From methods to goals in social science research

Note. This is quite a ranty blog post – especially the first two paragraphs. Readers may therefore wish to read it in the voice of Bernard Black from the series Black Books to make it more palatable. You may also be interested in this short BMJ comment.



Many of the social science papers I read have long jargon-heavy sections justifying the methods used. This is particularly common in writeups of qualitative studies, though not unheard of in quantitative work. There are reflections on epistemology, ontology, and axiology – sometimes these must be discussed by doctoral students if they are to acquire a degree, especially in applied psychology. There’s discussion of social constructionism, critical realism, phenomenology, interpretation, intersubjectivity, hermeneutics. “But what is reality, really?” the authors ponder; “What can we know?” Quantitative analysis is “positivist” and to find or construct meaning you need a qualitative analysis (it is claimed).

Although I like philosophy, most of this methodological reflection bores me to tears. Am I alone in this?

I think many differences between methods (at the level of analysis found in empirical papers) are exaggerated, clever-sounding words (often –isms) are fetishised, grandiose (meta-)theories are used to explain away straightforward study limitations such as poor sampling. I bet some people feel they have to reel off fancy terminology to play the academic game, even though they think it’s nonsense.

But there are different kinds of research in the social sciences, beyond the dreary qual versus quant distinction as usually discussed. Might it be easiest to see the differences in terms of the goals of the research? Here are three examples of goals, to try to explain what I mean.

Evoke empathy. If you can’t have a chat with someone then the next best way to empathise with them is via a rich description by or about them. There seems to be a bucket-load of pretentiousness in the literature (search for “thick description” to find some). But skip over this and there are wonderful pieces of work to be found which are simply stories. I love stories. Biographies you read which make you long to meet the subject are prime examples. Film documentaries, though not fitting easily into traditional research output, are another. “Interpretative Phenomenological Analyses” manage to include stories too, though you often have to wade through nonsense to get to them.

Classify. This may be the classification of perspectives, attitudes, experiences, processes, organisations, or other stuff-that-happens in society. For example: social class, personality, goals people have in psychological therapy, political orientation, mental health difficulty, emotions. The goal here is to impose structure on material, reveal patterns, whether it be interview responses, answers on Likert scales, or some other kind of observation. There’s no escaping theory, articulated and debated or unarticulated and unchallenged, when doing this. There may be a hierarchical structure to classifications. There may be categorical or dimensional judgments (or both, where the former is derived from a threshold on the latter), e.g., consider Myers-Briggs (love or hate it) or the Big Five personality types. Dimensions are quantitative things, but there are qualitative differences between them. You can’t put Openness and Introversion on a dimension but both are themselves dimensions.

Predict. Finally you often want to make predictions. Do people of a particular social class tend to experience some mental health difficulties more often than others? Does your personality predict the kinds of books you like to read. Do particular events predict an emotion you’ll feel? Other predictions concern the impact of interventions of various kinds (broadly construed). What would happen if you voted Green and told your friends you were going to do so? What would happen if you funded country-wide access to cognitive behavioural therapy rather than psychoanalysis? Theory matters here too, usually involving a story or model (a deliberate simplification of reality) of why variables relate to each other.

What do you think?


One comment

  1. Dr Alec Grant

    As an autoethnographer, I go along with the idea of empathy evocation through story writing. That’s about as far as I go with what you propose. Any goal-related way of doing soc/human science is still culturally and thus ontoepistemologically-embedded. So if you don’t, reflexively, make your paradigm position clear, you give the message that you exist in unproblematic social and material reality, with is atheoretical, de-contextualised, and ‘just so’. This is the stance of naive realism – taking your culture-centricity for granted, as not really potentially dodgy, morally dubious etc., but as just fact or common sense. Take quantitative-experimental research on ‘mental illness’ as an example here: the corporate construction of morally compromised and unscientific constructs such as ‘schizophrenia’ is effaced. Indeed the whole edifice of human misery as illness is simply taken for granted as not in need of reflexive justification.

    There’s not a paradigm-free way of exploring the world, so one needs to make one’s paradigm allegiances crystal clear.

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