RSS West Midlands: Number is not enough - the analytic problem in UK social science

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Wednesday 05 February 2020, 05:00pm - 06:30pm

Location MS.03 Zeeman Building, University of Warwick, Coventry, CV4 7AL

Speakers: Professor Malcolm Williams - Cardiff University; Dr Philippe Blanchard - University of Warwick

Professor Malcolm Williams:

With the exception of economics, UK social science has never been primarily quantitative in nature. In the last twenty years this numeric (or statistical) deficit has been the focus of concern. Several projects have investigated this in both research and teaching and learning. An important outcome of has been the Q-Step initiative, with centres established in 16 universities, with the aim of making a ‘step change’ in quantitative methods teaching. Early evidence from the centres is of a positive impact. However, for the ‘step change’ to be sustained and deepened, in UK social science, more statistical and methodological work however innovative, will not be enough. 
Myself and colleagues have suggested that the ‘quantitative deficit’ is a symptom of the character of much UK social science (specifically sociology and its associated disciplines). Evidence, over a number of projects, suggests that research and teaching is primarily underpinned by a humanistic culture of critique, rather than a scientific culture of analysis. In arguing this, the intention is not to dismiss or denigrate qualitative research, but rather to point out that if a ‘quantitative culture’ is to be embedded, it must be within a wider cultural context of science.
Dr Philippe Blanchard:

I will be speaking from a slightly different background than Malcolm Williams, in terms of disciplines and geography. But I will make use of similar evidence: incomplete, small-scale, yet revealing, empirical studies of students and researchers’ views on their discipline and on methods, and their practices, blended with historical, sociological and epistemological analyses of social scientific disciplines. These elements show that increased exposure to statistics may, and does, under certain circumstances, help reduce animosity within the discipline, yet indeed this is not enough. More structural, undue resistance is at work, rooted in worldviews, power relationships and the sociology of academics. I believe this should be addressed by means of an encompassing reflection on what methods are and what they are for, how diverse they are yet how much they converge, ideas that are too vaguely and superficially defended in existing textbooks and lectures. This reflection needs to get back to the core concepts used to name and teach methods. It should also gain support on recent, major evolutions in the context of quantitative methods teaching. This is necessary if we want sociological statistics to gain ground in the near future within (or at leat with) sociology as a discipline, instead of this happening elsewhere, through weakly theorised social studies that do not build robust knowledge.


Refreshments served from 4:45 p.m. in the Atrium

Organiser Name Ian Hamilton

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Organising Group(s) RSS West Midlands Local Group





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