1.3 Qualitative evidence
1.3.1 What evidence are we reading?
Social scientists use particular methods to gather qualitative evidence, from observation to interview, but they also use autobiographical accounts, journalism, and other documentary material to flesh out and add meaning to statistics.
As with reading numbers, reading textual evidence requires us to practise, to set time aside to learn how to do it, and to understand the conventions of writing which operate in the different forms of writing we encounter. One of the main problems with reading textual evidence, though, is that, unlike the relationship most of us have with numbers where we may use them at a pretty basic level, most of us are, if anything, over-familiar with words. When we want to understand their value as social science evidence we need to forget how familiar we are with first person accounts and everyday speech – for example, in newspapers, magazines, and books – and learn a different approach to them. When we watch as social scientists we are watching in a different way with a different purpose, and the same is true of reading words.
Qualitative research in the social sciences often involves the analysis of interview material that has been produced by the social scientist conducting a series of interviews with a selected sample of people. One such example is offered here, where Gail Lewis quotes material from her own research in the area of social work. How can we read this kind of evidence?
The social worker is describing some of the assumptions about ‘race’ and ethnicity made by one of the managers:
[There] was a white woman who had been a manager … and she had very racist opinions which she covered up, or tried to cover up … I can remember one case in particular, where there was a young child whose mother was suffering from domestic violence. The parents weren't married, and she assumed that the child was black, which was an on-going thing with her. … and she made some remark about … ‘Oh it's what they do … it's just normal …’ I asked her what do you mean, what do you mean! … [She said] ‘Well you know West Indian families, you know it's not too unusual …’ That kind of remark! Well I just flipped a lid and I said what are you talking about! Abuse and violence are not normal patterns of life … [And anyway] she has got blonde hair and blue eyes, just like you’ … and the shock that came onto her face …
(Lewis and Phoenix, 2004, Section 2.3)
This short piece of text cannot tell us anything about the scale of what the interviewee describes quite explicitly as racism. However, it does provide us with useful information on how it works, on what Gail Lewis and Anne Phoenix call racialisation. The interviewee uses graphic descriptions to draw attention to the prejudices of the manager whose assumptions she is outlining. Such material can help social scientists to unpack everyday exchanges and the routine experience of racialisation and ethnicisation. However, the interview has to be interpreted and understood in its social context. It has to be interpreted in relation to other social phenomena and does not represent a simple reflection of truth. Social scientists often use such qualitative evidence alongside quantitative evidence, such as data on ethnicity in relation to employment and education, for example.
Social scientists use observation, interviews and even print journalism as evidence for the claims they make. Social scientists may collect evidence through questionnaires with pre-set questions and by open-ended interviews which allow respondents to speak for themselves. They may observe social relations explicitly as social scientists or may participate themselves in a particular community to gain ‘inside’ information as participant observers.
Social scientists also draw on print journalism on occasion and may use the same sources, for example official statistics, and the work of other social scientists to support their claims.
We need to remember, though, that journalism has its own conventions. Journalists do not need to present the same rigorous referencing and support for their claims as social scientists are required to do. Most importantly, newspaper and magazine articles are written under commercial pressures:
they must help to sell the newspaper by being, for instance, deliberately provocative, or by reflecting the dominant views of its readers;
they must try not to upset regular advertisers;
they must, in general, be short and pithy, with short sentences and frequent paragraphs to persuade the reader that reading the article is a pleasure rather than a duty;
they must try to make complex debates simple and break down the complexity into a single, headline-grabbing issue.