Want of 'quants' bad news for UK

Social sciences' standing threatened by dearth of quantitative teaching. Melanie Newman reports

December 3, 2009

The UK's social sciences are failing to teach research methods adequately and risk losing their international reputation as a result, a study warns.

The survey of more than 100 teachers in social science departments found that teaching in quantitative methods is lacking in most.

"Unless it gets its act together, UK social science research will lose its high international status," said John Macinnes, professor of sociology at the University of Edinburgh, and a strategic adviser to the Economic and Social Research Council, who conducted the study.

The numbers crunch

He argued that if methods of quantitative analysis were taught more effectively and more widely, social science provision would be perceived by the Government as a means of improving graduate numeracy, alongside science, mathematics and technology.

"The ability to digest and interpret quantitative evidence and apply quantitative-based reasoning to issues is a key skill," Professor Macinnes said. "We don't just need more science and maths graduates who can do this - graduates from other disciplines are also required."

A draft copy of Professor Macinnes' report to the ESRC, Proposals to Support and Improve the Teaching of Quantitative Research Methods at Undergraduate Level in the UK, describes the country's "fragile" teaching base.

The situation was better in psychology, economics and on some geography courses.

However, in many departments, the teaching of quantitative methods is dependent on just a few staff members, and they are heavily involved in research. On average, students receive about 12 hours of teaching in quantitative methods across a three-year degree, and one third to a half of this teaching takes place in large classes. Less than one in ten student projects has a significant quantitative element.

Many academics draw a clear distinction between quantitative and non-quantitative approaches and "view the essence of the distinctive approach of the social sciences as concerning the latter", the report says.

Academics with "quants" knowledge are therefore defined by their methodology rather than their substantive areas of interest, it adds.

As a result, students come to see social science as being mostly about the interpretation of meaning rather than the analysis of empirical evidence.

"Both sides of the epistemological divide are impoverished if either is allowed to wither, yet this is what appears to have happened with quantitative approaches," Professor Macinnes concludes.

"This is not a sustainable situation for a healthy discipline."

Last year, the Scottish Government recruited a large number of social science graduates. Monitoring showed that while most of them were familiar with qualitative methods, virtually none - besides those with economics degrees - had even a basic knowledge of quantitative methods. This was despite the fact that the recruitment included applicants with masters degrees.

Points for improvement

The professor's report makes 20 recommendations to address the problem, including the creation of a stand-alone qualification in quantitative methods.

The academic also suggests that the ESRC should lobby to promote the case for quantitative social science.

Another recommendation is that applicants for ESRC research funding should be asked to report their contribution to the teaching of quantitative research methods.

Professor Macinnes' final report is now being considered by the research council.


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