War of Qs

When I chose the linguistic path in my philological studies, I was taught about linguistic research. Some people looked at the development of linguistic forms, some counted words, some did yet different, sometimes even interesting things, all requiring certain methods. And we all lived in harmony, at least insofar as methodologies were concerned. Then, about 10 or so years ago I became interested in things psychiatric and psychological and discovered that what I did was unempirical, unimportant, and, quite frankly, unacceptable. It turned out that I was using qualitative methods, while the world of both psys was only keen on counting. I was quite surprised that while I really didn’t care much about their counting, they did care a lot about my not counting. I was on the dark side of the force. And it was a war!

This post is the first part of my take on the quantitative and qualitative divide. It is partly inspired by Andy Fugard’s brief text, and partly by multiple quant/qual quarrels. Today, I want to set the context in which any discussion about giving up the divide (as Andy suggests) must be seen. And so, I want to tell three stories.

1. Let me start with one of the shocks I experienced not long after I joined Twitter. As I followed people who did qualitative research, I became involved in a conversation (started by Alex Clark) about BMJ’s policy of not publishing qualitative research (which was hash-tagged #BMJNoqual). It quickly resulted in Trisha Greenhalgh’s suggestion that an open letter should be written and sent to the BMJ asking them to reconsider their policy. As she gathered support of many wonderful scholars, she also offered me the opportunity to sign. Needless to say, I was honoured and delighted. We sent this letter to the BMJ and the community’s response to it was extremely positive.

The BMJ didn’t budge, though. And so, we work in an environment in which 77 academics from across the world need to write to a journal asking it to publish excellent research. Not bad research, not mediocre research, but excellent research. And it is not published just because such research does not use ideas of Messrs Pearson or Cronbach. Surely, it doesn’t make sense.

2. I have a book on my desk. I have the 2008 edition. The book is about research methods in psychology and guess how many pages are devoted to qualitative methods. No, you haven’t – it’s about 5. Yes, this whole book purporting to talk about research methods in psychology, for all intents and purposes does not mention the qualitative stuff. I looked at some more. It’s all the same. The latest have about 20 pages, maybe a bit more, but for the most part research methods in psychology mean counting. And then counting some more. Counting is the default, psychology is about counting, so is medicine. Even though narrative research has been with us for decades, still, unless you count, you will not be a psychologist.

Some time ago I supervised a PhD in qualitative psychology, it was absolutely excellent! So, what did one of the examiners started her review with at the viva? With a 10-minute tirade about whether the dissertation can actually be thought of as psychology. After all the candidate didn’t count. She concluded, mercifully, that it possibly could. But, surely, you would start with the quality of the candidate’s research, wouldn’t you?

3. About 5-6 years ago I was contacted by the Psychologist (yes, the one from the BPS). I got a very polite and flattering letter about my work and I was asked to write a little text about it. Basically, they wanted me to write a brief account of the work I had done. For example, I could write about my paper on the BDI, which, linguistically, makes no sense and is not scale.

I was delighted. I had only just begun working in the field, such a recognition was extremely flattering. I wrote a little paper and….got a response that it just could not be published because it was not in line with the magazine, psychology (in anger I deleted all the emails from that exchange, I now just offer my recollections). Basically, I asked them, whether they wanted me to offer a critique of my stuff, to distance myself from my own work. Incidentally, the irony of it all was not lost on me. In communism (remember, I am a child of communism), self-criticism was one of the ways of public humiliation. For goodness sake, surely, qualitative research is not that bad!

Yet, funnily enough, that was what they seem to have wanted. They didn’t want to confuse the poor British psychologists! Patronising? Oh well…. Both the criticism of mainstream psychology and the qualitative stuff was, it seems, too explosive for UK psychologists to handle. When I told them, they had come to me, I hadn’t sought their attention, at least they offered an apology. I was beyond furious, I must admit, mostly about having engaged in a conversation and trying to please them by negotiating the text. I should have told them to go to hell straight away.

And that’s the context which any discussion about the qualitative-quantitative divide must be mindful of and understand. It is not really a question of two paradigms battling it out. It is, in my view, a deep ideological conflict which has very little to do with quality of research, research goals, or in fact, anything academic. It has everything to do with control, regime of truth, and power. I have no doubt at all that both sides know very well what the limitations of their own or the others’ paradigms are. Those who count understand very well that their research doesn’t give them access to the truth, ultimate truth and nothing but the truth. And if it’s not about quality of research, insights it offers, it must be something else. And what else is there, if it is not the power to determine what counts as truth.



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