Friday, November 14, 2003

a short ramble about methods courses

We had our annual meeting to talk about the graduate program last week. In one meeting, we broached what are three of the four most "hot-button" issues: (1) the funding system, (2) the prelim, and (3) the methods requirements. (Mercifully, the allocation of office space was not also discussed.)

With the methods requirement, the idea has been floating around for as long as I have been here that there should be some kind of qualitative methods course (now, as it was brought up in the meeting, a whole sequence) that students can take instead of some existing requirements. I think people are expecting me to be resistant to the idea because it might possibly spell the end of Sociology 750 ("Research Design and Methods"), which I teach. I don't know if that's really so much concern to me. I could reconstitute an all-quantitative version of the class that was all about, say, "Secondary Data Analysis", and it would probably ultimately be less work and more straightforward than 750 as it now stands. Besides, to be honest, I'm not thinking that far ahead about my teaching plans anyway.

I think that when people talk about a qualitative methods sequence, there are really two issues that get run together. The first is more-qualitative-methods-courses for students who want to do qualitative research. (It would be nice to have more qual methods courses, although, just like students interested in quantitative methods and statistics courses, it's easy for students to radically overestimate how much their research skills can be augmented through coursework.) The second is less-quantitative-methods-courses for students who want to do qualitative research--that is, why should students who have never had any plans to do quantitative research be required to sit through so many quantitative classes. The first issue is all that people talked about at the meeting, while the second issue is what I would expect would provoke the larger source of tension.

My own opinion is pretty congenial to the idea that qualitatively-oriented-students should not be required to do some much quantitatively-oriented-coursework. My own desire, which I have only implemented with modest success so far, is to move 750 away from seemingly like another quantitative course. Obviously, a more radical approach would be to eliminate 750 entirely. Which is what may happen, although I'm maybe a little surprised that people don't look at statistics sequence more as a place where maybe we might think about making one less course required for students. I'm not very fond of the way that many sociologists think about the relationship between statistics and research anyway. Because so much of quantitative sociology is based upon the analysis of secondary data--meaning, data whose collection the sociologist had no role in--concerns about statistics have a way of crowding out thinking about design. Statistics is really just a technical apparatus for quantitatively characterizing all sorts of different aspects of some collection of representations, which brackets out the question of how you get a collection of representations that are reasonably good representations in the first instance.

An entirely different issue with the idea of forming separate sets of requirements by which students can identify and track themselves as "qualitative" or "quantitative" is what this will do to the department's sense of being one department. Or, maybe better put, its sense of being many-enterprises-within-one-department. A sense of being many-enterprises-within-one-department is much better for maintaining departmental harmony (and my department has really been astonishingly good for a very long time at maintaining departmental harmony) than a sense of being many-enterprises-within-two-confederations-within-one-department. Which is certainly not itself an argument against making changes that will better suit students focused on qualitative research, but it does suggest that we should be careful in how we do it.

If you look at sociology as a whole, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that the jillion or so research enterprises going on under the banner of sociology can be divided with only modest mess into two distinct confederations that have commensurability-gaps along several different dimensions--not just methods. Indeed, maybe not even primarily methods: at the level of forces-shaping-the-discipline-at-large, I wonder if the confederations may be less well defined in terms of the two Qs as Better-Able-to-Attract-Students and Better-Able-to-Attract-Grants, although maybe that's just the closet material determinist in me speaking. It's quite a trick, then, to pull off a department that is broadly representative of the discipline as a whole and still manages to get along well with itself.

One specific idea that people have had is for there to be a general qualitative methods course as the first course in the sequence followed by some specialized course of the student's choosing. For that idea to go somewhere there would have to enough faculty who are willing to step forward to teach the general qualitative methods course so that it can be taught frequently enough to meet demand. I suspect that could end up being a nontrivial obstacle for the proposal. A whole different problem is that "qualitative methods" is really something that gains its coherence as a concept by virtue of its not being "quantitative methods," and so the content of a general qualitative methods course itself could be an object of contention. When I started teaching 750, I tried looking in methods textbooks for a positive definition of qualitative methods and came up empty-handed; all of the places I looked defined qualitative methods basically as non-quantitative research. The big difference in sociology, I think, would be better research based on naturalistic-observation-and-interviews and reearch based on reading-(historical?)-texts-and-if-its-about-something-where-the-people-are-still-alive-then-also-interviews. I don't know if that difference would itself cause a schism in trying to think of a general qualitative methods course or if it would be quickly settled.

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