War of the worlds

This is my second venture into the qualitative-quantitative divide. Let me start with the text I referred to in the previous post co-authored by Andy Fugard and Henry Potts . It’s one of the responses to the open letter I talked about.

They make the following  points.

1. Qualitative research, as its quantitative equivalent, is vast and heterogeneous.

2. Focusing on research goals might circumvent the debate on qual/quant differences.

I agree with the first point, I am not so sure about the other.

Yes, autoethnography has little to do with semi-structured interviews, just as Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (with which I have so many problems) has nothing to do with text-based discourse analysis. And yet, you have no idea how many times I have been asked about ‘the qualitative method’, yes, the one.

The other point suggests going round the divide by looking at research goals. The examples Fugard and Potts give are interesting, but if you look a bit further afield, you will come across more and more problems. Probably because we actually do have different ways of looking at things. And it is actually easy to get lulled into thinking about goals. In a recent and interesting blog Tara Lamont writes about studying patient experience and shows a number of ways in which it can be done. The problem is that I don’t think at least some of these studies have anything to do with patient experience. I am not even certain what might be meant by ‘patient experience’, as the label ‘patient’ is, after all, quite a contested one.

Consider the following question: if I fill out a questionnaire, do I do it ‘as a patient’? Or perhaps I do it as a service user? I, personally, prefer being a patient and dislike being a service user, and dislike even more being a client. But how do you tease it out in a ‘patient satisfaction’ survey? Across the divide, we might study something that is referred to as ‘patient experience’ but we study very different things. And we also reflect on it in different ways.

And here is my main point. I don’t think at all, the qual/quant debate should actually ‘thaw’. I think, it should, in fact, rage, we should keep each other on the toes. I still remember the faces of psychologists when I told them the BDI was not a scale. They wanted my blood! Great!! Debate is good!

But in order for this debate to be useful, however, I think it must have at least the following three foundations. And so, let me address my quantitative adversary

1. Worldview. As we throw methodological chairs at each other, let’s remember that it does not make sense to accuse me of not producing generalisable research. Of course, I don’t – I don’t even aim to do it. I will not, on the other hand, blame you for changing complex human experience into variables. After all, that’s what you do! I can ask you how you arrive at those variables, what they mean etc., but I cannot tell you not to ‘do variables’.

2. Ideology. As you punch me in my methodological nose, please stop doing it with this aura superiority. Your claims to universal truth and objectivity are only funny and irritating. On the other hand, I will not tell you that I really touch human nature at its heart, I have insight into the ‘real experience’. I will not, because I don’t. Such claims are ideological.

3. Excellence. As we wrestle each other to the ground using different methodologies, let’s accept that what really matters, is excellence. As I appreciate excellent number-crunching, I would like you to appreciate, for example, excellent discourse analysis. And that’s the crucial bit. What we both should care about is that we produce excellent research. And I hope you will be able to say the following about your (quantitative friends). For example:

  • I have seen such bad qualitative research that ‘bad’ doesn’t begin to describe it. The rubbishness of that rubbish was complete.
  • I heard qualitative researchers make claims which suggested that they had absolutely no idea what qualitative research was, what claims it could sensibly make.
  • I saw qualitative analyses which were based solely on the whim of the researcher.

I could continue, but you get the gist. But the above doesn’t mean at all that qualitative research can’t be inspired, offer wonderful insights into meaning, experience or practice, which can never be achieved by crunching numbers. And so, here is my plea for a debate, aggressive, sharp, unfriendly, but, ultimately, respecting each other’s world and achievements.

Yeahhh, right…


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