Getting around the anger or apathy students have for taking a sociology qualitative research methods class

In a review that describes how a book’s author practices “stealth sociology,” one sociologist describes how he tries to get his students excited about a qualitative research methods class:

Every semester, I teach a course in qualitative research methods. Revealing this at a dinner party or art opening invariably prompts sympathy, no response at all or variations on “Yuck! That was the worst course I ever had.”

Teaching what students dread and remember in anger robs my equilibrium. I tell students qualitative methods happen to be about stories, not numbers and measurements. And who doesn’t love a story and need one—many—daily? I merely teach ways to collect people’s stories, how to observe everyday life and narrate the encounter, and ways to discover stories “contained” in every human communication medium, from movies and tweets to objects of material culture, cars to casseroles.

Hearing this, students perk up. Momentarily. I continue in the liberal arts college spirit and urge students, “Bring to our class discussion and your research planning the skills you developed in English, literature and art classes.”

Hearing this, spirits deflate. Although some take to the freedom in narrative research methods, many students can’t give up the security they find in objective hypotheses, measured variables and reassuring numbers.

“How can we be objective about ourselves?” I argue. “How can anyone?”

Today in the wake of so-called identity studies, we sociologists and anthropologists expect each other to write ourselves into our research. We reveal our social addresses, identify our perspectives, and justify our intent. Sociologists and women’s studies scholars call it standpoint theory. No more pretense of the all-seeing-eye. No more fly on the wall invisibility.

As I think back on my experiences teaching lots of Intro to Sociology, Statistics, and Research Methods (involving both quantitative and qualitative methods), I have found the opposite to often be true: undergraduates more often understand the value or stories and narratives and have more difficulty thinking about scientifically studying people and society. Perhaps this is the result of a particular subculture that values personal relationships.

At the same time, sociologists collect stories in particular ways. It isn’t just about one person making an interpretation and other people can see very different things in the stories. This involves rigorous data collection and analysis by looking across cases. But, this is done without statistical tests and often having smaller samples (which can limit generalizability). Coding “texts” can be a time-consuming and involved process and interviews with people take quite a bit of work in crafting good questions, interacting with respondents in order to build rapport but not doing things to influence their answers, and then understanding and applying what you have heard. We know that we might bias the process, even in the selection of a research question, but we can find ways to limit this including utilizing multiple coders as well as sharing our work with others so they can check our findings and help us think through the implications.

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