Inspiring Sociology

This year I took over convening the Goldsmiths MA in Social Research. This degree has provided the place where we think about the craft of research. Initially, it was a degree set up by David Silverman and focused on qualitative research and provided a space to explore his development of ethnomethodology and conversation analysis.   With the emergence of the new research training agenda in the 1990s the degree was expanded to include quantitative techniques in order to satisfy the Economic and Social Research Council priorities with regard to PhD Research Training.  

Largely due to Aidan Kelly’s expertise the degree became acknowledged as an innovative programme for the teaching quantitative methods.  Aidan – who retired this year – has bequeathed a brilliant legacy of advanced quantitative methods training.  In recent times we have balanced the quantitative courses with equally innovative approaches developed by Michaela Benson to teaching qualitative research including team-based ethnographies, training in qualitative analysis and writing journal articles and also using film reconstructions of fieldwork dramas reenacted by actors to bring research to life.

One of the dangers of teaching research methods is focusing on the practicalities rather than substance what we create in doing research.  So this year we decided to ask our new students to choose their favourite pieces of research and write a short review about it.   Mark Carrigan has kindly offered to publish the best reviews of these examples of inspiring sociology included here.    

Les Back
Convenor of the MA Social Research, Goldsmiths, University of London


The Extended Case Method by Michael Burawoy

MA Social Research Book Review (September 2016) by Zoe Walshe

In The Extended Case Method, Michael Burawoy brings together ethnographic field work that spans decades and continents to examine the intersection between theory and methodology.  From his study of Zambian copper mines in the late 1960s, to a Chicago factory in the 1970s, to Hungary in the 1980s and a newly capitalist Russia in the 1990s, Burawoy has used the tools of participant observation to study workplaces during the great transformations of the twentieth century, taking the micro-processes of labour to develop macro-theory.  Writing in the Marxist tradition, Burawoy’s case studies have addressed capitalist and socialist work practices, charting the demise of State socialism in eastern Europe, the marketisation of Russia, and decolonisation in Zambia.  The methodological tradition of ethnography may not at first appear a conventional fit with the Marxist study of “great transformations”, but in this book Burawoy provides a compelling account of the particular insights that can be gained from the extended case method.

It is this extension from rich ethnographic micro-data to macro-forces, and furthermore, the extension of theory, that Burawoy is occupied with.  Rejecting the singular dominance of positivist science, he calls for a dual approach including a reflexive science, where  “the goal of research is not directed at establishing a definitive “truth” about an external world but at the continual improvement of existing theory” (2009: 68).   Indeed, the constant reconstruction of theory is central to Burawoy’s vision for a sociological practice; “theory exists to be extended in the face of external anomalies and internal contradictions. We don’t start with data, we start with theory.  Without theory we are blind – we cannot see the world” (Burawoy, 2009: 13).  With Burawoy’s reflexive science, where ethnographic encounters can be extended and brought into dialogue with theory, data from local contexts can be used to support “exploration of broad historical patterns and macrostructures” (2009: 23).  There is no need to only accept methods that fulfil the requirements of positivist science (e.g. surveys etc.), or to reject science completely as with postmodern approaches (2009: 23); Burawoy describes his theoretical positioning as “working on the borders of post-modernism, without ever overstepping the boundaries” (2009: 25).  As sociologists, we use fieldwork to constantly refocus our lenses, to look at the world afresh, and this in turn is how we further science, “not by being right but by being wrong and obsessing about it” (2009: xiv).

I would recommend this book to other students of social research because it offers a detailed analysis of the meeting point between theory and methodology.  Burawoy makes explicit the political implications of our choices as researchers, and in doing so, reminds us to be conscious of hegemonic methodological approaches.  Sociology can be a space to challenge, or at least interrogate, dominant narratives but we will fail to do that unless recognise the operations of power and biases built into the tools of our trade. Burawoy’s argument that the extended case method:

In highlighting the ethnographic worlds of the local, it challenges the postulated omnipotence of the global, whether it be international capital, neoliberal politics, space of flows, or mass culture. Reflexive science valorises context, challenges reification, and thereby establishes the limits of positive methods. (Burawoy, 2009: 72)

Within this view, there is great potential in sociological practice, in the ethnographic encounter, and thus sociology is framed as a vital and necessary voice in the dialogues of our global society.  Indeed, parts of the book feel like a call to arms to develop the sociological imagination.  Burawoy writes boldly of the researchers need for courage:

We need first the courage of our convictions, then the courage to challenge our convictions, and finally the imagination to sustain our courage with theoretical reconstruction. If these reconstructions come at too great a cost we may have to abandon our theory altogether and start afresh with a new, interesting theory for which our case is once more an anomaly (Burawoy, 2009: 53).  

As we begin on this course of study, these calls for absolute rigour combined with courage and imagination are perhaps a useful statement of intent to move forward with.  The reminder of the need to, at times, abandon our theory is a valuable reminder of the importance of ‘getting it wrong’ – our complex, social world is constantly shifting and our methods and practice as researchers need to reflect that.

This book is a look back at how method and theory intertwine, and to his credit, Burawoy does not hesitate from critiquing earlier mistakes, or reflecting on the negative (as well as positive) outcomes of his research.  He acknowledges he was “not methodologically self-conscious about theory extension in The Colour of Class”, however, it did underpin it. Elsewhere, he discusses the unforseen consequences of his research in terms of the political fall out around Zambianization (see for example, pp 58-59, on ‘silencing’). In Chapter Three, Burawoy highlights the value of the “revisit” within the ethnographic process itself.  

Out of Burawoy’s many published works, I chose The Extended Case Method to review because I admire its scale.  This book in particular, published in 2009, is a culmination of Burawoy thinking and rethinking his work. Some of the chapters were first published as articles in 1989/1998/2003, and the research case studies themselves range from the 1960’s onwards. This perspective over time, the ability to look back and reflect on his earlier research with the benefit of hindsight, and also incorporate his later theoretical developments, is why I think the book may be of interest to other students of social research. Do read it.


Reay, D. (2006). The zombie stalking English schools: Social class and educational inequality. British Journal of Educational Studies, 54(3): 288-307.

Saskia Papadakis, MA Social Research summer assignment, September 2016

Reay’s paper is an indictment of the English education system and its role over the past century in maintaining class structures which privilege the middle classes at the expense of the working classes. She takes Beck’s (2004) claim that class is a ‘zombie category’ which has ceased to be relevant to current experiences of social stratification, and uses historical evidence and her own research on contemporary English schooling to show that class is a process which continues to shape students’ experiences, attainment, and trajectories.

Drawing on Bourdieu-influenced cultural class analysis expounded by Skeggs (2004), Savage (2000), and others, Reay argues that class is created and given value through cultural processes which result in the normalisation of the middle classes and the pathologisation of the working classes (Reay 2006: 289). She uses historical sources to show that the English education system has been both a product of a middle class concern with subordinating the working classes and a tool for the middle classes to accrue value through the privileging of middle class cultural capital. Reay then examines contemporary educational policy, stating that the extension of credentials to working class students has done little to address this inequality.

In the tradition of Willis’ (1977) Learning to Labour, Reay uses ethnography to research working class experiences of education. As well as providing Reay with access to the natural context in which education takes place, ethnography allows her to privilege the voices of students whose opinions are not usually sought or valued. By combining focus groups, interviews, and class observations, Reay is able to analyse the role of class processes in student-teacher interaction and gain insight into student and teacher perspectives on the ways differing cultural backgrounds shape teaching and learning.

This article is compelling because of the strength of Reay’s arguments, and the range and pertinence of the evidence she gathers to support her case. In the first half of the article, she marshals an impressive body of historical evidence to exemplify the influence of class concerns of the formation of the English education system. However, it is in the second half that the article comes into its own. Reay’s judicious use of quotes from her data, alongside her own observations, vividly illuminates the pain with which working class students experience the daily inequalities and injustices of the education system. These inequalities may be engendered by education policies which favour the middle classes, but they are compounded by teachers’ inability to recognise class privilege. Reay gives working class students a voice, and in doing so shows that far from passively accepting the discrimination of their teachers, they are articulate, reflective, and critical.

I would recommend this article to anyone wishing to explore the position of class in the English education system, cultural class analysis and the concept of symbolic violence, and the use of ethnography to study institutions. It is an excellent example of how institutions legitimise the cultural values of a particular group, and in doing so position other groups as inferior.

Beck, U. (2004). Ulrich Beck – Johannes Willms: Conversations with Ulrich Beck. Trans M. Pollack. London: Polity Press with Blackwell Publishing.Bibliography

Savage, M. (2000). Class Analysis and Social Transformation. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Skeggs, B. (2004). Class, Self, Culture. London: Routledge.

Willis, P. (1977). Learning to Labour. Farnborough: Saxon House.


Mitchell Duneier’s Sidewalk (1999) Review

Mary Bartlett MA SR.

Mitchell Duneier’s Sidewalk is a fascinating ethnography of poor ‘unhoused’ men, street vendors and panhandlers that work in the informal economy; which helps them to create their own society that can provide for their daily needs. Duneier writes with a skill that places you directly onto the streets of Greenwich Village, and it is that ability, to be transported into the events of the study that can capture a reader into valuing the informal social life of different groups within cities.

Not only that, ‘Sidewalk’ is complimented with photographs that were taken during the course of the study by the photographer Ovie Carter, and in a way, it is this photography that allows for other senses to be invited into the reading of the study. With Duneier’s prose and Carter’s photos, Sidewalk can additionally be experienced with Ludovico Einaudi’s album ‘I Giorni’.  The track ‘Stella del Mattino’ takes you through the chaos of New York city life, and its links to all those that don’t participate in its conventional ways of living. Whilst the track ‘I Giorni’, brings you back to the ordeals of the informal economy; and it pieces Duneier’s theory together so eloquently alongside Carter’s visuals. The simplicity of the piano reminds you that the street vendors are just unordinary ordinary people.

Nevertheless, what’s mainly interesting about the book is Duneier’s use of a range of qualitative methods, which complement the aims of the interpretivist tradition, for the social understanding of Wilson and Kelling’s ‘broken windows’ theory and his own ‘fixed windows’ theory. His theory attempts to advocate for a ‘broken windows’ theory that respects the social actors who have retreated from conventional social norms.

‘Sidewalk’ also benefited from shared data collection responsibilities between the researcher and the participants. The people were able to become the participant observers in their own worlds, and they contributed in a way that makes it possible to analyse the methods of the social researcher. Consequently, one of the most thought provoking examples of this haphazard exchange in data collecting strategies can be found in part four of the book. The events of this section raise questions on research ethics and research methods. What is the right way to conduct research on social life without infringing on certain rights or overstepping on historical and societal tensions?

Is there a valid sociological case, for the differences in how multiple forms of power and historical tensions interacted with the black and white men on an intersectional level on Christmas day? Were the day’s events ones that raise questions on research ethics and if so, how can social researchers distinguish between the different kinds of power that make up their subjects, and combine them with the nature of everyday intersectionality and rational ethics within sociological research?

The book leaves you asking whether or not Duneier breached experiments as a researcher on Christmas day, by setting up a stall in a vendor’s place and confronting a black police officer about the law that he attempted to enforce. This tense confrontation in the full view of the other participants shows that Duneier, was in part attempting to demonstrate that the informal way of living by the men in the study was justified by the law. But on the other hand, it also shows a situation of racial hierarchy that displaces power on a formal and racial level between the researcher and the researched.

Duneier’s ‘Sidewalk’ elicits new ways of thinking for approaching research methods and ethics, and it is a beautiful read for all new social researchers who wish to engage with multiple methods within social studies;  especially methods that enable forms of “shared sociological authorship” within social research.


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