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Which are the most "qualitative" PhD programs?


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Hey guys, I am a junior in college now, and I am researching about Sociology PhD programs. I am very interested in doing research with qualitative methods, especially ethnographyDo you know what programs specializes in doing research qualitatively? I am not very passionate about studying methodology, but I am talking about the way of doing research. I am thinking of apply to programs in the top 30. Which are the most "qualitative" programs? Thank you!

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There is already a thread from last year about this: 

 

To sum up:

Most top departments will have at least a few people doing qualitative work, and most will have an ethnographer. That being said, if you are looking for departments with a distinct qualitative/ethnographic flavor overall in the top 30, those that come to my mind are Berkeley, Harvard, UCLA, UT-Austin, NYU, Yale, UC Irvine, CUNY, Rutgers.

 

That being said, the main question when applying to PhD programs should probably be the topic you want to study and the theoretical approach you want to take, rather than just a qualitative-quantitative dichotomy. Eg, if you really want to do urban ethnography you will most likely also want to look at Princeton (Duneier) or Columbia (Venkatesh), regardless of the methodological leanings of the department overall.

Edited by RandomDood
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Northwestern, as far as I'm aware, is good for Ethnography. CU-Boulder also has one of the largest concentrations of qualitative researchers in sociology and allows students to specialize in qualitative methods. 

 

As the previous poster said, though, there are qualitative people at many programs. I'm personally interested in qualitative methods, but primarily applied to programs that did research in my area of interest rather than places that were well-known for qualitative work. 

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That being said, the main question when applying to PhD programs should probably be the topic you want to study and the theoretical approach you want to take, rather than just a qualitative-quantitative dichotomy. Eg, if you really want to do urban ethnography you will most likely also want to look at Princeton (Duneier) or Columbia (Venkatesh), regardless of the methodological leanings of the department overall.

 

I concur 100% but a word to the weary -  if the program is famous for quantitative methodologies;  it probably is.    I haven't even heard the word qualitative methodology since startng my program but we have other programs/departments that are heavy in qualitative (DSOC, ILR, Policy).   You are always able to spend your electives outside of the direct department thus you can get your qualitative fix from other departments if needed.   Finding a advisor tho might be harder

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The qualitative-quant thing is important, sure, but we definitely have a few people who are doing qualitative work with advisers known for quantitative work (it rarely goes the other way, but it can).  It's important to recognize also that there are multiple qualitative methodologies and multiple quantitative methodologies.  I started out wanting to do historical-comparative work and my project will be largely ethnographic... but probably with at least two chapters that do some quantitative analysis (vanilla regressions).  I didn't really know much about stats when I came into the program.  You should use the method that best fits your question.  As my question changed, the methods I wanted to use changed too. 

 

One of my colleagues came in wanting to do STS-style social theory, but caught up with networks bug and now is spending the two years doing methodology classes to catch up.  Another one of my colleagues came in as a "networks guy", but then decided that the networks approach was too limited, and got caught up in historical/comparative and through that got interested in "professions" (a la Andy Abbott), and then ended up designing a qualitative thesis... this thesis had a small quantitative part (scraping data from the internet to make networks), but the early results on that were so promising it's become the main part of his thesis so he's back to being a "networks guy".  Two years ago he told me never wanted to write a paper with regression, but I came to him with an interesting question and a dataset we could use to answer that question and now we're collaborating on a paper that mainly uses regressions (with a small historical element).  I talked with the Andy Papachristos (who's now a professor at Yale) and when he talked about his career trajectory, he explained that he started as an ethnographer and that his ethnographic dissertation research kept pointing to coeffender networks so he just had to learn all the networks stuff and now he's known pretty much just for quant research (some regression based stuff but mainly networks). 

 

My point is, sociology is a wonderful discipline because it lets you use a variety of methods to answer important questions. Obviously, you'll have ones that you're more comfortable with and obviously you should pick an adviser who can actually give you advice and obviously some departments are stronger in certain methodologies, but topics change and I don't know if it's a good idea to be averse to any one method.  If you do urban ethnography, or interview-based organization work, or historical comparative stuff looking state formation, those are all "qualitative" projects, with very different methodologies.  And those urban ethnographers end up needing to understand stats because you need to at least be able to read about neighborhood effects, and the orgs interviewers probably need to understand networks and some ecological models, minimally and I've found historical-comparative kids end up friends with the networks kids because we're generally the weird ones who are interested in weird questions (I don't think this is just my program, I think this is a broader pattern I've noticed, but I'm not sure).

 

/shpiel, that wasn't really directed at you by the end there, sorry...

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ASA publishes a guide to graduate programs in the US (and some Canadian programs as well) and they break it down by specialties and sub-fields.  I don't have the book in front me, but I know there is a section devoted to qualitative methodologies.  You should check it out.

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The qualitative-quant thing is important, sure, but we definitely have a few people who are doing qualitative work with advisers known for quantitative work (it rarely goes the other way, but it can).  It's important to recognize also that there are multiple qualitative methodologies and multiple quantitative methodologies.  I started out wanting to do historical-comparative work and my project will be largely ethnographic... but probably with at least two chapters that do some quantitative analysis (vanilla regressions).  I didn't really know much about stats when I came into the program.  You should use the method that best fits your question.  As my question changed, the methods I wanted to use changed too. 

 

One of my colleagues came in wanting to do STS-style social theory, but caught up with networks bug and now is spending the two years doing methodology classes to catch up.  Another one of my colleagues came in as a "networks guy", but then decided that the networks approach was too limited, and got caught up in historical/comparative and through that got interested in "professions" (a la Andy Abbott), and then ended up designing a qualitative thesis... this thesis had a small quantitative part (scraping data from the internet to make networks), but the early results on that were so promising it's become the main part of his thesis so he's back to being a "networks guy".  Two years ago he told me never wanted to write a paper with regression, but I came to him with an interesting question and a dataset we could use to answer that question and now we're collaborating on a paper that mainly uses regressions (with a small historical element).  I talked with the Andy Papachristos (who's now a professor at Yale) and when he talked about his career trajectory, he explained that he started as an ethnographer and that his ethnographic dissertation research kept pointing to coeffender networks so he just had to learn all the networks stuff and now he's known pretty much just for quant research (some regression based stuff but mainly networks). 

 

My point is, sociology is a wonderful discipline because it lets you use a variety of methods to answer important questions. Obviously, you'll have ones that you're more comfortable with and obviously you should pick an adviser who can actually give you advice and obviously some departments are stronger in certain methodologies, but topics change and I don't know if it's a good idea to be averse to any one method.  If you do urban ethnography, or interview-based organization work, or historical comparative stuff looking state formation, those are all "qualitative" projects, with very different methodologies.  And those urban ethnographers end up needing to understand stats because you need to at least be able to read about neighborhood effects, and the orgs interviewers probably need to understand networks and some ecological models, minimally and I've found historical-comparative kids end up friends with the networks kids because we're generally the weird ones who are interested in weird questions (I don't think this is just my program, I think this is a broader pattern I've noticed, but I'm not sure).

 

/shpiel, that wasn't really directed at you by the end there, sorry...

 

Dear jacib, 

 

Thank you so much for your detailed answer! It is actually very helpful. The way people talk about their interests in Sociology in my undergrad institution is by first deciding whether one is a micro or macro person, and whether one is a theoretical or empirical person. I personally don't have much interest in theory, and I am very interested in the empirical side of micro Sociology. Do all these dichotomic divisions matter in choosing PhD programs? And in another word, what matters the most when choosing programs? Thank you so much in advance!

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Probably about four things matter (in no particular order): 

overall quality/reputation: there are a couple of rankings threads around, I think there's a "rising programs" thread on the front page that might be worth reading.  As much as we like to think only the quality of our work matters, we're sociologists, we know how this works.  There's no reason to choose a program ranked #1 over a program ranked #5 (they're probably the same) but a department ranked #5 is probably noticeably less prestigious than one ranked #20.  This is something to consider.

support: in terms stipend, though most top schools are more or less comparable in terms of stipend. This is something that you probably won't consider until you see where you're in.  Teaching/TAing is usually split with public schools doing a lot more teaching which leads to generally longer years to degree--most people still, probably rightly, choose places like Madison or Berkeley over a place like Penn or NYU, because even though the former take longer than the letter (and have slightly lower stipends, I think), the pay-off in terms of placement/jobs is likely to be greater (see above).  There is also just overall support of the direction you want to go.  Some schools give you great methods training (qualitative, quantitative, networks, historical, whatever), but tend to support very "normal science" work.  Other schools tend to support very creative and a little bit weird work.  You can kind of figure this out by looking at web pages and things like that, but it's not totally possible.  My school supports people doing a lot of weird things all over the map, other schools (including schools higher ranked than us) tend to focus on the more traditional cores of sociology (inequality/urban/race and now networks).  Lastly, some schools had a reputation of not being super supportive of graduate students (Madison had this reputation for a while, but they toally changed the way they funded students maybe five years ago and I heard it's changed)--this last thing is the hardest to figure out as a prospective student and can probably only possibly be figured out after you're in, on a visiting weekend, by actively quizzing people (I wouldn't tell people the downsides of my school unless someone specifically ask, and then I'd give them a pros and cons list).

 

subfield quality: subfield ranking is generally less important than overall ranking for job placement (at least in direct terms), but definitely matters more for getting into a program.  This is what people are talking about when they talk about "fit".  Think about the project you want to propose, how does it fit into the ASA's sections?  Methodology? I've written else where, but my cohorts projects have changed dramatically.  But the person who cared about law and women still studies law and women (and added technology), the person who cared about race and education still cares about race and education, the person who did networks and economic sociology did a lot of things but ended up back with networks and economic sociology, the person who did China still does China (original project was very strat-y, but now does more science stuff), the person who did networks and education (but mainly networks) now does networks and historical/comparative, came in religion and politics and Turkey and I still do religion and politics and Turkey, etc.  Since religion is a tiny subfield this didn't apply to me as directly (I just needed someone to sponsor me) as there are only a couple of departments (Princeton, Baylor, Notre Dame) that have any reputation as good places to study religion, but I did choose a place that was supportive my original methodology/subfield (historical-comparative), though I didn't really realize this at the time, this was half-luck. 

 

adviser match/quality: It seems unlikely you'll get in if there's no one who could help you.  Here's where the "theory" stuff might matter.  Do the people in your subfield work using the methods and outlooks you're interested in?  Some specialists work with a wide variety of student in their subdiscipline.  For example, at Chicago, I think William Julius Wilson and Robert Sampson are on most of the urban sociology dissertation committees, and that can give you very Marxist people like Loic Wacquant, more middle of the road conventional liberals like Sudhir Venkatesh, some very quanty neighborhood effects people, and some more policy oriented people (the closest I can come up with off the top of my head is Eric Klinenberg, but he's obviously not really policy-policy).  My point is a wide variety of people work with those people.  When I applied to schools, I applied to work with Cihan Tuğal at Berkeley.  He's very interested in religion and politics in Turkey, but he's very Marxist.  Knowing what I know now, I still would have applied to Berkeley, but I would recognize that my very un-Marxist approach might not jibe with him.  Or alternatively, maybe I would have made my proposal a little more radical and thrown in slightly different language.  Similarly, someone with a strong Marxist approach might have better luck at NYU or Berkeley than say Harvard or Columbia.  Likewise, I applied to work with Phil Gorski at Yale, but he has a very archival, document based, very traditional historical approach that most of his students follow (though he does have some interview based or ethnographic students as well, I think).  Again, I would have applied, but if I had realized that, I might have written my statement somewhat differently (though I did do right trying to connect these historical religious events to large debates within the field, as that's something Gorski is probably better at than anyone else).  That said, I'm not sure it's always possible to know these sorts of things about individual schools before you apply unless you have particularly good advising.  I had someone helping me out who knew all the exciting sociology of religion people, but I can't remember if she knew the details of Tuğal (who is more typically thought of as political sociology) or Gorski (who is more typically thought of as historical-comparative).  There are some people who get great placements (one of the big names in my department has particularly good placements) and some that are notoriously hard to work with (one of the big names in my department has not graduated any notable students; another has graduate few students but these students have gotten good placements).  All that said, people often switch around advisers once they're in, and part of it is based on personality.  I came in to clearly work with one adviser, and no one else really works as closely on what my thing is, but I still probably could have found someone to work with once I got in.  Adviser personality-type things matters more for small subfields (at the department level) than for big subfields, obviously, since you have more people to work with in big subfields.

 

I can`t speak for other programs, but in my program one certainly doesn`t choose between macro- and micro- from the start.  I went from taking a very macro-view, and now am taking a very micro-view (of a macro process), from how the state affects people to how people affect the state.  How one engages with theory (especially, whether or not one is Marxist, or wants to engage with critical grand theory like Bourdieu and Foucault, less so if someone wants to engage with specific theories in the field) and how one engages with methods (especially, whether someone has or will take a lot of statistics classes) matter a bit more, but those categories are malleable.  I have a friend who is, in certain ways, the most politically conservative, entirely quantitative, demographic person in my cohort and works (very well) with the most Marxist professor, one who never uses statistics but does a lot of big picture theorizing, in the department--the professor is one of those people who works with a variety of people though, and the student and the professor shares a strong substantive interest in a subfield.  In some programs, I've heard that there's a more distinct quantitative/qualitative divide (departments are often quite good at both), but I don't know how things really work in departments other than my own.

 

The difficult thing is most of these sort of things (about the dispositions of individual professors, resources available to students), I realize, you can`t really know until you`re already in the system, or at least probably until visiting weekend.  Try to think about overall ``fit``.  I think the best two threads that talk about these things are FertMigMort`s and the from the 2010 Applicants (there's also an but that got less play).  Those give you an idea of what programs look for in you, which will get you some idea of what you should look for in a program.  Also, the user "faculty" probably gives the best advice on the forum so keep an eye out for them.  But overall, there's no silver bullet way to find the right school, especially if you're kind of in the cracks between multiple topics (I am between political sociology, sociology of religion, and historical comparative).  Talk to as many smart, knowledgable people as possible.  How I ended up at my department was that I found a scholar whose work I really like who didn't work at a PhD granting department and I just emailed him out of the blue, "Can I work with you? [i knew the answer was no], If I can't work with you, who should I work with?"  He (incredibly generously) offered to talk on the phone for me, and he went through a variety of departments, some of which were on my list already, some of which weren't for me, but he recommended a political scientist at the school I ended up going to, and that made me research the sociology department and led me to my adviser.  It was very random and incredibly lucky (when that professor came by to give a talk, I thanked him profusely).  I also knew people who already researched Turkey or the Middle East, I looked at which schools taught Turkish language (a "method" I needed to continue to learn), and that narrowed my list some, too.  Like I mentioned, I had a sociology of religion professor who helped me find sociology of religion programs, but there aren't a ton of those.  I also just went through most of the top-25 and read the bios of all the professors and see who sounded like they were doing interesting work. This led me to find one or two potential matches, but also led me down some wrong paths (I applied to Northwestern to historical comparative stuff with very Marxist professors when my project I don't think would necessarily appeal to them--I hadn't realized that at the time, and honestly don't think I had a chance; knowing what I know now about their work, I'm not sure I would have applied there, though like I mentioned, there are other Marxist professors I would still apply to work with).

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I have one question. Who are the Marxist professors doing comparative-historical research at Northwestern? Thank you jacib.

Monica Prasad just won some big book award for her The Land of Too Much.  The other person I was specifically thinking of apparently retired or otherwise moved on (I believe he had an Slavic name and said he was interested in taking a "conflict theory" approach, according to his website).  Those were the two I'm pretty sure I mentioned in my SoP, and I probably shouldn't have focused on them--especially now that I look at their website and realize how many other great historical sociologists they have. I had picked Northwestern in part because I wanted to move back to Chicago and in part because there is a really cool lady who teaches at their Political Science department I wanted to work with; I didn't do a very much research on the people I listed and I didn't really understand historical comparative sociology, either, so my SoP didn't properly frame my project as historical comparative.  Again, it's not that I don't think these professors aren't good, just I don't think the project I proposed would appeal, especially as written.

 

Edit: Of the other professors doing historical comparative work there, I think Sheila Orloff is a leftist but I really can't remember precisely.

Edited by jacib
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Edit: Of the other professors doing historical comparative work there, I think Sheila Orloff is a leftist but I really can't remember precisely.

 

Sheila Orloff is somewhere around the left-ist lean but I would say that a lot of the work of the "social politics"  school has been done in reaction to the neglections of Marxist work.   Lesie McCann is there as well and she does a lot of stuff that is closely related to Orloff's stuff. 

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