Tuesday 14 April 2009

Oi, Sociologist! Whose Side Are You On?

Back in February we were visited by Molly Andrews of the Centre for Narrative Research at the University of East London. Her presentation was on the problems of interviewing activists about their politics - a topic of interest to me because my PhD thesis is based on interviews with fellow socialists, most of whom are also members of the Socialist Party. What is a researcher supposed to do when they're investigating contentious political issues and get asked by research participants for their opinion? Should one pretend no opinion and claim the high ground of objectivity? Say what you think they would want to hear? Be honest?

There's long been an counter-current in sociology that favours the latter option. The celebrated American sociologist, Howard S. Becker diagnosed the problem 40 years ago. He argued fence sitting in sociology is impossible because it is an irreducibly political discipline. To demonstrate the functionalism that dominated American sociology in the middle years of the last century conceptualised society as a vast, cohesive organism. Each element of society existed because it functionally contributed to the existence of the whole. This mean phenomena such as social conflict like strikes, racism, crime and deviance, etc. were symptomatic of dysfunctions and social breakdowns, which could be corrected by social engineering. Though it coveted value neutrality it's not difficult to spot how easily one can draw conservative conclusions from functionalist positions.

This perspective has long since fallen out of sociological flavour. Sociologists not beholden to postmodern nihilism most would agree describing society as an interconnected system rent by internally generated antagonisms and conflicts is not only the wellspring of the most sophisticated and accurate models of society, but it is also an inescapably political act. Talking about conflicts and the groups and classes who profit from them is do not tally with ruling interests, even more so if the argument and data are rigorous and stringently validated. In a society so constructed, the logic of choosing neutrality in the struggle between slave and slave owner becomes operative. Not taking a position is still taking a position, and it is one that benefits the status quo. Sociologists cannot avoid taking a side, and in sociological research contexts one should be open.

For Andrews, in politically sensitive research settings those being studied often suspect a researcher has an agenda beyond the disinterested pursuit of knowledge. To affect neutrality is to compound suspicions, which can lead to respondent reticence and non-cooperation. It's better a sociologist is up front, and so shouldn't be afraid of answering questions about the work's intended audience, why this particular group is worthwhile researching, what use is going to be made of the data and why these people should give you their time. To illustrate, Andrews recalled her work with elderly CPGB activists in the late 80s, and some of the problems she encountered. She initially wrote letters and phoned up activists to see if they were interested in being interviewed. Unfortunately, when she turned up on the doorstep of one prospective interviewee he took exception to her American accent and vowed not to have anything to do with the research. Another woman asked if she was from the CIA. The point is unless one is explicit about research aims (in Andrews case she set out to discover how political commitment is managed as one ages) these sorts of complications are bound to arise.

There are problems with being explicit. For example a fellow PhD student at Keele is writing a thesis on political extremism and how it deals with the banality of everyday politics. For this his chosen subjects have been the BNP and Hizb ut-Tahrir. Surprisingly considering he’s a man of the left he had no problem accessing BNP activists, following them during their political activities and getting volunteers to take part in interviews. Hizb on the other hand did not want to know. Perhaps if he had lied about his research he might have gained access to the latter, but maybe at the cost of the BNP’s cooperation.

My PhD experience was fairly similar. The SP comrades I spoke with either knew me beforehand, had seen me about at party activities and events or, because I was a fellow member, were able to check my ‘bona fides’. During the interviews I asked if they would have still taken part had I not been in the SP or a member of a rival organisation. About half said no. This probably sheds light on why most SWP comrades I approached either declined or ignored my interview requests. Because I was upfront about my “side”, and despite assurances it wasn’t going to be employed for “sectarian” purposes, I’m reasonably sure for a lot of people their interest evaporated when they read ‘member of the Socialist Party’. Hence the comparative element of my thesis has had to be dispensed with. But lying about my affiliation was not an option. Not only would it have been unethical, if the comrades had found out I'd been fibbing, which is likely thanks to the number of SP actions I’ve taken part in since, it would have done my reputation no good and contribute to further distrust between our respective organisations. Deciding to be upfront was the right choice from a moral and political standpoint.

However, it should be stressed being up front about one's positions was particularly suited to the work above. There are other politically sensitive contexts where covert participant observation might be necessary - for example from my point of view I have absolutely no problem with sociologists who might go undercover to study fascists, religious extremists, bad employers and criminal gangs. They do not have to justify their covert research to their subjects, but to satisfy the academic and political audiences of this work the need to be explicit about their position remains.

This kind of reflexivity is good practice for the rest of sociology too. Why study this? Who is the knowledge for? What stake do you have in it?

The royal road to scientific sociology is littered with the rusting wrecks of failed projects. If this aspiration is a viable one - and I believe it is - its starts from acknowledging whose side we are on and what interests are served by putting our work out there. Sociological fence sitting is neither plausible or desirable.


Paul said...

Interesting stuff, Phil. My appallingly slow and really quite poor PhD relies on in-depth interviews with Labour councillors. To complicate the picture I was totally unexpectedly (well by anyone other than me) elected as a councillor just after I'd started the interviews, but after a bit of a false start I've gone straight down the 'be honest' route.

Some of the transcripts look a bit 'odd' in academic terms, I guess, but I can pretty well guarantee that the material is much richer for having been upfront about who and why I was.

Access wasn't a big problem, though it did differ according to the 'local tradition' of the party (though as that concept is a crucial part of my thesis anyway, it kind of helped).

Must read the stuff you refer to - blimey, it's like going to one of those psot-grad seminars I've never been to but am always getting emails about, but without leaving home.

Dave Riley said...

There's a difference between what you are doing Phil, I think, and what Molly Andrews was after. Isn't oral history different from sociology? I don't want to invent straw walls, but asking about one's experience of the past is different from exploring their context and engagement today.

There's a great commentary in this segment from the ABC here -- Oral history: The Struggle of Memory Against Forgetting which I have valued greatly because I respect the written and spoken   memoirs of those who have fought as a rich fleshing out of the socialist and working class tradition.

And unless you allow free form POV and, I guess, analysis -- then you are cheapening any attempt to understand. This is why Howard Zinn has been so important to our collective political worth -- because he has greatly  increased the value of 'us' in our own words.

And Zinn, was never a fence sitter.

I don't know what your research topic is, of course -- and I have a jaundiced view of academic sociology having been drilled in Durkheim and Weber, and structuralism -- but I recognise how restrictive the parameters for a Phd can be.

So good luck. Looking forward to the popular -- Phd lite --  version.

Phil said...

Cheers, Paul. Certainly look forward to seeing your work in print some time!

Also, cheers to you Dave. I do plan publishing (if someone will take it!) my thesis as a book when done. It will get the kind of self-promotion that makes Lenin's efforts with his Liberal Defence of Murder look tame!

Re: Molly Andrews, she ticks a lot of different boxes. The work i talk about in this post, her Lifetimes of Commitment was an intervention in social psychology debates in the late 80s, early 90s. And I've met her PhD student at a shindig on Pierre Bourdieu - she certainly described herself as a sociologist.

Sociology now is a discipline that's all over the place. There's a lot of stuff going on but a lot of the 'research communities' tend not to talk too much with each other. Plus the disciplinary boundaries are very fuzzy. What for example demarcates the sociology of culture from cultural studies? The sociology of crime and deviance from criminology? And this fuzziness is something compounded by the love affair with postmodernism. I'm not au fait with the rest of Andrews work, put it's fair to say she and any other academic oral historian would fit easily into most sociology departments.

Evan said...

I had similar, yet different, difficulties in conducting my PhD research on the CPGB and 'race'. As a young Australian with no established political affiliations, I had difficulty accessing many ex-CPGB members, who had already taken part in the CPGB Biographical Project. This was also hindered by the 'tyranny of distance'. But I did speak to some people in the end.

However after my first year, I decided that oral history/interviewing was not the path I wished to take with my PhD, instead going for the archival route.

But explaining my research to many that I encountered in the political milleu in Britain, quite a few were perplexed that I had no fixed political position on the minute debates that had persisted on the British left. But my lack of fixed position in many ways allowed me to slide easier into post-colonialism and its post-modernist cousin.

Good luck with the research! I have been avidly reading your blog for a while now. I look forward to the book!

skidmarx said...

"he took exception to her American accent and vowed to have anything to do with the research".

I think you're missing a "not" here.And possibly "effect neutrality" might be better as "adopt neutrality".

My sympathies with those trying to analyse the views of activists. One thing I picked up from my brief study of deviance is the extent to which people role-play their positions in society, trying to convince themselves and others that they fit a paradigm for those involved in their activities. Here there are two problems. First they aren't paranoid, the capitalist system is (sporadically) out to get them, so it's understandable that when faced with a researcher outwith their own political faction, they see the potential costs of co-operating not outweighing the benefits. Secondly, everyone active likes to think of themselves as a Lenin or Trotsky, never Zinoviev ,Kamenev or Stalin.

Studying under David Downes, I got the impression that his attitude was that sociologists should start research without pre-conceptions.This may strenghthen the validity of conclusions when reached, but may obscure the assumptions that a supposedly value-free researcher has obscuring their judgement.

Unknown said...

So according to becker what role should values play in sociology?