KKV’s strategic error in Designing Social Inquiry

In 1994, Gary King, Robert Keohane and Sidney Verba (‘KKV’) published their seminal book Designing Social Inquiry. It was very controversial, perhaps intentionally so, because of the claim that

our main concern in this book is making qualitative research more scientific (p. 18).

This led to a backlash from many qualitative political scientists.

KKVI believe that the substance of KKV’s book points to a different and less controversial argument. They start to make this argument at the very bottom of page 4:

All good research can be understood – indeed, is best understood – to derive from the same underlying logic of inference. Both quantitative and qualitative research can be systematic and scientific.

But they then move on to a less relevant issue: historical research. That’s not really the point.

This is what I believe they should have said next:

All quantitative and qualitative researchers fall short of the ideal to greater or lesser extents. It happens that the logic of social-science inference is often more developed in quantitative research, but this book will use examples of good and bad practice from both qualitative and quantitative research.

This is consistent with the book’s content; it would just have required some different examples.

This message is less controversial – and perhaps the book would have been less widely read as a result. But people might have paid more attention to some ideas which have, alas, generated less debate. For example, I think that more weight should be placed on KKV’s very important ideas about uncertainty, which have greatly influenced me (see this blog post and this article of mine) and which I see as fundamental to all empirical research – even empirical research which does not see itself as social-scientific (see this blog post and this article of mine).

Important caveat: the suggestion I have made about what KKV should have said is still controversial: not everyone thinks that there is a unified logic of inference in social science! I’m just saying that if that is KKV’s view, they may have been better off framing the idea differently.

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  1. Rob Kevlihan

     /  June 30, 2013

    Adrian – this article might be of interest as another practical critique of KKV; – Designing Social Inquiry in Central Asia – a comparison of color revolutions in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan http://www.tlu.ee/stss/?page_id=1043

  2. Thanks, Didier. (Your link doesn’t work, by the way – the correct link is http://druedin.com/2014/03/15/no-excuse.) I agree with what you say in your blogpost: absolutely right.

  1. No excuse | Didier Ruedin

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