January 31, 2016

Transparency Social Science Research, a New Thing?

The Street Corner Society – an Early Example of a Transparency Strategy

Transparency in science is sold as a promising strategy to increase the social robustness of scientific knowledge. It is an attempt of getting science out of the ivory tower, making it criticizable and thereby increase the quality of knowledge production.

The social sciences are sometimes accused of not complying to the new ideal of transparent research or not taking enough effort to get more transparent. A big problem here is that some research data, namely qualitative data, can not be made (reasonably) accessible as easily as numeric data. Of course, a transcript of an interview could be uploaded to some database, but I want to argue here, that accessibility is more than making something available. Also ways of dealing with the data and the context of its origin need to be explicated and described in order to enable others to work with the data. This is what makes it more complicated to make qualitative research transparent.

However, in the following I want to outline an interesting piece of early ethnographic work, interesting also in terms of transparency. And I do think, that we could learn a lot from this example about how qualitative research can be made transparent.

The Street Corner Society

We talked about transparent research in the social sciences in our open science course and when it came to thinking about examples one of my first associations was the famous study and book “The Street Corner Society” by William Foote Whyte which was published in 1943. It came to my mind, because apart from the interesting results some people also know it for the extensive appendix in the book, where Whyte makes detailed comments on his empirical work, from how he planed the study to how he got access to the field and his strategies of storing and cataloging the big amount of data he produced. At this point I want to emphasize that all of this information is crucial for understanding and assessing the knowledge Whyte produced in his research.

On the one hand this appendix is a valuable resource for methodology, since it was probably the first text on practical issues in qualitative ethnographic research, and people would read it even 70 years later to learn about qualitative methods (at least I did). On the other hand, intended or not, Whyte made many details of his research transparent, what makes his findings more socially robust and accountable.

At the time “The Street Corner Society” was published it was everything but common to make such explicit deliberations about the empirical part of research and it still is in contemporary social science research. I honestly can't tell if readers of the book interpreted the appendix as something that increases the quality of the research and its results, but they most certainly would if the study would be published and read in 2016. For this reason I am of the opinion that Whyte's 'transparency strategy” is an extraordinary example of making research transparent.

What we could learn William F. Whyte

Even if I argued that Whyte made his research very transparent it is still interesting to ask how he could have been even more transparent? What Whyte did not share was actual data, so I could say this is something he could have done additionally. But there are practical problems to it. First, in 1943 the massive amount of data that is produced in an extensive ethnographic study could not be stored on an online server where everyone can get access, but would fill whole shelves, which makes the sharing much more complicated. Second, the field notes as well as probably most of the data was handwritten. Typing them either on a typewriter or a computer would take a unreasonable amount of time. While information technology made the storing of big amounts of data much easier, many researchers doing ethnographic studies still face a similar problem of needing to digitalize data which was originally handwritten.

Even though Whyte didn't make his field notes transparent, actually he couldn't because it just wasn't possible in the way we nowadays understand making something accessible, but he did an excellent job in describing and explicating the research process and the methodological considerations. This made the research and its findings comprehensible and open to scrutiny. And I believe this is what transparency in science should be about, rather than dumping 'raw' data at some database.

A timely solution of dealing with the question of how scientific research can be made transparent in an comprehensive way would be a combination of making available all (or all that is reasonably possible) the produced data and explicating all the important considerations and procedures of the research. If scientific knowledge production should be transparent, than people should not just get access to the produced data, but should be able to understand how the knowledge was produced. This is what would make the knowledge really socially robust.


  1. Very interesting point Bernhard. I have not read Whyte´s book, but I guess it is a remarkable fundamental guide for research in Social Sciences. In addition to your concepts of Transparency, Availability and Accesibility I would like to add the notion of Reproducibility. In my opinion, Reproducibility also helps to validate the data available and no only reinforces transparency and values of sharing data, but also helps to confirm accuracy in the research.

    1. You are right Lucía, considering reproducibility in the assessment of the rubustness of scienctific results is indeed an important thing to do.
      The problem about reproducability is that in social scientific research, where the historical moment as well as the place where the research was conducted are very relevant, reproducibility can not possibly be achieved. This is also the case in my example of Whyte's 'Streetcorner society', where an Italian 'subcultural' community in Chicago was observed in the 1930s.
      However, even if the results can not be reproduced, a research design oriented at Whyte's study could point out what differences there are between the community he observed and a community at a different place and time. This would not make Whyte's original findings more robust, but anyway, it could lead to interesting results.