Evidence and research in the social sciences

Much has been written in recent years concerning “evidence” and how researchers generate and use it in the social sciences – including numerous articles on “data” (Flick, 2018), the politics of evidence, and “evidence-based” research. In his book Evidence, sociologist Howard S. Becker (2017) pursues a problem that he first observed when he began his work as a sociologist in 1946: the problem with evidence in social science research. Organized in two parts with eight chapters and a brief afterword, the book contains Becker’s reflections on his work as a sociologist with the aim of provoking researchers in the social sciences to consider flaws in their research methods, arguments, and evidence. Throughout the book, Becker provides examples from his own and others’ research to illustrate his argument that possible errors are “an ever-present danger we have to guard against” (pp. 10-11). And, if we discover problems of method – these can “teach us something important about the phenomenon we’re studying, the problem’s existence pointing us to a potentially fruitful area of further research” (p. 14).

Becker asserts that “data, evidence, and ideas” “constitute a circle of dependencies” in which researchers can move in both directions (p. 23). That is, data can be used as evidence to test prior hypotheses, or examined to generate new ideas. Further, Becker sees this trio – data, evidence, and ideas – as “the core of scientific method” in any field of knowledge, irrespective of analytic methods (p. 37). Becker devotes a whole chapter to the characteristics of research in the natural sciences and compares the research methods used by natural scientists to those used in the social sciences. Whereas researchers in the natural sciences can work to develop better instruments to resolve problems of method, Becker argues that social scientists have no such luxury. Rather, “Things are always more complicated than our plans, no matter how strenuous our efforts to foresee the possible difficulties” (p. 67). Thus, Becker asserts,

we have to make the steps in our reasoning and the supporting data explicit, and then check every step along that path for accuracy. And do it over and over, incorporating what we learn about potential errors in the way we work, never writing them off as random (and therefore extraneous to our concerns) phenomena we can safely ignore (p. 67).

Part Two of the book deals with the problems involved in engaging in social sciences research. Becker discusses census research, data that is collected by government employees as part of their routine work, problems with “hired hands” and nonscientist data gatherers, chief investigators and their helpers, and inaccuracies in qualitative research.

I was most interested in the problems with qualitative research. In Becker’s view, these occur when qualitative researchers:

  • take one or more ideas for granted and treat them as obvious (p. 189);
  • treat “history as unimportant” by writing in the “eternal ethnographic present” (p. 190);
  • ignore contextual features of a setting that may have impacted on findings over a longer time period (p. 190); and
  • generalize ideas to larger collections by overlooking relevant contextual issues (p. 204).

As in other writing, Becker provides practical advice to readers: he suggests that we should learn from mistakes and not make them twice, and when we do make mistakes, use these as problems to examine (pp. 206-209).

Becker’s book provides a long view of the history of social sciences research from a career of many decades. He quotes extensively from texts that the modern day reader may not be familiar with; he also narrates examples of mistakes he has identified in his own lengthy research career. Readers will also learn about how he was mentored by his adviser, sociologist Everett Hughes; how Becker worked with other colleagues and his own graduate students, as well as anecdotes from his life as a sociologist. His aim in the book is for researchers to do better: to make arguments that are supported by robust evidence and to reflect on their practice and avoid the mistakes of others. Writing in clear and accessible prose, Becker invites others into the world of sociology, how it is done, and how one can do it well.

At the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry this past May, Howard Becker was the recipient of a new award: the Special Career Award in Qualitative Inquiry for dedication and contributions to qualitative research, teaching and practice. Now in his 90s, Becker’s most recent book has lots to offer to qualitative researchers for teaching and practice.

Kathy Roulston

References

Becker, H. S. (2017). Evidence. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press.

Flick, U. (2018). The Concepts of Qualitative Data: Challenges in Neoliberal Times for Qualitative Inquiry. 0(0). doi:10.1177/1077800418809132 Online first.

 

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