coding, language, biernacki redux

Dylan Riley’s Contemporary Sociology review (paywall, sorry) of Biernacki’s Reinventing Evidence is out, and an odd review it is. H/T to Dan for noting it and sending it along. The essence of the review: Biernacki is right even though his evidence and argument are wrong. This controversy, along with a nearly diametrically opposed one on topic modeling (continued here) suggest to me that cultural sociology desperately needs a theory of language if we’re going to keep using texts as windows into culture (which, of course, we are). Topic modeling’s approach to language is intentionally atheoretical; Biernacki’s is disingenuously so.

Riley mentions early on my review of the book:

Andrew Perrin on the blog “Scatterplot” rejected Biernacki’s argument as pompous, muddled, overstated, and mean spirited. On its face, these reactions seem compelling evidence in favor of Biernacki’s central thesis that quantitative cultural sociologists are engaged primarily in a religious exercise: ritual. A clear, if implicit, implication of this analysis is that critics of the method should be treated as heretical outsiders to be banished from the community; and this seems to have been Biernacki’s experience to some extent.

This summary is bizarre, to say the least. My review contained evidence for my assertions: copious documentation for each of the descriptors, plus specific theoretical reasons to reject the argument. These are not “reactions,” and they neither name anyone as heretical nor call for banishment.

The funny thing about the review is that on the merits, Riley apparently agrees with each of the critiques I offered, e.g.:

there is some tension between Biernacki’s specific critiques of his three examples, and his broader claims about coding. For many of Biernacki’s strongest arguments refer not to coding per se, but to the selection of the documents to be coded…. the very power of Biernacki’s critiques along these lines raises questions about his broader claims.

One is left with a variant on the Freudian denial of neurosis. Rejecting the argument with cause is, apparently, equivalent to banishing people and naming them “heretical outsiders.” So the only valid option is, apparently, acceptance of the argument even though the argument is demonstrated to be untenable!

A proper theory of language–even a tentative one–would need to address the relationships among a text, its component parts, and its conditions of production and reception. These, in turn, would offer guidance in determining the particular kind of violence to be done to the text(s) in order to analyze it/them. Biernacki’s textual wholism is unjustifiable without recourse to a theory of language that stresses context above all else; topic modeling’s jettisoning of textual structure is unjustifiable without a theory that stresses lexical meaning. Perhaps it’s time for cultural sociology to rekindle our relationship with structuralist and poststructuralist linguistics.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

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