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James McNally (PhD Student)

James McNally

Research Interests: Problem solving, social science methodology, pragmatism, science and technology studies, French theory.

Supervisors: Professor Noortje MarresLink opens in a new window and Dr Matt SpencerLink opens in a new window.

Thesis (working title)

'Problems' and 'Problem Solving' as a Social-Scientific Concern.

Research Topic

My research stems from a desire to understand our contemporary, collective, fascination with problem solving, and where this fascination might take us. It is situated in the context of recent calls from a variety of academic fields and political and economic institutions for new ways of approaching this activity, owing to a growing dissatisfaction with the traditional ways it has been approached. In particular, my research is concerned with the conceptualisation of the ‘problem’ and the consequences that follow from the various ways that problems can be, and have been, conceptualised. While problem solving as a topic of inquiry is most commonly associated with psychological and cognitive science, my research examines what the social sciences can contribute to the rethinking of problems – and in turn what this rethinking of problems can contribute to social scientific methodology.

There are four main areas of focus in my research:

  • The first is the relationship between problems and experience. How do matters become experienced as problems? What kinds of things affect the way in which one problem or another is formulated? On the one hand, these are typically psychological questions approached through the methods of psychological and cognitive science; on the other, there is a rich history in the social sciences and adjacent disciplines of examining the ‘social’ forces involved in the emergence and structure of problems. It is this mode of conceptualising problems that my research primarily engages with.
  • The second is the relationship between problems and social order. What are the characteristics and consequences of problem solving in the ‘real world’? How do groups and other collectives become invested in the same problem? These are more recognisably social scientific questions, though they are more commonly associated with social problems literature and accounts of claims making. My research is instead focuses upon the interplay between problems and institutions and between micro- and macro-levels of rationality.
  • The third is the relationship between problems and normativity. Are there ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways to formulate a problem? How do people evaluate and decide between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ problems? These are questions that may be social-scientific, philosophical, or somewhere in between, depending on one’s background and intentions. My research is situated within the latter camp, in part due to the considerations of its fourth focus.
  • The fourth and last is the relationship between problems and social-scientific methodology. If the answers to the preceding questions are able to furnish a more adequate concept of the ‘problem,’ what bearing would this concept have on the methods pursued by the social sciences? At a time when the social sciences are being asked to make more ‘practical’ contributions to the solving of problems in society, how should it be decided what those problems are?

For my research I largely draw on literature from early American pragmatist thought, pragmatist-inflected sociology, post-Kantian French theory, and contemporary interdisciplinary problem-oriented inquiries. I am however keen to draw what I hope to be productive connections between this literature and that of paradigmatic approaches to problem-solving in psychological and cognitive science, such as those associated with Gestalt theory, information-processing, and complex problem solving.


    • As of Winter 2021 I have been working as a research assistant at the Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy at the University of Columbia in the City of New York.
    • I am currently an editorial assistant for Sociologica: International Journal for Sociological Debate, published by the University of Bologna. More information can be found here:
    • From 2019 to 2021 worked as a postgraduate research assistant on Horizon 2020 BLINDSPOT: Diversity and Performance in Networks and Teams, a European Research Council (ERC) project headed by principal investigator Professor David Stark.
    • In Summer 2020 I worked as a copy editor for Professor Elena Esposito at the University of Bielefeld, for her book Artificial Communication: How Algorithms Produce Social Intelligence (MIT Press, 2022).
    • In Spring 2020 I worked as a research assistant on the ResiCAV (Resilience in Connected Autonomous Vehicles) project led by principal investigator Professor Carsten Maple at Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) at the University of Warwick.
    • In December 2018 I provided research and organisational assistance for the Put to the Test international workshop. More Information on the workshop can be found here. Following the workshop, from Winter 2018 to Spring 2020 I worked as a research assistant for the production of a special issue of the British Journal of Sociology focused around the themes and contributions from the workshop.


    • I currently do not teach any classes, but have previously worked as a sessional tutor at CIM, as well as teaching the centre's Study Skills classes.


    • 2017: Bursary Award for outstanding CIMasters applications – Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies, £2000
    • 2018: Outstanding Performance and Best Dissertation for MA in Digital Media and Culture – Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies
    • 2018-present Gibraltar Discretionary Scholarship Award (PhD)
    • 2020: Research Development Programme bursary for student-led conferences – Warwick Doctoral College, £600


    • July 31st 2020: (Organiser) Technology and Global Governance Virtual Forum

    Call for abstracts can be found here; conference programme and list of speakers can be found here)



    Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies

    University of Warwick CV4 7AL

    Email:j dot mcnally at warwick dot ac dot uk