orgtheory.net

sudhir, chillax

Shamus brings my attention to a Slate article written by Sudhir Venkatesh that extols a new book by Elijah Anderson. Fair enough – sounds like important work, but he goes one step further and works in a slam against modern sociology. The title is “What is the Matter with Sociology?”  Shamus cites Venkatesh on the offending passage:

A crippling debate now pits the “quants,” who believe in prediction and a hard-nosed mathematical approach, against a less powerful, motley crew—historians, interviewers, cultural analysts— who must defend the scientific rigor and objectivity of any deviation from the strictly quantitative path. In practice, this means everyone retreats to his or her comfort zone.

Frankly, I am puzzled. The attitudes Venkatesh describes are certainly found among many social scientists, but this is simply not an accurate portrayal of modern sociology. As I’ve argued before, the quantitative-qualitative split is a thing of the past. I myself have actually published articles in multiple genres, such as ethnography, archival work, and survey analysis. A few days ago, I saw Rob Sampson, of the Harvard Soc Dept, gave a talk on a forthcoming book. In one hour, he showed survey data, network analysis, field experiments, first hand accounts, and even photography. William Julius Wilson, perhaps the  most famous urban sociologist in the world, published work that combines surveys and interviews. All over the profession, you see more and more scholars who liberally combine different methods.

Now, there is a kernel of truth. There are *some* faculty who believe that you have to be quantitative or qualitative, but I think these are from an older cohort. And yes, people obviously specialize.  Overall, though, the quant-qual dispute is a red herring. It’s dead. People seem to broadly agree that sociology can absorb multiple methods. Sociology has thankfully moved beyond that issue – and that’s a good thing.

Written by fabiorojas

April 19, 2011 at 3:11 am

28 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Not quite sure I agree that the quant/qual divide is dead. Plenty of younger faculty in my department are deeply suspicious of qualitative work.

    I’m not certain of this, but I suspect that ones view of the strength of this divide depends on your home department. Perhaps Venkatesh’s department is one where the divide is especially strong?

    Like

    BC

    April 19, 2011 at 5:35 am

  2. Personally, concerns were raised by Venkatesh’s statement that: “Sociology was born in Chicago in the early 1900s, and was from the outset made by Americans, for Americans.” I understand how he needs this to be the case to make his argument work, but, as Durkheim, Weber and Marx might say, this is not strictly true.

    Like

    Adam Hedgecoe

    April 19, 2011 at 9:23 am

  3. The divide is artifical but still exists, and it’s only when those academics retire/die out that the discipline can well and truly move on.

    However the one area that will always be lacking is Mathematical Sociology, which at most institutions (in the UK) is really not considered. The fact that MS isn’t on any undergrade programmes is part of the problem and is denying students the opportunity to learn something that is very interesting and rewarding.

    Like

    hmmm

    April 19, 2011 at 10:28 am

  4. @hmmm: I agree mathematical sociology is on the fringe. In fact, if there is one topic that is systematically excluded is math soc. Aside from an occasional grad course in a few PhD programs, where would one ever encounter the material?

    @BC: I am not extremely familiar with Columbia, but Sudhir works there, as does Shamus Khan and Diane Vaughn. That’s three leading qualitative people in a leading dept. They can’t be *that* opposed to it.

    Like

    fabiorojas

    April 19, 2011 at 1:21 pm

  5. I agree with fabio on this. I think this is largely a thing of the past. Here at Columbia I run the stratification seminar series this year (all classic strat folks). And the qualitative people are hardly isolated. I prefer a question rather than method centered approach. This requires that we all be somewhat literate in the parts of questions that different methods can ask (and what counts as a good answer within that method). But such a demand is not a particularly onerous one.

    I largely disagree with Sudhir’s piece. But I think the spirit of his claims are that we should ask bigger questions — ones that matter. And to do so requires a broader collection of ways to answer them. Such a sweeping claim is easy to make. But it would help to point to pieces of scholarship that represent this impetus (and not, simply, classes being taught). Or to be analytically clearer on what the problem is and what the solution is.

    On one thing I do agree: there are some negative responses to presenting work in accessible ways. I have had a series of people tell me my own work is well written as an insult (exception to the orgtheory folks — thanks Brayden!). Self-indulgently I think Sudhir’s line in the Slate piece, “A common refrain paralyzing our field is, “The more people who can understand your writing, the less scientific it must be.”” refers to
    an occasion where just such a thing was said to me.

    But, being reflexive, I think it’s also important to remember where I am (and for Sudhir, where he is too). It’s not like such responses have crippled either of us. We’re doing just fine. Which suggests that there are rewards for doing this kind of work.

    Like

    Shamus Khan

    April 19, 2011 at 1:54 pm

  6. Shamus: I agree that clarity of writing and having a public purpose are often construed in negative ways. But that’s endemic to academia, not just sociology. Academics often have a knee jerk reaction to work that is communicated clearly to the public. People mistake simplicity for simple mindedness.

    Perhaps I was really dismayed by Sudhir’s statement because he and I attended the same graduate program at slightly different times. I can count many projects out of Chicago that were both intellectually rigorous and of public importance – Laumann’s human sexuality project, Linda Waite’s divorce research, Wilson’s arguments about urban poverty.

    At Indiana, my colleagues have published research on the effectiveness of environmental regulation (Tim Bartley), how people respond to gay families (Brian Powell), rape on campus (Armstrong) and my own research addresses public responses to the Iraq War. In all these cases, people have also worked with the media to get themselves out there in addition to publishing in leading journals. Does Sudhir know about this research?

    I think he and I may agree that sociology isn’t as prominent as it was during the era of Daniel Bell or Jim Coleman. But it isn’t for want of trying or quality of research. There’s a decoupling of sociology from the public sphere that’s disturbing. My personal hypothesis is that sociology’s public image has been distorted. For example, a lot of people think sociology is all post-modernism. They also conflate a sincere discussion of inequality with knee jerk Marxism. It’s hard to have a broad dialogue if people assume that you’ll hit them with Marxism and postmodernism.

    Like

    fabiorojas

    April 19, 2011 at 3:16 pm

  7. “The more people who can understand your writing, the less scientific it must be.”

    Tell that to Norbert Elias.

    Like

    Guillermo

    April 19, 2011 at 3:21 pm

  8. Fabio: We’re in agreement. I would say, also, that it’s not that sociology has moved away from public problems. Instead, resonant American frames have moved further and further away from sociological explanations. The rising prominence of market-based thinking and of individual-level explanations make sociology a harder sell. To blame sociology for that hardly seems an accurate diagnosis.

    Like

    Shamus Khan

    April 19, 2011 at 3:42 pm

  9. “Sociology was born in Chicago in the early 1900s, and was from the outset made by Americans, for Americans.”

    He really said that? Fall off chair laughing.

    Maybe it makes more sense in context.

    Like

    David Hoopes

    April 19, 2011 at 3:58 pm

  10. Shamus: What makes it even more strange is the rise of network analysis. Holistic thinking about social relations – and sociologists are on the cutting edge. But almost no one gives sociology credit for that.

    David: Nope, the context doesn’t make it sound any better. Though I am a die hard Chicago guy, I’ll readily admit that there was a lot of sociology aside from Park and Burgess!

    Like

    fabiorojas

    April 19, 2011 at 4:25 pm

  11. I have a question about this: What percentage of grants and/or money goes to qualitative versus quantitative research? Is there a difference financially in how research money is allocated? At UCSC I am told that much more funding is available for quant research projects than qual. Thank you.

    Like

    Seth

    April 19, 2011 at 4:46 pm

  12. There have been a lot of smug comments on Slate about the claim that sociology was born in the 1900s in Chicago. I’ll actually defend Sudhir here. First, it is pretty clear that he’s talking about urban sociology — and in particular the issues of race. And on this he’s right.

    Further, Durkheim, Weber and Marx aren’t so much the founders of sociology as they are part of a cannon constructed, in no small part, by Parsons in the 1937 – a good 40 years after the founding of AJS. Weber rarely thought of himself as a sociologist, and Marx didn’t at all.

    The glib snickering of the obviousness of sociology’s founding by Durkheim ignores something sociologists might be more attuned to: the ex post construction of cannons.

    Like

    Shamus Khan

    April 19, 2011 at 4:58 pm

  13. “…he’s talking about urban sociology — and in particular the issues of race. And on this he’s right.”

    No he isn’t. Georg Simmel wrote significant urban sociology in 1903 (‘Metropolis and urban life’). Issues of race are also hardly endemic to US sociology. It is one of the most common concepts in early Latin American sociology and social thought, to name one example.

    “The glib snickering of the obviousness of sociology’s founding by Durkheim ignores something sociologists might be more attuned to: the ex post construction of cannons.”

    With this I agree 100 %.

    Like

    Guillermo

    April 19, 2011 at 5:25 pm

  14. “What percentage of grants and/or money goes to qualitative versus quantitative research?”

    This requires keeping in mind that many research projects are expected to contain both qualitative and quantitative analysis.

    Like

    Guillermo

    April 19, 2011 at 5:27 pm

  15. @Guillermo: Simmel wrote on urban sociology. But few people even in the early Chicago school referenced it. Though Simmel appeared pretty prominently in the early AJS issues, he is rarely mobilized in the first forty years of the journal (compare him to Park or Small, and he appears about 1/3 of the time). He’s more popular than Weber, for sure, and a little less popular than Durkheim, and less still than Marx. But these were not the big influences to early sociological thought on the city among the Chicago school folks.

    As for Latin American sociology and race, this is not a history i know, absent of the more American anthropology tradition. Charles Wagley’s, “The Concept of Social Race in the Americas” immediate comes to mind.

    But I think both of this reinforces the point. Early sociology was pretty inward looking, and later sociology continues to be so. So the provincialism of our thought helps support the claim that urban sociology was, “made by Americans, for Americans.”

    Like

    Shamus Khan

    April 19, 2011 at 6:02 pm

  16. My laughter is very good natured. But, I’m sorry, it’s a funny statement (even if you can prove it’s true). I’m more than happy to let you all fight it out.

    Like

    David Hoopes

    April 19, 2011 at 6:54 pm

  17. @various commenters: Qualitative research suffers big time when it comes to funding. That’s a problem. However, ethnographers still manage to get it done at the end of the day. They publish and get good jobs. This suggests to me that the profession is still able to absorb qualitative research.

    Also, regarding this whole “who invented sociology” thing, the way it was written came off wrong. The context of the essay is urban soc, but Sudhir is definitely aiming at the whole profession.

    Like

    fabiorojas

    April 19, 2011 at 8:02 pm

  18. “Simmel wrote on urban sociology. But few people even in the early Chicago school referenced it.”

    Many scientific breakthroughs in history happened in the private sphere, and some did not even come to be known after the death of the scientist involved. Science is not only done in universities and scientific journals, so this institution-centered perspective is historically unacceptable.

    My opinion about the central topic is that sociology as a field is always supposed to be uncomfortable in its own skin. If you keep this in mind you’ll find all these texts about its crisis and impending death amusing at best.

    Like

    Guillermo

    April 19, 2011 at 9:32 pm

  19. Charles Wagley’s, “The Concept of Social Race in the Americas” immediate comes to mind.

    That one I haven’t read, but I definitely should. It’s still a view from the North, though; it cannot replace Latin American views.

    Like

    Guillermo

    April 19, 2011 at 9:34 pm

  20. Shamus: Unless I’m mistaken, Park went to Germany to study with Simmel. I think it’s hard to argue he didn’t influence Chicago approaches to urban sociology.

    The rising prominence of market-based thinking and of individual-level explanations make sociology a harder sell. To blame sociology for that hardly seems an accurate diagnosis.”

    I agree with this completely.

    Like

    Sean

    April 20, 2011 at 12:03 am

  21. “…come to be known after the death of the scientist involved. ”

    Edit: until after. Sigh.

    Like

    Guillermo

    April 20, 2011 at 12:15 am

  22. I’m with Fabio in the sense that calling Chicago the home of sociology (urban or otherwise) misses the large amount of work that was going on outside of Hyde Park. Du Bois and his lab in ATL, anyone?

    Like

    Hillbilly

    April 20, 2011 at 12:00 pm

  23. Fwiw, a strong case can be made that Sociology in its current institutional form was forged at Chicago. Yes, there were other U.S. Sociology departments in the 1890s (Columbia, Yale, Hopkins(?)) as well as a critical mass of intellectual activities in Europe at the time. But those departments did little to generate a disciplinary infrastructure and Parson’s classic theorists (Weber, Durkheim, Marx, etc) could also be claimed for other disciplines. [That doesn’t make them irrelevant to the foundation of sociology; it means that they were not key institution builders].

    Albion Small at Chicago established the AJS, the A.S.S., and a graduate program which produced a down-line of institutional leaders in Sociology for the rest of the 20th century. Incidentally, it was also Small who introduced Weber and Simmel to English speaking sociologists. He persuaded Weber to attend the 1904 exposition in St. Louis and translated Simmel for the readers of AJS. Martin Bulmer’s (1984) The Chicago School of Sociology: Institutionalization, Diversity, and the Rise of Sociological Research published by the University of Chicago Press makes these points persuasively.

    Like

    Corey Colyer

    April 20, 2011 at 3:59 pm

  24. “Where sociology once gravitated to the most pressing problems, especially the contentious issues that drove Americans apart, it no longer seems so sure of its mission. With no obvious crisis, disaster, or glaring source of inequity as a backdrop demanding public action, a great American intellectual tradition gives every sign of weathering a troubled transition.”

    I can’t get beyond this claim. Is the rise in income inequality over the past 35 years not a “glaring source of inequity?” To be sure, much of the dialogue about the “second gilded age” has occurred in economics and bears the stamp of economic approaches, but there are plenty of sociologists who are tackling this problem in its various guises (e.g. poverty, immobility).

    To be sure, very few of these sociologists define themselves as part of the Chicago tradition, but it seems a leap to claim that the (ostensible) decline in one intellectual tradition equates to a decline in the entire discipline.

    In this respect, Venkatesh’s essay reminds me of the handwringing among postmodern cultural anthropologists about the (ostensible) demise of anthropology. Although rarely recognized as such, the crux of the problem seemed to be that postmodern cultural anthropology was suffering from a lack of a mission, not that anthropology in general was.

    Like

    krippendorf

    April 20, 2011 at 4:38 pm

  25. So, is the debate between quants and quals crippling? Getting qualitative work published in management is quite difficult. Though, my approach is anthropological and meets great resistance from those with a more sociological approach. In management, the qualitative work suffers from over quantification.

    Like

    David Hoopes

    April 20, 2011 at 4:51 pm

  26. “Fwiw, a strong case can be made that Sociology in its current institutional form was forged at Chicago.”

    If by “Sociology in its current institutional form” you mean, “all worthwhile sociology is done in the US”, you may be right. But French institutionalization has also been very influential, beyond simply “a critical mass of intellectual activities in Europe”. Much of what French sociology is today (one of the top intellectual centers of the world, along with the USA) is owed to the work started with L’Année Sociologique in 1898 (Durkheim, Hertz, Halbwachs, Mauss, Simiand, etc.).

    Like

    Guillermo

    April 21, 2011 at 7:35 pm

  27. My guess is that only a few would agree with Venkatesh’s thesis. I heard him talk a few years ago and he was sort of saying the same thing…to a room full of sociologists no less. One clarification note, you can get funding for qualitative research from places like NIH, NSF etc. But just like with quantitative studies the subject matter has to be relevant to the agencies’ mission. So external funding should be decoupled from the perception that one method is preferred over another.

    Like

    siobh

    April 24, 2011 at 9:38 pm

  28. The point about canons is well taken. Parsons did, however, not have much to do with the inclusion of Marx into the sociological canon; The Structure of Social Action does not deal with Marx. The canonization of Marx didn’t really take off until the 60s, and if anyone should be credited with establishing and forging the founding father triumvirate of Marx, Weber, Durkheim I think Giddens (in Capitalism and Modern Social Theory from 1971) is a strong candidate.

    As I am sure many of you know, NSF has in the last decade or so organized a couple of conferences and published a couple of reports regarding standards for evaluating and funding qualitative research (www.nsf.gov/pubs/2004/nsf04219/nsf04219.pdf; and http://www.nsf.gov/sbe/ses/soc/ISSQR_workshop_rpt.pdf).
    I am in no position to comment on these reports but Howard S. Becker is very critical of especially the most recent one: Becker, Howard S. (2009) “How to Find Out How to Do Qualitative Research”, International Journal of Communication 3: 545-553 (available on Becker’s web page http://home.earthlink.net/~hsbecker/articles/NSF.html)

    Like

    Mattias Smångs

    April 26, 2011 at 8:29 pm


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: