Even diehard social scientists have embraced purely quantitative methodologies in pandemic times

Published On: 21 June 2021|

The CoVID-19 pandemic has brought out the need to be agile, even if it goes against long-held principles, says Sarah Mosoetsa, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand and CEO of the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS).


Professor Mosoetsa (left) was speaking at Universities South Africa’s 6th Biennial Research and Innovation Dialogue of the Research and Innovation Strategy Group (RISG), held virtually on June 11. The session was on Ethical Research and Integrity and her topic was The NIHSS Experience: Research Integrity in the Social Sciences and Humanities.

The NIHSS CEO said some people in the humanities and social sciences (HSS) had always been totally opposed to research through surveys. They believe quantitative surveys don’t reveal many complexities, or the meanings people attach to their social world, and feel qualitative research “is the best thing ever, and it should be the only way”.

Yet, in the last 18 months of the pandemic, she had seen “even my best colleagues embrace surveys, even telephonic surveys, in ways that say we need to be agile”, she said.

“Now we need to adopt new methodologies to understand the effect of this pandemic on different communities, especially vulnerable communities,” said Mosoetsa, who is leading research on the socio-economic and political impact and implications of the pandemic in South Africa.


She said she had had a kneejerk reaction when first hearing the topic, wondering what research innovation had taken place during CoVID, when there had not been any research.  She had figured that if they could not engage with the community, their laboratories had effectively been shut down.


“However, we also live in a unique country that, at most, celebrates the humanities and social sciences”, she said.  And just when she thought South Africa was making the wrong assumptions about what the crisis is — because it’s not only about the health sciences — the country had embraced the humanities and social sciences. Even the state had intervened to the point where we are “able to have this particular conversation where HSS’s voice is heard, which I think says a lot about the country”, she said.


So, instead of research ethics and integrity, she was going was talk about research innovation, and how the humanities and social sciences community had been able to be innovative during difficult times. The state lockdowns and the recession with its budget cuts for funding had affected how they needed to respond and come up innovative ways of operating that are very ethical. “I want to echo the sentiments that Professor Burton (of the University of Pretoria who also presented a paper in the session) was alluding to, that research needs to be ethical at all times,” said Professor Mosoetsa.


The humanities sector had been attacked in 2020 for not leading the way in the pandemic. But they had not been able to lead, especially in the beginning when the crisis had been defined purely as a medical crisis, a health crisis, a natural disaster. In that context, they had let the natural sciences drive the agenda.  “At that point, all of us, including myself, and the HSS community, all we wanted was to be part of the vaccine rush,” she said. And natural scientists had been happy to lead because they were able to tell us where the pandemic was moving, the numbers of deaths and infections and the different formulations of the vaccine.


She said although it has been slow, the humanities and social sciences community had responded to the immediate crisis. Besides being agile in terms of adopting new methodologies, this community had been innovative by:


  • Exploring stakeholder collaboration by doing research on religious communities in partnership with the Cultural Religious and Linguistic (CRL) Rights Commission. This showed HSS has been able to extend beyond the confinements of university spaces and embrace the multidisciplinary ways of understanding they had been talking about for years. They had extended beyond the confinements of university-to- university collaboration to collaborate with their community beyond the university;
  • Leveraging from the challenging context of the recession, the pandemic, inequality, unemployment, and budget cuts – even at universities – to look at research partnerships. They are starting a conversation around research clusters. These do consider CoVID-19 but most of the clusters, and the cluster leaders from the University of the Free State to Walter Sisulu University to the University of Johannesburg, are clear that although they need to describe what is happening now, they also need to re-imagine a different society, a post-CoVID world. “I have marvelled at how the different individuals from the different universities have said, ‘Absolutely, let’s do things differently, let’s be innovative in ways that will take the country forward’,” said Mosoetsa.


Supposedly, what the research cluster leaders were saying was that CoVID-19 is an immediate health crisis, but it also happens to coincide with old and new fault lines, the economic crisis and limited resources. And its effects need to be considered in terms of the variables of class and gender, that is, to be understood using a different lens.


She said the way the humanities and social sciences had identified opportunities and new modalities in relation to research methodologies, collaboration, reflections, and engaging, as a country, suggested that we need to embrace new ways of knowing. “This is how we can build, from the bottom -up, the egalitarian society that all of us want.”


In the discussion session that ensued, Professor Mosoetsa said that besides issues of quality and ethics that had dominated the afternoon’s proceedings at the RISG Dialogue, gatekeeping also had to be taken into account: who decides what is good, what is bad, and what is counted and what is not counted. Gatekeeping is about who are the knowledge producers in this country, and who should be the knowledge producers of this country, linked to the subjectivity of who then says ‘No, ‘this is bad quality and therefore should not be counted’.


Professor Ahmed Bawa, CEO of USAf, said he wanted to thank Professor Mosoetsa for raising the fact that ethics is not just about the ethics of individual researchers but also about the ethics of the system.


Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.