The crisis of empirical sociology: against defeatism and rethinking the public role of the qualitative researcher

As Savage and Burrows (2007: 894) point out, the popularity of the in depth interview in British sociology stems from an intellectual reaction to the excesses of Parsonian functionalism: responding to talk of reference groups, norms and values with the valorization of intensely idiographic methods which are geared towards the elaboration of people’s own values in their own terms,  seen as particularly significant when dealing with marginal or oppressed groups liable to be squeezed out of the functionalist world view. While they are certainly correct to say that the value of such in-depth interviews needs justification once it is removed from this initial context of critical reaction, I’m less convinced of the arguments they cite for its diminishing relevance. They argue that,

Not only are the world-views of diverse populations now routinely presented to us in the popular and new media in such a manner that their summary characterization by sociologists is no longer as necessary (or as interesting) as once it was, but some of the social transactional research technologies discussed above are now also able to produce nuanced representations of the lifeworlds of quite specific populations groupings, for example (Savage and Burrows 2007: 894-895)

The ubiquity which which ‘everyday life’ is presented in a situated way within the popular and new media surely represents, if we step back from the urgency which understandably animated their argument, an opportunity for the rethinking (rather than the move away from) in-depth interviews and other methods animated by a similar impulse to capture the particularities and nuances of situated lives. Perhaps I’m being hopelessly optimistic (it happens) but the same state of affairs Savage and Burrows cite as indicative of the growing irrelevancy of in-depth interviewing instead indicates to me that the potential public interest in the results of such research has never been higher. Furthermore, in a complex and confusing world increasingly characterised by what seems likely to become endemic economic and political instability, I’d suggest this public interest might extend to work which traces out the linkages between private troubles and public issues… with the essential caveat that linking one to the other, presenting the findings of research in a way that interests and influences diverse and overlapping publics, necessitates a rethinking of the public role of the sociologist. Perhaps involving a generalisation of the orientation of the public intellectual, adapted for a digital age and thus freed from any grandiose pretensions and removed as far as possible from its inscription within the status hierarchies of the academy:

The Internet, however, can make these connections because it permits economical, finely calibrated “narrowcasting,” that is, the transmission of specific information to specific interest groups. Of course print and — to a much lesser extent — radio and television also allowed some narrowcasting. Academic journals and industry newsletters are perhaps the best examples. But the scale of narrowcasting on the Internet is orders of magnitude greater than anything known before. Take the blogosphere for example. Here tens of thousands of interest-specific public intellectuals talk to tens of thousands of interest-specific publics concerning every imaginable interest. If you want to know about it — beer brewing, Italian shoes, organic chemistry — you can probably find someone with considerable expertise blogging about it. That’s truly remarkable.

The university presses are well-positioned to take advantage of Internet narrowcasting precisely because they essentially manage a group of experts — authors with books — who are very motivated to reach their publics. Every author wants an audience, even academic authors. The university presses have traditionally helped their authors find their audiences by publishing and promoting books. It’s time to admit that they largely failed, not for any lack of trying, but because the book was the wrong tool. Blogs, podcasts, videos, and types of “programming” not yet conceived or invented offer a much better method of reaching the myriad of communities of interest. If university presses use these methods, everyone wins: the author gets an audience, the audience gets a public intellectual, and the university press fulfills its public-spirited mission. (Poe 2012)

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