Strengthening Qualitative Research Through Methodological Innovation and Integration: Networks of Expertise and the Autism Spectrum


Gil Eyal
Professor of Sociology


The number of autism spectrum disorders diagnoses in the U.S. has risen exponentially over the last 10 years. Why has this happened? This research project begins from the sense that the search for explanation has up till now been impeded by an untenable opposition between biological (therefore "real") and social (therefore "artificial") causes. Instead, it proposes to examine autism as a bio-social phenomenon, caused by complex feedback loops between, on the one hand, how we think about, classify, treat and institutionally process individuals with autism, and on the other hand, how these individuals react to their treatment. The main point is that we need to think differently about expertise. The biological approach thinks of expertise as describing and explaining the autism epidemic from the outside. The social approach thinks of expertise as "constructing" autism all by itself. But in the case of autism it is much more realistic to think of expertise as distributed in a network, since patients and parents have become "lay experts" with considerable input on how the disorder is viewed and treated. To study such complex networks and feedback loops, the researchers are conducting ethnographic participant observations in clinics and schools where diagnosis and treatment of autism takes place. The researchers also interview parents, patients, experts and advocates.