Discussion questions, comments etc. for ARM week 2




I love the plain-spoken style of Becker, and the way that he de-mystifies social analysis.  But occasionally I feel like it covers up some of the issues that I would like to flesh out. For example, on page 133 he says that class is a relational term; “working class” means someone who works for a member of the ownership class. I can see his point, but I can imagine some wealthy guy saying “oh its all relative, you only think you’re poor” as he goes about cutting salaries and pensions. I would like to be able to say “poverty is an objective fact, here are the statistics” and I worry about how making it “relational” detracts from that. In general Becker seems to be saying that the only good social analyses are the ones describing a social construction--you don’t get a sense that non-human objects or processes can really be part of the story except as delusions that prevent us from seeing “the social.”


I found the reading to be interesting and particularly insightful for myself given that I am still developing an awareness of how social scientists conduct research. I think many of the mentioned “tricks” will be useful to be in attempting to avoid many of the common traps in conducting and analyzing research. Having said that, I felt myself being continually distracted by Becker’s overly narrow sociological perspective. For instance, his seeing objects as being merely “congealed social agreements” (pg. 50) is, in my opinion, true only to an extent. Such a perspective ignores any degree of agency on could ascribe to objects or the environment (which, reading the above comment, I seem to have in common with Ron). However, I found his disciplinary perspective mostly just irritating and tried to focus on the take home messages of the book in carefully dealing with data, subjects and interpretation.

At the same time, I feel uneasy about what counts as convincing evidence in the social sciences. How do bias and presupposition manifest in the social sciences? What things do social scientists accept on mostly faith? I feel that hesitancy with sociology, while agree with much of its project, is that I feel that there are some unstated metaphysical assumptions which aren’t ever clearly stated that I may find untenable.  


Just to give a quick reply to Taylor’s comment above: its important to keep in mind that there is a spectrum from quantitative to qualitative analysis, and that more or less maps on to the positivist/constructivist spectrum. Becker is more on the constructivist side. So his data is mostly qualitative, ethnographic, discursive, etc. In qualitative analysis you try to keep your bias in check by your own sense of integrity (eg when someone says something that disagrees with your hypothesis, you don’t dismiss it).  There are plenty of social scientists who work at the other end of the spectrum, using surveys, applying statistics, etc. They often claim to keep their bias in check by mathematics: if its not statistically significant, its not a correlation. These two ways of investigating the world can be combined, but more often they are in separate journals, separate departments, etc.

David M.

While I’m not able to get my hands on the book in time, I did read through it for last semester’s advanced research methods class, and I thought there were some great tricks to help me shape the way I do research, but the main issue I want to address is actually what Dr. Eglash mentioned in his comment, and I think it is appropriate since it would be applicable to research methods.


I’ve spent the better part of last semester trying to understand and them trying to make those around me understand exactly what Dr. Eglash is saying. And while not 100% on the same side of many issues it was really hard for me to see how blind people were to the way their arguments were destructive to the core of their own beliefs. Saying science is socially constructed, bringing in emotions as valid arguments, trying to democratize everything creates a giant tidal wave of empowered actors that are now their equals, against whom they aren’t able to fight because this tidal wave made their own weapons unusable. What’s the answer they would give to somebody that promotes creationism? The standard answer used to be “Science!”, but now that they themselves have “demystified” science, they can’t say that anymore. And the examples can go on. And this was very troubling, that for a discipline that is founded on reflexivity, most of last semester felt, to me, highly unreflexive.


The most fascinating part of Becker book for me was the imagery stage.

As Becker suggests us before we, as social scientists, start our study on social issues, we should enter into a world of imagination. The first stage of a social research starts with imagination about what is going to be studied. To me, imagery step is vital in the contemporary world enmeshed with uncertainties. With no doubt, imageries that social scientists make during this process are mostly influenced by their preexisting knowledge about the larger context. Their knowledge may be gained either by living in that social context or by different commutation sources, such as reading the related materials in mass media. In the world of uncertainties, social scientists should not limit oneself to ones pre-existing knowledge. Foreseeing the uncertainties will assist them to predict undesirable challenges during a research. As a result, I add another trick to the series of tricks that Becker suggests to social scientists:  imagining uncertainties and multiple scenarios about our case of study. Imagining different scenarios may imply relativism.

In addition to imagining uncertainties, social scientists should also foresee the existing and non-existing actors. In the section Everybody knows that, he reminds his readers of different actors that may emerge. He emphasizes that Nothing stays the same. Nothing is the same as anything else. ( Becker: p 89) However, he suggests this trick for the sampling stage in order to encourage a frustrated social scientist who is exhausted of finding a novel topic for his/her research, I think social scientists should consider the changing nature of social issues in the imagery stage. They should imagine multiple actors working at different times under different constraints , they should rely on different sets of assumptions. To me, the evolving nature of social issues which are conditioned by socio techno- political factors necessitate the importance of imagery during the whole process of research; a social scientist should never stop the process of imagery.



David’s concern about the co-opting of skills and methods by newly empowered but opposing groups is well-stated and is something I have seen in other related fields as well, like in medicine (ex: anti-vaccination movement).  I recognize that this should be considered an introductory reading to the deeper realm of social science surveying, but as an outsider to the world of sociology, I too am seeing potential conflicts between “doing as they say” and “doing as they do.”  Even Becker seems to suggest that we strive for the ideal of recording all relevant observations even as we practically cannot catch everything.  That means that things get left out, and as thinkers like Stephen Jay Gould have pointed out, that filtering/sorting process always involves bias from the society of the researchers.


I also was struck by Becker’s citing of Driscoll’s research on transgendered people and sex change operations (Ch. 2, “What’s a nice girl...”).  While I aimed for a generous reading of this section, I was troubled by the lack of context given for Driscoll’s research (which was on gay “hair faerie” culture in San Francisco) because of the implications that “falling in with the wrong crowd” can lead you to want to chop off your dangly bits (ignoring pre-existing feelings of gender dysphoria).  From my political background, it reads as eerily close to rhetoric about homosexuality being a choice and being influenced by negative family conditions (therefore justifying “treatment” and denial of legal protections).  While I am sure that was not Becker’s intent, I think that either a different example could have been cited or a little more context could have avoided this parallel.  Another call for more reflexivity?  


To balance this, I liked his ecological example (otters, kelp, abalone) and “trick” of viewing social situations as an organism because it made my inner biologist happy.  The interdisciplinary appeal of Becker’s examples is definitely a strength of this book.

David B.

I’d like to echo Ron’s point really quick, that the writing style of the book.  It is concise when showing the “tricks” and then goes into fairly detailed examples.  In fact, I felt almost as if the examples made me lose track of what the “trick” was.  What I found most helpful, were conceptual procedures that reframed assumptions I didn’t even know I made.  For instance, looking at your participants as deviations away from what a random population sample would look like- is a really great way of focusing on everything that is specific to your participants.


The “looking at social situations as organisms” trick actually bothered me a little.  I felt it might be too functionalist.  When I hear multiple social actors working in specific ways, as if they are organisms in a larger whole, I get a little anxious.  It makes me feel like we’re back at classical sociology.


Finally, while I really liked how... not cynical it was.  He made me feel excited about doing research.  At the same time, I also fell into a few sentences that sounded like they should be in a self-help book.  Quotes like, “But we ought to choose them for our reasons, not because other people think they are something special.” I don’t think this perspective will help get you funded in many ways.  (Unless you’re good at convincing important people that your special thing should be important to others.)


David B - glad I wasn’t the only one who had to flip back at times to see which “trick” I was on.  The examples were sometimes so interesting I forgot what they illustrated.  


How about the “social situations as a machine” trick?  I preferred the ecological example because it brought dynamic change and impacts that mechanical examples don’t recognize.  


(Response to DB below: Days like these I’m glad I don’t have a foundation in classical sociology.  :) )

David B

Sabrina- You’re right, I should have mentioned the machine trick as a much better example of the functionalism I found in the book.  The organism is better, since it doesn’t encourage you to think of people and institutions as parts in a rube goldberg machine (maybe that was harsh).  Either way, I feel like the use of words “organism” and “machine” as two different methods of looking at society calls on Durkheim a little too directly.  So even if he isn’t relying on a structural functionalism, its kind of hard to not think about the classical uses of these terms.


Arriving late to the party here folks (finally catching up on my work), but wanted to elaborate more on points being made above.  Following Becker’s text I was more than anything interested in his concepts of ‘Imagery’ as key to identifying the ideological location of our work.  It is obvious Becker sees this as foundational to his methodology - otherwise how do you manifest data, analysis, and conceptual understanding into workable stories - thus it makes sense that he elaborates on Imagery in the beginning of the text.  However, I don’t think enough emphasis is placed on Imagery as a danger - as a potential false start or red herring.  


One of the questions I have personally grappled with is: why do we as researchers give a hoot about what we do and how we apply our knowledge - better yet, how do we evaluated our credentials to be in a position to make certifying claims?  Becker might ask “how did you come to care about this?”  Becker would also likely say (although not explicitly in the text which I think is my main criticism) that there are multiple entry points to centering yourself in your research.  Data gathering can help define your problem - case definition can help define your concept - conceptual definition can help determine where to look for your data.  But (back to Imagery) - to what degree should we as researchers be comfortable with our ‘sense’ of the problem and its constituents being based out of data-definitions-concepts and predetermined imaginaries as opposed to formulating these based on our experiences formulated on the ground (to echo Sonia)?  In other words, how do we remain connected to our work in ways that might maintain imaginaries of accuracy and not imaginaries of precision.  Am I making sense here?  A robust and grounded approach to research (esp. field studies) should be stated more clearly as a cyclical collection of what Becker has outlined here as a linear prescription of tricks to access those various points.


A caveat - I like the guy - Becker seems to be writing from a place that makes this process far more accessible than anything I’ve read thus far (re: comments above), especially so with his section on applied logic which already made me aware of flawed kinds of reasoning I used in papers last semester even!  But I think the biases I’m mentioning - a focus on analytics (even tho qualitative) might be due to Becker’s coming from a sociological background, whereas an anthropologist might have written this very differently!