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Statistics anxiety: Busting the ‘anxious women’ myth?

By Dr Vicky Gorton and Dr Kevin Ralston

For many students, Statistics = Anxiety. This anxiety is often characterised as limiting students’ engagement with statistics and impacting on their performance on quantitative methods courses at university. The relationships between age, gender and statistics anxiety are some of the most examined in the research literature. A survey of these findings might lead us to reformulate the Statistics = Anxiety equation to read: Statistics + Women => Anxiety, as previous research has tended to identify women as more likely to experience anxiety and at greater levels. 

In our article, ‘Anxious women or complacent men? Examining statistics anxiety in UK sociology undergraduates’, we wanted to revisit the core demographic variables of age and sex to examine their association with reported anxiety of statistics. Unlike most other research in the field however, we modelled an interaction between these two variables. This allowed us to explore whether reported anxiety of statistics varies within and between sexes by levels of age (comparing under 25s and over 25s). 

The research is based on a secondary analysis of a dataset on the attitudes of sociology and political science students towards quantitative methods. These data, gathered by Williams et al. (2009) and shared on the UK data archive, are amongst the most comprehensive ever collected on attitudes of undergraduates to QM. Crucially, for our aims, the students were asked whether they felt anxious about learning statistics. This made it possible to interrogate these data to explore in detail the relationship between age, gender and anxiety of statistics. 

The methods we used for the analysis are the same general techniques that many social science undergraduates will learn about during their own quantitative methods courses – logistic regression models and bivariate analysis. Our paper provides a simple applied account of these methods, which would be a relevant example in learning-teaching settings. 

The results indicate that it is older men, not women, who are most likely to report experiencing anxiety of statistics in social science contexts. This is only apparent when considering the interaction between age and gender, without this interaction there is no difference between men and women in the likelihood of experiencing statistics anxiety. 

It is therefore possible that young men, who are less anxious, have driven the gender differences that have previously been reported in research. This is to say that, rather than experiencing excessive anxiety, women may seem more anxious in previous studies because of their comparison to a group of more complacent young men. 

The results call into question the potentially damaging ‘anxious women’ narrative that predominates the literature on the teaching-learning of maths and statistics. We suggest that this paradigm may be misleading, distracting, and an oversimplification. Despite the research focus on statistics anxiety, there is no strong evidence that it has a meaningfully negative influence on the learning of statistics for those on social science courses. By comparison, the pedagogical implications of an issue like complacency in this context has received little consideration. Overall, we argue that it is time to move away from the perception that women studying social sciences are excessively anxious of statistics. Our findings strongly suggest that this is a myth in need of busting.

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Challenges of Doing Research in a Pandemic: Reframing, Adapting and Introducing qualitative methods

By Bea Gardner

Like many qualitative researchers, I have been adapting my research in light of the specific obstacles posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. I was on the brink of data collection, interviewing and observing practitioners involved in child protection planning, when COVID-19 related restrictions were imposed. My participants included key workers such as Health Visitors, Teachers and Social Workers. All have played an essential role in the pandemic response, but not without significant adaptations to normal working practices, including how they identify, assess and support children in need of protection. After much deliberation, I chose to reframe my PhD research into a focused study of the implications of COVID-19 for those involved in safeguarding children (the term used in the UK for the process of protecting children from abuse or neglect). However, conducting qualitative research during a pandemic brings challenges. In this blog, I reflect on the process of responding to COVID-19, outlining critical considerations I have made at different stages of the pandemic so far.

Initial impacts

I initially opted to postpone my research, hoping to complete my chosen methodology later in the year. I also considered ways I could conduct the research remotely, by doing online interviews and removing the observational element until social distancing measures were relaxed. However, as the UK entered lockdown, concerns for adapting my original design to comply with social distancing restrictions were rapidly overtaken by concerns regarding the continued relevance of my research. The pandemic was having profound impacts on my participants, completely transforming the UK safeguarding environment. I needed to respond to this new context, accepting that even if social distancing restrictions lifted, the basis for my research questions had evolved.

Reframing the research

I embarked on a process of re-examining my research framework so far, combing through existing work, seeking to retain what remained relevant and useful to understand the new context. Participants I had already recruited contacted me, eager to discuss the implications of social distancing for their practice. I was in an opportune position to quickly capture this shifting safeguarding landscape, with new questions and possibilities raised. However, given the time constraints of a PhD, it was untenable to restart entirely, leading me to question how far back to ‘unpick’ my existing research design? I also wanted to start gathering data quickly, while still in the early stages of the pandemic response.  

After extensive reflection and discussion, I developed a plan to refocus my questions, incorporating the specific challenges and opportunities of the COVID-19 context. Having done this vital reframing work, I was then in a position to adapt my methods. 

Adapting methods: Initial Interviews

I completed some online video interviews with those participants I had already recruited, allowing me to capture some of the initial pandemic impacts rapidly. I chose the remote interview method after considering a range of methodological factors, including technological accessibility. I found Janet Salmons’ E-Research framework particularly useful as a guide for the core considerations to make when conducting research online. Her recent webinar ‘when the field is online’ provides an excellent introduction to this.

While conducting the interviews, I was simultaneously investigating options for incorporating further remote design modes to replace my observational element. The initial online video interviews were going well, but they highlighted the limitations of an interview-only approach during a period of rapid change. The participants were going through a process, and I needed a methodology to facilitate capturing and analysing this.

Introducing methods: Audio diaries

Diaries were an obvious consideration to incorporate into the research design, given they inherently capture experience over time. I ruled out written diaries as I did not want the inclusion of a longitudinal element to be too burdensome. However, I considered that audio diaries could be quick and easy, as long as the participants were already familiar with the technology. There was also the possibility that when making audio recordings, participants could make these in semi-private workspaces, such as cars or staff rooms—places I had initially intended to go with participants during observation days.

I opted to introduce Repeat Question Audio Diaries, excellently explained by Helen Fitt, where participants record multiple answers to the same question each time. In my research, participants answer the question “how has the COVID-19 outbreak impacted my work this week?”. The aim is for these diaries to capture changing work practice in ‘real-time’, documenting the implications for safeguarding work at different moments in the pandemic response.  

However, before introducing the audio diaries, I had to consider questions such as: How frequently should the diary entries be made? How long should entries be? How prescriptive should accompanying guidance be? How could these be sent and stored securely? At the time of writing, participants are recording either WhatsApp voice messages or leaving a standard voicemail message to a dedicated number. They are recording messages 5-10 minutes long every fortnight and are predominantly doing this from their cars or home office when they finish the workday. It is too early to draw further conclusions on the method, but the data so far is rich, insightful and reflective in the way I had hoped.

Conclusions so far

Adapting to shifting contexts is an enduring feature of qualitative research, even if this particular context is unprecedented in scale. Different projects will require different adjustments, but qualitative research is well-positioned to enable the reworking of methods, methodologies and theoretical frameworks to new situations. Social researchers can contribute valuable insights into the multiple impacts of the pandemic, but only if we can adapt our preferred methods to the new limitations.

Attention to temporality is inevitably emphasised when researching during a pandemic, requiring careful consideration of longitudinal methods. None of these adaptations will be straightforward. However, the potential for methodological advancement is apparent, as it is in many sectors right now, as we all adapt not only to limitations but also to the possibilities of a ‘new normal’.  

Bea Gardener is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at Southampton University. 


Political Ethnography in Times of Mass Politicisation

By A. L. Heselgrave 

Political Ethnography faces a unique conceptual challenge in the era of Covid-19, a time in which all social interactions are now subject to political scrutiny. As governments and state actors across the world implement ever more invasive methods of social control and state intervention, practitioners of Political Ethnography need to give careful re-examination to some commonly used methodological approaches and their applicability to post-Covid research. The purpose of this post is to suggest some methods that may be of particular use in the field and that require further consideration.

Methods of study that are capable of unearthing new social phenomena are necessary in order to deal with the new social reality of the Covid-19 era. If methods of face-to-face interaction, social immersion etc. are no longer practicable, then how are we to create thick descriptive accounts of social phenomena? Ethnography is in unchartered waters when it comes to approaching data; Political Ethnography is in double jeopardy as it suffers not only from restricted research methods, but also from a social order that has mystified many of the fundamental methodological and theoretical distinctions (between the political, the social and the biological) that it has historically relied on. If we’re to gain insight into the new socio-politics of the Covid/post-Covid era, then we must first investigate two fundamental research questions: Which methodological tools from pre-Covid Political Ethnography are still applicable, and how are they to be used to uncover new political phenomena, peculiar to the post-Covid era?

A method of study that casts a broad net over large areas and diverse groups of respondents might be a way to start answering these questions. By creating networks of informants and participants from disparate social circumstances, this method will provide a wealth of qualitative data for both immediate study and posterity. Drawing on the tradition of projects and organisations such as Mass Observation, this form of diffuse ethnography, while it lacks analytical precision, may be a fecund way of identifying nascent political phenomena and subjecting them to scientific analysis. While approaches with specific sites, subjects and theoretical targets are helpful, this method of study can help to identify socio-political phenomena in their new and formative stages without overlooking related phenomena that may be missed by more targeted theoretical and methodological approaches. Drawing information from an array of individuals and communities, as well as diverse forms of data (field notes, letters, interviews, photographs etc.), provides starting points from which to develop hypotheses. Inevitably, this kind of approach will be unable to provide the level of detail and nuance that the practice of Ethnography traditionally has. It is, instead, a means of identifying potential new sites of inquiry. This method ultimately responds to mass politicisation by way of mixing methods en masse in order to ‘catch’ unanticipated emergent political realities.

Another avenue for social research is to put greater focus on autoethnography, turning the ethnographic gaze inward onto our own interactions. This method has the advantage of avoiding many of the problems attached to ethnographic research when it comes to social distancing. More importantly, studying what our bodily dynamics and social (non)interactions reveal about the political organisation of our lives may lead to a better comprehension of the minutiae of politics which inform socio-political structures and subjectivities. Better still would be the production of a considerable body of autoethnographic work through which it is possible to triangulate theoretical observations.

Much has already been said on the subject of technology and its role in the Covid crises, however, as a socio-political tool, the impact of technology, particularly communication technology, will need to be addressed in virtually all studies of socio-politics. Methods which draw on cyberethnography and STS will be crucial in determining how increased usage of video calls, messaging apps and biometric data influence political organisation and consciousness. How cyberspace shapes the politics of our bodies and interactions is going to change the nature of ethnographic data for the foreseeable future.

All of these methods are inherently exploratory in their approach; they intend not to create answers per se, but to survey the social landscape in search of new developments. For this reason practitioners of these kinds of observations must be mindful of their position in the division of academic labour that crises necessitate. The purpose of these approaches is not to produce “ground-breaking” research in the clichéd sense of vast, world-changing discoveries. Instead, the kind of exploratory Political Ethnography that mass politicisation calls for is one that creates fertile ground for the development of new theoretical and methodological understandings of the problems at hand. It is, essentially, a way of generating leads into new matrices of socio-politics.

L. Heselgrave is a Student of Political Sociology (MSc) at the London School of Economics.


Moving beyond the explicit knowledge dimensions of experts

by Stefanie Döringer

In the article The problem-centred expert interview’. Combining qualitative interviewing approaches for investigating the implicit dimension of expert knowledge, I discuss the implications of merging two qualitative interview approaches in order to explore implicit and tacit dimensions of expert knowledge. This note refers to this paper and outlines how the idea of a methodical combination arose during my PhD thesis in human geography. 

In my research, I focus on the influence of ‘key agents’ from politics, economy, and administration, but also from civil society in regional development. These agents are considered to take a pivotal role in socio-spatial change process through their special capabilities, networks, and knowledge. In order to explore their individual agency and to reveal how these persons might change the development of regions, I considered it necessary to move beyond explicit expert knowledge and to generate insights on the personal perceptions, orientation, and relevancies that guide their actions.

Based on this interest and former research experience, I had planned to draw upon a qualitative approach and to conduct ‘expert interviews’. However, on thinking about the appropriateness of this method in terms of my research, many questions arose: Can the potential interview partners be considered ‘experts’ at all? Is it necessary to have a specific educational background or an official position to gain expert status? How is the knowledge of experts characterized and how does it emerge? And how can I enquire about personal opinions and perceptions of experts, which might only be obtained in an indirect manner? These considerations encouraged me to scrutinize my previous knowledge about expert interviews and to dig deeper into the literature of methodological research.

In dealing with different interview methods, I realized that my research interest can best be addressed by a combination of two qualitative interviewing methods: firstly, the theory-generating expert interview that discusses the definition of experts, the complexity of expert knowledge, and the structures of interactions in expert interviews. Secondly, I drew upon the problem-centred interview, which highlights individual perspectives of interviewees and provides a supportive interview design for exploring biographical experiences. The two methods share connectable epistemological and methodological premises and proved to be a useful combination when the individual agency of experts forms part of an investigation.

My work benefited from the in-depth engagement with methodological literature in different ways. Bringing together elements of both approaches not only helped me to develop an eligible methodological approach in accordance with my research interest, but also challenged me to sharpen the epistemological focus of my study and to refine my theoretical assumptions on ‘structure and agency’ in regional development. By examining and working with both approaches, I gathered useful knowledge about methodical challenges and was able to draw upon concrete interview techniques during the ‘problem-centred expert interviews’. In research practice, I could greatly profit from this intensive examination, for instance when dealing with unexpected events in the interview situation or when critically reflecting upon the interview experiences in the follow-up phase.


Narrative Rhythmanalysis: the art and politics of listening to women’s narratives of forced displacement

By Maria Tamboukou

This paper draws on my Leverhulme funded project, Revisiting the Nomadic Subject, where I have explored the use of ‘the nomadic subject’ in feminist theory and politics. The main research question that I have raised is whether nomadism has become a concept politically loaded and irreparably infected with the unbearable heaviness of those who are not able to move and cross borders and boundaries—the dark side of the moon of privileged mobility. Taking up the salience of stories not only in recounting experiences, but also in forming an experiential basis for changing the subject and its world, I have interviewed 22 migrant and refugee women in Athens and Lesvos, Greece, about their experiences of being on the move. 

The research was conducted in Athens and Lesvos, Greece during the academic year 2018-2019. My participants were recruited through a number of NGOs and civic organizations working with migrant and refugee women and the main motivation for my participants was that they wanted their story to be heard and circulated among other women. Since this was a narrative research project, I only asked my participants two questions: a) tell me the story of how you travelled to Greece and b) how do you imagine your life in 5-10 years’ time. Out of the 22 stories, which were all recorded with the consent of the participants, 6 were conducted in Farsi, 5 in English, 4 in Arabic, 3 in French, 2 in Greek and 2 in Pashto. The Arabic, Farsi and Pashto interviews, 12 in total, were conducted with the presence of an interpreter. 

Asking women to narrate stories of traumatic and life changing experiences across borders and languages has been one of the major challenges of this research. Following tracks and traces of Arendt’s political philosophy, I have encouraged my participants to tell stories about their decision to leave, as well as about their experiences of travelling without feeling obliged to limit themselves within discourses of victimization and vulnerability. In this light I have asked them to recount their lives in the light of ‘who they are’, as unique and unrepeatable human beings, and not as ‘what they are’ —objectified ‘refugees’, ‘victims’, ‘stateless subjects’. These stories have created a rich archive of uprooted women’s experiences and have brought forward a wide range of new ideas, including the art of listening, which is the theme of this paper. Listening has indeed emerged as a crucial theme in this research, despite its neglected importance in politics, as well as in the theory and praxis of social movements in general and feminism in particular. Turning my attention to listening practices, I have particularly focused on the materiality of listening, the force of corporeal voices, the rhythms of embodied listening and their effects on understanding and making connections within the web of human relations.

Migrant and refugee women’s corporeal voices were at the heart of how I have made connections with their stories of travelling, even when they were recounting their stories in languages that I could not understand. The sonics of women’s stories thus gave rise to unexpected affinities, brought up the notion of ‘narrative rhythmanalysis’ as an analytical mode and shifted my interest and attention from orality to aurality. This turn also gave me the insight of transcribing these stories in two textual modes: as prose and as free verses. Outside these experimental modes of transcription, women’s voices keep on turning and returning—reminders of the impossibility of their textual transformation. Most importantly these voices boldly express migrant and refugee women’s will ‘not to tell a story’. Such ‘unruly’ narrative performances have opened up a new analytical pathway in my research: quite simply, consider the effects of decolonial thinking in unsettling processes of knowledge production within critical feminist theories.