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The sociology of quantitative methods in the U.K. 

Some tweets about this blog post worry me because it appears as if people think this is my analysis. It’s not. These are my notes on the excellent paper below which I’d strongly recommend reading in full. 

This thought-provoking article by Malcolm Williams, Luke Sloan and Charlotte Brookfield offers a new spin on the familiar problem of the quantitative deficit within U.K. sociology. Many accounts of this sort are concerned with the explanatory implications of this deficit (the phenomena that defy explanation without quantitative terms) while digital sociology is concerned with its implications for computational skills. However, the authors look to a deeper level: the tradition within British sociology which defines itself against quantitative methods. They explore this possibly by drawing a contrast between analytical sociology and critical sociology:

Analytic sociology is the term often used to describe a quite specific version of scientific sociology that combines theories and empirical data to produce sociological explanations (Bunge, 1997; Coleman, 1986; Hedström, 2005; Hedström and Swedberg, 1998). It mostly employs mechanistic explanation and variants on middle range theory. Our use of the term ‘analytic’ encompasses this specific use, but is also broader and meant solely to indicate a sociology that aims to produce descriptions and explanations of social phenomena. It does not exclude ‘understanding’ as methodological virtue, nor does it deny the role of ‘critique’ as an element in the methodological toolkit. It certainly does not exclude qualitative methods and indeed the research described here has qualitative elements

http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1360780417734146

Their distinction tracks familiar oppositions between explanation/ understanding and positivism/hermeneutics. Their interest is in how the latter term in each pair was advantaged by the dynamics of expansion in U.K. universities, where (non-quantitative) sociology was a cheap route to expanded student numbers with little to no necessary capital investment. It was during this period of expansion during the 1960s that ‘scientific method’ began to be tied to militarism by the burgeoning anti-war movement. They argue that successive intellectual movements (postmodernism, the linguistic turn, the cultural turn) accentuated this antipathy, such that progressive thought came to be instinctively cautious about quantitative methods. This trend played out within the discipline, its students and teacher, rather than simply being located ‘out there’.

They see this hostility as being dampened by the methodological pluralism encouraged by critical realism and mixed methods pragmatism. But for reasons I don’t understand, which seem to misread the motivations and methods of the critical realist project, incorporate them to analytical sociology:

While there are important differences in the analytic approach (say between realism, post-positivism, and positivism), there is a common core as treating social phenomena as real (or a proxy for real) (Kincaid, 1996) that can be caused, or can cause other social phenomena. The analytic approach shares the common foundations of science: description, explanation, and theory testing and, more specifically, that through the use of appropriate sampling we can generalise from sample to population or from one time or place to another.

http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1360780417734146

These are precisely the features which what they call critical sociology rejects as “either methodologically impossible to achieve, in the social world, or ethically undesirable”. More positively, it is concerned with situated meaning and the possibility of emancipation. Their characterisation here is much vaguer but they admit there is an element of strawman to each. Their concern is with how these sociological stereotypes enter into the understanding of students, as extreme versions of actually existing tendencies take hold in the imagination of those who are the next generation of sociologists and the cohorts which the discipline sets loose upon the world.

This is an important possibility because evidence suggests that sociology students are not driven by a fear of number in choosing their degree. Or at least that other mechanisms are at work in bringing about the quantitative deficit within U.K. sociology. The evidence they present suggests a humanistic understanding of sociology is dominant within the student body:

Table 2 clearly shows that the majority of students scored the discipline as closer to the arts/humanities than science/maths. It has been speculated that students taking a prior A-levels in art might be inclined to see sociology as closer to the arts and those taking a mathematics A-Level as closer to science. In fact, though there was some variation at the different measurement points, more students in both groups still thought sociology nearer to the arts/humanities than the sciences.

All but one of subsequent focus groups revealed a “proclivity towards the qualitative involving the theoretical and critique with scepticism about statistics and a clear preference from the students for doing discursive work”. The BSA survey, asking more nuanced questions than the aforementioned survey, produced a more cautious endorsement of sociology’s status:

Table 4 shows that the majority of participants viewed the subject content (64.3%) and status (66.9%) of sociological research as closer to the arts and humanities. In terms of methodology, analytical tools, and public utility, sociology was seen as mid-way between the arts and humanities and the natural sciences

Their overarching argument, supported by intriguing comparative data concerning sociology in Netherlands and New Zealand, concerns how a cultural antipathy to quantitative methods gets reproduced across successive professional cohorts (compounded by the marginalisation of quantitative methods teaching within the broader curriculum):

Many, if not most, sociologists in UK universities have themselves come from a culture of sociology that emphasises critique over analysis, theoretical positions, and qualitative over quantitative methods of enquiry that reflect the historical influences on the discipline, as described above. This culture exists at all levels of teaching, from pre-university A-level teaching through to postgraduate training. Their attitudes and practices incline them ideologically and practically to favour a humanistic and critical attitude towards the discipline, the selection of research questions that require interpretive methods, and often either an expertise in these methods or a preference for theoretical reasoning alone

The result is an absence of methodological pluralism within U.K. sociology, held it seems as a point of principle. They suggest this might also be coupled with a vague sense of persecution, as critical sociology perceives itself as being under threat in a discipline it in fact dominates.

The ensuing ‘split personality’ might be a source of strength for the discipline in troubled times:

In the UK, quite apart from sociology ceding many of its former areas of interest to other disciplines, what sociology is depends on who you ask. The appearance is one of fragmentation. Nevertheless, a counterfactual argument may go something like this: a fragmented discipline might also be described as a diverse one, whose survivability does not depend on the adherence to any particular paradigm. Psychology, for example, which has long been largely associated with experimental method, faces something of a crisis as the statistical reasoning that underpin the experiment have been increasingly challenged in the last two decades (see, for example, Krueger, 2001). Sociology, in the UK, may actually be more agile as a result of its analytic/critique split personality

But crucially there is a risk of the quantitative practitioners exporting themselves from the discipline, even as its capacity to generate them increases:

One might further speculate that those graduate sociologists, from universities with Q-Step centres or other more quantitatively inclined courses, will not necessarily work in sociology or identify as sociologists because they too see it as a primarily humanistic discipline based upon critique, but rather go to other disciplines or become generic ‘social researchers’ with a consequent continuation of the present situation where analytic sociology continues to be a minority pursuit within the UK discipline.

Categories: Archive Digital Sociology Digital Universities Thinking

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