Bryman (2016) identifies four criticisms of quantitative research:
Quantitative researchers fail to distinguish people and social institutions from the world of nature
Schutz (1962) is the main critique here.
Schutz and other phenomenologists accuse quantitative social researchers of treating the social world as if it were no different from the natural world. In so doing, quantitative researchers tend to ignore the fact that people interpret the world around them, whereas this capacity for self-reflection cannot be found among the objects of the natural sciences.
The measurement process possesses an artificial and spurious sense of precision and accuracy
Cicourel (1964) is the main critique here.
He argues that the connection between the measures developed by social scientists and the concepts they are supposed to be revealing is assumed rather than real – basically measures and concepts are both effectively ‘made up’ by the researchers, rather than being ‘out there’ in reality.
A further problem is that quantitative researchers assume that everyone who answers a survey interprets the questions in the same way – in reality, this simply may not be the case.
The reliance on instruments and procedures hinders the connection between research and everyday life
This issue relates to the question of ecological validity.
Many methods of quantitative research rely heavily on administering research instruments to participants (such as structured interviews or self-completion questionnaires), or controlling situations to determine effects.
However, these instruments simply do not ‘tap into’ people’s real life experiences – for example, many of the well known lab experiments on the A-level sociology syllabus clearly do not reflect real life, while surveys which ask people about their attitudes towards immigration, or the environment, do not necessarily tell us about how people act towards migrants or the environment on a day to day basis.
The analysis of relationships between variables creates a static view of social life that is independent of people’s lives.
The main critique here is Blumer (1956).
Blumer (1956) argued that studies that seek to bring out the relationships between variables omit ‘the process of interpretation or definition that goes on in human groups’.
This is a combination of criticisms 1 and 3 above, but adds on an additional problem – that in isolating out variables, quantitative research creates an artificial, fixed and frozen social (un)reality – whereas social reality is (really) alive and constantly being created through processes of interaction by its various members.
In other words, the criticism here is that quantitative research is seen as carrying an objective ontology that reifies the social world.
The above criticisms have lead intepretivists to prefer more qualitative research methods. However, these too have their limitations!
Glencore is one of the world’s largest commodities companies – it operates in 150 countries extracting natural resources such as iron and copper, but also has interests in coal and oil, as well as numerous agricultural products.
Below are some arguments and evidence that Glencore is an example of a Transnational Company which is not really interested in promoting development in poor countries, but really just interested in extracting as much as it can for as cheaply as possible.
Glencore has been widely criticized because it has made staggering profits by extracting huge volumes of natural resources out of poor countries. To put the size of Glencore in perspective, the annual revenue of the company is 10 times greater than the GDP of Zambia.
The 2013 video below documents how the company struck a deal with Zambia to mine its copper in which it extracts around $1 billion of copper per year but pays only 8% tax to the government, and gets free electricity for its mines into the bargain (paid for by the government).
This report from War on Want estimates that a combination of poor trade deals and tax avoidance costs the Zambian government $3 billion/ year, or 10% of its GPP. The report isn’t limited to just Glencore, it focuses on other mining companies such as Vedanta, none of these companies comes off as effectively promoting development in poor countries.
Glencore has also come under heavy criticisms for poor health and safety conditions in many of its mines, its record on environmental pollution and benefitting from child labour in the DRC.
Students might like to use these sources to assess the role of the TNC Glencore in promoting economic and social development in poor countries.
The American psychologist Arthur Jensen (1973) defines intelligence as ‘abstract reasoning ability’ – the ability to discover the rules, patterns and logical principles underlying objects and events and the ability to apply these discoveries to solve problems.
Intelligence is measured by intelligence tests such as IQ (Intelligence Quotient) tests which are designed to measure abstract reasoning ability. As such they try avoid questions which ask about factual knowledge – such as ‘what is the capital of the USA?’ but instead ask questions such as – ‘what is the next number in the following sequence – 1,8,27, 64, __’
Despite their widespread use, there is a large body of evidence which suggest that IQ tests are not a valid measure of intelligence, because abstract reasoning is only one facet of the full range of mental abilities.
Culture and Intelligence
The Canadian psychologist Otto Klineberg (1971) gave an IQ test to Yakima Native American children living in Washington State, USA. The test involved timing how long it took the children to place different shaped wooden blocks in the appropriate shaped holes in a wooden frame. The children achieved only low scores, but Klineberg argued that this was because their culture, unlike Western culture, did not place a high value on speed.
This suggests that it is inappropriate to compare the intelligence of people from different cultures, as any speed-based test favours some cultures over others.
Other researchers have pointed out that cultural variations between classes within a society mean that IQ tests are biased towards the middle classes, because such tests are largely constructed by and standardised on this group. If we accept the fact that there are cultural differences between social classes, and that the working classes have lower levels of deferred gratification and higher levels of fatalism, as well as a ore negative experience of education generally, then it is likely that they will do less well in IQ tests compared to middle class children.
Further reasons why IQ tests may not measure intelligence
Klineberg argues that at least the following factors influence how well an individual does in an IQ test:
The previous experience and education of the person tested
His degree of familiarity with the subject matter of the test
His motivation or desire to achieve a good score, in the appropriate time frame.
His rapport with the tester
his knowledge of the language in which the test is conducted
The World Bank claims that its major goal is to promote global development through poverty reduction, but there are many critics who argue this is a smoke-screen, and the real aim of the World Bank is to use conditional loans in exchange for countries establishing neoliberal economic policies which ultimately benefit western companies and financial institutions.
Ha-Joon Chang (2007) for example argues that the World Bank (and the IMF) present themselves as a ‘good Samaritans’ whose only motives are to assist the developing world, but they are actually ‘bad Samaritans’ because their motives are essentially selfish.
Chang argues that the real point of the World Bank (along with IMF and the WTO) is to create a policy environment in the developing world that is friendly to Transnational Corporations, an environment which benefits TNCs and small groups of elites in developing countries, but results in deteriorating social development for the majority of the people.
Pliger argues that the World Bank (along with the International Monetary Fund) is the agent of the richest countries on earth, especially America, and its function is to offer loans to poor countries, but only if they privatise their economies and allow western companies free access to their raw materials and markets.
The World Bank says its aim is to help poor people, calling this global development, but in reality, the effects of its policies are that the rich get richer on running up debt, cheap labour and paying as little tax as possible, while the poor get poorer as their jobs and public services are cut to pay just the interest on the debt owed to the World Bank.
The documentary also claims that the bank operated during the entire cold war as an institution which distributed money to mainly authoritarian regimes in the third world that supported the West in the Cold War.
The World Bank in Indonesia (1960s – 1990s)
Probably the best historical case study which criticizes the role of the World Bank in development is the case of Indonesia.
In the 1960s General Suharto seized power in Indonesia secretly backed the United States and Britain. He removed from power the founder of modern Indonesia, Sukarno – a nationalist who believed in economic independence for the country. He had kept the Transnational Corporations and their agents, the World Bank, and the IMF, out of the country, but with Suharto coming to power they were called back in to ‘save’ Indonesia.
This regime change was one of the bloodiest mass murders in post WW2 history, with more than a million people estimated to have died in the process. Suharto took brutal steps to consolidate his power by rounding up thousands and thousands of civil servants, school teachers and basically anyone with communist leanings and murdering them.
Within a year of Suharto’s coming to power the economy of Indonesia was effectively redesigned, giving the west access to vast natural resources, markets and cheap labour, what Nixon called ‘the greatest prize in Asia.
Over the next 30 years the World Bank handed out $30 billion in loans for development to the Suharto regime, turning a blind eye to the estimated million people who Suharto massacred during his rule. The Indonesian elite instigated many development projects with World Bank loans during this time, and many of them were seen as opportunities to skim money for themselves.
The Asian financial crisis of 1998 collapsed the Indonesian economy which resulted in Suharto stepping down from power, ending a 30 year rule during which time he stole an estimated $15 to $30 billion from the Indonesian people, giving him the dubious honour of being the most corrupt dictator in modern world history.
According to the World Bank’s own documents, by the end of regime, $10 billion out of $30 billion in loans remained unaccounted for (so around half of the estimate above is straight from the World Bank). Of course the debt remained, and still had to be paid back to the World Bank by the Indonesian citizens who had never seen a cent of that money.
According to the auditor general of the World Bank, if the citizens of Indonesia made a legal challenge against the World Bank over the remaining debt (given that they never received the money), the World Bank would be bankrupt, because this has gone on the world over.
The World Bank in Bolivia (1994)
Another specific case study which demonstrates the harmful effects World Bank policies can have on poor countries is the case of the World Bank’s Structural Adjustment Programme in Bolivia in the mid 1990s (clip below from ‘The Corporation’):
In 1994 the World Bank refused a $25 million dollar loan to a local water co-operative in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Instead, they insisted that the Bolivian government hand over the running of the local water supply to a French mulitnational named Bechtel. The agreement that the World Bank forced onto the Bolivian government gave the French company total control over the local water supply in Cochabamba, even over the rain water, and locals were forbidden from collecting rain water to drink – they either had to pay the company for water or die of thirst.
The problem was that the fees Bechtel was charging for water cost the average local resident more than they spent on food, or about half of their income (the other half they didn’t spend on food).
In response, a resistance movement sprang up (no pun intended), to which the government responded with military force – and over a hundred people were wounded in the following skirmishes.
In this case, the government eventually backed down, and the water supply was returned to the control of the local community, meaning that water was again effectively available for free, but this goes to show the lengths the world bank will go to in support of Transnational Corporations.
A good documentary which puts the Bolivian water privatisation in historical and global context is ‘Blue Gold: World Water Wars’ – clip below…
Some negative consequences of Structural Adjustment Programmes in Africa
Structural Adjustment programmes are the primary vehicle through which the World Bank provides conditional loans for development – through them, a country only receives loans if it adopts neoliberal (pro-business) policies – there are four main strands to this – prviatising public services, cutting taxes, deregulation, and developing an ‘export driven’ economy.
This useful blog post summarises some of the harms that World Bank structural adjustment programmes have done in Africa. To summarise just a few of them…
Privatisation has meant that Transnational Corporations have been able to buy state enterprises at very low costs.
Tax reforms under structural adjustment programmes typically have meant tax cuts for the wealthy (lowering taxes on profits for example) and shifted the tax burden onto middle and low-income groups.
Deregulation has made it easier for TNCs to shift their profits abroad – to offshore banking accounts for example.
Cuts to public services such as health have increased the number of people without access to health care.
Cuts in public sector employment, have led to large increases in unemployment. (for example 300 000 civil servants were retrenched in Zaire – now DRC – in 1995).
Liberalisation of labour markets have led to the phasing out of minimum wage legislation.
Export orientation in agriculture has led to the elimination of subsistence agriculture and pushed people towards cities, leading to rapid urbanisation and an increase in slum-living conditions.
Various NGOs funded by international aid agencies have gradually taken over government functions in the social sector.
Evaluations of these Criticisms
Many of these criticisms are historical, and they may not apply to World Bank policy today.
It’s actually quite difficult to evaluate how successful World Bank policies have been in promoting development, because you can never be sure what would have happened if World Bank policies and conditional loans had not been put in place, and it’s difficult to isoloate the specific effects of policies given the open-systems nature of global development.
The class structure today is more complex than Bourgeois-Proletariat.
In most Western Nations and increasingly in developing nations there is an extensive middle class who have stocks and shares invested in Corporations run by what Marxists would call the ‘Capitalist Class’. Also in Britain 70% of people own their own homes and see these homes (our private property) as ‘economic assets’ so many of us are, in a sense, petit-capitalists.
Capitalism today is less exploitative
Two historical examples of this are when Henry Ford, the famous car manufacturer, realised that paying his workers good wages would generate demand for the cars he produced – a process which lead to workers being less exploited and ‘buying into’ the Capitalist system.
A second example is the move towards ‘Keynsian Economics’ in which the state came to play a more central role in regulating Capitalism to ensure that worst excesses of exploitation, inequality and insecurity that pure Capitalism generates were minimised.
Part of this involved the introduction of the welfare state in many European Countries after the Second World War. In the United Kingdom the state now provides universal health care, education, pensions and social security, as well as guaranteeing a minimum wage.
All of these things acts as a safety net to ensure that the worst excesses of Capitalist exploitation are ameliorated.
Control of the Economic Base does not mean control of the Superstructure
Marx argued that those who control the economic base controlled the economic superstructure – yet many of our institutions today have at least relative autonomy from Bourgeois control – it is quite obvious, for example, that huge sections of the press are critical of the Elite and many popular music artists are extremely critical of the Capitalist system.
Criticisms of False Consciousness
Given the above three points, it seems ludicrous to argue that the superstructure is controlled by the Bourgeoisie and is used to create false consciousness.
Firstly, post-modernists argue that culture (mainly the media) exists independently of Bourgeois control and is used by people in different for a variety of different purposes. If institutions are not controlled by the Bourgeois, then there can be no False Consciousness.
What we really have in post-modern society according to Post-Modernists is free individuals who correctly see class as irrelevant and who do not feel exploited and who are happy to identify themselves through the products they buy – products that are themselves the final outcome of a successful Capitalist system of production.
There is less Alienation today
There is much less Alienation in modern companies. Workers have a lot more say, partly due to unionisation and partly due to enlightened management techniques. In addition, there are four million self employed people who directly control the terms and conditions of their working lives.
Capitalism has changed and works for many
Classic Marxist theory has been criticised for being economically deterministic. Marx argued that ‘economic laws’ determined not only the shape of society but also the direction of history itself.
On reflection, however, it is clearly the case that other factors shape history too – different societies have responded differently to the global spread of Capitalism – some have pushed neo-liberalism (America and Britain under Thatcher and Bliare) others have taken a social democratic line and used the state as a buffer to protect citizens from the worst excesses of Capitalist exploitation (Scandanavian countries); China has developed a form of autocratic- capitalism and other countries (Cuba and more recently Venezuala) have rejected it in favour of a Socialist dictatorship.
Communism didn’t work
The Communist Revolutions in Eastern Europe did not lead to greater equality and freedom as Marx would have hoped. Given the failures of communism it is difficult to see what the alternative to Capitalism might be. NB – As a counter critique, contemporary Marxists would argue that the state communism of Eastern Europe was hardly true communism.
Traditional Marxism was a Metanarraitve
Finally, many sociologists today would argue that Marx’s ‘grand theorising’ about the world is no longer relevant – rather than researching with the intention of creating the perfect society, we should really be focussing our attention of much more specific and localised social issues.
This post has primarily been written for A-level sociology students focussing on the Theory and Methods module in the second year.
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