristic of young people who were about to leave the area to go to University. Therefore, he concluded developing a skill in ‘social floating’ was important in learning to leave the area.

In my research, what I found was that graduates who were living in Orkney also appeared to display the ability to ‘socially float’. And therefore I suggested that social floating may not be so much about ‘learning to leave’ but rather about ‘learning how to be successful in a small community’.

Floating: not just for bubbles…

Today all of this popped back into my mind as I was doing some gardening and mulling over what it will be like to interview graduates from Orkney as part of my PhD, when I live in Orkney myself. And I was thinking this will be somewhat similar to the hazards of traditional ethnographic research where the researcher is a participant and a researcher (a participant researcher). Even though I will clearly be in ‘researcher’ role when I’m interviewing, keeping a level of objectivity and being able to look at the conversations I’m having ‘from the outside’ about things I know intimately, and shared experiences may be challenging. And that’s when I remembered Corbett’s notion of ‘social floating’ and it occurred to me that not only might this be useful for graduates living in rural areas but also ethnographic researchers involved in participant research….



  1. interesting blog, Rosie, I suspect as someone with permanently itchy feet, I’ve been a social floater all my life!

    1. Thank you Victoria! I suspect that for authors social floating may be useful too in terms of being able to imaginatively engage with different kinds of people and their realities….

  2. I think that you are right to talk about ethnography in this context. I tend to feel that we are always participants in our research. Objectivity is a bit of a myth as we all bring assumptions, prior experience and relationships to the conversations that comprise our research. The ability to both participate and stand back is a really difficult one that I think that we have to constantly work at.

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