Popular Posts

Caveat Emptor

The opinions expressed on this page are mine alone. Any similarities to the views of my employer are completely coincidental.

Friday, 5 February 2010

In Praise of Description - more on the NEP report

Anyone reading the terms of reference for the National Equality Panel report http://www.equalities.gov.uk/national_equality_panel/publications.aspx
will see that they are limited to aims that are largely descriptive. Speaking personally this was a great relief which I imagine the Chairman shared. Getting 10 people to agree about the facts of the matter and the most appropriate way to present those facts is difficult, but with goodwill and a sense of proportion - which is what I experienced in all our meetings - doable in the time we had available. Given the existing evidence base, trying to move beyond description and say sensible things about causes and by implication how to produce change, would have required heavy reliance on assumption and speculation to fill in the large gaps in our empirical knowledge. Clearly it would have been absurd to attempt this in an official report. I'm reminded though of how often "mere description" is held up for contempt by those who think it is trivial and that what they prefer to do is intellectually deeper. Well, maybe it is, but the irony I find, is that those who take this view often rely entirely, and frequently naively, on the very "fact grubbers" they distain to provide the evidence to calibrate their speculations or furnish exemplars for their just-so stories. Recently rereading Stanley Lieberson's Making it Count: The Improvement of Social Research and Theory and now slightly less impressed by some of his arguments, I still think he basically gets it right about the value of description (and a number of other things). Forgive the long quotation but I think it is worth setting out in full (pp213):

"...one of the really valuable functions of empirical social research is a descriptive one. Social scientists who criticize activities simply because they are not theoretically driven are using warped and convoluted reasoning. In the stereotyped world of contemporary social science, there is a tendency to view such work not as a brick contributing to the construction of a great temple, but as a symbolic statement about one's disposition towards being a stark naked logical positivist. In point of fact, nobody is better prepared than contemporary social researchers to measure, describe and summarize such features of society. Is there something to be gained by deprecating such an activity? Is the society better off if such such questions are either left to speculation or addressed by less competent researchers? All too often, there is a propensity for those unsympathetic to empirical research to respond to solid empirical fact-finding not for what it is, but as if the researcher had implicitly said, 'Here is what all social scientists ought to do.'"

Tell me it isn't so...

No comments: