Monday, January 21, 2013

Can Qualitative Methods Produce the Sociological Imagination? The Dialectic of Macro and Micro Sociology

The biggest question I have for you though is what is a good way to use qualitative methods?  We know that we can get much more detail and explanation that we can't necessarily get through surveys and questionnaires.  We also know that there are problems with generalizability in qualitative methods such as interviewing.  Does qualitative methods inherently mean it is not macro sociology?  How can we, for example, use a grounded approach, get in-depth data (and not numbers or yes or no answers) and focus on a particular group without getting away from the macro?

There are a number of people that do historical comparative work that includes qualitative analysis.  A friend of mine has studied slave journals as well as census reports to better understand slavery in the mountain South (Wilma Dunaway - Slavery in the American Mountain South).  Her work tied the qualitative journal data to the quantitative (and qualitative) census data and then situated it in the broader world-system perspective.  Some people are doing really good qualitative work that lives up to the sociological imagination.  I have another friend who did participant observation on community supported agriculture farms and tied it to the broader political economy.  The problem of journal articles that I mentioned have made it difficult for her research to find a home.  The more macro-oriented journals do not know what to do with her interviews, and the more micro-oriented journals do not know how to deal with the theoretical and historical framework that explains the actions of the individuals in her study.  Thus, it is difficult, but not impossible, to do good research based on the demands of the journal articles.  The best sociology combines a micro-understanding alongside the macro context.  Patricia Hill Collins is another good example.  People have twisted her work into something hollow and useless, but her "Black Feminist Thought" is still a great example of how to tie voices from below to the broader context in which they occur.

The best sociology situates the in-depth interviews in a broader context.  It fills in the details a bit more.  You can think about it in terms of resolution.  We can take a picture of the social world, but the macro picture tends to be from a distant vantage point, leaving a low resolution, so when you zoom in, everything is blurry or pixelated.  Micro level analysis allows us to increase the resolution in certain areas of that photo.  We can more clearly understand the relationships that are occurring in a certain portion of that photo.  If we only use a macro perspective, we only really have a general understanding of what is going on.  This may be very useful.  For example, the economic meltdown we recently experienced is pretty easily predictable based on a Marxist analysis of the general trends in the economy.  We may not know the exact date or firm that will trigger the event, but we can see it coming.  Micro level analysis may show us more detail of what is happening in certain areas of the photo, but it cannot tell us if these events are characteristic of the broader photo or give us a sense of the broader landscape.  Micro level analysis may be helpful to psychologists to help individuals deal with the issues they face, but it does not help sociologists understand broader level phenomena without the help of a macro understanding to help us make sense of what we are seeing.  So, we can discern a general understanding of even the most blurry of photos if we look at it from a distance.  However, if you take a small tube to zoom in on a portion of that same photo, it may be completely non-nonsensical.  That is because it is abstracted away from the larger picture.  The micro only makes sense in the context of the macro.  The micro may help us understand things more clearly, but it cannot be intellectually useful outside of the context of our broader understanding of society.

Now, herein lies the rub, as they say.  This perspective is not the dominant perspective in sociology.  Because of journal articles and careerist oriented sociologists, the field is dominated by easily accomplished micro-studies of interesting phenomenon that titillate the senses and sociologists' liberal sensibilities.  I am not sure about the field of political science.  They tend to do a lot of opinion polling, but I also think there are a lot of historical-comparative people out there - people who look at historical documents (or data sets) to compare different states or regions of the world to discern patterns.

I have to say, I have not found an easy way to get my stuff published because of my orientation.  It takes persistence, which takes time, which I do not have.  I may be more successful with my publications if I had more time to focus on them.  Because others tailor their research toward the journal format and the expectations of the reviewers, they are able to publish more easily.  I read articles all the time that have erroneous assumptions or inaccurate theorizations, but they get published because they fit the methodological approach the reviewers expect (micro or macro).  It does not matter that the definition they use to orient their study is fundamentally flawed as long as their methodology is sound.  I read a recent article where someone implied that entropy was a bad thing.  Entropy occurs all the time and is a natural environmental process.  Despite the fact that her notion of entropy contradicted the science of entropy, the article was still published.  It is a very bizarre academic world right now.

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