By: Daniel Corral, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Inspired by my academic and research experience as a McNair Scholar, I entered graduate school interested in applying critical theoretical frameworks to explore disparities as they relate to college access and success of Students of Color.
Similar to experience of my colleague Na Lor (read her post blog post here ), I was poised on conducting qualitative research. However, the need to secure funding for my studies pushed me out of my comfort zone. Among many other fellowships and scholarships, I applied to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Interdisciplinary Training Program (ITP). Funded by the Institute of Education Sciences, ITP offered a three-year fellowship to graduate students interested in learning how to conduct quantitative research, with an emphasis on causal inference.
I was fortunate to receive an ITP fellowship. Besides the funding opportunity, I was excited about being trained in a methodological tradition completely unfamiliar to me and also about being trained by renowned experts. Nevertheless, I was skeptical whether using quantitative methods will align with my research interests.
The statistics classes I took taught me how to apply statistical concepts, but not how they can be used for social-justice purposes, or how to think critically about the methods themselves. Consequently, I started to branch out and look for scholars that do critical quantitative work. I found the work of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Tufuku Zuberi very influential. Work by Nancy Lopez, Edward Vargas, and Nicole Garcia also served as exemplars of how to use quantitative methods and explore issues related to race in education. Reading these scholars pushed my thinking and exposed me to ways of modeling I had not previously considered. Informed by this body of work, here are some thoughts I continue to ponder about how to conduct critical research:
Research methodologies have a history
Learning a methodology alone takes a lot of time practice. However, researchers seldom interrogate the premises on which their methodologies rest. When reading Zuberi and Bonilla-Silva’s (2008) book White Logic, White Methods, I learned that social statistics originated from the work of Francis Galton. Galton was a vehement eugenicist that used statistics to argue for a racial hierarchy. This history made me realize that quantitative methods were not initially meant to promote equity. Sample size, for example, is a perennial issue that forces researchers to lump minoritized populations into a single group. Doing so masks variability in populations that cannot and should not be hidden. Thus, sample size is one such issue that critical quantitative researchers confront and contest.
Positionality is also relevant for quantitative researchers
Qualitative research often includes a reflexivity or positionality statement where researchers disclose how their background influences all aspects of the research. According to Creswell (2013), “how we write is a reflection of our own interpretations based on the cultural, social, gender, class, and personal politics that we bring to research” (p. 215). As a result, quantitative research’s ideal of objectivity is not only fallacious, but potentially dangerous. Quantitative researchers must acknowledge that the way they model and the variables they use reflect their personal background and what they deem important to study.
Race, class, and gender variables are neither natural, nor neutral
Race, class, and gender are all social constructions. The way these common demographic variables are measured imply a clear-cut and stable reality that does not exist. In other words, these variables normalize identity constructs that do not need or want to be normalized. These variables also overlook diversity within each category and any cases that do not quite fit either within them. Moreover, one must consider that these constructs change over time and context. Race, class, and gender are always in relation to other social variables. This should make researchers question, for example, whether or not there is an effect of being “black”, “male,” or “black and male.”
Be critical of the “critical” label
The notion of criticality is broad. Even my use of the word in the title and throughout the blog post begs clarification. Many different research traditions claim to be “critical” and few researchers would admit their work is not critical. From my point of view, critical researchers ought to acknowledge issues of power not only in their theoretical framework and research topic, but also through their positionality and in the methods used.
In this post, I reflect on some key aspects of the quantitative research process that researchers aiming to produce critical work may want to consider. Being a critical quantitative researcher requires careful attention and self-reflection throughout the research process.
Daniel Corral is a doctoral student in the Department of Educational Leadership & Policy Analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His dissertation explores policies and contexts that influence college attendance for immigrant populations. Daniel is also an Interdisciplinary Training Program Fellow at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research.
Bonilla-Silva, E., & Zuberi, E. (2008). Toward a definition of white logic and white methods. In E. Bonilla-Silva & T. Zuberi (Eds.), White logic, white methods. Racism and methodology (3-27). Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers.
Creswell, J. W. (2013). Qualitative inquiry & research design: Choosing among five approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishing.