The crisis of empirical sociology: against defeatism and rethinking the public role of the qualitative researcher

As Savage and Burrows (2007: 894) point out, the popularity of the in depth interview in British sociology stems from an intellectual reaction to the excesses of Parsonian functionalism: responding to talk of reference groups, norms and values with the valorization of intensely ideographic methods which are geared towards the elaboration of people’s own values in their own terms,  seen as particularly significant when dealing with marginal or oppressed groups liable to be squeezed out of the functionalist world view. While they are certainly correct to say that the value of such in-depth interviews needs justification once it is removed from this initial context of critical reaction, I’m less convinced of the arguments they cite for its diminishing relevance. They argue that,

Not only are the world-views of diverse populations now routinely presented to us in the popular and new media in such a manner that their summary characterization by sociologists is no longer as necessary (or as interesting) as once it was, but some of the social transactional research technologies discussed above are now also able to produce nuanced representations of the lifeworlds of quite specific populations groupings, for example (Savage and Burrows 2007: 894-895)

The ubiquity with which ‘everyday life’ is presented in a situated way within popular and new media surely represents, if we step back from the urgency which understandably animated their argument, an opportunity for the rethinking (rather than the move away) from in-depth interviews and other methods animated by an impulse to capture the particularities and nuances of situated lives. Perhaps I’m being hopelessly optimistic (it happens) but the same state of affairs which Savage and Burrows cite as indicative of the growing irrelevance of in-depth interviewing instead indicates to me that the potential public interest in the results of such research has never been higher. Furthermore, in a complex and confusing world increasingly characterised by what seems likely to become endemic economic and political instability, I’d suggest this public interest might extend to work which traces out the linkages between private troubles and public issues… with the essential caveat that linking one to the other, while presenting the findings of research in a way that interests and influences diverse and overlapping publics, necessitates a rethinking of the public role of the sociologist. Perhaps involving a generalisation of the orientation of the public intellectual, adapted for a digital age and thus freed from any grandiose pretensions and removed as far as possible from its inscription within the status hierarchies of the academy:

The Internet, however, can make these connections because it permits economical, finely calibrated “narrowcasting,” that is, the transmission of specific information to specific interest groups. Of course print and — to a much lesser extent — radio and television also allowed some narrowcasting. Academic journals and industry newsletters are perhaps the best examples. But the scale of narrowcasting on the Internet is orders of magnitude greater than anything known before. Take the blogosphere for example. Here tens of thousands of interest-specific public intellectuals talk to tens of thousands of interest-specific publics concerning every imaginable interest. If you want to know about it — beer brewing, Italian shoes, organic chemistry — you can probably find someone with considerable expertise blogging about it. That’s truly remarkable.

The university presses are well-positioned to take advantage of Internet narrowcasting precisely because they essentially manage a group of experts — authors with books — who are very motivated to reach their publics. Every author wants an audience, even academic authors. The university presses have traditionally helped their authors find their audiences by publishing and promoting books. It’s time to admit that they largely failed, not for any lack of trying, but because the book was the wrong tool. Blogs, podcasts, videos, and types of “programming” not yet conceived or invented offer a much better method of reaching the myriad of communities of interest. If university presses use these methods, everyone wins: the author gets an audience, the audience gets a public intellectual, and the university press fulfills its public-spirited mission. (Poe 2012)

Poe’s essay makes a broader point about the role for university presses in ‘narrowcasting’ research communication by academics within an institution. But I think it also highlights the manner in which digital tools mean that ‘public engagement’ (for all the baggage that term carries within the modern academy) could become ubiquitous. Whether it or not it should remains a contested question. But where I do agree with Savage and Burrows is that empirical sociology in general, as well as certain qualitative approaches in particular, faces an unprecedented crisis. Without some creative attempts to rethink the public face of such activities in view of the challenges which confront them, irrelevance and decay surely beckons. However the ‘descriptive turn’ advocated by Savage and Burrows strikes me as defeatism. We can surely do better. We can at the very least try.


Mark Carrigan is editor of the Sociological Imagination. He blogs here and tweets here.


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2 replies »

  1. Any claim made to experitse by sociologists or other social scientists surely negates the purpose of that discipline. Savage and Burrows are setting up a straw man?

    A good review Mark.

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