Against an enchanted view of social research

The Long Interview by McCracken keeps coming up in Google Scholar searches and seems to be highly cited. So, out of interest, I borrowed a copy from the library and have had more than the odd chuckle to myself while reading the first half on public transport. McCracken describes himself as ‘an anthropologist in an interdisciplinary college’ and puts forward the long interview as an answer to the time-poor validity-concerned researcher’s answer to how to get and analyse qualitative data (1988: 8).

McCracken is highly critical of anything that lacks a systematic foundation and is not transferable between disciplines. With his references to ‘ghetto’ and ‘magic circle’ research mentalities amusing and disapproval that anthropology graduate students had previously been expected to reinvent methodology themselves with only oral tradition as a guide, he clearly is not arguing for qualitative research as an art. Below are some quotes that flesh out a bit further his opinion on this matter.

Qualitative researchers have mustered several, quite flattering, arguments with which to distance themselves from the other social sciences. …

It is largely because there are few clear operational standards for training in, and the practice of, qualitative methods, that these methods are now used chiefly by a small group of scholars blessed with “special” abilities. Without these standards, qualitative researchers could not but remain a marginal presence in the social sciences. Without these standards, qualitative truths appeared somehow more evanescent than quantitative ones. Without these standards, qualitative methods were, necessarily, only within the reach of the “naturally” gifted. …

It is, in other words, largely the failings of the field, not the special status of its practitioners, that have encouraged both “ghetto” protests and “magic circle” pretensions. Let us demonstrate that qualitative methods can be routinized and made accessible to all. …

It is time for the field of qualitative methods to make itself a full citizen of the social sciences. …. It is time for qualitative partisans to “put up or shut up.” …

Anthropology, never the captive of positivist enthusiasms, helped to keep the qualitative faith alive in the 1950s and 1960s. However, for all of its practical commitment, it failed to formalize or articulate its methods. …

It is worth pointing out, for instance, that students passed through the master’s and Ph.D. programs in anthropology at a major American research university in the mid-1970s without taking so much as a single course in methodology. …

The “fits and starts” development, and heterogeneous character, of the qualitative community has discouraged the creation of robust research agenda and well-worked theoretical models. Moreover, it has allowed each subgroup to neglect the work being done in other fields. The key issue here, then, is that future research must be coordinated and ecumenical.

McCracken, G. D. (1988). The long interview. Newbury Park, Calif., Sage Publications. pp 13-15

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