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.

Rioting over cultural works and ideas: Blackboard Jungle and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring

Even though I have heard multiple times about the groundbreaking 1955 movie Blackboard Jungle, I finally watched it recently. (Side note: watching the film without commercials on AMC was excellent. Watching movies on TV is often so frustrating as they drag it out.) After watching the movie (and noting how “inspiring teacher” movies of recent years seem to build upon this film), I read on Wikipedia about riots that took place when the movie was first shown in theaters:

The film markedthe rock and roll revolution by featuring Bill Haley & His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock”, initially a B-side, over the film’s opening credits, as well as in the first scene, in an instrumental version in the middle of the film, and at the close of the movie, establishing that song as an instant classic. The record had been released the prior year, garnering tepid sales. But, popularized by its use in the film, “Rock Around the Clock” reached number one on the Billboard charts, and remained there for eight weeks. The music also led to a huge teenage audience for the film, and their exuberant response to it sometimes overflowed into violence and vandalism at screenings. In this sense, the film has been seen as marking the start of a period of visible teenage rebellion in the latter half of the 20th century.

The film markeda watershed in the United Kingdom. When shown at a South London Cinema in Elephant and Castle in 1956 the teenage teddy boy audience began to riot, tearing up seats and dancing in the aisles.[2] After that, riots took place around the country wherever the film was shown. In 2007, the Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture published an article that analyzed the film’s connection to crime theories and juvenile delinquency.

This reminds me of the riots that accompanied the premieres of classical music, such as at the opening of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” (and detailed in The Rest Is Noise – though this description comes from Wikipedia):

The première involved one of the most famous classical music riots in history. The intensely rhythmic score and primitive scenario and choreography shocked the audience that was accustomed to the elegant conventions of classical ballet.

The evening’s program began with another Stravinsky piece entitled “Les Sylphides.” This was followed by, “The Rite of Spring”. The complex music and violent dance steps depicting fertility rites first drew catcalls and whistles from the crowd. At the start, some members of the audience began to boo loudly. There were loud arguments in the audience between supporters and opponents of the work. These were soon followed by shouts and fistfights in the aisles. The unrest in the audience eventually degenerated into a riot. The Paris police arrived by intermission, but they restored only limited order. Chaos reigned for the remainder of the performance.[6] Stravinksy had called for a bassoon to play higher in its range than anyone else had ever done. Fellow composer Camille Saint-Saëns famously stormed out of the première allegedly infuriated over the misuse of the bassoon in the ballet’s opening bars (though Stravinsky later said “I do not know who invented the story that he was present at, but soon walked out of, the première.”). Stravinsky ran backstage, where Diaghilev was turning the lights on and off in an attempt to try to calm the audience.

After the première, Diaghilev is reported to have commented to Nijinsky and Stravinsky at dinner that the scandal was “exactly what I wanted.”

Some scholars have questioned the traditional account, particularly concerning the extent to which the riot was caused by the music, rather than by the choreography and/or the social and political circumstances. The Stravinsky scholar Richard Taruskin has written an article about the première, entitled “A Myth of the Twentieth Century,” in which he attempts to demonstrate that the traditional story of the music provoking unrest was largely concocted by Stravinsky himself in the 1920s after he had published the score. At that later date, Stravinsky was constructing an image of himself as an innovative composer to promote his music, and he revised his accounts of the composition and performances of The Rite of Spring to place a greater emphasis on a break with musical traditions and to encourage a focus on the music itself in concert performances.

While we could do without the violence at these events, it suggests an era when ideas and cultural works prompted vigorous reactions. Today, do we have an equivalent? People going home and writing on their blogs (guilty as charged)? Critics spreading popular or contrarian interpretations? The occasional talkback session after a theater production?

I suspect that if people today read about these reports, they would do something like this: shake their head and ask why these moviegoers or concertgoers got so animated. But perhaps we could ask the opposite question: why don’t new ideas, particularly ones that push us to think beyond our accepted categories, animate us? Are we just so numbed by novelty and a plurality of ideas that nothing really shocks us anymore? Do we have space in our society to truly think through and debate the ideas presented in “entertainment”?

Of course, not all cultural productions are intended to push us in new directions. Some are there just for entertainment. But others push beyond typical boundaries. Take a recent movie like The Tree of Life: I saw it on the recommendations of a few friends and I’m still not sure what to think about it. But it certainly was thought provoking and wasn’t a “typical” movie. Is this simply an “art film” in its own category or is it more like what all cultural productions should be doing?

Comparing stories and statistics

A mathematician thinks about the differences between stories and statistics and the people who prefer one side over another:

Despite the naturalness of these notions, however, there is a tension between stories and statistics, and one under-appreciated contrast between them is simply the mindset with which we approach them. In listening to stories we tend to suspend disbelief in order to be entertained, whereas in evaluating statistics we generally have an opposite inclination to suspend belief in order not to be beguiled. A drily named distinction from formal statistics is relevant: we’re said to commit a Type I error when we observe something that is not really there and a Type II error when we fail to observe something that is there. There is no way to always avoid both types, and we have different error thresholds in different endeavors, but the type of error people feel more comfortable may be telling. It gives some indication of their intellectual personality type, on which side of the two cultures (or maybe two coutures) divide they’re most comfortable. I’ll close with perhaps the most fundamental tension between stories and statistics. The focus of stories is on individual people rather than averages, on motives rather than movements, on point of view rather than the view from nowhere, context rather than raw data. Moreover, stories are open-ended and metaphorical rather than determinate and literal…

I’ll close with perhaps the most fundamental tension between stories and statistics. The focus of stories is on individual people rather than averages, on motives rather than movements, on point of view rather than the view from nowhere, context rather than raw data. Moreover, stories are open-ended and metaphorical rather than determinate and literal.

This is a good discussion and one that I think about often while teaching statistics or research methods. Stories are often easy for students to grab unto, particularly if told from an interesting point of view. In the end, these stories (particularly the “classics”) have the ability to illuminate the human condition or interesting concerns but don’t have the same ability to offer more concrete overviews of the typical or common experience. Statistics do offer a different lens for viewing the world, one where individual experiences are muted in favor of data about larger groups. Both can miss important features of the reality around us but offer different angles for tackling similar concerns.

Both have their place and I would suggest both are necessary.

Stories for Afghanistan

Wired writes of a new Department of Defense program to develop “interactive stories” to find common ground with Afghan residents.

The “Negotiate Across Cultures” project will kick off with a two-day workshop… “participants will use a ‘Wizard of Oz’ approach to illustrate how each approach, if implemented, would operate on selected negotiation problems within specific socio-cultural environments. In the ‘Wizard of Oz’ approach, one or two human representatives of each participant team will listen to a problem description and manually act out the operation and structure of the tool using props they bring to the event.”

Using stories in this way is not uncommon. In recent decades, governments, activists, and social scientists have successfully used media, such as radio and television shows, to teach certain messages in areas like public health.