On the Need for ‘Arguments’ as well as ‘Methods’


An argument from ‘theory’
Habermas’s contribution to the ‘positivist dispute’ (Adorno et al (eds) 1976) concluded that behind the use of the usual research methods in Sociology there were, of course, wider arguments that privileged those methods. The insistence on using approved ‘methods’ to deliver some guaranteed insight, without arguing why this should be so was ‘scientism’, or, as Adorno was to put it in the same volume, ‘magic’. Habermas (1987) spells out in more detail his ‘theory of argumentation’ which suggests that the specific issues of methods and their ‘validity’ were located in a much wider set of arguments central to Sociology, including various rhetorical devices and  additional ‘validity claims’ relating to ‘sincerity’ and ‘social appropriateness’. All these claims were inherent in ‘normal speech’ as well as in Sociology, as was the capacity to challenge them. In what follows, ‘arguments’ refers to these broader attempts to reason in terms of these validity claims.

An argument from ‘practice’
I have found new students only too willing to want to raise challenges to the validity, sincerity or appropriateness of sociological methods. Sometimes courses and teaching regimes manage this sort of initial challenge by marginalising these anxieties, or refuse encounters by abstracting out some pure type ‘methods’. Discussing actual pieces of research raises the issues again, though. Students rapidly want to ask questions about matters like the continued reference to other pieces of work and other authors, for example, or to the use of ‘long words’. Sometimes the sincerity of the author is called into question – is s/he doing this just to pose as an academic – and sometimes the appropriateness of using this work – why not rely on ‘common sense’.
Often, these ‘long words’ turn out, in my experience, to be not specialist Sociological terms at all, but ‘elaborated English’ – words like ‘vicissitudes’ or ‘interstitial’. I have sometimes asked new students to play the study skills game called ‘buzzer’, where students ‘buzz’ when they encounter their first ‘long word’ (in some cases it can be in the title) and the group then discusses how to overcome the resulting blockages to reading.

I think these features of actual research need an explanation and a discussion, as much as do the uses of creative operationalisations in ‘quantitiative’ approaches, or  the use of what Hammersley calls ‘soft quantification’ in ethnographic studies, which become apparent to more sophisticated readers. Citing other authors can be an example of ‘arguments from authority’, perhaps, much as was my citing of Habermas earlier, and might be located initially in a process of ‘social distantiation’ which is at play in sociological texts as in all texts. 

This issue can be raised directly by asking students to identify the different intended audiences for the piece, for example, which can lead to discussion about the ‘levels’ of argument, or even to the politics of publishing. It might even be possible to lead into critical discussion about the claimed merits of alternatives like ‘plain English’ or ‘bullet-point’ teaching which they might have experienced in A-level Sociology.

I think there is a need to help new students acquire expertise in the unspecified conventions of academic argument, especially when they come to do their first assignments. It is not just a matter of defining assessment criteria, but getting students to analyse their own arguments as well, perhaps even in versions of  Habermas’s terms of the different validity claims involved.  They can look like this:

DH: ‘So you can see from these data, which the British Government has collected, remember, that Roberts is suggesting that levels of taxation on the richest groups have clearly fallen over this period too.’
KS (Year 1 student) ‘Are these figures right?’
DH (rather nervously) ‘What do you mean? They are not foolproof, of course, they are based on assumptions…’
KS ‘No…Is it true that some people were paying over 80% in tax? Really? That can’t be right, surely? You work hard all day and then have to hand over 80% of it to the Government?’
AH (Year 1 student) (heatedly) ‘Well, what if it’s all been left to them?’
KS ‘So you’re saying that if their parents worked hard all their life and handed over their money, left their money, the State should get 80% of it? How is that fair?’
PH (Year 1 student) (heatedly) ‘Well what about the Royal Family…’
AW (Year 1 student) (sotto voce) ‘Oh no…’

What this exchange suggests, perhaps, is that even discussing ways to measure ‘polarisation’ (in this case), can lead students to engage interests of their own,  sometimes passionately. For KS, for example, I have discovered it is impossible just to rule her out of order, as it were – she wants to discuss the issue of fairness, and it is necessary to explain why a more technical or ‘methodological’ interest should be preferred at this point, or in other words to argue for it. Every time a word like ‘right’ is used about research findings, I think of ‘validity’ while she thinks of ‘social appropriateness’ or ‘sincerity’. My own arguments here have been interesting to reflect upon: I find myself defending a pedagogic division of labour between topics and themes which I know is rather arbitrary, or even maintaining a ‘fact/value’ distinction here which I want to criticise later in the course.

Concluding thoughts

· tutors are engaged in arguments about methods whether they wish to be or not, even if they ‘argue’ by censoring or forbidding the raising of validity claims.
· new students often have to learn to separate out a ‘methods’ theme from other topics in discussion
· there are the usual dilemmas for any teacher with this topic - how much student discussion to ‘allow’ and how to manage it, for example
· these problems are not likely to be tackled by good course designs alone, especially ones which abstract ‘methods’ from arguments

back to CV

back to site mainpage