Note. This is quite a ranty blog post – especially the first two paragraphs. Readers may therefore wish to read it in the voice of Bernard Black from the series Black Books to make it more palatable. You may also be interested in our short BMJ comment.
Many of the social science papers I read have long jargon-heavy sections justifying the methodology used. This is particularly common in writeups of qualitative studies, though not unheard of in quantitative work. There are reflections on epistemology and ontology – sometimes these must be discussed by doctoral students if they are to acquire a degree.
There is discussion of social constructionism, critical realism, phenomenology, interpretation, intersubjectivity, hermeneutics. “But what is reality, really?” the authors ponder; “What can we know?” Quantitative analysis is “positivist” and to find or construct meaning you need a qualitative analysis (it is claimed).
Although I love philosophy, most of this reflection bores me to tears and seems irrelevant.
I think many differences between methods are exaggerated, clever-sounding –isms are fetishised, grandiose meta-theories concerning the nature of reality are used to explain away straightforward study limitations such as poor sampling. I bet some researchers feel they have to reel off fancy terminology to play the academic game, even though they think it’s bollocks.
But there are different kinds of research in the social sciences, beyond the dreary qual versus quant distinction as usually discussed. Might it be easiest to see the differences in terms of the goals of the research? Here are three examples of goals, to try to explain what I mean.
Evoke empathy. If you can’t have a chat with someone then the next best way to empathise with them is via a rich description by or about them. There is a bucket-load of pretentiousness in the literature (search for “thick description” to find some). But skip over this and there are wonderful works which are simply stories. I love stories. Biographies you read which make you long to meet the subject are prime examples. Film documentaries, though not fitting easily into traditional research output, are another. Anthologies capturing concise, emotive expressions of people’s lived experience. “Interpretative Phenomenological Analyses” manage to include stories too, though you might have to wade through nonsense to get to them.
Classify. This may be the classification of perspectives, attitudes, experiences, processes, organisations, or other stuff-that-happens in society. For example: social class, personality, goals people have in psychological therapy, political orientation, mental health problem, emotional experiences. The goal here is to impose structure on material, reveal patterns, whether it be interview responses, answers on Likert scales, or some other kind of observation. There’s no escaping theory, articulated and debated or unarticulated and unchallenged, when doing this. There may be a hierarchical structure to classifications. There may be categorical or dimensional judgments (or both, where the former is derived from a threshold on the latter), e.g., consider Myers-Briggs or the Big Five personality types. Dimensions are quantitative things, but there are qualitative differences between them.
Predict. Finally you often want to make predictions. Do people occupying a particular social class location tend to experience some mental health difficulties more often than others? Does your personality predict the kinds of books you like to read. Do particular events predict an emotion you will feel? Other predictions concern the impact of interventions of various kinds (broadly construed). What would happen if you voted Green and told your friends you were going to do so? What would happen if you funded country-wide access to cognitive behavioural therapy rather than psychoanalysis? Theory matters here too, usually involving a story or model of why variables relate to each other.
These distinctions cannot be straightforwardly mapped onto quantitative and qualitative analysis. As we wrote in 2016:
“Some qualitative research develops what looks like a taxonomy of experiences or phenomena. Much of this isn’t even framed as qualitative. Take for example Gray’s highly-cited work classifying type 1 and type 2 synapses. His labelled photos of cortex slices illustrate beautifully the role of subjectivity in qualitative analysis and there are clear questions about generalisability. Some qualitative analyses use statistical models of quantitative data, for example latent class analyses showing the different patterns of change in psychological therapies.”
People often try to make predictions without using a quantitative model. Others use quantitative approaches to develop qualitatively different groups. Cartoonish characterisations of the different approaches to doing social (and natural) science research stifle creativity and misrepresent how the research is and could actually be done.