Return to Planet Quantophrenia

Walter Wyckoff
“Under their tutelage, I was shown the operation of an exceedingly complex system, which, seen without guidance, would have appeared to me hopelessly chaotic.” wrote Walter Wyckoff, an economist who got out of his office.
If you walk along the quayside in Stavanger on a day when the cruise ships call, you will see a few market stalls selling souvenirs. These invariably include various sizes of cute cuddly creatures, with long noses and frizzy hair. In modern Norway, trolls have become thoroughly domesticated. Traditionally, of course, they are nasty, smelly beings that live under bridges and crunch the bones of unwary travelers. This is the sense that carries over to some of the comments that circulate on social media. While I am not referring to the reasoned contributions to debate in response to my last post, intemperate communications through other channels make me think that raw nerves have been touched – and need to be pricked again. This post will look at two claims made by some critics: that all social science should be based on quantification and that major employers only require numeracy in graduates.

I think it was Clifford Geertz who said there were really only two methods of social research: hanging out and asking questions. That may be an anthropologist’s view – as a sociologist, I would add two others: reading the papers and counting the cows. Everything else is smoke, mirrors and hype. In the social sciences, we use more pretentious names: participant observation; interviewing – formal, informal or by questionnaire; textual analysis, which would range beyond print and words to artefacts and images; and accounting, whether national or local. Each has particular strengths and weaknesses – and the role of an undergraduate education in the social sciences should be to cultivate a basic competence in all of them, to recognize which methods are best suited to which problems and to identify in broad terms when information and conclusions should be trusted or not.

Once upon a time, for example, economists used to venture out of their offices to investigate why people did not behave as their models predicted. Walter Wyckoff, for example, suspended his graduate studies in political economy at Princeton in 1891 to investigate why the unemployed did not move in search of work as freely as classical economics said they should. How come workers remained idle in Chicago instead of migrating to Iowa, where farmers reported a chronic shortage of labour? Wyckoff decided to walk across the US alongside the tramps and hobos to find out. He discovered that labourers in Chicago were part of a dense social network that sustained them when they were without work and passed news of vacancies to them as these arose. In rural Iowa, an unemployed labourer had no such support and risked starvation for himself and his family. Economists could plot wage rates and vacancy rates as much as they liked – counting the cows – but missed something very important, for both science and public policy, if they did not actually talk to the people whose activities they were counting. Wyckoff died in 1908 from an aneurysm, at the age of 44, and is now a forgotten figure rather than one of the heroic pioneers of his discipline.

QuantophreniaRelive Robert Dingwall’s first visit to Planet Quantophrenia

Much of the drive for quantification has been sustained by the belief that drawing lines on a graph will make it possible to predict and control the future, what Julian Bleeker calls ‘up and to the right’ thinking. This was an impetus for the development of the mathematics of probability in the seventeenth century. It is the foundation of important industries, from insurance to gambling. People with such skills are vital in modern societies. Drawing straight lines into the future is, though, a risky business. Disruptive technologies are always around the corner. The first international urban planning conference, in New York in 1898, despaired of the problem of horse manure on city streets. The accumulated horse droppings in New York were predicted to reach the third floor of buildings in Manhattan by 1930. Of course, this did not happen – the rapid adoption of motor vehicles provided a solution to this problem. Planners and investors must necessarily acknowledge that the line into the future is no more than a ‘best guess,’ surrounded by other assumptions.

We see this reflected, for example, in the practice among demographers of projecting a ‘funnel of possibilities.’ This represents a range of possible futures and encourages resilient planning to deal with whichever actually arises. In part,this uncertainty also explains why there is a demand in the most innovative companies for other kinds of thinking about the future. Brian David Johnson, for example, has written about science fiction prototyping with Intel and Sam Ladner from Microsoft has a new book about her work in private sector ethnography.

If we look at what employers seem to require of new graduates, numeracy is certainly important. However, practical men and women in management know that other skills are also essential. One of my mentors was a former station manager at a London rail terminal who impressed me with the importance of ‘walking around’: a 15- or 20-minute morning visit to observe part of the site was as valuable as any of the statistics that rolled across his desk later in the day. How many managers take poor decisions because they are not good at asking their staff the right questions to elicit honest feedback and suggestions for improvement? When new corporate or government policy documents are issued, what skills are needed to interpret them and decide how to demonstrate compliance? Is this expected to be ceremonial or real? It is no accident that qualitative social scientists are migrating into business schools, where their skills are valued rather than more than in some narrow public policy circles.

None of this is to say that quantitative methods are unimportant or that they do not have a place in a balanced portfolio of undergraduate education. It is, however, to argue against an excessive focus on producing postgraduates with quantitative skills at the expense of others. This would be to short-change the market or to bias it to the, supposed or expressed, needs of particular sectors.

In principle, the social sciences have a good story to tell about their ability to equip graduates with the skills for citizenship and successful careers. Different social sciences adopt different positions in terms of the precise portfolio that they offer. Arguably, some narrow this too much in one direction or another. It is, however, the diversity of the portfolio that is important and the need to recognize and sustain this…and that is why I shall not be supporting voyages to Planet Quantophrenia any time soon.

Robert Dingwall

Robert Dingwall is a consulting sociologist, providing research and advisory services particularly in relation to organizational strategy, public engagement and knowledge transfer. He is co-editor of the SAGE Handbook of Research Management.

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