The World as Quantities Versus the World as Qualia
This lecture for social science research methods at the University of Maine at Augusta presents resources on qualitative research to augment Chapter 9 of the textbook The Process of Social Research. You may note that later in the semester, we’ll touch on qualitative methods again — in regard to analysis, the process of making sense out of data that’s been gathered. This week, we’re focusing on the process of gathering qualitative data in the first place.
It’s tempting to define qualitative research methods according to what they are not. Quantitative research methods involve the measurement of the world through quantities, that is as numbers, either as counts of objects or counts of units for a particular object. We could say that qualitative research is simply research that is not quantitative, that does not measure the world in terms of numbers. We could say that, but such a declaration would be unfair to both qualitative and quantitative research methodology.
It’s not fair to say that qualitative methods is simply research involving non-numerical information because quantitative methods actually can be used to represent non-numerical ideas. If we imagine interviews with five individuals about their favorite baseball teams, we could imagine that Lucy favors the Boston Red Sox, Linda admires the Kansas City Royals, David is a fan of the Chicago Cubs, Ignacio roots for the Toronto Blue Jays, and Marcia goes all-out for the Chicago Cubs. The above sentence contains two kinds of non-numerical information, on name and favored team. A quantitative researcher would typically handle this non-numerical information by converting it into a numerical form. Unique names may have numerical identification numbers associated with them, and different teams of which people may be fans may be reconceptualized as a series of categories:
|Name||Person ID||Red Sox fan||Royals fan||Cubs fan||Blue Jays fan|
It’s also not fair to qualitative methods to simply characterize them in the left-over category of methods that don’t work with numbers. Qualitative methods are more than what quantitative methods are not. Indeed, just as the word “quantitative” has its roots in the word “quantity,” the word qualitative has its roots in the classical philosophical idea of “qualia.” Qualia are the properties of internal experience that we have as conscious people. The experience of pain, the feeling of love, the sense of self are all qualia. To say you are interested in understanding qualia as a social science researcher, this to say you are seeking to understand the way people experience the social world around them.
This is a very different methodological vantage point from the quantitative. While quantitative approaches seek to find a way to make measurements that are reliable based on criteria that are visible outside the individual, qualitative approaches draw on observations of the experience of individuals from inside themselves. Quantitative approaches are typically nomothetic and deductive, meaning that they develop general theories of how the world works, state predictions based on theories as hypotheses, then test hypotheses with observation of a limited set of variables. In contrast, qualitative approaches are more often idiographic and inductive, probing deep to understand what makes a particular social situation distinct and different from others, not general or the same. In qualitative study, meaning lies within the situation being studied, and it is the role of the qualitative researcher to pay attention and listen to the accounts of those who live in that situation. While for quantitative social scientists reality is like a machine in which certain inputs lead to certain outputs, for qualitative social scientists reality is like a text with a meaning to be decoded. If quantitative researchers ask questions, they tend to be directed toward the collection of specific variables. Qualitative researchers ask open questions that may describe a subject but leave it up to a participant to decide how best to think about the question and how best to go about answering it.
The Fundamentals of Qualitative Research Methods
If you are developing a research proposal or participating in a group research project that is fundamentally qualitative, it is important to know how to frame your research questions, how to develop a strategy for interviewing or observing others, and how to turn your collected observations into a coherent set of findings.
As a quantitative researcher myself, it would be inappropriate of me to portray myself in video or text as an expert on qualitative research — but Dr. Leslie Curry of the Yale School of Public Health is such an expert. Dr. Curry has created a brief yet encyclopedic set of videos to walk newcomers to qualitative research through that process, and for this week I would like you to consider her a special guest lecturer. An editorial note, however: it appears that the video’s quote “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted” should be attributed to sociologist William Bruce Cameron, not physicist Albert Einstein.
DIY Activity #6: Observation, Inference and the Field
This week’s DIY Activity is drawn from Dixon et al.’s The Process of Social Research exercises for Chapter 9 (p. 287).
This week, I’d like you to engage in covert, unobtrusive observation of social behavior in a public setting. Select a public setting in which an individual taking notes in a notebook would not be considered out of place. A cafe or cafeteria, coffee shop, library or university lounge would qualify as possible spots for observation. Your task is to describe how people use the space. Before you visit the public setting, you should plan how you will make observations and of what behaviors you will observe. What are the conceptual dimensions of behavior to which you plan to pay attention? What role will be played by space, time, action and relation? What kind of notes do you plan to take? What will you need to do in order to fit in? If someone asks you what you are doing, how will you respond? Spend at least one hour in the location gathering observations. The work you turn in should involve a vivid description of the setting and your observations within the setting, as well as your prior plans. Exercise some reflexivity by including description of your own experience engaging in this research. Finally, what preliminary trends have you noticed in this initial visit to a social setting? Turn in a word processing file to “DIY Activity #6: Observation, Inference and the Field” on Blackboard that documents all aspects of this work.
Problem Set #7
The seventh problem set in the Research Methods course is due at the end of this week. As with the other problem sets, it is presented in the form of a test, but problem sets may be completed on an “open-book” basis: this means that you may refer to our textbook or course lecture when finding answers. However, the answers you produce must be your own; no copying from sources outside of lectures or texts is permitted. You may not directly or indirectly share your answers with other students. Each problem set grade will be measured as the percentage of answers that are correct. You may make multiple attempts to complete this problem set, correcting your answers as you go. My goal is for you to use this problem set to guide your learning rather than as a tool to take away points. Diligence will be rewarded!
Class Research Project, Step 2
This part of the class research project is due by the end of the day on November 5.
To complete this project, consider the variables listed below. Each variable regards campaign signs, and each was suggested by at least one member of this class in Part I of the Class Research Project. Drawing from the variables listed below, name three distinct research hypotheses regarding campaign signs. Upload your hypotheses in the area of our course Blackboard page entitled “Class Research Project,” particularly in the area entitled “Class Research Project Part II.”
|Variable||Level of Measurement|
|Ratio of width to height of sign||Ratio|
|Variety of text most visible on sign||Nominal|
|Is the office being run for visible on the sign?||Nominal|
|Is the name of a town or district visible?||Nominal|
|Is a candidate website indicated on the sign?||Nominal|
|Sign background color||Nominal|
|Presence of picture/graphic||Nominal|
|Presence of text other than required text and name||Nominal|
|Number of colors on the sign||Ratio|
|Number of words on sign||Ratio|
|Sign size (height and width measured in inches)||Ratio|
|Font thickness (“bold,” “thick,” “thin”)||Nominal|
|Number of different fonts on the sign||Ratio|
|Material of sign||Nominal|
|Number of images||Ratio|
|Serif or non-serif font?||Nominal|
|Size of candidate’s name||Ratio|
|Are first and second name of candidate the same size?||Nominal|
|Placement of sign||Nominal|
|Presence of stars and stripes||Nominal|
|Political party of candidate||Nominal|
|Is candidate running for House or Senate?||Nominal|
|Is the district rural or urban?||Nominal|
|Is the candidate a legislative leader?||Nominal|
|Gender of candidate||Nominal|
Extra Credit Opportunity
The midterm exams for this Research Methods class are still coming to me, and I look forward to grading them as soon as possible. But how would you like to earn some extra credit on your exam, even before you know what your exam score might be? Here’s how:
- Look at the list of Maine Legislative candidates below.
- For five points of extra credit, find me a picture of five of these candidates’ lawn signs. Send me the picture as an image file via e-mail by November 8 (no late images accepted). Indicate the specific source of the picture of the lawn sign. If you took the picture yourself, tell me so.
- For ten points of extra credit, find me a picture of ten of these candidates’ lawn signs. Send me the picture as an image file via e-mail by November 8 (no late images accepted). Indicate the specific source of the picture of the lawn sign. If you took the picture yourself, tell me so.
|State Senate (SS) or House (SR) Candidate?||District||Political Party||Last Name||First Name|
Ready? Set? Go!