Symposium on Methodology in Qualitative Sociology

Symposium on Methodology in Qualitative Sociology

Perry Andersen’s Lineages of the Absolutist State (1 974); Doug Macadam’s Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-?1970 (1982); and Julian McAllister Groove’s Hearts and Minds: The Controversy Over Laboratory Animals (1997). Among the questions addressed in this symposium are the following: Are the general theoretical or empirical claims of these books persuasive, and are they well supported by the data that are presented by the authors? Are these books persuasive because they adhere to certain methodological rules or standards, if only implicitly?

And what are those rules or standards? Or are these books powerful or persuasive despite, or even because of, their lack of methodological rigor, conventionally understood? And would these books have been improved appreciably had they been more methodologically self-conscious or differently designed? This symposium thus addresses the concern-?shared by quantitative social scientists, general readers, and not a few qualitative sociologists themselves-?that qualitative sociology lacks methodological rigor and, accordingly, truly reliable or generalized findings.

Some social scientists view qualitative sociology, in no uncertain terms, as methodologically and empirically “soft” and highly subjective, if not completely solipsistic-?a characterization that a few qualitative researchers have ironically embraced. At best, according to certain critics, qualitative sociology might generate provisional hypotheses that more rigorous social scientists can then go forth to test and revise, but it cannot itself glean much solid understanding of the social world.

We believe that this view of qualitative sociology is badly mistaken, and the essays in this symposium collectively refute it. Qualitative sociology is not-? or need not be-?merely literature or navel-gazing, and its endings have proven 33 2002 Human Sciences Press, Inc. 34 Goodwin and Horopito extraordinarily insightful, persuasive, and influential. At its best, qualitative sociology can be very rigorous and “scientific” indeed.

This symposium demonstrates that a significant number of qualitative sociologists, who have not abandoned the idea that qualitative researchers can do scientific or quasi-scientific work as well as quantitative researchers, have produced important and influential research. Qualitative sociology, in short, has some very important things to say about the world beyond the researcher. Accordingly, both quantitative social scientists and those qualitative researchers who have bought into the quantitative critique and embraced subjectivism need to take another look at what qualitative sociology can achieve.

DEFINING QUALITATIVE SOCIOLOGY: HOW “SCIENTIFIC” IS IT? Grave suspicions about the methodological rigor of qualitative sociology provide the intellectual backdrop to Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research (1994), a much-discussed methodological text by Harvard political scientists Gary King, Robert Awakener and Sidney Verbal King, Keenan, and Verbal believe that qualitative social scientists need to pursue their research in a more rigorous and scientific manner, which basically means, for them, adhering as much as possible to the standards of quantitative research. Significantly, they do not ask whether quantitative work might be improved by emulating certain features of qualitative research. ) King, Keenan, and Verbal suggest that quantitative and qualitative research share ‘the same logic of inference” (1994, p. 3), and they elaborate a number Of rules for rigorous, scientific qualitative (and quantitative) research see Munch 1998). We have extracted and set forth the principal methodological rules of King, Keenan, and Verbal in Table 1. Two of the articles in this symposium explicitly employ King, Keenan, and Verbal’s text, albeit not uncritically, as a conventional standard for “scientific” qualitative sociology. ) Certainly, judged by King, Keenan, and Verbal’s rules, much qualitative sociology would be found wanting in various ways, perhaps severely so, a point to which we return below. Of course, just what constitutes qualitative sociology and “its” methodology is notoriously difficult to say. At mimes the variations among qualitative sociological studies appear to be greater than the similarities.

Indeed, a variety of data sources and data- gathering strategies can be classified under the rubric of qualitative sociology: participant-observation, in-depth interviewing, photography and video, document analysis, and archival and historical research. Qualitative studies include ethnographers of groups, places, organizations, or activities; analyses of people’s lives and experiences; historical case studies of a wide range of phenomena, including social movements, revolutions, state-building, and there political phenomena; and comparative historical analyses. King, Keenan, and Verbal focus mainly on the latter two types of research, which are more prevalent in political science. ) Sociology Table 1. King, Keenan, and Verbal’s (1994) Basic Rules for “Scientific” Qualitative Research 1. “Construct falsifiable theories” (p. 100). “Choose theories that could be wrong” (p. 19). 2. “Build theories that are internally consistent” “If novo or more parts of a theory generate hypotheses that contradict one another, then no evidence from the empirical world can uphold the theory’ (p. 105). 3. Dependent variables should be dependent.

A very common mistake is to choose a dependent variable which in fact causes changes in our explanatory variables” [the problem of nonentity] (up. 107-108). 4. “Do not select observations based on the dependent variable so that the dependent variable is constant’ (p. 108) “Selection should allow for the possibility of at least some variation on the dependent variable” [I. E. , do not “sample” or “select on the dependent variable”] (p. 129). 5. “Maximize concreteness. ” “Choose observable, rather than unobservable, concepts whenever possible. “Abstract, unobserved concepts can be a hindrance to empirical evaluation of theories and hypotheses unless they can be defined in such a way that they, or at least their implications, can be observed and measured” (p. 109). 6. “To make sure a theory is falsifiable, choose one that is capable of generating as many observable implications as possible” (p. 19). 7. “In order better to evaluate a theory, collect data on as many observable implications as possible” (p. 24). 8. “The more evidence we can find in varied contexts, the more powerful our explanation becomes, and the more confidence we and others should have in our conclusions” (p. 0). 9. “State horses in as encompassing ways as feasible. ” “The theory should be formulated so that it explains as much of the world as possible” (p. 1 13). “One of the most important achievements of all social science [is] explaining as much as possible with as little as possible” (p. 29). 10. “All data and analyses should, insofar as possible, be replicable” (p. 26). 35 Many different approaches to theory-building, moreover, are employed in qualitative work, including hypothesis testing, filling gaps and resolving anomalies in theories, and inductive approaches.

Additionally, no one theoretical perspective links qualitative research. To make sense of their data, qualitative sociologists employ, among other theoretical frameworks, versions of Marxism (Bursary 1 979; arroyo et al. 2000; Did?Zoo 1985; Willis 1 977), structuralism (Liable 1 967), historical institutionalism, cultural analysis (Lament 1992; Willis 1977), Chicago school ecological approaches (Settles 1968; Cornball 1 974; Venerates 2000), and symbolic interactions (Anderson 1 976; Horopito 1995; Snow and Anderson 1993).

At times, it may appear that qualitative sociology is simply a residual category-?all sociology, that is, which is not quantitative or purely theoretical. However, despite the many differences in approaches, techniques, and theories in qualitative studies, most of them are similar in their emphasis on capturing or representing in considerable depth or detail what is or was going on in one or a few “cases” of something judged socially significant.

Indeed, one link among qualitative studies is their rich descriptions or narratives of cultural, emotional, and social life, sometimes in a comparative framework. Most qualitative studies are generally not about “attitudes,” “norms,” “roles,” or other abstract concepts, but more about what people actually say and do in pacific places and institutions, including their interactions with others over time-?in other words, how social things 36 (relationships, events, cultures, organizations, and movements) occur or develop in social and temporal context (Merrill and Fine 1997).

Rich descriptions and narratives of specific cases, then, are the bridge that connects qualitative sociological studies. Concepts like “attitudes” or “norms,” if they are employed at all, are used by analysts more to inform and organize the presentation of social life as it occurs or has occurred. Generally, then, qualitative sociologists-?whether street-corner ethnographers or imperative historical analysts-?attempt to remain as close as possible to the actual phenomena that they are trying to understand.

They believe that their cases, whatever they may be, have to be understood contextually or holistically, and often with attention to temporal ordering. Cultural and historical specificity matter enormously. By contrast, the type of general “variables” that quantitative social scientists employ are usually not very illuminating of the types of phenomena that interest qualitative sociologists; such variables may facilitate statistical analyses of many cases, but yield only thin understanding of any particular case-?and most people, arguably, care only about particular cases.

Qualitative sociologists, moreover, generally look not only for social patterns, regularities, or statistical means, but also for the exceptions or anomalies that tell them (and all of us) something new. Of course, understood in this way, qualitative sociology would seem to be rather unevenly “scientific. ” On the one hand, qualitative researchers do tend to eschew abstractions and to “maximize concreteness” when employing concepts (rule 5 in Table 1).

And qualitative research can yield exceedingly ICC data on the observable implications of particular theories (rule 7), which is in turn necessary for testing, falsifying, and modifying theories and hypotheses (rule 6). On the other hand, qualitative researchers also tend to “sample on the dependent variable” (violating rule 4) and are not always concerned with gathering evidence in “varied contexts” (rule 8) or with generating encompassing theories that explain “as much of the world as possible” (rule 9).

Qualitative research is said to suffer from an alleged “small- N problem,” failing to examine a sufficient number of cases for building solid impersonations or good theory. Participant-observers, moreover, are often charged with inducing (or even provoking) much of their data, which means that such data may not be replicable (violating rule 10). More generally, participant-observers have been accused of lacking objectivity or critical distance from the groups or institutions in which they insert themselves. Can anything be done to make qualitative sociology more “scientific”?

And should we try? In fact, as the essays in this symposium demonstrate, good qualitative work is not only empirically rich, but is often more methodologically rigorous than might appear. The studies under review in this symposium are generally well designed and, accordingly, are insightful, persuasive, and (in some cases) enormously influential-?more so, generally speaking, than quantitative studies of the same topics. There are good reasons, moreover, that these studies do not all adhere scrupulously to certain conventional methodological standards.

Consider King, Keenan, and Verbal’s admonition (rule 9) to formulate theories so that they Sociology “explain as much of the world as possible. ” This rule is fair in principle. But given their commitments to cultural and historical specificity, many qualitative sociologists are simply not interested in this approach to theory. Others quite reasonably doubt whether any particular theory or hypothesis can in fact be especially encompassing in this sense, at least in a nontrivial way.

Put differently, the most encompassing theories that are also interesting may in fact illuminate only a small (but hopefully important) corner of the world. And that is no mean achievement. The “small-N problem,” to take another example, is no problem at all when only a few major instances exist of the phenomena one wishes to understand (e. G. , revolutions, genocides, and axially integrated middle-class neighborhoods in the U. S. ). It is difficult not to “sample on the dependent variable” if one is interested in such things.

This “problem” may also be of minor significance when one is trying to understand how a process evolves over time in a specific setting. There are also distinct advantages to employing qualitative methods that critics tend to overlook. Close engagement with their cases typically requires qualitative researchers to adapt existing theories or to make new conceptual distinctions or theoretical arguments to accommodate new data. Qualitative research, in there words, may be more conducive to theory-building than is quantitative work.

For example, if one examines the ethnographic research that has contributed to our understanding of the barriers and bridges to class mobility and formation in the United States, one sees an incredibly nuanced picture (Horopito 1997). While the studies are varied in terms of the theories and explanations they develop, their differences are less pronounced than one might imagine from their disparate theoretical approaches. Although structural functionalists tend to see mobility as reasonably feasible for Americans, they also see strong barriers as they watch people struggle to cross boundaries.

When anthropologists first went into the field or the Chicago sociologists explored that city during the 1 sass (Anderson 1 923; Creases 1 932; Worth 1 928), the research product gained legitimacy primarily from the status of the researchers and from the fact that they “had been there. ” Few talked about how the research was actually conducted, and the researcher never appeared in the finished text. Few books even had methodological appendices. William Foote White’s second edition Of Street corner society (1 94311955]), 38 which included an enlarged discussion of his methodology, violated invention.

When Laura Bonanza’s Return to Laughter was published in 1954, an anthropological description of fieldwork, it was published as fiction under a pseudonym (Lenore Bowen). Afford Junker published one of the first qualitative methods texts only in 1960. Although how people did their research became a topic of discussion in the asses, throughout that decade researchers rarely appeared in their books. Participant-observers were viewed as “flies on the wall. ” Who the researchers were and how they interacted with the people they were observing or interviewing was not a “variable” that needed attention.

Qualitative work proceeded like other types of sociological research-?it was simply assumed that a social world existed that any good observer could more or less clearly see. The trust of readers was secured by the professional status of the researcher and the amount of time and effort invested in the research. There was, in short, little need to describe the observer or to analyze his or her position relative to the people being studied, changes in relationships over time (Horopito 1 986), issues of power (Jobber and Vaughan 1 993; Smith 1990, 2001), or even sampling (Surgeons and Horopito 2001).

These are all newer questions and concerns. The convention was a silent and hidden observer (Fine 1993). Although the variable position of the researcher-?politically, socially and culturally-?was certainly known to affect the research question, few thought that this variation might affect the particular research methods chosen and the ways of collecting and analyzing data. There has also been a trend in recent years toward greater methodological self-awareness among historical and comparative historical sociologists.

Historical researchers have become sensitizes to possible biases in documents and other historical sources Mulligan 1979; Plat 1981; Lustily 1996). Furthermore, a series of texts published in the mid asses by Spool (1 984), Till (1 984), and Raging (1987) examined the various logics behind case comparisons, generating ongoing debates about comparative methods and small-N research (Lieberman 1991 ; Goldberg 1991; Mann 1994).

As a result of these debates, comparative sociologists have been much more self-conscious about issues of case selection and possible selection bias. There is also greater sensitivity to causal complexity, the “path dependence” of certain processes, and what Raging 1987) calls “multiple contractual causation”-?the possibility and even likelihood that certain complex phenomena (e. G. Ethnic violence, social movements, and democracy) may be the result Of different and perhaps unique causal configurations in different contexts. In the early 1 sass, furthermore, the very concept of the “case?’ as well as the uses and possibilities of single-case studies were critically interrogated (Raging and Becker 1 992; r-Eagan, Arum, and Jobber 1991; Meant 1 991 Again, the result has been greater self-awareness about which “units of analysis” are appropriate and fruitful to examine and compare.

There is also greater awareness that because the cases we study (organizations, movements, temporal processes, and national societies) are nested within larger social and temporal contexts (e. G. , the global 39 capitalist “world system,” the interstate system, or “waves of protest”) they cannot be treated as isolated monads driven or explained by purely endogenous forces (Till 1995). Some of the methodological issues raised by qualitative researchers parallel quantitative approaches, while others are more unique to qualitative work.

Ironically, while many quantitative sociologists have viewed qualitative work as “merely’ humanistic and without methodological rigor or sophistication, qualitative researchers have been zealous during the last twenty-five years in exploring and questioning virtually all aspects of data gathering, data analysis, and the presentation of research. Few aspects of the research process have not been thoroughly analyzed or deconstructed.

Even writing field notes has been a subject of extensive discussion (Emerson, Freer, and Shaw 1995; Jansen 1990). The validity of attar especially, has become a major issue for both field researchers and historical sociologists. Qualitative researchers in anthropology and sociology have debated what “data” is and how it can be collected and by whom (Dentin 1994, 1997). Epistemological questions about how researchers can know anything outside themselves have been explored. Debates also evolve over issues of data analysis.

In ethnography, debates have erupted about how one can determine the meanings that others attach to their actions, and interviewers have asked whether conversations provide data about what actually happened, what people think happened, or what they wish the interviewer to believe happened. Other questions that have concerned qualitative sociologists are more political in nature. For whom does the researcher speak? Are there groups whose voices we do not (or cannot) hear?

Are our concepts and even the questions we ask ethnocentric or gendered? Years ago, Howard Becker (1967) asked, ‘Whose side is the researcher on? ‘ More recently, questions have arisen about the writing styles (Van Mean 1988) and styles Of representation (Van Mean 1995) found in ethnographers. At every stage of the research process, then, qualitative researchers are now forced to think about methodological issues and choices. The choice of a field site (or sites) must be related to the research question and to theory.

Research strategies (participant-observation, in-depth interviewing, photography, archival research, and document collection) must be chosen according to one’s research questions-?strategies that can change, moreover, as the research proceeds. The choice to do participant-observation in multiple sites or to examine several historical cases needs a sampling justification in terms of the question asked. Why might comparisons among particular groups, for example, be helpful (Merrill 1995)?

Interview subjects deed to be chosen for a theoretically justifiable reason; random samples are generally not possible, yet comparisons are often wise. Moreover, talking to a few research subjects is generally not sufficient to justify an understanding Of social patterns or regularities. However, individual biographies are sometimes justifiable when they illustrate points about theoretically generated ideas or point to hidden links in social phenomena (Becker 1966; Bennett 1 981 (For C.

Wright 40 Mills, of course, the ability to link individual biography with social structure was the essence of the “sociological imagination” [1959]. While qualitative researchers disagree about the extent to which researchers bias data collection, it is possible to be self-reflexive during the data collection process. Researchers must always ask why they are getting the answers they are, or seeing what they see. Of course, researcher bias can sometimes be mitigated through internal comparisons.

For example, adopting multiple roles or positions to check on what the observer sees is often critical, as is talking to people in different positions within the setting. An “organizational culture” will probably not look the same to workers and management-?in fact, “a” culture eight be difficult to find. How the data are to be presented raises still other dilemmas, including questions about how, and how much, authors should write about themselves. There is much debate over how this should be done, but one reasonable strategy is simply to be explicit in the text (so far as possible) about one’s position and biases.

Although some oversimplifications studies were based on research by people involved as full participants in a setting (Becker 1963; Polyps 1969), others were not (White 1 Viding and Bananas 1960). BY the asses, participant- observers began to realize that who they were influenced the data that they ere getting. There were public debates about whether researchers should remain sufficiently autonomous to enable a critical perspective or try to get in far enough to know ‘Whap is really going on” in a social setting (Adler and Adler 1987).

Some argued (e. G. , Jules-Rosette 1 976) that one needed to be completely involved as a significant participant, while others saw too much involvement as compromising objectivity (Miller 1952). For those who both wished to maintain “objectivity” or a critical perspective and saw that who they were would influence what they saw and what others told them, it came especially critical to carefully analyze their positions and relations pips with the observed.

Relationships in the field were extremely important, and how different people responded differently to the researcher was a critical piece of evidence in developing understanding (Horopito 1986). In short, one needed to become self-reflexive in the data collection process. Despite arguments for full participation as the only way to really know what is going on, it is quite unusual and certainly nontraditional for the researcher to 41 express personal views that appear to violate those of the people being tidied.

Yet Brooke Harrington, in her contribution to this symposium, argues that Michael Clabber’s expression of his own views and his retelling of his involvement with his subjects in Cocking the Iron Cage: The Men’s Movement, Gender Politics, and American Culture (1996) generally make this work more credible to the reader. Presenting one’s self as an active participant who not only recounts what one saw but also talks about how one attempted to publicly airframe discussions is a new strategy, one which raises questions about the researcher’s ability to both fit in and to generate a critical account.

Scalable violated some of the conventional rules about how one does participant-observation and then writes up one’s story. As Harrington argues, Scalable takes a critical stance as a member and researcher when he dares to use a feminist critique at a meeting of a men’s group that has trouble dealing with the feminist movement. Then, as Harrington points out, Scalable is able to adopt a critical stance toward the movement before the men he is researching-?although he did so without alienating most of these men-?as well as before his readership. Scalable does not argue that this violation of convention makes his account superior to others.

He claims, conventionally, that his views are better than popular accounts for “sociologically legitimate” reasons: the length of his research, his focus on the regular members rather than the leadership, and the detail that he is able to present. These are all typical assertions of credibility made by ethnographers. According to Harrington, Scalable, an experienced researcher, stretches the boundaries of accepted methodological practice, while also using more conventional techniques. The presentation of his personal views, Scalable argues, allows him to demonstrate his critical stance toward the men’s

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