The significance of method in the social sciences: an interview with Professor Eugène Horber for the 26th Summer School in Social Science Methods
Institutional Communication Service
16 August 2022
More than 250 participants are attending the 26th Summer School in Social Science Methods, organised by USI in close collaboration with the Swiss centre of expertise in social sciences FORS. It is the highest number of participants - a third more than 2021 - hailing mainly from Swiss (149 enrolled, 36 from USI), Italian (24) and German (23) universities, with also a student from the United Arab Emirates; some 50 participants, on the other hand, have completed their studies.
We interviewed Eugène Horber, professor emeritus at the University of Geneva and founder of the Summer School in Social Sciences Methods, and Benedetto Lepori, professor at USI Faculty of Communication, Culture and Society, Rector's delegate for research analysis and director.
Professor Horber, what prompted you to create the Summer School in Social Science Methods 25 years ago?
The roots of the Summer School go back to the national programme Switzerland toward the future, which began to catch up with a major Swiss backlog in what we can call "the social science infrastructure" (large-scale surveys, methodological training for researchers).
Since the late 1950s, several data archives have been established, particularly in the United States, England, and Germany. On the one hand, the goal was to preserve research data and make it available to the entire scientific community and, on the other hand, to encourage a scientific culture of sharing and replication. This involved standardisation and documentation work: to enable data analysis, it was also necessary to disseminate appropriate methods, hence the creation of several quantitative methods summer schools (the Essex Summer School is 55 years old).
The first three years of the Swiss Summer School were funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation and were aimed at PhD students. It was an incentive to create an annual school financed by tuition. Institutionally, the Summer School was linked to the Swiss Data Archive (SIDOS, founded in 1993, and later its successor FORS). Initially, the idea was to create a travelling Summer School hosted by different universities to provide teaching and informatics classrooms and logistical support. However, USI was the only one that welcomed us with open arms, and today the Summer School is based there.
What is the approach?
The idea for the Swiss Summer School was inspired by my experience at Essex Summer School, where I taught for more than 10 years, and the gaps I found in the practical methodological skills of PhD students and young researchers in Switzerland. Although there has been significant development of methods training at the Master's and Bachelor's levels, these courses are too often theoretical, lacking in motivation, far removed from concrete research problems, and poorly integrated into the disciplinary curriculum. When starting a doctoral programme or collaborating on research, the lack of practical training in methodology becomes evident. Intense, short, practice-oriented courses play a central role in helping researchers quickly fill these gaps. And this applies to young researchers and all researchers who need to learn new methods or strengthen their skills.
Have course offerings changed since the beginning?
In addition to a base of statistics and modelling courses, course offerings have evolved according to the needs of researchers and the rise of new methods. Initially, course offerings were aimed primarily at PhD students, who are still the majority today, but as continuing education in methods is becoming increasingly important, junior and senior researchers from academia, public administration or private companies also regularly attend the Summer School.
How vital are statistical approaches and quantitative methods in the social sciences? These disciplines are sometimes considered "science without numbers."
The social sciences have been and still are too often marked by methodological wars between schools and an unnecessary debate between qualitative and quantitative approaches when both are complementary. Since the 1950s, quantitative methods have become central, if not dominant, in some disciplines, particularly in political science and sociology. If, as in Switzerland, we include psychology and the educational sciences among the social sciences, we add all experimental approaches that rely on quantitative tools. This development is strongly linked to the availability of statistical software, including SPSS (Statistical Package for the Social Sciences).
From your point of view, what are the strengths of the Summer School in Social Science Methods?
We ask faculty to devote at least 50 per cent of their teaching time to the practical application of the approach presented; we also ensure that faculty spend time discussing participants' research problems. Participants must be able to use the knowledge gained in their research work. We are also careful to involve only motivated teachers to advise participants on methodological issues beyond the teaching content.
The intensive one-week course (the equivalent of hours of a traditional semester-long university course) allows any motivated party to learn the essentials of a methodological approach in a short time. To acquire these skills, the only alternative to an intensive Summer School is a semester-long course, which not everyone can attend due to work commitments or family constraints. A short course also allows the attendees to assess the relevance of a method to their research in a short time and allows for greater exchange among participants who come from different backgrounds but face the same challenges. Finally, we must admit that the training conditions offered by USI and the quality of life in Lugano are optimal and very motivating, both for participants and faculty.
Professor Lepori, why did USI bet on the Summer School in Social Science Methods?
For USI, PhD training is a priority. Doctoral students are the professors and researchers of tomorrow, and we know that many of them, having left the academy, will hold positions of responsibility in public agencies and private companies. Moreover, providing advanced methodological training is important because methods are at the heart of research activity and guarantee the qualities and robustness of its results. In this sense, the Summer School represents a significant opportunity: it allows us to offer a much broader range of methodological courses than would be possible within USI and to benefit from the expertise of an international faculty; our doctoral students can compare themselves with peers from other Swiss and European universities, receiving new stimuli and creating collaborations; and, finally, it represents a showcase for USI at the Swiss and international level on an aspect, the PhD training, that is a hallmark of universities of excellence.
The decision to commit to this school taken by the USI Rectorate and the Faculty of Communication, Culture and Society was also based on the excellent work of Professor Horber, who over the years has created a quality product, and on a market assessment: at the European level there is only one large school like it, in the United Kingdom, and so there is room for a product in which to be specialised, as the numbers of participants show.
How does the Summer School fit into USI's educational offerings?
The Summer School is an integral part of the strategy for the development of PhD education promoted by the Rectorate, and in particular by Pro-rector Gagliardini, which involves developing synergies within Faculties and Institutes. Within this framework, the Summer School focuses on methodology courses (qualitative and quantitative) in the social sciences to serve the Faculty of Communication, Culture and Society and other USI Faculties where needed.
What do you think is responsible for the growing participation in the Summer School?
The surveys we have done show a very high level of satisfaction among participants who not only return to attend other courses but also encourage their colleagues. So it is primarily the quality of the offer, the unique environment of the school and the good logistics that justify its success. And, to this end, with the teachers, I have carefully examined participant feedback and adapted the course content and structure to their demands.
We also significantly expanded the offerings by providing basic courses on statistical software and some advanced courses on emerging methods, such as machine learning in the social sciences, to create a pool of participants and thus increase the school's visibility.
Finally, we are investing in the social and networking part. For the first time this year, we will hold a networking event at the Lido in Lugano with the participation of USI students, faculty and professors because we know that this social aspect is of great importance for research.