Qi- Jing The Dangers of Mechanical Methodology in Social Sciences

The Dangers of Mechanical Methodology in Social Sciences

“The danger of method is that it gives over to mechanical replacement”

(Appelbaum, 1995, p.89). Discuss.

As with any method used to collect data, the qualitative method has some conventions that are expected to be followed. These conventions somewhat define the field of sociology, and yet they offer little in the way of legroom when attempting to engage with the subjects of that research. When Appelbaum states that “The danger of method is that it gives over to mechanical replacement” (1995, p.89), he argues that blindly following method leads to a replacement of some of the values that are key in sociology – these methods can be reductive in their attempts to define and explore the human experience. This paper will explore the challenges of conducting qualitative research by over strictly following the recommended methodology. First, the definition of the statement above will be explored to give an overview of the effects of mechanical replacement on social research. Second, some examples of how research is currently conducted will be discussed to highlight the effects of mechanical replacement on data collection, and some issues of current qualitative methodologies will be identified. Thirdly, the essay will focus on an exploration of mobile methods and participatory action research as potential solutions to the issues. The central thesis is that blindly following a strict methodology places necessary limitations on the researchers which in turn limits the quality and relevance of the data that they collect.

Mechanical Replacement in Research

The first task here is to explore what Appelbaum means when he states the danger of method. Firstly, mechanical is not referring to machines, but rather to the automatic. This statement is designed to draw social scientists out of their over reliance on the automatic reactions when conducting research, and to ensure that they focus on how the method is being used, why it is being used, and which ways the methodology can be ignored in favour of other approaches. Law (2004) compares this to the process of reading books. For Law, there are two types of books – those that are read for pleasure, and generally get read quickly, and those that are read for another purpose, such as an academic text. The argument that Law makes about the quote is that social scientists can often become mechanical, which means that their books become mechanical, and not much can be learned from them in terms of the human approach. A good sociologist should aim to bridge the gap between an enjoyable read and a useful one, as this will make the research both useful and entertaining.

Qualitative Method in Sociology and Some Issues

One of the primary aims of conducting sociological and ethnographic research is to provide “locally, temporally, and situationally limited narratives” (Flick, 2014, p.32). This means that qualitative nature is, in its essence, a way of engaging with social issues on the small-scale, and attempting to distil the experience of a few individuals into something that can be analysed and interpreted for consumption as part of a wider literature. Qualitative research methods are developed to find deeper meaning amongst social structures and to collect data that takes into account that “the ways in which people construct and make meaning of their worlds and their lives are highly variable and locally specific” (LeCompte & Schensul, 2010, p1). The research methods that are employed in this approach generally reflect this need to gather data that promotes a flow of ideas and explorations from the participants.

The research methods that are commonly associated with qualitative research include interviews and observations. Interviews are used because they allow the participants to reflect upon sociological meaning through questions developed to promote this reflection (LeCompte & Schensul, 2010). Observation can occur in many different forms. A traditional way of gathering ethnographic data is through the immersive experience, wherein the researcher joins the social group of interest as a way of getting to know how this group perceives its external environment, and how the group makes sense of it. One element of this approach is that “ethnographic research is conducted in field settings where the researcher enters as an ‘invited guest’ or partner to learn what is going on” (LeCompte & Schensul, 2010, p.2-3). As a result, the researchers have limited control over their environment and the data they collect. Whilst in some fields, this lack of control might be viewed negatively, qualitative approaches benefit from this in that the research is generally reflective of how people actually live and engage with their environs.

Despite this flexibility, there are certain methodological protocols that are followed by qualitative researchers, developed in such a way that attempts to preserve the more “human-focused” nature of the approach whilst still being rigorous enough to collect meaningful data. Ethnographies are designed to be both immersive and as objective as possible, a dichotomy that has long been upheld as the golden standard of qualitative research (Sparkes, 2009). Researchers are expected to follow the protocols of ethnography – gain the trust of the social group, engage with the rituals and symbolism of that group as an insider, make notes that reflect the real experiences of someone that holds that world view – to ensure that the data they have collected is meaningful (Hewson, 2003). Using ethnographies, and to a certain extent interviews, require that a researcher be both within and without of a social group.

This, of course, provides a number of challenges for the researcher. Ethnographers themselves have made a number of criticisms of following this approach when collecting data. In terms of the dangers of “mechanical replacement” as identified by Applebaum (1995, p.89), it is interesting to consider that ethnographers themselves “question the reliability of ethnographic descriptions” (Brewer, 1994, p.232). One interpretation of this criticism is that collecting data through an ethnographic method requires it to be done by engaging with a social group, but the experience of the researcher may affect the accuracy of the research. The researchers cannot disengage with their own cultural experience and norms, even when fully immersing themselves. Ethnography remains a challenge because there is no way of measuring the reliability of the collected ethnographic descriptions because there is no consistency of experience – each individual, whilst part of a social network, is likely to have different experience.

This can lead to “mechanical replacement” in one of two ways. The first is that the ethnographer becomes so concerned with following the rules and regulations set out in ethnographical guidelines that their ethnographic descriptions become even less accurate. Ethnographic descriptions should reflect real, lived, social experiences, but following a research methodology is not a part of how humans live in everyday life (Beaulieu, 2004). When having a social experience, the individuals are not attempting to understand that experience through engaging with the methodology of ethnology – they just live that experience. The second danger is that the ethnographer and sociologist become preoccupied with gathering data that is reliable, no matter this follows traditionally prescribed methodology or not (Beaulieu, 2004). This is a mechanical replacement of the opposite sort – it is throwing the rule book out of the window completely, even though a criticism of the ethnographic method is not an argument that it should be ignored completely (Van Maanen, 1995).

            Another major criticism of this approach made by ethnographers themselves is that there is a need to “deconstruct the ethnographic text by showing it to be a social artefact” (Brewer, 1994, p.232). This criticism is valid, as all social groups are, to a lesser or greater extent, subject to their own rules and regulations. Ethnographers and sociologists are not exempt from this, thus they follow their own social norms during the collection of data. The ethnographic texts, or the preferred methods of the discipline, are results of several decades of methodological research and are designed to provide guidelines to ethnographers when conducting research. Without them, the ethnographer and sociologists would become somewhat lost – they form the framework, but they are also social construct in themselves. This poses the danger of becoming a mechanical approach as highlighted by Applebaum (1994), because it is a prescriptive social artefact in its very essence.

Possible Solutions to the Issues

As noted above, social science methodology is riddled with issues, and these will be addressed in further detail in this section. The first thing to consider is that the methodologies and approaches of social science have been noted to be stagnant (Sparkes, 2009). As a field, social science has existed for decades, but its methodologies and approaches have not greatly moved on. Ethnographies collected by British Victorian ethnographers still bear some resemblance to those conducted today (Sparkes, 2009). One argument that can be made is that we need more mobile research that is a better reflection on our changing world – one that is changing at an unprecedented pace, far outstripping the pace of social science research methodology. The fact that this is an issue has been noted by Merriman, who states that there has been an “upsurge of interest in theories of practice in mobilities research, academics frequently suggest that we must adopt certain performative, participative, or ethnographic techniques to enable researchers to be, see or move with research subjects, and to more effectively or accurately understand those practices and subjects” (2014, 167). The argument here is that mobile research is an approach that can be used to overcome the problems of rigidity in research.

Mobile research is suggested as it encompasses the very problems that Applebaum (2009) notes. The purpose and advantage of mobile methods is that they are “on the move” (Baerenholdt, 2004). They are flexible and shape themselves to the needs of the researchers and the participants, they highlight the ways in which current societies are more mobile and flexible themselves. Fincham et al. (2010) note that interviews are ineffective because they are stationary, they are unable to grasp the way in which humans move and interact with each other – they are not mobile and therefore are irrelevant to understanding the modern world. Mobile methodologies, however, allow researchers to move along with their subjects and understand the challenges of global modernity in context. Mobile methodologies also allow researchers to mirror the mobility of their subjects in the field, which more accurately represents the way in which many subjects live (Hein et al., 2008). Methodologies from past eras of research often focused on groups and tribes that lived within a certain sphere, but these societies are increasingly rare, and there is much more movement in societies and groups today that needs to be mirrored to prevent stagnancy in research.

Mobile methods are, then, a way of dealing with the changes in the social world that is defined by movement, rather than having a distinct epicentre. Despite this, there are dangers if these mobile methods are superior to the traditional interview or other sedentary research (Heath & Street, 2008). Similarly, there is also a danger that blindly relying on mobile methods will become an automated response, and the same issues outlined above will reappear. Fortunately, the traditional interview can be repurposed creatively to meet the needs of the research. One way of doing this is through the internet, which can be used to source qualitative data. This is a necessary part of research when interpreting the rules and norms of communities that form exclusively online, which is one of the fastest-growing areas of research (Hoholm & Arajuo, 2011). There is a need to mix methodologies and approaches to ensure that research continues to move at the pace of the reality it is trying to capture.

Digital technologies are, of course, a major part of both how we live in the modern world and the way that methodology is changing in response to the claims of stagnancy. Many types of innovations in methodology that draw researchers away from the mechanical dangers that Applebaum foresaw are due to changes in technology – mapping online movements, using online surveys and interviews, and engaging with participants through their online worlds. These allow us to have a more accurate knowledge of research and subjects, and give a proximity and closeness that are part of the “illusion of first-handedness” (Merriman, 2014).

Of course, not all social science research has been conducted in ways that are formed on strict structures of methodology. One such approach is known as participatory action research, which is inherently more flexible in its approach to method as it produces “knowledge and action directly useful to a group of people” (Reason, 1994, 328). It is issued to ensure that the subjects of the research, and those that benefit from it, can do so because it is constructed in such a way that the language of the research is relevant to that group (Borda et al., 1991). It is a form of consciousness-raising (Reason, 1994). In a way, this approach belies the mechanical replacement that Applebaum mentions, because it is more flexible and has a higher level of creativity, as people are not automatic and bound to certain methodological concepts – they are inherently different from each other, something that strict methodology does not encompass.

However, there are some criticisms of participatory action research, especially in terms of its methodology. Cooke and Kothari suggests that it needs a “genuine and rigorous reflexivity…[which] requires a level of open-mindedness that accepts that participatory development may inevitably be tyrannical, and a preparedness to abandon it if this is the case” (2001, 15). Again, this brings the topic back to the need to be more flexible and creative in terms of how we approach research, as the method we are using should be easily abandoned in case that it is not working and not capturing the subject or meeting the aims of the requirement. There is also a tendency for this type of research to tend towards naturalism (Whyte, 1991), which means that it cannot be considered in the typical sense of the term. Of course, participatory action research is also subject to the dangers of automatic approaches, in that it is underpinned by the ideology of social inequality (Whyte, 1991), which can have the effect of pushing inquirers to see inequality that is not there for the research to meet the criteria of participatory action research.


Applebaum (1995) states that there is a danger of strictly relying on methodologies, in that it can lead researchers to become dependent on one methodology, and can become automated in the tools that they use. As shown, this is inevitably a danger – many of the approaches employed by ethnographers in the 19th century is still used in some way today (Sparkes, 2009). The reason that this is dangerous to social scientists is that the world is very much unlike how it was then, and using one traditional methodology limits the amount of useful information that it gathers. A modern ethnography is very unlikely to be able to avoid using the internet, and ethnographers could employ the internet to more efficiently collect data. The idea of mobile methodologies was developed to help combat this issue and to allow researchers in the field to move alongside their participants, reflecting their experience in their writing. This suggestion is not without its dangers, of course, but it does provide many opportunities to use a multitude of techniques for researchers to explore their sociological subjects. Participatory action research also helps researchers to avoid stagnancy. The future of research is likely to be much more flexible to deal with these issues.

by Qi Jing

Foremost Strategy | International Affairs & Foreign Policy Program | Research Intern

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