From crisis to renaissance: Rense Corten about the future of empirical sociology

The rise of big companies that collect data on a large scale could, according to some sociologists, lead to the downfall of empirical sociology. Surveys would become irrelevant due to the development of modern techniques and data collection by big companies. In Sociologie Magazine, Rense Corten (Utrecht University) writes about this pessimistic view on the future of sociology that was current in 2007. He reflects – fifteen years later – on the question whether empirical sociology really is in such a poor state by now. 

In his interim balance, Corten explores more closely the ‘diagnosis’ of sociologists Mike Savage and Roger Burrows in 2007. Though their stance was controversial at the time, the points they address are still relevant, he indicates: fewer and fewer people are prepared to fill in surveys, and digitization of society has hugely impacted the possibilities for data collection. These data collections are, however, often in private hands, which strongly limits the possibilities of academic research. And while ‘data science’ is growing, it does not make much use of sociological theory. 

Even so, Corten is carefully optimistic, in particular because of the developments that have been taking place within empirical sociology: Sociologists increasingly use new types of data and are developing methods to research these. Digital data collection is also continuously developed further. Moreover, sociologists join forces to modernise the field, for instance within ODISSEI. Finally, the revaluation for sociological knowledge offers hope for the future. ‘If sociologists can combine this renewed interest in the discipline with the current momentum of innovation in research methods, we can, after the “crisis” of Savage and Burrows, maybe even modestly hope for a renaissance in empirical sociology’, Corten concludes. 

Read the text of the entire article (in Dutch): Rense Corten, ‘Van crisis naar renaissance: de toekomst van de empirische sociologie’, Sociologie Magazine 30.1 (2022).

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