Making Qualitative Research qualitative again

Working as an applied anthropologist I often find myself in professional environments that rely on numbers and statistics whenever making any “real” research statement. Western culture definitely sees the quantitative approach, stacked with numbers and data, as the more “rational” form of knowledge. Qualitative research, on the other hand, is perceived as a “lighter” methodology, nice to have but barely good enough for actual public engagement. The troubling thing is that these approaches are also present in academia, and even in departments of qualitative disciplines such as Anthropology. My aim in this post is to explain how I see qualitative research, not as a less reliable research form and not as a form that works best alongside quantitative “verifications” but as an independent and unique system of thought.

1, Statistics Isn’t God
“70 percent of British Citizens believe the economic crisis influenced their lives”: such carefully constructed yet often generic statements, presented as absolute truths, are constantly debated in the media and public sphere. Statistical or “scientific” findings teach us about economy, gender differences or health. When facing those studies I keep wondering: how was the actual question framed, how many people simply gave the answer they’re expected to give and how could it be that neither me or my friends were in the survey and yet it claims to represent the opinions of the general public?

‘There are very few things which we know, which are not capable of being reduc’d to a Mathematical Reasoning; and when they cannot, it’s a sign our Knowledge of them is very small and confused.’ (John Arbuthnott, 1692)

As I mentioned, Western knowledge places great importance on numbers as universal facts and any representation of the world through numbers (dates, ages, proportions, populations, finance) is considered as an unquestionable representation. However, statistics often rely on incredibly subjective and socially constructed parameters of thought such as the use of percentages which provide a sense of “wholeness” (15% is always out of 100% but what/who is the 100%?), the reliance on simplified surveys that seek definitive answers and the use of “sampling” which allow generalization.

The emergence of “Big Data” and quick automated research tools means the place of qualitative research is again at risk, when it should be valued even more: “It may be possible to predict a customer’s next mouse click or purchase, but no amount of quantitative data can tell you why she made that click or purchase. Without that insight, companies cannot close the complexity gap” (Madsbjerg & Rasmussen, Harvard Business Review).

2. The myth of quantitative “verification”
We often find ourselves wondering: should I interview five, 15 or 30 people for my qualitative research? how much is “enough”?

Due to quantitative forces controlling institutions (and as a result our minds), qualitative researchers often try to “overcome” the lack of credibility in their findings by including quantitative methods alongside (usually before or after) their research. These are usually questionnaires and surveys designed in dialogue with in-depth investigations. Supervisors, students and readers alike will mostly share the belief that without such quantitative verifications there is a danger of our findings being dismissed as unprofessional or unrepresentative.

At first thought this is not a bad thing; mixing methods and checking findings are always recommended. But lets try and examine the imagined elements in this approach. Say we interviewed 10 people and “verified” our findings with another 40/60/200 people (it can be almost any number)- it still won’t make my findings statistically or universally true. Even 2000/5000/10,000 people are very small segments of entire populations and are usually randomly chosen. In addition, my verification usually relies on a simplified form of observation such as multiple answer surveys.

Moreover, by “verifying” our qualitative findings with quantitative methods we are constantly saying to the world: our research is nice but not enough on its own. We are in fact undermining our own methodology by stating that it needs to be “supervised” by the “responsible adult”. We are reinforcing the place of our disciplines as “soft” social science. What can we do then? How can we conduct an unapologetic qualitative research with insights that have professional and academic significance?

3. Vertical and Horizontal insights

The key for conducting good qualitative research that does not rely on quantitative verification but also does not stray to unconfirmed generalizations and assumptions is in the type of findings and insights the researcher produces. The approach to informants is to see them as windows to the structures of culture and the meanings around it. Stories, emotions and events can provide insights that are beyond the magic of statistical credibility.

If I visit a village where most people get married by the age of 25 and I interview four people, 2 of whom are 30 and single, my critics might claim that because my “sample” was so small I got unrepresentative informants and my conclusions are wrong. However, even when talking to the “unrepresentative” informants, who did not get married as accustomed, I can still observe how they operate within a given system of values. It is not about how many people are married but about the role of marriage in a given culture. It is my job to make sure my claims and insights stick to this line of thought.

In an interview with Didier Fassin, Anthropologist from the Institute of for Advanced Study, Princeton NJ, he explains the correct approach towards qualitative research by seeing it as Vertical Research:

“There were two kinds of generalization. One, which can be described as horizontal, relies on the principle of statistical representation and implies that the randomly chosen sample allows for an extrapolation to the entire population with a given margin of error: this is what demographers, epidemiologists, and quantitative sociologists do. The other, which can be regarded as vertical, relies on a principle of theoretical reproduction and proposes interpretations of phenomena, logics, processes, structures: this is what ethnographers do.”

Ethnography of a single person:
Tuhami: Portrait of a Moroccan”, by Vincent Crapanzano, is an ethnographic exploration of a single person that takes the art of qualitative research to its highest form. Although the book has only one main informant we learn through him (and his relationship with the ethnographer) about Moroccan society, Western society and the place of natural and supernatural elements in both cultures. What we learn from this methodology is not only that by conducting “Vertical Research” we do not need to rely on numbers, but also that an ethnographic research means each informant is a window to an unlimited repository of social contacts, memories and ideas.

When I research a topic I immerse in a world that becomes my field site: people on the buss, the shopkeeper, my family, the news- It is as if I adjust my lens to capture certain colours of the world for an intense period of time. Moreover, when participants tell me about their friends and family, show me photographs of other people in their lives and introduce me to wider circles, they all become part of my ethnography. In that sense a good qualitative research is actually much more quantitative than we think for it is not constrained to the limits of time, numbers and space in the same manner: it is an ongoing, flowing and abstract exploration of the world.


Relevance of Social Science

Quantitative and qualitative methodologies should not be thought of as hard vs. soft/large vs. small/applicable vs. theoretical but as two different systems of thought and interpretations, with an equal presence of imagined and subjective “fallbacks”. In order to influence reality outside and inside academia, we must continue to develop the art of qualitative research, not as another end of a numerical scale but as a whole different approach. According to Isaac Morrison we must also be careful of becoming too philosophical and keep our research grounded and relevant:

“as a discipline anthropology is uniquely equipped to provide keys for understanding and contextualizing the ongoing societal transformations regarding same-sex marriage, supernumerary genders, public and private presentations of self, longer lives, the intersections of race and poverty, debt, the dramatic ways in which technology has changed our communication, and so much more.” 


Public Engagement vs. The Ontological Turn


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Nick V. says:

    It’s pretty ironic that qualitative research is often viewed as not being “grounded in reality,” don’t you think? Here we are, a species that relies on symbolic interaction to construct meaning, to construct our very existence, and yet the most influential authorities (academics) on the nature of that existence often seem more concerned with anything BUT meaning, or they feel they can somehow bypass all that “soft” science and learn everything there is to know about people by using physical or positivist science.

    Where is reality really, I wonder, in a laboratory somewhere or in the life stories of real people trying to survive?

  2. eladu86 says:

    Thanks Nick! I agree, meaning is ignored- the biggest problem is when we as social scientists believe those perceptions ourselves. Following this post I got to think about how qualitative academics also think about time in quantitative terms- a short research is a bad one and a long research is a good one. We count the months, weeks and years to evaluate the quality of the ethnographic work. While not dismissing the importance of time I think it is only one dimension out of many- time has different levels of intensity, of efficiency and experience- and I really think qualitative thinkers should strive to move away from numerical thinking that hold it back.

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