Qual and quant – subjective and objective?

“… tensions between quantitative and qualitative methods can reflect more on academic politics than on epistemology. Qualitative approaches are generally associated with an interpretivist position, and quantitative approaches with a positivist one, but the methods are not uniquely tied to the epistemologies. An interpretivist need not eschew all numbers, and positivists can and do carry out qualitative studies (Lin, 1998). ‘Quantitative’ need not mean ‘objective’. Subjective approaches to statistics, for instance Bayesian approaches, assume that probabilities are mental constructions and do not exist independently of minds (De Finetti, 1989). Statistical models are seen as inhabiting a theoretical world which is separate to the ‘real’ world though related to it in some way (Kass, 2011). Physics, often seen as the shining beacon of quantitative science, has important examples of qualitative demonstrations in its history that were crucial to the development of theory (Kuhn, 1961).”

Fugard and Potts (2015, pp. 671-672)

From methods to goals in social science research

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 this short BMJ comment.

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Onwards…

Many of the social science papers I read have long jargon-heavy sections justifying the methods 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.

 

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Linking statistics and qualitative methods

You’ll be aware of the gist. Quantitative statistical models are great for generalizing, also data suitable for the stats tends to be quicker to analyze than qualitative data. More qualitative methods, such as interviewing, tend to provide much richer information, but generalization is very tricky and often involves coding up so the data can be fitted using the stats. How else can the two (crudely defined here!) approaches to analysis talk to each other?

I like this a lot:

“In the social sciences we are often criticized by the ethnographers and the anthropologists who say that we do not link in with them sufficiently and that we simply produce a set of statistics which do not represent reality.”

“… by using league tables, we can find examples of places which are perhaps not outliers but where we want to look for the pathways of influence on why they are not outliers. For example, one particular Bangladeshi village would have been expected to have high levels of immunization, whereas it was down in the middle of the table with quite a large confidence interval. This seemed rather strange, but our colleagues were able to attribute this to a fundamentalist imam. […] Another example is a village at the top of the league table, which our colleagues could attribute to a very enthusiastic school-teacher.”

“… by connecting with the qualitative workers, by encouraging the fieldworkers to look further at particular villages and by saying to them that we were surprised that this place was good and that one was bad, we could get people to understand the potential for linking the sophisticated statistical methods with qualitative research.” (Ian Diamond and Fiona Steele, from a comment on a paper by Goldstein and Spiegelhalter, 1996, p. 429)

Also reminds me of a study by Turner and Sobolewska (2009) which split participants on their Systemizing and Empathizing Quotient scores. Participants were asked, “What is inside a mobile phone?” Here’s what someone with high EQ said:

“It flashes the lights, screen flashes, and the buttons lights up, and it vibrates. It comes to life on the inside and it comes to life on the outside, and you talk to the one side and someone is answering on the other side”

And someone with high SQ:

“Many things, circuit boards, chips, transceiver [laughs], battery [pause], a camera in some of them, a media player, buttons, lots of different things. [pause] Well there are lots and lots of different bits and pieces to the phone, there are mainly in … Eh, like inside the chip there are lots of little transistors, which is used, they build up to lots of different types of gates…”

(One possible criticism is that the SQ/EQ just found students of technical versus non-technical subjects… But the general idea is still lovely.)

Would be great to see more quantitative papers with little excerpts of stories. We tried in our paper on spontaneous shifts of interpretation on a probabilistic reasoning task (Fugard, Pfeifer, Mayerhofer & Kleiter, 2011, p. 642), but we only squeezed in a few sentences:

‘Participant 34 (who settled into a conjunction interpretation) said: “I only looked at the shape and the color, and then always out of 6; this was the quickest way.” Participant 37, who shifted from the conjunction to the conditional event, said: “In the beginning [I] always [responded] ‘out of 6,’ but then somewhere in the middle . . . Ah! It clicked and I got it. I was angry with myself that I was so stupid before.” Five participants spontaneously reported when they shifted during the task, for example, saying, “Ah, this is how it works.”’

References

Fugard, A. J. B., Pfeifer, N., Mayerhofer, B., & Kleiter, G. D. (2011).  How people interpret conditionals: Shifts towards the conditional event.  Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 37, 635–648.

Goldstein, H. & Spiegelhalter, D. J. (1996). League tables and their limitations: statistical issues in comparisons of institutional performance. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society. Series A (Statistics in Society) 159, 385–443.

Turner, P. & Sobolewska, E. (2009). Mental models, magical thinking, and individual differences. Human Technology 5, 90–113.