We must use ethnicity more clearly in social research

I’ve been thinking about the changing influence of large scale datasets on how social scientists understand difference. For the most part, it is pretty easy to analyse survey data in terms of gender; and while class and status are more complex, there several well-understood (if not always agreed) approaches to categorising people by occupation or income. But when it comes to ethnicity, we’re challenged.

Part of the problem arises because people have strong feelings about ethnicity. A storm of protest met early attempts to collect information about ethnicity in the census. Proposals to include ethnicity in the 1981 census disappeared, and although it has featured since then, there has been repeated controversy over which categories to use.

Data on ethnicity are also collected in the main longitudinal surveys that provide such rich source material for social scientists in Britain. The cohort surveys and panel surveys have informed major studies of social mobility, as well as providing the raw material for recent research into the benefits of adult learning. However, it has so far been very difficult to analyse these surveys in terms of ethnicity.

The researcher faces a dilemma. Either you aggregate the responses of people from different ethnic groups, using an umbrella category such as ‘South Asian’, in which case you will miss very important variations between them. Or you present your findings for each separate group, while making it clear that they are based on such a small number of respondent that the results are statistically insignificant.

This is likely to change in the near future. First, some of the major surveys now involve boosted samples of minority ethnic respondents. The Millenium Cohort Survey, for instance, was structured by neighbourhood, allowing for areas with high proportions of ethnic minorities to be deliberately over-represented (researchers will, of course, allow for this when analysing responses).

Second, researchers increasingly have access to large bodies of administrative data, suitably anonymised. They can then use linkage techniques to analyse information on individuals that was originally collected by the NHS, education authorities and other public bodies. This approach is being pioneered in Scotland, and offers considerable potential for detailed and robust statistical studies of small groups.

And thirdly, information processing methods allow researchers to ask extremely complex questions of large datasets. I remember carrying copies of completed questionnaires over to something called an electronic data processing centre at Warwick, which then seemed very zippy to me. It took a couple of weeks before I had the results, and longer still if anything needed running again. Now, advanced statistical processes take a laptop an afternoon.

In other words, it is going to be much easier to use large datasets to study ethnicity. We will not only be able to distinguish between smaller categories of ethnicity for minority groups, but also among those of white European origin. And we’ll be able to ask new questions and draw on new types of data – indeed, in principle, we could even link survey data with individual genetic information.

I’m not convinced that giving social researchers access to people’s genetic codes will happen any time soon. It might, as it is only a small step from exploring how people’s genetic background affects health to considering how it might affect other life chances. My point at this stage is that that our capacity for studying ethnicity has expanded dramatically, and is growing. This should be a force for enriching social science, and improving its public impact, but it won’t be an easy process.

Should educational research be irrelevant?

Recently I received the further particulars for a post in a Swedish university who want to recruit a professor of higher education. The university has a strong scholarly tradition, and likes to mention in a quiet Swedish way that it ranks rather well in European league tables.  As you might expect, the FPs duly emphasised research proficiency and documented teaching excellence. And they also stated that ‘strong emphasis’ was placed on the candidate’s ability to ‘collaborate with the surrounding society and to inform about the work of research and development’.

By coincidence, I had just been reading the outraged responses of social scientists to Aditya Chakrabortty’s report from the 2012 conference of the British Sociological Association. Chakrabortty had suggested that British social scientists had become a bit too complacent, a tad too inward-looking, even a spot too self-referential – or perhaps he meant self-reverential. Why, he asked, were social scientists failing to leap into the gap left behind by the collapse of mainstream economics? Why were sociologists or political scientists worrying about trivia, “through a Foucauldian lens”, rather than tackling international finance or the collapse of social support? Foucault, let me add, often seems to speak through his lens.

These criticisms might also be made of much educational research. If we take the 2011 SCUTREA conference as a case study, then research into the current economic crisis was remarkable only for its absence. Not a single presenter used the words ‘recession’, ‘riot’, ‘poverty’, ‘inequality’, ‘unemployment’ or ‘unemployed’ in the titles of their papers; the economic crisis did not feature in any of the presentations.

I do not for a minute think that this indicates that none of the conference participants were interested in these issues, or saw them as having no connection with adult learning. And I acknowledge that there is excellent educational research which goes engage with wider public and policy concerns. I’ve just been reading two such studies – a thrilling and challenging inquiry into white middle class families who send their children to local state schools in London, and a penetrating analysis of the ways that education and other factors help shape social cohesion in different types of society.

Nor am I opposed to researching trivia. I heard the other day that one of my former colleagues is now studying spitting, and why not? Researchers can only help us understand everyday life, and the meaning we attach to it, if they investigate everyday practices and beliefs. If the work is well designed and the topic carefully chosen, then analyses of trivia can become microcosms of our social world.

All the same, I fear that Chakrabortty has a point. Many academic researchers in education now view their work, and increasingly so, as separate from the major political and cultural debates that go on ‘out there’. Two recent trends seem to me to be associated with this rejection of wider political and cultural debate. The first is the technical preoccupation with figuring out “what works”, and packaging it in handy tool-kits. I like a reliable tool-kit as much as the next teacher, but a bit of experience teaches us that “best practice” works well in one context and not so well in another. And there’s more to life than best practice.

Second is the theoretical turn in educational studies. This approach scorns “what works” research, and sometimes it scorns any empirical work whatsoever. Working with theory has a number of advantages; it doesn’t cost much, it doesn’t involve talking to strangers, and it doesn’t involve the risk of inconvenient encounters with the messy world of practice.

At its best, theoretical insights can completely refashion how you understand the world. At worst, and too often for comfort, you end up sitting in a conference listening to a rather pedestrian and formulaic reworking of Theoretician X in relation to Educational Issue Y. To quote my colleague Gert Biesta, it’s like asking “What would Foucault say”?

Again, I like a good theory as much as the next reader of Kurt Lewin (in case you’ve forgotten, he once said there was nothing as practical as a good theory), but I fear that those take the theoretical turn have sometimes lost sight of good theory. Rather, they are mesmerised by new theory, though invariably each new theory soon becomes old hat. In time, the latest and greatest theory will be as modish as a kipper tie – a warning that should be issued to all newly-fledged academics at the start of their career.

Perhaps you can hear the distant rasping sound of an old fart, and it is true – my undergraduate experience in sociology began with Gramsci, who was then dumped in favour of Althusser, who in turn was overthrown by Foucault – all to be followed by the pleasure of reading, as a doctoral student, Edward Thompson’s enjoyable and destructive, but now largely unreadable The Poverty of Theory.

Research with a wider social purpose seems to me to have fallen in popularity, at least inside the academy. There’s some much more impressive work these days going on in some of the think tanks, as well as in the networked groups of scholars and others who come together often online in forums such as Uneconomics. The problem with the think tanks is that they depend on some fairly soft funding, and the problem with the online groupings is that they are rather disparate and fragmented; they also let the established academics off the hook.

So I rather welcome the idea that professors of education should be required to explain their research to the local community, and indeed listen in turn to what they think about it. I’m not all that familiar with Scandinavian societies, but I found this requirement admirable. Sweden is a relatively small country, but it funds its universities generously, and also provides comparatively high levels of student support.  The idea that universities are morally obliged to give something in return was, I need hardly add, the founding notion behind extra-mural education, and it’s good to see any sign that it is being renewed.

Aditya Chakrabortty, Economics has failed us: but where are the fresh voices?, Guardian, 16 April 2012 – http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/apr/16/economics-has-failed-us-alternative-voices

Andy Green and Germ Janmaat, Regimes of social cohesion: cocieties and the crisis of globalisation. Palgrave

Diane Reay, Gill Crozier and David James, White middle-class identities and urban schooling, Palgrave Macmillan