Becker on qualitative research


Test Society gathers the key links for this crucial debate on the nature of qualitative research vis-a-vis the funding criteria of the National Science Foundation, the US federal funding agency for scientific research. Howard S. Becker makes an important intervention here in defence of qualitative research methods. What is incredible, at least looking at this from Europe, is that this debate has to take place at all in the first decade of the 21st century. But by all indications, the argument for qualitative research is far from being won in the Western world. Here are some key quotes from Becker’s piece:

Many more of the papers, however, repeat the message delivered by Lamont and White in the 15-page executive summary and short introduction, which might be summarized as “Quit whining and learn to do real science by stating theoretically derived, testable hypotheses, with methods of data gathering and analysis specified before entering the field. Then you’ll get NSF grants like the real scientists do.” Less contentiously, you could say that the report recommends an unnuanced and incomplete version of the King, Keohane, and Verba Designing Social Inquiry (1994) message: Start out with clear, theoretically anchored hypotheses, pick a sample that will let you test those ideas, and use a pre-specified method of systematic analysis to see if they are right. (546)

In response, Becker invokes the key insights of STS:

The participants in the earlier meeting criticized that method profoundly, but the 2009 report ignores the fundamental questions and criticisms raised there, deriving its principles and recommendations by analogy from the model of the natural sciences, not as those sciences are actually practiced, but as philosophers of science and their acolytes in methodological specialties recommend: by deduction from first principles. The sociology of science, one of sociology’s most productive fields in the last two decades, and the related specialties in history and anthropology, have shown repeatedly that these recommendations do not reflect how scientists actually work (Latour & Woolgar’s Laboratory Life [1986] and Peter Galison’s How Experiments End [1987] support this conclusion). We get better understanding of how to construct our own practice by studying what natural scientists, in fact, do (as described by Thomas Kuhn (1970) and confirmed by many empirical research projects since), inspecting recognized exemplary works and seeing how they did what made them exemplary. (546-547).

Becker, Howard S. (2009), “How to Find Out How to Do Qualitative Research”, International Journal of Communication, vol. 3, pp. 545-553.

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2 Responses to “Becker on qualitative research”

  1. typewritten Says:

    Hey, thanks for contextualizing, unpacking and explaining — the Test Society is a Lazy Society.

  2. ANTHEM » Blog Archive » Scalography at Oxford Says:

    […] ANTHEM Actor-Network Theory – Heidegger Meeting « Becker on qualitative research […]

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