Introduction: the Methodological Strengths and Dilemmas of Qualitative Sociology

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Qualitative Sociology, Vol. 25, No. 1, Spring 2002 ( C 2002)

Symposium on Methodology in Qualitative Sociology

Introduction: The Methodological Strengths and Dilemmas of Qualitative Sociology Jeff Goodwin and Ruth Horowitz

The articles in this symposium critically reflect upon the methodological strengths and limitations of several diverse yet important works of qualitative sociology, broadly defined: Michael Schwalbe’s Unlocking the Iron Cage: The Men’s Movement, Gender Politics, and American Culture (1996); Paul Willis’s Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs (1977); Perry Anderson’s Lineages of the Absolutist State (1974); Doug McAdam’s Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930–1970 (1982); and Julian McAllister Groves’s Hearts and Minds: The Controversy Over Laboratory Animals (1997). Among the questions addressed in this symposium are the following: Are the general theoretical or empirical claims of these books persuasive, and are they well supported by the data that are presented by the authors? Are these books persuasive because they adhere to certain methodological rules or standards, if only implicitly? And what are those rules or standards? Or are these books powerful or persuasive despite, or even because of, their lack of methodological rigor, conventionally understood? And would these books have been improved appreciably had they been more methodologically self-conscious or differently designed? This symposium thus addresses the concern—shared by quantitative social scientists, general readers, and not a few qualitative sociologists themselves—that qualitative sociology lacks methodological rigor and, accordingly, truly reliable or generalizable findings. Some social scientists view qualitative sociology, in no uncertain terms, as methodologically and empirically “soft” and highly subjective, if not completely solipsistic—a characterization that a few qualitative researchers have ironically embraced. At best, according to certain critics, qualitative sociology might generate provisional hypotheses that more rigorous social scientists can then go forth to test and revise, but it cannot itself glean much solid understanding of the social world. We believe that this view of qualitative sociology is badly mistaken, and the essays in this symposium collectively refute it. Qualitative sociology is not— or need not be—merely literature or navel-gazing, and its findings have proven 33

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extraordinarily insightful, persuasive, and influential. At its best, qualitative sociology can be very rigorous and “scientific” indeed. This symposium demonstrates that a significant number of qualitative sociologists, who have not abandoned the idea that qualitative researchers can do scientific or quasi-scientific work as well as quantitative researchers, have produced important and influential research. Qualitative sociology, in short, has some very important things to say about the world beyond the researcher. Accordingly, both quantitative social scientists and those qualitative researchers who have bought into the quantitative critique and embraced subjectivism need to take another look at what qualitative sociology can achieve. DEFINING QUALITATIVE SOCIOLOGY: HOW “SCIENTIFIC” IS IT? Grave suspicions about the methodological rigor of qualitative sociology provide the intellectual backdrop to Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research (1994), a much-discussed methodological text by Harvard political scientists Gary King, Robert Keohane, and Sidney Verba. King, Keohane, and Verba believe that qualitative social scientists need to pursue their research in a more rigorous and scientific manner, which basically means, for them, adhering as much as possible to the standards of quantitative research. (Significantly, they do not ask whether quantitative work might be improved by emulating certain...
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