Confessions of a Methods Monger


Earl Babbie

Chapman University

Presented to the Southern Sociological Society, in New Orleans, April 22, 2000
(Click here for a partial recording of the presentation.)


This year has been ushered in with considerable fanfare. Many of us will never forget the global experience of progressive celebrations around the world via CNN and Fox on December 31st. I must say that Iíve been surprised by the extent of the hooplah around the globe. While I expected some kind of recognition that this is the 25th anniversary of The Practice of Social Research, I must admit I never expected anything quite like this.

With the 9th edition due out this Fall, Iíve been reflecting a bit about the business of textbook writing as an academic pursuit: specifically how it relates to teaching, to research, and to sociology in general. With your permission, Iíll spend the next few minutes sharing some of what Iíve observed in these respects.

Role of textbooks

Letís begin with the role or purpose of textbooks. There is a traditional view, I think, that textbooks are supposed to summarize everything important thatís known in a field. Students are, thereby, introduced to a field through exposure to everything that makes professionals in that field smarter and hence more important than other people. In this view, textbooks are implicitly an example of what weíve begun calling meta-research, a pulling together of whatís known. Textbooks, in this view, represent a branch of the research enterprise.

This image of textbooks seems to fit well with a traditional view about students: that they come to us as empty receptacles to be filled with smart stuff. In this view, students are like empty bottles on the conveyor belt in a brewery. The empty bottle slips under a spigot and pauses just long enough to be filled with beer. This specific image, incidentally, seems to fit nicely with some studentsí view of college: a four-year pause to be filled with beer.

This empty-receptacle metaphor would seem to apply less well to sociology than to any other academic discipline. My own experience as a teacher suggests students are just the opposite. They arrive on our doorsteps knowing altogether too much, and our first job is to take away much of what they "know" about such things as race, poverty, gender, deviance, prejudice, and other aspects of why society has turned out the way it has. In the first class of my methods course, I do a couple of exercises to demonstrate how the stuff they know makes it difficult for them to just observe whatís right in front of their eyes.

Even if students did arrive as empty receptacles, I think we would do them a disservice to fill them with what sociologists know today, since most of that will change during our studentsí lifetimes. We make a more powerful contribution, I suggest, when we teach them how to think like sociologists, when we impart some of the skills sociologists use in learning about society. Given the nature of modern society, "just-in-time sociology" has to make at least as much sense as "just-in-time inventories" do in automobile manufacturing. While parts sitting on a shelf tie up Toyotaís money, stockpiled sociological facts may no longer fit when finally retrieved. For example, Iím now less interested in students knowing the infant mortality rates of different countries than I am in their knowing a couple of web sites that will give them accurate information when they need it.

When we shift our view of textbooks from the role of filling students with a body of knowledge to that of training them in the sociological imagination, textbook writing shifts from a research activity to a pedagogical one. I was slow in recognizing the irony that when I write about research methods, I do so more as a teacher than as a researcher. Certainly experience in doing research and enthusiasm for the enterprise are very valuable in teaching students how to do research. But teaching research methods is importantly different from doing research, even in apprenticeship relations, such as working with research assistants.

A couple of years ago, John Lofland chided his colleagues by saying that while we all believed you need training to do multiple regressions, we tend to feel that anyone can do qualitative research. Weíve had a similar view of teaching and have only recently begun seriously recognizing it as a special and worthy skill that does not necessarily come naturally.

All this is to say that I think we need to regard textbooks as pedagogical devices rather than cans of knowledge. It strikes me as both sad and ironic whenever I hear someone expressing a generalized disdain for textbooks as somehow unworthy for the teaching enterprise. This is often accompanied by a "great books" approach to instruction, expressed as a preference for exposing students to original works of sociology rather than to the boiled down, secondary versions offered in textbooks. While I certainly agree with the value in having students read original works, juxtaposing that to textbooks seems implicitly grounded in the view that the main function of textbooks is to summarize what is known. As Iíve said earlier, I see the summarizing of knowledge as a minor function of textbooks.

None of this is not to deny specific shortcomings of specific textbooks but to suggest that textbooks should be judged as pedagogical rather than research instruments. If they fail in pedagogy, and they often do, they deserve to be neglected.

Textbooks as Truth

If thereís one thing to be said about textbooks, they have an appearance of solidity. When I try to remember the textbooks I read as an undergraduate, I have trouble imagining that they were written by ordinary humans. I suppose I thought of them more or less like government buildings. They're just there. Iím sure I never conceived the possibility that my textbooks could have been wrong. Even in these more cynical times, we still speak of "textbook examples" and "doing it by the book." Itís still a high compliment to say someone "wrote the book" on some topic. Perhaps we've been trained to regard textbooks as the truth.

My own experiences as a textbook author have certainly challenged that view. A couple examples will illustrate what I mean.

When Survey Research Methods, the forerunner of The Practice of Social Research, was completed in 1973, I felt I had been very careful in writing it. It was a little embarrassing, then, when the reviewers pointed out that two of the three statistics calculated in the statistics chapter were wrong! While I had gotten lambda right, gamma and chi-square turned out to be my downfall. (As you can imagine, none of the reviewers took the trouble to remark that I got lambda right.)

Another Achilles heel in the book showed up in the Table of Random Numbers. While writing the book, I had also been teaching myself computer programming and was proud indeed that I could write a program that would generate a table of random numbers suitable for photo offsetting. Whereas all the other textbooks bought such tables from chemical or rubber companies (I donít know why that is), I was pleased to create my own table--and save a little money in the bargain.

As soon as the book was published, however, the cards and letters began to pour in. One professor put the matter delicately when he said, "My students have asked me a question that I canít answer: ëWhy arenít there any 9's in the Table of Random Numbers?í"

As Iím sure the quantitatively-inclined among you will recognize, if you create enough tables of random numbers, you'll eventually get one with no 9's. After considering that possibility briefly, I discovered the simple programming error I had made, which discriminated against 9's.

As an aside, I would might point out that no one mentioned the plentiful supply of all the other digits. No, they insisted on taking the half-empty view, more literally the one-tenth-empty view.

My recommendation, by the way, was that we print up an errata sheet filled with 9's and accompanied by the instruction: "Insert at random." Instead, we bought a well-rounded table of random numbers from a chemical or rubber company.

And yet despite experiences like these and others, even I would have to confess to harboring an implicit sense that textbooks tell the truth. Somehow a textbook just has an honest face. More than once, I have written something--a definition, for example--being something less than 100% confident of it. Later, when I see the book in print and read the passage in question, I get the feeling my uncertainty was misplaced. What I wrote now seems solid and certain to me. That has to be the limiting case for irony--or the limiting case for something. Maybe this is what Alfred North Whitehead meant by "the fallacy of misplaced concreteness."

I donít mean to overstate the case for the unconscious belief that textbooks are pillars of truth. Anyone with expertise in a particular field will surely have points of disagreement with any textbook on the topic. Sometimes we go further than that. I was shocked a couple of years ago to be approached at a conference by a pleasant-seeming woman, about my age, who said, "Itís nice to meet you after all these years and learn that you are not actually Satan." As nearly as I could tell, her prior, long-standing animosity was based on her belief that I held some point of view I didn't actually hold. (I turned her into a toad anyway.)

An Opportunity to Make a Difference

Although textbooks are not, in my experience, The Way, The Truth, and The Light, they are, nonetheless, an opportunity to make a difference. All of us have had experiences in which we knew we made a difference in a studentís life, and thatís a big part of what makes this a great job--that and the astronomical academic salaries, of course. Writing textbooks offers another opportunity to have an impact on people. Itís great to hear youíve made a contribution to the education of students you never met.

At the same time, itís possible to have a broader impact through textbooks than you can have in the classroom. Writing textbooks puts you in the midst of changes in the field that are not as immediately evident in one specific classroom. I learned this aspect early on, with the initial publication of Survey Research Methods.

While the reviewers of the manuscript were mostly very positive, there were two aspects of the book they objected to. First, they found the book too "nominalistic," saying it seemed to suggest that the variables we study werenít real but were merely concepts we had come to agree on. This made it difficult, they felt, to maintain a view of social science as "scientifically" progressing ever more closely to the Truth.

Itís hard to imagine today how positivistic sociology was a few decades ago. By now, social constructionism has doubled back on sociology in the form of post-modernism and has bitten us in the ass, but it wasnít always that way. For my part, I felt sociology was every bit as scientific as physics, but, then, I didnít think the concepts of physics were real, either. The idea that social class, prejudice, and alienation somehow existed in nature rather than being concepts humans made up to promote communication was simply foreign to me, though in retrospect, I may have missed a memo in that regard.

In addition to the book being too nominalistic and statistically challenged, the reviewers had one other major complaint. I had included a chapter on research ethics, which the reviewers said had no place in a research methods textbook. They did not deny the importance of research ethics, but they felt it out of place in a textbook presenting the science of social science. There were already books specifically about research ethics--pointing out that the Nazis were wrong, for example--and that seemed enough to them.

Beside my section on "the rights of subjects," one reviewer wrote, "What about the rights of science?" I was stumped by that one, since I didnít think science had any rights.

As it turns out, I had the good fortune to be writing about research methods at a time when my colleagues were becoming less positivistic and also more concerned about research ethics. I can't take credit for the good timing but I benefited from it.

Writing textbooks, then, offers the opportunity to observe and participate in broad trends within the discipline.

Writing Textbooks as Scholarship

Over the years, I've occasionally run into the point of view that writing textbooks isn't really an act of scholarship, certainly not the equivalent of writing a research monograph. There was my former professor who expressed concern over whether the state of California had invested so much money in my education to produce a career of writing textbooks. There was the overheard conversation between a couple of colleagues in which one said her daughter, a sociologist, had been invited to write a textbook. The response was one of horror over the daughter possibly getting distracted from real scholarship. There was the dean who recently attempted to quantify scholarly achievement for purposes of promotion and tenure. Publishing a textbook earned the same number of points as submitting a research proposal that didn't get funded. And there was the surreal conversation with an administrator, which I've always thought may have been more political than academic.

Him: I'm afraid you just haven't published enough.

Me: I've published 20 books. I think that's above average.

Him: I don't mean textbooks.

Me: Three of the twenty were three research monographs.

Him: Oh.

On the whole, I think I've been more puzzled than hurt by my brushes with this point of view. As I've tried to understand it, I've concluded it is a first cousin to the point of view that denies the act of designing a new course or creating a new pedagogy for an old course as scholarship. It beds down with the point of view that textbooks are, after all, only a summary of all the smart stuff real scholars have learned. Its parents are the elitist points of view that teachers are superior to students, and researchers are superior to teachers, and only research directors are superior to researchers. That's three parents, all cousins, and nobody wants that.

Please do not hear this as downplaying the research enterprise. I regard myself as the world's leading sociological chauvinist, frequently and loudly proclaiming that every problem we face today, ranging from the interpersonal to the environmental, can only be solved within the realm of sociology. All other disciplines are either subfields of sociology or irrelevant to the problems we face on this planet. Thus, I have the highest respect for, confidence in, and kinship with sociological research. We must fill the world with well-trained and well-funded sociological researchers. Equally important, we must find more and more effective ways of instilling the sociological imagination within all who pass through our colleges and universities and those who do not. All these activities are vital to our survival as a species and they all demand the highest caliber of genuine scholarship.

It breaks my heart to see sociologists snipe at each other in unworthy ways. We pit research against teaching, qualitative against quantitative, interactionism against functionalism, positivism against postmodernism, etc., etc., ad nauseum. I am certainly not opposed to the competition of ideas and the healthy debate of sociological ideas. But there is more to be gained by lifting your ideas up than by dragging others down. Too often, I think, we model ourselves after the negative-advertising, push-polling, political candidates we often say we deplore.

We simply do not have time to waste on intra-sociological stink eye. There just isn't enough time to play another round of "I'm a bigger scholar than you are." Psychology isn't going to save our species. Economics isn't going to do it. But, to quote my good friend, colleague and co-author, Ted Wagenaar, "Sociology Saves." None of us should be smaller than the potential our discipline holds for all humankind.

My wife, Sheila, says I often make my points too cleverly and subtly for people to get, so let me be clear on this. I regard the writing of textbooks as a worthy endeavor, an act of genuine scholarship as defined by the 1990 Boyer Report to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. As you may recall, the report distinguished four types of scholarship: the scholarship of discovery, the scholarship of integration, the scholarship of application, and the scholarship of teaching. Any decent textbook reflects all four types of scholarship.

The scholarships of teaching and integration are obvious in textbooks, and the scholarship of application is essential to textbooks in sociology, at least. The scholarship of discovery, while perhaps less obvious, is nonetheless an important aspect of writing textbooks. Sometimes it arises from the meta-research aspect of textbooks--with the discovery of patterns in the findings of other researchers. More than once, however, I've found it necessary to undertake or update data analyses for the purpose of completing a line of reasoning in a textbook, where no published report could be found to make the point.

If you enjoy sociological scholarship, you will find plenty of opportunities to flex your creative muscles via textbooks.

Some Tips to Prospective Textbook Authors

In the event that you are considering the prospect of writing a textbook, and I want to support you in that--as long as you aren't planning to write about research methods. . .or even if you are. I'll close with a few, miscellaneous tips that might assist you.

  1. Be sure there will be courses that might use your book. This is especially difficult if you are breaking new ground, and it explains why there are so many intro texts.
  2. Find a better way to educate students than the current books offer. If you can't improve on what's available, what's the point?
  3. Always aim to help students rather than impress your colleagues. For example, students are unlikely to look up the 27 parenthetical citations backing up an assertion in your book.
  4. When reviewers, other colleagues, and editors suggest you haven't achieved perfection in what you've written, take the point of view that they are doing their best to get you there. They are not just being mean, they are on your side. (Except the ones who are just being mean.)
  5. If students or instructors don't understand something you've written, remember that the customer is always right. You need to improve it. I've always found that when others didn't understand what I wrote, I didn't understand it fully, either; I'd left some kind of loose end. Whenever I force myself to do it over again, I get smarter.
  6. You can avoid the gender problem of third-person pronouns in several ways.

  7. Write in the first and second person.
    Use androgynous names, such as Jan and Pat, instead of pronouns.
    Use plural pronouns even if it's ungrammatical. Editors will survive.
    Don't alternate masculine and feminine. It just confuses things.
    Don't use s-slash-h-e or anything you can't pronounce.
    Most important, I stopped having trouble with this issue as soon as I stopped automatically thinking of researchers as males.
  8. And the final, most important tip for prospective textbook authors: Don't make a lot of week-end plans or start interesting hobbies.
If you love to write, however, textbooks offer a never-ending opportunity to pursue that love, because you'll never be complete in your labors. I feel I've been blessed, since I'm always fascinated by a blank page or blank screen, wondering what words are going to show up there. One of the greatest joys I know is putting words together in a way that moves people to tears. I usually know that'll happen when I write something that makes me cry. All things considered, you could do a lot worse.



Ernest L. Boyer, Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professorate, Princeton, NJ: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1990.