Interview , News of 2 October 2015

SOEP People: Five Questions to Thorsten Schneider

Thorsten Schneider is a professor of sociology at the University of Leipzig. He was a research associate in the SOEP from 2000 to 2005. During this time, he also wrote his dissertation on social origins and educational outcomes, and he received his doctor’s degree from the University of Zurich (Switzerland) in 2005. To this day, his main research areas include educational sociology, comparative social structural research, generational relations, and methods of longitudinal analysis. We talked to Thorsten Schneider about the role of sociology in society, the connection between education and religion, and about why research should never be “me-search”.

1.      How did you decide to study sociology?

I did community service in lieu of military service, working for the protestant church commissioner for foreigners in the region of Germany I come from. The experiences I had there showed me that society is not very open towards immigrants or minorities. I was undoubtedly very idealistic at that time and believed that a better society was possible. But over the course of my studies in sociology, I gave up my idealistic notions about the subject. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I am a researcher. And research is not politics. The point is to describe and to explain what you observe, and you shouldn’t mix that with your own political attitudes and convictions.

2.      You said you gave up your idealistic views about sociology. What is it that makes sociology so interesting for you today?

What makes sociology so interesting is the same thing makes every scientific field so interesting. You have a research question, you derive hypotheses from it, and you test them. In so doing, you produce new knowledge. And where that will eventually lead is an open question. You also sometimes get results that surprise you. For example, we used the SOEP data to study whether religion affects children’s educational outcomes. Actually, one would assume that this is not the case—especially in East Germany, where so few people have any religious affiliation at all. Yet what we found was that in East Germany, the percentage of academic-track secondary school students was higher among Catholics and Protestants than it was among non-religious students.

3.      You grew up on a farm in Hunsrück between the Rhine and Mosel Rivers. Did your childhood there play any role in your career choice?

Well, as an educational sociologist, my research deals with questions like: What chances does a working-class child have of getting a higher education? It’s fairly obvious what that might have to do with my own biography. I grew up on a farm without many role models for the career path I chose. None of the adults in my family had gone to university. But for me, research is not “me-search”. My personal experiences don’t influence my research. You have to keep a distance from what you are studying. You can’t analyze data and choose methods from the standpoint of your own biography. You need a certain distance or your focus will become too narrow. After all, personal perception is highly selective.

4.      Do you have days when you wish you had gone into a different field than research?

As a researcher, especially at the level of my position, you have a great deal of freedom. You don’t have a boss who tells you specifically what you should research. The unpleasant part about a career in research is when your papers are rejected. Oftentimes the referee reports actually do help. Many make good points and you’re able to improve your paper. But sometimes they are just devastating. And when you get a rejection, it brings you down. That’s why it’s so important to have a real passion for what you do. Tough periods and dry spells will come, and you have to know why it is that you’re doing what you’re doing.

5.      You’ve been working with the SOEP data for 17 years now. What makes the SOEP so interesting for you?

The great thing about the SOEP data is that they’ve been collected annually since 1984 so you can follow changes over time—in fact, over a very long period of time. Of course, there are a whole series of studies that ask their respondents retrospective questions about what happened at a particular point in time in the past. But people have memory gaps. For instance, if you asked me when I started pre-school I wouldn’t be able to give you a precise answer. With the SOEP, you don’t have those kinds of problems. The same people are interviewed on a regular basis—once every year. That gives you much more reliable information.

See our interview in a video in the DIW Mediathek (in German).