This paper aims to evaluate a sociological research against key characteristics of different models of practical sociology. The research is sociologically interesting because youth remains a critically important period in which individual life chances are established. This issue is very important especially for those sociologists embracing the area of the sociology of youth. In particular, the research that I will be attempting to evaluate is mainly concerned with the sociological study of youth transitions. Long-term transition is a sociological problem that has become a social one, especially since the 1980s. In this period of time, a variety of different debates have crucially aimed to find a way of dealing with this social problem. The issue though still remain much contested by a range of observers and commentators who question many issues, including the validity of the “lenses” adopted in the analysis of this topic as well as the variety of ingredients chosen to explain different emergent properties. As these researchers note many have distanced themselves from structurally-oriented, class- based analysis of youth transitions in favour of theories about individualisation and the risk society (Macdonald, 2005, p.874)
The research that I will be evaluating aims to understand the effects that social networks have on the transitions of young adults. Social Networks has two different effects on transitions 1. they enable young people in their transitions by providing them with a social capital that allows them to enter the labour market but also, 2) However, paradoxically, social networks, limit the conditions of escaping social exclusion. The authors support these findings through qualitative evidence from three previous studies (ibid, p.876), more specifically, qualitative longitudinal research carried out through ethnography. In all three studies the researchers relied on lengthy, tape recorded, biographical interviews (ibid, p.875). In the first two studies 186 young people (82 females and 104 males) from the predominantly white, (ex) manual working class population were interviewed, the third (published in Webster et al, 2004 and carried out in 2003) was a follow up of the first two studies, In this third study 34 people were re-interviewed (18 females and 16 males), now aged 23 to 29 years from the two original samples. The sampling was done theoretically in order to understand the longer term transitions of young women previously committed to full time parenting (n11), young people who have displayed enduring but unrewarding efforts to engage with education, training and employment (n11) and of individuals who previously had serious involvement in criminal and/ or drug using careers (n12) (ibid, p.876)
The research might have been undertaken due to a shared concern with the wider society by acknowledging that this group of people somehow have been excluded, however, contrary to much of literature and through this research they make clear that this exclusion is not necessary the fault of the individual. The researchers question and aim to challenge the way the government perceive the agent as an active, knowledgeable individual, instead of an agent that they discover seems to be trapped and who does not know this.
2. The Policy Model
In the Social Engineering or Policy model, the ultimate product is not a “contribution to existing knowledge” in the literature, but a social policy modified by the research results” (Coleman, 1972: 6 in Hammersley 1995, p.126). It retains a commitment to social change, and a belief in the essential role of scientific knowledge in facilitating this. It is characterised by providing knowledge which is concrete, whose truth is pragmatic and its legitimacy is based upon its effectiveness. In this model the researcher is accountable to their sponsors and the outcome of the research is policy intervention. Although some researchers might have a commitment to social change, however, it deviates from enlightenment in the sense that inquiry and knowledge tend to be specific and concrete rather than general and theoretical (ibid, p.126). The sociological research in this model has a local focus rather than universalism and this is tied to particular (at the very least national) rather than universal interests.
The knowledge produced will lead to appropriate innovations. It will be used to evaluate past interventions, to fill, to solve things, address social problems and prepare the way for future policy. The researcher typically relies on quantitative measurements since this type of methodology is useful, practical and is the most preferred by policy makers and others type of sponsor. Sponsors tend to ask for hard data about problems, if they do not like it they just simply do not use the research. This type of sponsor usually requires knowledge which is solid and effective. However, the solutions presented might end up being short-termist or quick fixes in part due to short term political pressures. In a similar vein, the research tends to be easily captured by clients who impose strict contractual obligations on their funding. This might imply “servility”, the sociologist might be prone to sell himself as a consultant or technician that is only employed to identify a particular problem observing and reporting back. Although the sociologist seem to be involved in things that matter “out there”, i.e. dealing with concrete evils, that is to say, of social conditions under which many men are suffering (Popper, 1962, p.162), they end up acting as a “contractor” doing only whatever they have been asked to do, sticking to the contract and their terms of reference. This raises many issues about credibility for instance many sociologists are seen as spokes-persons for government policy. Some of them might attempt to address their own values within the research process adopting either a consensual or partisan approach, sharing their values with either the wider society or with the sponsor. However their objective is not a total and holistic transformation of society.
What is the role of the Sociologist?
A first interpretation of any reader will be that this group of sociologists are acting as “advocates”, speaking on behalf of the poor. They explicitly highlight that their research is in line with Ethnographic “critique” (Macdonald, 2005 p.874). They acknowledge that the problem has not been appreciated properly. They are keen to use different “lenses” that they believe will enable them to understand more about the problem, appropriate to getting a subjective experience. It is precisely the qualitative methodology, and their interest in the subjective which might suggest initially to the reader that they are taking sides with subordinates, with the marginalised, compiling more emotional facts rather than rational.
There is something in the air to be sensed by the reader, an implicit notion that the truth might be discovered in what this group of young people experience. Experience provides a vantage point from where to explore this problem. However, when looking at the research from another angle, another figure on the ground can be perceived. If we analyse the role in combination with the other categories we might conclude that this group of sociologist without any doubt are involved in things that matter “out there”, dealing with concrete evils. They might aim even to be “advocates”, however, they end up unintendedly acting as consultants, observing measuring and reporting back. Their solution is not a holistic, but rather a short-termist.
Who are seen as the main consumers of the research?
The researchers relied on information from three different projects. The first one was funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (findings published in “Snakes and Ladders” Johnson, et al 2000) , and the second one through a grant from the ESRC- Economic Social Research Council (published in Macdonald and Marsh 2001, 2002a, 2002b,2005) The third one (published in Webster et al, 2004) was a follow up of the two previous one and was funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Although this knowledge was created to influence policy makers, this sociological knowledge is very unlikely to be used by the current government, because its findings are qualitative rather than quantitative, it might give another perspective to them, one more practical from the grassroots levels, but their effect on eradication of the problem is quite minimal.
Whose behaviour is meant to be changed by the research?
Instead of empowering the marginalised through the therapeutic effect so that they are able to reflect on and re-evaluate their experience as part of the process of being interviewed, this sociological knowledge is meant to influence policy making, evaluating a past intervention and preparing the way for future policy. More specifically, it aims to influence the behaviour and attitude of officials in the government by providing some policy recommendations that barely challenge policy decisions. There is not empowerment in this group to bring about change of a political nature, giving them knowledge so that they can reflect themselves as well as disclosing how their everyday world is organised.
What is the scope of the research piecemeal or holistic?
This is a piece-meal research dealing with the particular, namely the greatest and most urgent evils of society, rather than searching for, and fighting against its greatest ultimate good (Popper, 1962, p.162). They deal with the elimination of concrete evils such as long tern transitions and their effects but they do not attempt to re-design society and the system as a whole. Although they are critical of current government policy, their solutions are only small adjustments and re-adjustments which can be continually improved upon. The researcher have chosen what they are going to research, the most important and pressing issues in their area close to their university in the area of Teesside.
How does it address the question of values?
There is an attempt to occupy a particular epistemic position, which allows values to interfere with the findings. They want to have a consensual approach with the wider society, rather a partisan. They seek to take sides with the marginalised but end up just generating knowledge that might be used by government agencies. Their values end up benefiting the policy process rather than a particular marginalised group. Therefore their objectivity seems very difficult to be justified.
In this research we might appreciate several characteristics that seem to indicate that the researchers aiming to be critical but ended up acting as policy sociologists. Although they do not explicitly state in this article that they intended to be critical, however, there is a great emphasis by the researchers on the justifications and benefits of adopting their methodology. Their actions are interpreted as using the methodology as the means to achieve a given end, namely, a knowledge which will reveal and expose inequalities and injustices through “ethnographic critique”. The methodology will help to reveal the real truth that they believe might be found in a particular group they considered to be marginalised. There is a conscious intentionality and motivation in the selection of ingredients for such aim. However, they ended up unintentionally acting as Policy Sociologist because there is not evidence of aiming to empower the group affected by the problems through the therapeutic effect so that they are able to reflect on and re-evaluate their experience as part of the process of being interviewed. As a result of this, instead of creating a reflexive knowledge they have unintentionally created an instrumental one. The consequence of this is that they are perceived as “consultants” employed to identify a social problem by two different funding agencies, observing and reporting back to them. This knowledge produced will be “out there” where only key powerful political structures can reach it, however because these key structures prefer hard data rather than qualitative methodology, they are very unlikely to use of it. The researchers aim to measure the real “the is” against some values, namely, a vision of a new demand side approach, a vision they have of the future “the ought” lacking reflexivity and awareness of their unintentional actions.
Coleman, J (1978) Sociological Analysis and Social Policy in Bottomore, T & Nisbet, R (eds) A History of Sociological Analysis London:Heinemann
Gordon, S (1991) The History & Philosophy of Social Science Ch.12 London:Routledge
Hammersley, M. (1995) The Politics of Social Research, London:Sage – Ch.7
Macdonald et al (2005) Growing Up in Poor Neighbourhoods: The Significance of Class and Place in the Extended Transitions of ‘Socially Excluded’Young Adults. Sociology, BSA Publications, Sage publications. Volume 39 (5) 873-891
Popper, K (1962) The open society and its enemies, Volume I: The Spell of Plato, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London,
Webster, et al (2004,) Change and continuity in young adult´s experiences of long tern social exclusion Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Internet. Accessed on 1 April 2009. Available at: http://www.jrf.org.uk/publications/change-and-continuity-young-adults-experiences-long-term-social-exclusion