Tag Archives: sociology

The essence of qualitative research: “verstehen”

“But how many people did you talk to?” If you’ve ever done qualitative research, you’ve heard that question at least once. And the first time? You were flummoxed. In 3 short minutes, you can be assured that will never happen again.

Folks, qualitative research does not worry about numbers of people; it worries about deep understanding. Weber called this “verstehen.” (Come to think of it, most German people call it that too. Coincidence?). Geertz called it “thick description.” It’s about knowing — really knowing — the phenomenon you’re researching. You’ve lived, breathed, and slept this thing, this social occurrence, this…this…part of everyday life. You know it inside and out.

Courtesy of daniel_blue on Flickr

Courtesy of daniel_blue on Flickr

You know when it’s typical, when it’s unusual, what kinds of people  do this thing, and how. You know why someone would never do this thing, and when they would but just lie about it. In short, you’ve transcended merely noticing this phenomenon. Now, you’re ready to give a 1-hour lecture on it, complete with illustrative examples.

Now if that thing is, say, kitchen use, then stand back! You’re not an Iron Chef, you are a Platinum Chef! You have spent hours inside kitchens of all shapes and sizes. You know how people love them, how they hate them, when they’re ashamed of them and when (very rarely) they destroy them. You can tell casual observers it is “simplistic” to think of how many people have gas stoves. No, you tell them, it’s not about how many people, it’s about WHY they have gas stoves! It’s about what happens when you finally buy a gas stove! It’s about….so much more than how many.

Welcome to the world of verstehen. When you have verstehen, you can perhaps count how many people have gas stoves. Sure, you could determine that more men than women have them. Maybe you could find out that more of them were built between 1970 and 80 than 1990 and 2000. But what good is that number? What does it even mean?

When you’re designing, you must know what the gas stove means. You must know what it means to transform your kitchen into one that can and should host a gas stove. You must know why a person would be “ashamed” to have a gas stove (are they ashamed of their new wealth? do they come from a long line of safety-conscious firefighters?). You must know more than “how many.”

So the next time someone asks you, “how many people did you talk to?”, you can answer them with an hour-long treatise about why that doesn’t matter. You can tell them you are going to blow them away with the thick description of what this thing means to people. You are going to tell them you know more about this thing than anyone who ever lived, and then, dammit, you’re gonna design something so fantastic, so amazing that they too will be screaming in German. You have verstehen!

See my discussion about sampling methods in qual and quant research for more insight into the reasons why “how many” is irrelevant in qualitative research.

Detecting Social Media Bullshit: A Sociologist’s View

Social media “gurus” abound these days. Which ones are worth listening to and which ones are bullshitters?

Philosopher Harry Frankfurt exposed bullshitters in his famous essay “On Bullshit.” The liar knows what the truth is and cares very much about concealing it. The bullshitter, on the other hand, doesn’t care what the truth is and has no compunction in stretching it.

The same goes for social media “gurus.” Those that care what about rigourous examination of the social may be wrong, but at least they take great pains to analyze the phenomenon. Those that don’t care about systematic, theoretically informed social inquiry are interested only in stretching or shaping their own agendas.

How can you tell the difference?

Here are a few signs you’re dealing with a social media bullshitter.

  1. They skate over the tension between structure and agency: The tension between structure and agency is an age-old sociological debate. Social media bullshitters somehow miss this very important point. They often argue that implementing social media or social business design will somehow evaporate decades or even centuries of organizational structures. If your social media guru tells you that adding social media and stirring will create equality, harmony, and profits, begin to question them. If, on the other hand, they tell you that your organization does not live in a vacuum, and that your social media will be integrated in people’s existing lives with their existing economic, technological, and ethnically grounded experience, then they may be onto something.
  2. They use the same social research methods every time: A classically trained sociologist is trained in both qualitative and quantitative methods. They are designers in the sense that they have expertise, which they draw upon selectively, according to the research question. Social media bullshitters, on the other hand, likely have a common stock of tools that they use repeatedly, regardless of the nuance of the research question. If their answer is always, “do a focus group,” or always, “do a survey,” then question them.
  3. They see no paradoxes. Ever: Sociologists are constantly grappling with paradoxes. Weber’s famous paradoxical finding was that bureaucracies are both efficient and inefficient. They work wonders building and managing railroads, for example, but they result in horrible catastrophes like the Challenger disaster. Weber explained this paradox by arguing that rationality, or the rule of rules, is an “iron cage,” that keeps us safe but enslaved. If your social media guru claims there will be no paradox, nuance, or ambiguity, question them.
  4. They don’t know what social capital really is: Social capital is not something one can measure in terms of bank balances. It was the creation of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (come to think of it, the bullshitters wouldn’t know that either). Social capital is something one develops by being in a particular social location. I may go to an exclusive boarding school. My social capital is my network of well-off friends. Social capital is a particularly important concept when thinking about social media. Bourdieu noted that those in lower economic classes explicitly reject items they consider “above their station.” This means that luxury or “top of the line” is not always your best approach.

The bottom line is this: social media bullshitters have no knowledge of social theory or methodology. Trust a person who provides no easy answer, who carefully selects their research method, and who understands complex concepts.

Do you have more signs of being a social media bullshitter? Please share them here!

Social scientists: the next big thing for business

The technology consulting firm Gartner is predicting that social scientists will be very much in demand by businesses. Eweek summarizes Gartner’s outline of four types of roles for social scientists:

Web User Experience roles that include UI designers, virtual-assistant designers and interaction directors.
Behavior Analysis roles that include Web psychologists, community designers, and Web/social network miners.
Information Specialist roles that include information anthropologists who are expected to play historical Web fact finding and assisting in legal analysis, intellectual property management and where the quality of information is at risk.
Digital Lifestyle Experts roles that include helping senior management understand whats going on and stay aware, and building personal brands and managing online personas for desired online effect

Gartner’s Vice President Kathy Harris appears to have faith in social scientists’ ability to be creative:

Creative, artistic and clever people will develop the early iterations of these new jobs. This will enable businesses and government to take early advantage of new capabilities and develop them into mainstream skills.

I’m in full agreement that social science trains people in the right kinds of skills for the digital age. I was disappointed however to find that sociology had failed to capture Ms. Harris’s specific attention.Interestingly, the report mentions anthropologists and psychologists specifically, but not sociologists.

Sociologists have recently complained that they have not been given a place at Obama’s table. I argue that it’s because they’ve done a poor job of publicizing the great skills they have. Just last night I sat down with two other sociologists, one is a specialist in the sociology of science and the other in the socio-legal implications of changing family forms. Aren’t these the very people we need to help us understand the effects of genetic engineering? Or the potential outcomes of changing same-sex marriage laws?

I personally will continue to proclaim my training as a sociologist, and will convince business people that the “soft stuff” is a differentiator. I will also try to nudge my colleagues into the world of design, where their training in empathy and critical thought is welcome.

Data-driven social interaction: The difference between analogue and digital part III

Data-driven social experience is an entirely new manner of social interaction, one that obscures our emotional connections to people. Data makes social relationships visible, knowable, and countable in unprecedented ways. But it does not — and cannot — convey the emotional experience of social interaction. I’ve already discussed how digital technologies transform text and time. Now I want to explore how “data” transforms social experience.

Take the notion of the “social network.” Most people (especially those that read blogs!) think these synonymous with Web sites like Facebook. Truth be told, social network analysis has existed for almost a century. We’ve all heard the term “six degrees of separation,” but most of us don’t know that was coined by none other that Stanley Milgram, of the “shock experiments” fame, when he tracked letters mailed around the world.

Social networks are exceedingly difficult to know from a quantitative perspective. We all live inside social networks but we have a very hard time knowing how these networks are constructed. We may know, for example, that our friend Jeff is friends with another one, Sarah, but we don’t know if Sarah knows Jeff’s partner Sam. Social network analysis is a set of methods designed to learn exactly that.

Now imagine your social network, as it is represented on Facebook (what, you’re not on Facebook?). Below is an image from Visual Complexity that renders a social network visibly but also very easily, simply by mining the data inherent in Facebook’s structure:

from Visual Complexity

from Visual Complexity

Note how we instantly and easily know how institutions are connected, and through which people. Previously, researchers would have to conduct extensive and expensive surveys to get these data. Now these data are easily calculated and visualized by anyone with access to a social network online.

Some people are talking about this visualization as a piece of intellectual property. Alex Iskold on Mashable, for example, asks “Who owns the social map?” I go further and ask, “What does it mean that our social world is mappable?”

Our social world is now infiltrated by masses of data. These data inform us about the structure of our interactions with others in ways that we could not recall correctly if asked. Suddenly we can now see our social world reflected back to us, punctuated by  institutions, and social structures. When we see our social network through the eyes of data, we see the names of organizations, or the institutional affiliation of the people. We do not “see” the emotional experience that created our connections in the first place.

Suddenly, we may think we really are not that close with Jeff, because his partner Sam is really not friends with anyone I know. I can also see that Sarah and I have very few friends in common, which may lead me to think I don’t have much of a future friendship with her.

Those data crowd out the qualitative, embodied experience of the laughs I shared with Jeff and Sam at their cottage last summer. Those data obscure the fact that Sarah and I shared 3 long months as call centre employees together, a time that bonded us forever. A data-filled social world is one that masks the visceral, emotional experiences of face-to-face interaction.

Digital social life is revealed to us in fragmented, mashed up ways. Such ways were impossible before the freely available data on social networks, data that is now so ubiquitous, we don’t even see it.

The Difference Between Analogue And Digital Part II: Time

In an earlier post, I examined how text is transformed when it is created and shared in digital form. In this post, I argue that time itself is transformed when it is represented in digital format. To illustrate, consider my experiment with my Filofax.

Yes, I said Filofax. I still have one. I haven’t filled it with inserts in years, even though that was actually one of my favourite end-of-year rituals. I would make a special trip to the stationary store, just to buy the next year’s worth of calendar. In the process, I would review last year’s appointments, marvel at how much I had gotten done and how fast time had passed. I would linger over favourite appointments, which seemed, at the time, inconsequential, as recorded in my scribbled hand.

I bought a 2009 insert for my Filofax and inputted only two weeks’ worth of appointments. It took me 20 minutes.

Analogue time "reckoning"

Analogue time "reckoning"

The time it took me to enter in all these appointments was more than just scribbling. It was reviewing, remembering, considering. I could not physically enter overlapping appointments. There simply wasn’t room!

Now compare this to the same amount of time, as rendered by my iCal:

Digital Time "Reckoning"

Digital Time "Reckoning"

There are overlapping appointments, my husband’s appointments easily inputted into mine, meetings from people I barely know, all dropped into my life automatically. Worse, I carry this around, automatically updating it, second by second, through my iPhone.

Sociologists use the term “time reckoning” to describe how we collectively understand time and make it intelligible to ourselves. There was a great hullabaloo about “clock time,” when clocks came to replace the seasons as our primary way of time reckoning. We forgot we didn’t know how long a minute actually was — we actually now think we can tell how long 23 minutes and 42 seconds is (spoiler: we can’t, especially when we’re enjoying ourselves!).

Now we have “digital” time reckoning, which bears almost no resemblance to how we actually experience time. If you have the misfortune of using time tracking software like TimeControl, then you will likely recognize this fantastical, farcical, FrankenTime:

Screenshot from Microsoft's TimeControl

Screenshot from Microsoft's TimeControl

According to this, a mythical interaction designer named Joseph Gardner spent 8 hours and 20 minutes on Sunday “design interface.” Ignoring the assault on proper grammar for a moment, let’s take a step back and understand what this means. First off, Poor Old Joe was working on Sunday. Notably, TimeControl allowed this kind of time use, despite the fact that it likely broke overtime laws. But secondly, how long is 8 hours and 20 minutes? Did Joe forgo the need for bathroom breaks? Was he glued to the chair for precisely 8 hours and 20 minutes? How long did he actually spend in that chair anyway?

Digital time allows to represent time in impossibly tiny fragments, and to work impossibly long hours. This kind of time would never be recorded in one’s Filofax — there simply isn’t room for all those hours. Moreover, the time it takes to record one’s time in a Filofax also requires one to contemplate the implications of 8 hours and 20 minutes of work on a Sunday.

In short, the difference between analogue and digital time is that digital time is even less like cognitively experienced time than “clock time.” Digital time can be schedule effortlessly, without any thought to the physical need for sleep, food, or relaxation. Digital time is a faster, manifold version of clock time, one that makes it possible for use have multiple, synchronous events.

Open-access anthropology (and sociology): opening social research

May 1st is Open-Access Anthropology day. My contribution to this day:

It  is well past time to knock down the closed walls of the Ivory Tower.

Years ago, I worked on a project called The Public Knowledge Project. The principal investigator, Dr. John Willinsky, was actually a professor of literacy (and a distinguished one at that). John realized that university-based research was not getting into the hands of those outside the academy because academic journals are subscription only, for the most part.

John’s vision, and the vision of others, is to open up this research, make it available to people outside the university, and thereby make research much more meaningful, useful, and worthy.

I wholeheartedly agree. A former colleague of mine, Riva Soucie, has taken up the cause by founding New Social Inquiry, a open-access journal that is not only available for free, but is also ACCESSIBLE to non-researchers. Contexts magazine is also moving toward open-access research by offering regularly updated blogs (my favourite is the Visual Sociology blog).

Open-access isn’t just about open-source (although that’s part of it). It also means writing in accessible language and contextualizing the research for people who are not inside the academy.This is why I write this blog and why I call on all academics to blow down that Ivory Tower, and get out there. As Hubert Blumer once said in his famous article “What’s wrong with social theory?”:

Let us renounce the practice of taking in each other’s laundry.

Well put, Herbert!

Research Design Course: Follow along on slideshare

I am currently teaching a Research Design and Qualitative Methods course at Ryerson University. This is a core course for an interdisciplinary group of students, from social work, to business, to psychology, to sociology to…well you get the picture.

I will be uploading slides from my lectures regularly. See them all at:


I have toyed with adding audio, but so far my students do not appear to be too interested. Are you? If so, let me know and I will add audio to my slide space.