It’s serious issue for us sociologists and sociologists to be that we encounter such figures yelling their science-based degrees at us. This sort of people are unavoidable and they always go yada yada on the more or less same lines: “Oi, what you study there is like trying to understand what is just straight-forward in the world and you do something that you call research but then you say you cannot really reproduce the same outcome because you’re unreliable, and then you call yourselves social scientists – yada yada – there’s not even the smallest bit of science in your sociology – yada yada – you’re worth nothing”. Maybe they don’t really undermine the work so much as in my example, but we all know someone who thinks we’re useless human beings pretending to do some science of the people and managing to know nothing reliable for the future to come. And they are right to some extent. I do believe that, when it comes to parts of sociology, we end up studying a lot to only become almost useless human beings. I do now feel the rage in most of you reading. Bear with the explanation to come.
Sociology itself can be a lot but not useless, by the very fact that sociology shows you how the world works and it also explains it to you. What these people say is that why would anyone try to explain what’s reality when everyone sees? Firstly, not everyone sees it. Your reality is different than other (societies vs. societies) and then how well do you actually globally know the cultures? Then again, here comes the Google fan who goes about, obviously, searching online. I’m particularly fascinated by these geniuses who think they can go Google everything and understand the lives of other just too well from a simple click and read – and they can Google it, but how did the data go to Google to store it, well, guess Google’s AI just made it up, eh? But then again, I understand their point. The fact that some of them go rude on sociologists is another thing, but not all do – some are genuine believers of the fact that doing sociological research is like researching fish in an aquarium – intentionally didn’t say sea or ocean.
So it goes, we feel offended anyway and we try to explain to them that sociological research is of very much use and we try to show cast some political research so that they will understand it’s important. And they still say that “well it did work this time, what about the next?”, and we cannot really lie so we’re trying to nicely defend ourselves while admitting that indeed we won’t have the exact same outcome, not only because people will change, but there are various factors around the world like economy in a country might affect voting in another country and so on, because there is a huge network of influence etc.; and while they believe everything we say, they will end up saying the same yada-yada about how we’re useless because they won’t understand what explaining the social world means and that explaining it results in predicting it. Scientists, for the record, explain the social world better than sociologists – that is my opinion based on actual results. Scientists do those nature-related tests like maths goes some way, physics goes some way, chemistry is straight forward it either burns the whole town down or it works, etc., it’s practically out there for them in a way in which they only have to throw their hand in the world, grab whatever’s there, test, and there you have it. Then they go mixing their findings and they-know-what they find. It’s not easy, but it’s there in some form or another. Social sciences, though, do indeed shove their hand in the world and pick up something and test, but meanwhile the world changes a bit, so they have to think well while they get their hand out and look at what they grabbed, they have to take into account what sort of changes happen and then only test the reality they have with the hypothetical change and find out what is happening. So social scientists have a blurry start even before they actually start the testing. They did, social scientists, find a way to trick the confusion, and they called it qualitative research. No, it doesn’t have anything to do with the word ‘quality’ itself.
Qualitative research is funny to look at because they never gave itself a definition, they could only say what it isn’t. Why? Because it’s a lot of things around a human being entering a society and spying on them – well, researching them, but sometimes the fellows don’t know they are being researched. Yes, it is legal. So in 2014 Denzin and Lincoln said that “It [qualitative research] has no theory or paradigm that is distinctly its own, nor does it have a distinct set of methods or practices that are entirely its own”. This qualitative research is highly entertaining because it’s about acting. Ethnographic research functions somewhat like this: a man/woman wants to know what happens in the closed circle of society ‘x’, then they inform themselves about it, then they try to penetrate it. The fun part is the way they go in it: do they announce that they are going to research that environment, do they just spy the environment (from the inside)? Both are legal and both work, the latter even better because it shuts any possibility that someone will play their role somehow specifically in order to ‘help’ the results of our researcher’s study. The debate whether or not to claim your research is huge and has nothing to do with the article here. If you want to look into it, it’s called overt/covert research and there are characters who say it’s immoral to research people without their knowledge of it and the other way round – the interesting bit is that even if you penetrate a circle and announce you are a researcher, the circle is active and changes so at some point during research someone will surely not know who you are, why you are there, etc. But again, this is another story.
Ethnography is all sorts of fun: researcher gets to talk to their subjects a lot (oh, and they are not called ‘subjects’ really, because they are our fella human beings, not rats in a lab – but no, they are subjects), researcher gets to feel his/her subjects’ lives, the interaction goes above and beyond the hypothesis of research. I am not trying to undermine qualitative researchers’ work, but what they have is a fact and an explanation for the fact – one single fact, no overall conclusion like “if the environment is x then the subjects do y, but if the environment is z then well, let’s get in there and find out!”. That’s it – that’s where they cannot go further. And that’s why our counterpart full-time scientists that annoy us with their repetitive results are right! Indeed, my fella sociologists and sociologists to be, qualitative research is vague, is straight forward in conclusions, and only brings the obvious above the water. Yes, results are deep and data is rich, indeed. Quick explanation: if the researcher announces his/her presence as it is, then the behaviour of subjects will change and the researcher cannot know the exact difference. If the researcher doesn’t announce his/her presence not only is it slightly ethically incorrect, but he/she will not have the opportunity to ask some questions which as a researcher you can, but just as someone there would feel more or less ridiculous (such as personal data or some personal background on someone, etc). Thus, the researcher using ethnography cannot grip the whole story no matter how much he/she tries.
Moreover, ethnographic data cannot be reproduced. It is straight-forward why and as I am addressing these arguments to both science-based individuals and to sociologists both parties know what I mean. You cannot reproduce instability, and qualitative research is highly unstable – even if one would research the same (sub-)society twice he/she won’t have the same results because, first of all, people change, situations change, rituals (habits, routines) don’t, but then qualitative research wants to get a grip of the feeling of being part of a (sub-)society, not only the process of its existence because that process can be found by studying laws and unwritten laws of some community. Therefore my argument ends, this is why I do believe that social research can be useless to some extent.
But to some extent only. Studying social science you also have a quantitative research method which does have something to do with the word ‘quantity’, because everything is based on numbers – isn’t that reassuring? This is the science in sociology. Quantitative research, as put by Alan Bryman, is described as entailing the collection of numerical data, a deductive view of the relationship between theory and research, an objectivist conception of social reality. Quantitative research is pretty tight to Durkheim’s idea of social facts, as Prof. Bernadette Hayes would also admit. Durkheim says that the society is a fact, not a continuously changing chaos (obviously he uses more elevate terms, but that would be the idea). Now, Durkheim is almost right, but as I also tend to trust psychologists, I would define society as a long-term chaotic exchange of psychological traits between individuals, where the psychological traits are influenced by sociological facts, and the sociological facts are constructed by the psychological traits. I should now make some sense of it. Durkheim on social fact: “manners of acting, thinking and feeling external to the individual, which are invested with a coercive power by virtue of which they can exercise control over him”, that is factors influencing the individuals without their will and happening external to any psychological trait. The chaotic exchange means that individuals’ personalities change and are influenced by reference groups – but this happens in no predicted way, as we cannot penetrate each individual’s mind (yet), can we? Psychological traits are features of personalities e.g. introvert, shy, talkative, inclined to black humour, optimist, etc. These traits are influenced by social factors because, counting psychology, humans are influenced by surroundings – as easy as that, they change their mentality in order to fit the environment, may they want or not, it subconsciously happens. But these social facts don’t just exist out of the blue, they had to come in place somehow and we all know how many debates there are on how the world appeared and I am completely rejecting to start another one, but the social facts are functions of the society which cannot exist with the actual society, can they, and the society was born because of individuals gathering, thus Durkheim’s social facts are the product of individuals’ psychological traits and ways of thinking. You have today social facts which go about regardless of my or your existence, but they weren’t independent of the population at the beginning, because the population gave birth to them – at least that’s my theory based on psychology. You cannot have a group without individuals, can you? Then again, the society is indeed a chaos, but very well planned chaos, and it even makes sense to claim that – beauty of sociology, making sense of nonsense. That it actually is, quite frankly, the very best easy definition of this field of study.
Back on track, then. Let’s take Durkheim as a non-questionable entity and give his social facts full credit (he did a pretty good job to convince us he’s right, didn’t he?). Then we have all the other sociologists who try to have theories about, basically, how the social facts work, right? Well then. These social facts are caged in theories. Marx believes that revolution is the answer and that for him is a social fact, no matter what, the lower classes revolts to the upper class, and the cycle goes. Society itself (individuals, groups) are chaotically changing. Then what must be done is testing if these not-Durkheimian social facts actually exist. Then what quantitative research does is gets a theory, thinks at which (sub-)society it relates to, and tests it. The researcher samples the society (number of subjects of the society, if possible the whole), then addresses various very deeply thought questionnaires, or engages with the subjects in such way to probe the theory. For example, if Pavlov worked with humans, he could sample 4000 human beings (or whatever big number you think of) and conduct the same experiment he conducted on the dog. The results would be the same, by the way, because there is research done on humans as well, but more ethically – they did not cage the individuals. That would be quantitative research. The results would be (all numbers made up!) 70% of the individuals salivate when hearing the bell, but the results variation is +-10%, which proves theory right (basically the answer is between 60 and 80% of people, because you have a standard deviation to your variation around the mean). You have a number of random people from a (sub-)society and then you eliminate subjectivity and then you have the same conditions for everyone, so you can relate an experiment to the next if you want. Then you have all the mathematically proven correct equations which give away society’s trend of acting in the situation of study. The idea is that you do statistics for the test. And you have these numbers telling you how many people do what, how accurate your numbers are and, most importantly, because you have numbers, you can keep track through years and then you do some more statistics and you can finally predict how will your (sub-)society act next time some situation arises, and you can have so many empirical indicators (variables) as you want, thus being able to give accurate answers and explanations for how and why do people do something and whether they will do the same thing sooner or later considering, yes, the changes that may apply to some variables, but those changes can themselves be predicted by adding some other variables. It is reliable and most importantly it can predict the next thing to come. And that’s why sociology isn’t useless.
I know that this article is more about how sociology is useless rather than useful in terms of number of words let’s say, but that is exactly the proof: you don’t need yada yada in sociology. The science backing up sociology is straight forward and in how many words can one explain that using statistics in the right way is very clear? I know that there’s lies, big lies, and statistics – but that’s an expression applicable to journalists – and so goes the circle of hate: scientists dislike social scientists, social scientists dislike journalists (distorting stories), journalists eventually dislike photographers (distorting stories or even not distorting them!), photographers might dislike uhmmmm the guys who voice-record, …. Etc. Point is there’s always someone or a sub-group who will undermine the work that you do! The important thing is that you shall deeply know what you do and you shall also be able to explain why you do it.
Well, I do my job because I love it and if you chose the job you love you’ll never work a day in your life (Confucius) , but I also know how to explain why I love it – there’s no such thing as I love it just because I do, there’s empirical evidence to sustain your love for something. But this is another story.
Bryman, A. (2016). Social Research Methods. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Aron, R. (1967). Main Currents in Sociological Thoughts 2. p. 21-108. Great Britain: Penguin Social Sciences.