biernacki book forum, part 1: why we should think about coding very carefully
This Spring, our book forum will address Richard Biernacki’s Reinventing Evidence in Social Inquiry: Decoding Facts and Variables. In this initial post, I’ll describe the book and give you my summary judgment. Reinventing Evidence, roughly speaking, claims that numerically coding extended texts is a very, very bad idea. How bad? It is soooo bad that sociologists should just stop coding text and abandon any hope of providing a quantitative or numerical coding of texts or speech. It’s all about interpretation. This is an argument that prevents a much needed integration of the different approaches to sociology, and it deserves a serious hearing.
In support of this point, Biernacki does a few things. He makes an argument about how coding text lacks validity (i.e., associating a number to a text does correctly measure what we want it to measure). Then he spends three chapters going back to well known studies that use content analysis and argues, at varying points, that the coding is misleading, obviously incorrect, or that there were no consistent standard for handling the text or the data.
As a proponent of mixed methods, I was rather dismayed to read this argument. I do not agree that coding of text is a hopeless task and that we should retreat into the interpretive framework of the humanities. There seem to be regularities in speech, and other text, that makes us want to group them together. If you accept that statement, then it follows that a code can be developed. So, on one level I don’t buy into the main argument of the book.
At a more surface level, I think the book does some things rather well. For example, the meat of the book is in replication, which many of us, like Jeremy Freese, have advocated. Biernacki goes back and examines a number of high profile publications that rely on coding texts and finds a lot to be desired.
Next week, we’ll get into some details of the argument. Also, please check out our little buddy blog, Scatterplot. Andrew Perrin will discussing the book and offering his own views.