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Ilana Horwitz organized and moderated a roundtable on "Methods Matter"

Feb 22 2018

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Jewish Studies & Education graduate student Ilana Horwitz attended the 49th annual conference of the Association for Jewish Studies in held at the Marriott Marquis Washington, DC on December 17-19, 2017. 

At the 2017, I organized and moderated a roundtable conversation about research methods called “Methods Matter”. The idea for this roundtable came out of a lively debate on the ASSJ list serve about how methods are used in the social scientific study of Jewry. The goal of the roundtable was to address the following question: How can social scientists and evaluators conduct research that is empirically-sound without getting so bogged down in the methods that we lose sight of real-world problems?  This question is of great importance to social scientists because the methods we use to answer research questions largely determine the kind of data we are able to collect, and the claims we can make based on the data collected. Yet scholars have varying opinions about the validity and utility of different research methods. Given that practitioners and funders look to research to make decisions about where to invest their money, and how to do their work, it is imperative for scholars to have an honest conversation about how and why methods matter. The following are a few highlights from each participant’s remarks:

Riv-Ellen Prell, Professor of American Studies at University of Minnesota, argued that we should be more focused on generating sound research questions, which drive our research approaches, and subsequently our methods.  She spoke about ethnography as a research method that she has “become concerned with some of the ways that ethnographic research is advanced without a clear enough sense of what it can and cannot do, and why the conversations have not sufficiently focused on the research questions that are appropriate to different methodologies.”

Steven M. Cohen, Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at HUC-JIR, discussed how we should adjust research methods to deal with limited resources, how we should communicate findings to audiences to maximize impact, and how ideas matter more than methods.

Ariela Keysar, Demographer and associate research professor in public policy and law at Trinity College, discussed the benefits of longitudinal research.

Michael Feuer, Dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development and Professor of Education Policy at the George Washington University, and Past President of the National Academy of Education, reflected on the public’s low appetite (recently at least) for data, and what that means for social scientists.

We also discussed the following argument made my Charles Kadushin:

Contemporary Jewry is a journal for the social science study of Jewry. The word “scientific” study added to social science study is superfluous. If it means anything at all it is simply that the studies should conform to the current best methodological practices of social research. With a few notable exceptions, there is no such thing as Jewish methods or Jewish research. There is research that represents the best methodological standards and there is research that falls short of those standards. Sadly, much current Jewish research whether published or in unpublished reports to clients and Jewish stakeholders fails to meet current methodological standards.