“Never use the word ‘data’!”

growing up in 1980s interpretive sociology

Sept. 19, 2019


Ah, the 1980s. When we were being trained to remove “data” from our lexicon in interpretive sociology. I’m wondering if this would be a good article…

For at least two decades in the late 20th century, there was a strong trend among scholars associate with the ‘interpretive turn’ or ‘linguistic turn’ to shift away from the concept of ‘data’. Many of us trained in 1980s and 1990s epistemologies of interpretive sociology in the US, for example, were told directly by our teachers and editors, “Never use the word data!” This terminological resistance followed the logic of the linguistic turn, that our everyday language choices shaped social reality. The non-data effort seemed successful, but then the early 2000s backlash against the (mis)perceived relativism of postmodernism happened. In this talk, I contend that this broad return to empiricism, or what funders and policymakers called ‘evidence based findings’, along with the subsequent focus on digital objects and big data, has effectively obscured the detailed efforts of scholars associated with the interpretive turn in the 80s and 90s, especially outside the United States. After briefly sketching this history, I discuss how the definitional parameters for what counts as data has continually plagued qualitative researchers. For many, the stakes of winning or losing this debate over the matter of a small word is paramount.