sociological science and qualitative sociology

So I should start this post by first saying that I’m thrilled that Sociological Science exists. It is terrific that a group of folks did the hard work — and I imagine it’s been a lot — of putting together a high quality, open access journal that sidesteps the protracted review process we all love to hate, that evaluates quality rather than importance, and that values replication as a scientific contribution. I’ve been impressed by the caliber of the articles and love that they’re getting covered in places like Salon and Daily Kos.

In fact, it’s only because Soc Science has clearly been successful, and I think will become even more so in the future, that this is even worth bringing up: What does it mean for qualitative sociology?

Although the editorial board of Soc Science leans heavily quantitative, the journal explicitly states that it “does not privilege any particular theoretical or methodological approach.” And it has indeed published a qualitative article, the interview-based “So You Think You Can Dance? Lessons from the U.S. Private Equity Bubble,” by Catherine Turco and Ezra Zuckerman. But that’s one of 27 articles published to date. (Apologies if I’m missing any.)

There are reasons one might expect to see less qualitative work in Soc Science. Some might be dissuaded from submitting by the journal’s positivist orientation. Probably more significantly, the fee structure, which makes open access possible, is a barrier for work that is not grant-funded, or backed by a wealthy institution — it costs $330 to $630 to publish an 11,000-word article, depending on one’s academic status — which disproportionately impacts qualitative research.

But I’m also concerned that it’s a self-reinforcing phenomenon. The journal might genuinely be intended to be methodologically open, but people see that there’s not much qualitative work. So qualitative sociologists don’t submit. A year goes by. The journal becomes, de facto, entirely quantitative, even if that was not the original aim.

If Soc Science was a niche journal, this wouldn’t matter much. Some journals are basically quantitative, others are qualititative, life goes on. But if it aspires to be a real competitor to AJS and ASR — and I think it does — this has different implications.

The question is, what are they. I can imagine two outcomes for qualitative sociology if Soc Science becomes a serious third major journal.

One is exclusion. Soc Science becomes, for all intents and purposes, quantitative, meaning that one of three major outlets is closed to qualitative research.

The other is narrowing. Soc Science continues to publish qualitative work, but only that framed in very quantitative-model terms. Which wouldn’t be so different from ASR, but would make two of three top journals that way, rather than one of two.

Maybe the current composition of the journal is all about who is submitting and not editorial intent. I mean, I haven’t submitted a paper. But even if it is the result of self-selection, it’s still worth thinking through the implications. After all, if there’s one thing sociologists know, it’s that well-intended decisions have unintended consequences.


Written by epopp

November 12, 2014 at 1:20 pm

Posted in academia, sociology

7 Responses

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  1. Thank you for writing this. I truly hope that an effort is made that these implications do not become reality.



    November 12, 2014 at 2:26 pm

  2. I suppose qualitative articles might need to be longer if one needs to includes several quotations. However, in defense of Soc Sci, a 2,500 word article, if submitted by a graduate student, would cost only $50 plus the submission fee of $35.


    Chris M

    November 12, 2014 at 4:54 pm

  3. @Chris M, I was estimating based on the Turco & Zuckerman article, which was 21 pp. long. It might not be 11,000 words. But it’s hard to imagine what a 2500 word qualitative article would contain.



    November 12, 2014 at 5:52 pm

  4. First, on behalf of all of us at Sociological Science, thanks for the kind words. Nothing is more heartening than to see a blog post that starts with the premise “Soc Science has clearly been successful”!

    I think there are two distinct elements to this issue: 1) Sociological Science’s attitude/openness/etc. toward qualitative research; and 2) potential tensions between qualitative research and Open Access journals in general, given their common reliance on publication fees. I’ll say more about the first than the second, but let me take each in turn.

    1) We take very seriously what we wrote in our founding documents, and have had many discussions as an editorial team as to how we could signal openness toward qualitative work. We recognize that some of the features of the journal, in particular the composition of the editorial board (people known for quantitative work), could be taken as signals that we were not welcoming despite our statement otherwise. As a result, we have worked hard since our launch to recruit a Deputy Editor who would strengthen Sociological Science and make us appear as receptive to qualitative work as we think we are.

    We were going to announce this in a few weeks, but I am happy to announce (just between us!) that our efforts paid off and that Mario Small has agreed to join as a Deputy Editor, beginning in January. Mario is a great scholar along many dimensions, each of which would be sufficient reason for us to bring him on board, and we certainly do not intend to pigeonhole him as “the qualitative guy.” But we clearly hope that Mario’s presence, as well as additions to our list of Consulting Editors, will counteract the notion that we are not open to qualitative work. (Welcome, Mario!)

    In addition, we will continue to work on ways to do a better job of signaling that we are serious when we say that we value qualitative work and seek to evaluate it on its own terms, not as compared to a ‘quantitative standard.’

    2) The concerns about the impact of a publication fee model on qualitative work are, I hope, less about Sociological Science than about the Open Access publication fee model in general.

    As a non-profit, we strive to keep our charges to authors as low as we can – and much lower than some other Open Access journals. But journals have costs: infrastructure costs (servers, etc.), copy-editing costs, typesetting costs. In traditional subscription based models, those costs are covered through subscriptions – to a large extent, institutional subscriptions. So publication is free to both qualitative and quantitative researchers at AJS/ASR etc., but only because enough universities cover those costs when they subscribe to the journal.

    While publication fees can sometimes be paid through grants, more and more universities have created Open Access funds that can be used to pay for publication fees, even if you do not have a grant. I hope that qualitative researchers are not uniquely disadvantaged in access to such funds.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for the thoughtful response. I’m delighted to hear both that Sociological Science is committed to publishing qualitative work, and that Mario Small is joining as a Deputy Editor. I think that publishing work across the full range of the discipline has benefits not only for qualitative researchers, but also for the journal itself.

    The funding model is harder. Clearly the existing journal system is broken, and new models have to be financially supported somehow. Open Access funds do seem like the best way to go, at least for now. Sadly (for me), SUNY isn’t there yet. But for others, here are a few lists of university-level open access funds:

    I’m still interested in hearing from other qualitative sociologists about whether they’d submit to Sociological Science, and what would affect that decision. Lots of pageviews, not many comments. Don’t be shy, folks.

    Liked by 1 person


    November 13, 2014 at 2:32 am

  6. I agree that some nifty work has shown up in Sociological Science and I applaud the effort–always better to have more avenues than fewer. And seriously, congratulations to the editors! As someone doing (partly) qualitative stuff, I’d certainly consider submitting there, but with low expectations for acceptance. Why? Well, there’s lots of perplexing tone in their “submission guidelines” that seem far off from current standard practices in qualtitative articles. To wit:

    “Studies that rely on non-representative samples of the population of interest are acceptable. Authors must provide a clear justification for the sampling strategy or cases chosen, based on appropriateness for the research question and methods of analysis. Authors should explain how the loss in external validity is offset by gains in internal validity or richness of insight, and discuss how the non-representative nature of the sample may impact the conclusions reached.”

    [What qualitative sample is representative? So every qualitative study has to have a boilerplate attached to it explaining why qualitative research is still worth reading even though it’s not quite as good as externally valid representative sampling–i.e., the aspiration of much quantitative work? That’s fine if so, but the point is that it burdens qualitative work with having to address what is an assumption for some researchers but not others.]

    “Direct quotes should be used only when a respondent’s statement has been recorded verbatim. Manuscripts that use direct quotes should, when possible, include the questions posed by the interviewer.”

    [My understanding that this stance is, at least, controversial in ethnorgaphy.]

    “Archival sources, if any, should also be described in detail, and their known or likely biases discussed.”

    [Who wouldn’t describe their archival sourcing? And by “likely biases” do they mean the provenance of the documents or the epistemological silences of the archive?]

    Frankly, (and again said with admiration for some of the work that’s appeared in that journal), stuff like this reads like the wish-list of quantitative people’s frustrations after reading qualitative work. The substantive concerns aren’t so much the worry as is the odd positivist tone that privileges one kind of work over another, and rather than signalling “openness” to qualitative work, perhaps a better work is “toleration” for a certain kind of qualitative research. But as I said, I’ll probably eventually give it a shot to see whether that tone/expectation holds.

    Liked by 2 people


    November 17, 2014 at 7:00 pm

  7. […] a comment on the Soc Science post by Bellerophon also highlights the epistemological side of the […]


    the Q words |

    November 28, 2014 at 5:58 pm

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