On 5 February, the RSS West Midlands local group held a session titled: 'Number is not enough; the analytic problem in UK social science' at the University of Warwick.
The first speaker was Professor Malcom Williams of Cardiff University (Q-Step). Professor Williams described how two cultures have developed in British social science, particularly sociology; the analytic and the critique with research showing that critique is the larger of the two. A 2013 survey showed that 77% of sociology students would rather write an essay than analyse data. This does not appear to be due to a fear of number, but predominantly due to the cultural traditions in which they are taught (which have generated an epistemological relativism and can include a degree of animosity from the critique culture towards the quantitative culture) with many students not being exposed to numerical / analytical approaches.
A response to this is Q-Step which is a programme aimed at developing analytical approaches in social science education in a number of British universities. It is too early to tell what the impact of the programme has been, but there is a distinct need to engender a pluralist approach to research within sociology.
In the Q&A session that followed, the main lines of questioning revolved around what Q-Step is trying to achieve and what is meant by a pluralist approach. It was answered that the aim is to achieve a plurality of methods within British social science (to make social scientists more like scientists) and that by plurality is meant that the most appropriate research method is used for the research question at hand.
The second speaker, Dr Phillipe Blanchard of Warwick University (Q-Step) spoke on 'Approaches to research in the social sciences'. Dr Blanchard agreed with many of the points raised in the first presentation. He noted that many of the critique research approaches referred to originally arose from good solid work, but have been used incorrectly to promote epistemological relativism. Research methods are subject, through teaching, to long term processes which creates an inertia leading to a reluctance to use analytical methods (with the critique tradition not necessarily having a good understanding of quantitative methods). Whilst there has been some small rise in the use of analytical methods, including mixed methods, the divide is still very much there with the increased use of mixed methods not necessarily equating to plurality. This continuing divide is more evident in sociology than politics / political science.
Overall, a similar picture is present in the French social sciences, although French sociology is often more ‘radical’ and there is less of a drive to increase the use of analytical approaches. Suggestions for engendering change (in British social sciences) included changing the marking scheme to include marks for analytical analyses.
In the following Q&A session, questions included 'are these religious wars not seen in other disciplines?' and 'would some of the suggested approaches (eg changes to marking schemes) not form an imposition of a particular viewpoint upon others?' It was answered that the approaches outlined would hopefully speed up the process of change and lead to greater plurality in the British social sciences.
The speakers were thanked for their presentations, including for providing a very honest auto-critique of their discipline.