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

Thursday, 5 September 2013

How do you get people to use a new method?

The always stimulating Edmund Chattoe-Brown has a new article out at Sociological Review Online called: Why Sociology Should Use Agent Based Modelling. Well worth reading (if you have institutional access). A minor quibble (wouldn't a better title substitute Sociologists for Sociology?) set me thinking. 
Proselytizing is fine up to a point, but what is it that really makes a methodological innovation take off? After all ABM has been around for quite a while - I remember attending Nigel Gilbert's inaugural in 1992(?) which was an advertisement for the promise of ABM (does anyone else remember Ig and Ug?) - yet within sociology, even amongst open minded and broadly sympathetic people like myself, it still seems to be lumbering down the runway without achieving lift-off.
If I think about methodological innovations that - for good or ill - changed the things that people routinely did in their research it seems to me that a common circumstance is that they appeared to provide an answer to, a clarification of, or a way of dealing with, a problem that was generally regarded as of substantive importance but which heretofore had no satisfactory solution. In other words there was already a conversation about subject matter substance that  a critical mass of people cared about.
Think about log-linear models. People had been struggling with how to make sense of social mobility data in circumstances where you wanted to compare 2 or more populations in which the observed marginal distributions of the populations were known to differ and in which the detail of the pattern of association was important (ie a single correlation coefficient was for various reasons inadequate). Cometh the hour, cometh the method. Regarding this as a problem in the modelling of odds-ratios revolutionized the way people thought about a substantive issue (sweeping away dead end ideas about "structural" and "exchange" mobility).
The word appeared, is important here: I'm not claiming that succesful innovations  actually did what people thought they did or would do (good examples of  cases where the over-enthusiastic adoption completely obscured the very careful and cautious claims of the pioneers are structural equation modelling and multi-level modelling) but simply that they seemed to help answer questions that enough people at the time found important for substantive reasons.
The lesson I take from this is that what will determine whether ABM ever takes off in sociology will be the publication in mainstream journals of a few articles reporting  realistic applications  to substantive problems that enough sociologists care about that tell us something believable and important that we didn't know already. When methods give us, or appear to give us, the insights we crave then they will be taken up.
We shouldn't forget though that sometimes it takes a long period of promise before delivery can happen. I first learned something about network analysis in 1989 by going to a course given by Martin Everett (and very good it was too). Sociology is only now, at least in the UK, getting beyond the "social network as metaphor" phase, but progress is being made. For a long time, it seems to me, methods of network analysis spiraled upwards in sophistication and complexity mostly within a substantive vacuum. The object of inquiry was network analysis itself. Now things are changing, largely because of the greater availability of data. We simply have more data about more or less complete networks relating to things that we care about for reasons that are central to the substance of the discipline. When network tools are seen to give answers to sociological questions, then they get taken up. I think there is a lesson here for ABM.

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