Computers and Intellectual Craftsmanship

by Jim Kemeny 

I still remember the large number of personnel needed to input and analyse data in the 1950s:

“Computers were giant mechanical assemblages, big enough to take up an entire warehouse, programmed in advance with punch cards. In 1961 the most powerful computer in the world was the mighty 36-bit IBM 7090, one of the new `transistorised´ mainframe computers that set back the owners to the tune of 2.9 million dollars and cost a thousand dollars an hour to run.” Astronomy Now (Vol. 27 No. 5 p. 23 May 2013).

I worked with these at the time. These gigantic computers were housed in air-conditioned security. To use punch cards demanded two types of labour-power in what was a much more gender-segregated specialisation: a small group of (male) systems managers using pen and paper to write the programmes and a much larger (female) force for punching and inputing the Hollerith cards.

This type of data processing was, I felt, far too distanced from the research act, the collecting and sorting the data into simple yes-no answers using a knitting needle to shake out the number of cards with different combinations of reponses. The more advanced this became the more alienating I felt it to be from “gathering” data. This, more than anything else, made me feel that the research process was potentially corruptible, just as Mills warned. He wrote about this in The Sociological Imagination, the appendix On Intellectual Craftsmanship (1970 Edition, Pelican pp. 217-218):

“One of the very worst things that happens to social scientists is that they feel the need to write of their ‘plans’ on only one occasion: when they are going to ask for money for a specific piece of research or ‘a project’. It is as a request for funds that most ‘planning’ is done, or at least carefully written about. However standard the practice, I think this very bad: it is bound in some degree to be salesmanship, and given prevailing explanations, very likely to result in painstaking pretensions; the project is likely to be ‘presented’, rounded out in some arbitrary manner long before it ought to be; it is often a contrived thing, aimed at getting money for ulterior purposes, however valuable, as well as for the research presented.” On Intellectual Craftsmanship (Mills in Pelican edition 1970, pp. 217-218)

From my own experiences in research this advice was very telling. It has become even worse as competition for funding becomes a factor in “grant capture”.

Indeed, for me the most important part of The Sociological Imagination is the appendix: “On Intellectual Craftsmanship”. In this, Mills conveys the sense of discovery and excitement that accompany the research process. He argues that sociological research is not an exact science but rather a craft in which a number of skills need to be deployed. He argues that the researcher’s personal life is an important mirror to enhancing research.

He goes on to make a number of very practical suggestions on how research can be made self-reflexive, using the sociological imagination in a two-step process. The first is using files of notes on books you have read (to both record the contents and reflect on them). Mills illustrates how this can be done with concrete examples from his own notes on Mosca. He then shows how such voluminous files can be drawn on to first explore then develop concepts and ideas to be taken further, cross-referencing between books, personal experiences, theories, concepts, ideas etc.

Mills illustrates this in an extended study of Mosca with his own research on elites, showing how he explored a range of ideas, experimenting with a number of conceptual frameworks and approaches, drawing on his files of notes and developing them.

The sociological imagination can be stimulated by rearranging the files in order to relate concepts and approaches in novel and unusual ways. This can lead to new classifications, polar types, reviews of previous books in a new light, and other innovative mental experimentations. In the pre-computer age that Mills was part of this involved using filing cards, but the technique is of course even more powerful using data technology.

The sense of adventure, enthusiasm and inventiveness Mills was able to convey for the maximum exercise of the sociological imagination together with his moral and political commitment, his comparative and historical perspective and his concern with contemporary issues and their relationship to individual life-worlds profoundly influenced the generation of sociologists who were students of his work.

This was a model for my own development as  sociologist. Wright Mills died in 1962 while I was a first year sociology student. I began to keep records of ideas and references to what I felt was stimulating research as soon as I realised I might become a researcher. Mills begins with some very practical advice on keeping a folder containing detailed notes on important books. So I began to do just that, though I quickly realised that I would need several folders so I went over to index cards. computerisation came later, and so my collection of references and notes  changed form as the years passed.

It also changed as a result of the simple fact of the passing of time. Mills’  advice on intellectual craftsmanship was written as  guide to the young new generation of researchers, not as an attempt to set in concrete the methods of continual intellectual stimulation.

So my sets of index cards covering different subjects that interested me transmogrified into a number of computer files using a word processor. The earliest data file was on “Accounts”. This is a list of publications in  alphabetic order by author. The oldest entry in this file was the article published by C. Wright Mills “Situated Actions and Vocabularies of Motive” in the American Sociological Review 1941. The earliest symbolic interactionist entry was the article published by Marvin Scott and Stamford Lyman “Accounts” in the American Sociological Review 1968.

The most recent entry is an article by Cheryl Cook in Sociological Perspectives in 2009, which is the only one with an abstract, though ideally the abstract as a form of summary would today be almost universal.

So my experience has been that over the last 50 years since Mills died technology has changed and this is reflected in my research notes that also changed, resulting in an incomplete mixture of technologies that reflected computerisation. I still have some hand written index cards but also abstracts of articles copied from the internet. Since retiring ten years ago this mixture of index cards and copy-and-paste abstracts has slowed down in development, so I can see the result in growing gaps in my collections.

But I still read the appendix On Intellectual Craftsmanship for inspiration and for the sheer enjoyment of reading what for me remains the wisdom of the appendix of The Sociological Imagination.

Jim Kemeny is Emeritus Professor of Housing and Urban Sociology in the Institute for Housing and Urban Research at Uppsala University.

Categories: Sociological Craft

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