28 June 2011

On classic sociology; they don't write them like this any more

I'm reading Becker et al. (1961) The Boys in White; student culture in medical school. It's the first time I've actually read it. I have of course raided it before, searching the index for a gobbet of material to use for a particular purpose, but I've never had the time to get into it. It is after all over 450 pages, and even now I am not reading from beginning to end.

At one level I am disappointed--I got it out of the library in order to raid it yet again, for a blog post yet to appear on professional socialization as the hidden curriculum, in the light of a recent study of how medical students' empathy declines through medical school--and I couldn't find what I expected to find. But then... I began to read more leisurely, taking the book on its own terms rather than imposing my own imperious demands on it, and I rediscovered a lost genre.

From the Lynds' Middletown studies (1929 on) to Becker and co.'s own Making the Grade (1968) there is a whole seam of big, sprawling, accessible and humane case studies*, more like current anthropology than sociology, which may be theoretically "naive" to current researchers for whom fieldwork is a (not entirely) necessary obstacle on the shortest possible path between idea and rateable article for the REF score... **

I have no idea how these people pitched for the funding to do the research, but it certainly wasn't by predicting what they would find out before they started looking for it, as current researchers have to do writing their bids. They did "grounded theory" before Glaser and Strauss invented it (I suppose it could be argued that it only had to be formulated as a "theory" because it was then becoming necessary to legitimise proposals with a "theoretical", even "scientific" base).

But these works are rich. They are full of--often unnecessary, by current standards--transcribed interviews, and observational anecdotes. Some of the subjects become old friends--oh, here's Jackson again! Wasn't he complaining about not being able to see the actual surgery on his obs/gyn rotation?

What's happened? Partly this kind of common-sensical description has been taken over by a generation of academics scrabbling to be more "scientific" (or more likely more "post-modern" aka incomprehensible) than thou. Partly it has drifted into the realms of reportage: the rise of popular non-fiction has probably lowered the stock of accessible scholarly writing.

It's all moot. But we'll all be the poorer if it disappears in any form; and there was a lot to be said for academic rigour and a concern for balance.

* I'm sure someone will argue with these arbitrary chronological boundaries; I concede in advance that I can't be bothered to research the field properly. It's potentially a whole academic career...

** I'm referring to US studies, but the UK tradition is not to be sneezed at, see for an intro (if you can find it) Frankenberg R (1967) Communities in Britain London; Penguin. And belated thanks to Frankenberg for accepting my first (actually, only) respectable sociological article in 1971 when he edited the Sociological Review.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous6:53 am

    I used to love sociology back at O level, based as it was on the sort of material you are talking about, but by the time I got to A level the nonsense had multiplied, and at M-level, nothing remained but the nonsense. It's a pity that such a potentially interesting area of study has so lost its way.


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