The empirical strikes back

History of Sociological Research Methods in America, 1920-1960
May 10, 1996

Some social scientists will consider this the sort of worthy book that should be in the library of every half-decent university. They will not expect many students to consult, let alone read it, since there is so much else more appealing in these postmodern times. Compared with the attractions of sexualities, identity and concepts of globalisation, the title and topic look dry and dull.

But this study bears the closest examination for several reasons. First, it is a model of careful construction and meticulous research. Second, it makes us reconsider our perceptions of a period in sociology when America dominated the world. And third, and most important, is that it forces us to think critically about the discipline.

The first quality should not be underestimated. This book is produced in the finest traditions of Cambridge University Press and evidences the highest scholarly standards. It is characterised by diligent research conducted over many years, ranging from interviews with long-retired American sociologists and examination of departmental records to imaginative use of available literature. The argument is presented through themes that link together and are persuasively presented and lightened by Jennifer Platt's sceptical and often humorous observations. These observations are informative. For example, one of Platt's interviewees recalls that at the Chicago sociology department's annual picnic during the 1930s two sides were organised for a baseball game, the statisticians versus the case study researchers. We do not learn who won, but Platt, noting Herbert Blumer's previous employment as a professional ballplayer, lays her bets on the qualitative side.

Sociologists, like the rest of us, have a tendency to simplify their history. As regards America, which for long dominated world sociology, the popular perception is that before the late 1960s the discipline was characterised by arid quantitative enthusiasm, allied with stultifyingly abstract theory. There may have been pockets of qualitative work going on in places such as Chicago, but for the rest it was a tale of naive empiricism that tried to measure anything and everything combined with the grand theory of structural functionalism.

Platt's study forces us to appreciate the distortions this caricature entails. To this extent it is a part of the more general rejection of the insult "positivism" thrown, for a while at least, at just about every piece of empirical sociology. The author demonstrates that even the zealots of "science" in sociology such as George Lundberg quite often did not practise what they preached in the field (and were the better for it), did not even agree on shared definitions of what would be a science of sociology, and that American sociology was a great deal more pluralistic in reality than we tend to think. The second world war did give an important fillip to survey-based research (government had to be concerned with public opinion in times of acute crisis), but this was never enough to sideline qualitative work entirely (though the emphasis did shift from life histories to observational methods).

Even if for no other reason this book should be studied for its appreciation of the diversity of sociological work that once was undertaken in the United States and for making us realise that there may be a gap between what gets said in textbooks on method and what happens on the ground in empirical research.

Nowadays it is presumed theory is the alpha and omega of sociological study. For this reason, I guess, all the big names in the field are theorists, not practitioners. Moreover, to suggest that one is merely - and the epithet would be unavoidable - an empirical analyst, would even today be greeted as inescapably containing a theory of some sort or other. That is because, so the wisdom runs, there is no innocent empiricism; theory is found everywhere. For the same reason everything may be reduced to theory and empirical work thereby subordinated.

Anyone holding this view - and I admit my own guilt - had better read and reread Platt's fine study. Because here they will encounter a deeply critical response to much current sociology. Platt provides an irrefutable demonstration of the fecklessness that underlies the latter-day relegation of empirical sociology. Hers is an account of the variable meanings of "science" adopted by sociologists between 1920 and 1960; a dazzling analysis of the distance between these variable meanings in theory and the practice of empirical research by real people in real circumstances; a subtle and surprising interpretation of the complexity of relations between funding bodies and receivers of resources to undertake research; and an examination of the character and consequences of American university and professorial hierarchies.

This is an outstanding contribution to our understanding of what really went on in US universities at a key point in the development of sociology and an almighty sideswipe at a great deal of the discipline's subordination to theorists from within and from without the subject. Sociologists should not just order this book for the library and leave it to gather dust. Buy it, study it and reflect on the state of their subject.

Frank Webster is professor of sociology, Oxford Brookes University.

History of Sociological Research Methods in America, 1920-1960

Author - Jennifer Platt
ISBN - 0 521 44173 0
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 333

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