Sunday, July 29, 2012

Qualitative Researchers: We have always been quantitative

One thing I really like about the blog is that I can circle back to topics as I enounter new aspects of them, and that is definitely the case with this notion of the quantitative reality of qualitative research.  The fetish I seem to have with this topic will seem very odd to those friends who know my number anxiety/number dyslexia or whatever you want to call it--add a number to it and I can't seem to do it--but as I work with the issue of interpretation, coding, describing findings--whatever it is that we do...I can't ignore the fact that there is quantification going on, even if it doesn't include numbers. 

I woke up this morning and had this on my mind.  I asked myself--why haven't you googled this?  So I pulled out my trusty Ipad and did so.  I was embarrassed by how much I found on the notion of natural mathematics, quantifyers in linguistics, the arguments philosophers have made, etc., etc.  Did I think I was the first person to consider these ideas?  Hardly!  It's well trampled ground. 

But the coup de gras came when I found that George with Mark Johnson of my favorite books on the embodied nature of cognition, that is, how we learn to think through our bodies and experiences (love it!!)...well, that same George Lakoff has written a similar book on mathematics, which looks at the beginning points of mathematics understanding (how much we know, how early on, and how this knowledge is related to our embodied experience of the world). 

Where Mathematics Comes From:  How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics Into Being by George Lakoff and Rafael Nunez
OK--so babies understand something of numbers, sets, etc....what does this have to do with the sacred space we call qualitative research?  Aren't we supposed to be separated off from numbers?  Isn't that what makes us unique? 

Well, I am in the process of working on interpretation of a large number of transcripts by youth, parents, and educators talking about their views of sexting, and as I do so I am constantly reminded that although I am reading texts (not equations) and I am writing texts (not numbers), I am still working in a quantitative manner...and not only that--the people whose words are written in these transcripts are also constantly using a kind of natural mathematics--sets, comparisons, more than/less than, common, uncommon, marginal, central--all of these things speak to a kind of quantification that seems to come naturall to both of us:  researcher and researchee. 

Now, some would say that my problem is that I am working on this interpretation in NVivo, a kind of qualitative data analysis software (QDAS).  There are qualitative researchers who think that use of QDAS produces a kind of numerical mold on a qualitative researcher (you know how it is when you look at information on numbers of references or starts to grow on you).  Well, it is nice to know if I have put more items in one bin and less in another, but I am very aware and extra cautious about the dangers of assuming those specific numbers mean something in the way that they would in a nice cleaned up quantitative data base. 

Rather than fight this mold, I think I might want to become the blue cheese of the qualitative research field.  I'll go for the distinctive taste that only mold can bring.  I think that qualitative researchers should embrace the mathematical foundation this is part of our interpretive process.  We employ a kind of mathematics that is grounded in human, linguistic, embodied, natural processes.  I think that embracing this understanding will help us to be able to better explain what we are doing when we interpret.  I don't think it is enough to describe what it is we do (the process or the technique), but we also need to be able to explain how it is that it works. 

This time I will let the sheep have the last word.

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