Is “Camp Qual” really our best option?

12 March 2021, 1537 EST

This is a guest response to Simon Frankel Pratt’s musing on methods. Lucas Dolan is a PhD Candidate at American University’s School of International Service.

In a recent contribution, Simon Frankel Pratt offers an incisive conceptual dismantling of the quantitative v. qualitative dichotomy in social science research. Pratt points out that while “quantitative’ refers to a clear community of practice centered around statistically facilitated inductive causal inference, “qualitative” lumps together several distinctive research communities. Though not all named in the post, this implicitly includes interpretivists, relational and practice turn scholars, feminists, and critical theorists of all varieties. Importantly, “qualitative” also includes small-N positivists, who share a logic of inquiry with “quantitative,” but prefer to express their knowledge claims through ordinary language. Clearly then, “qualitative” research communities differ substantially from one another in terms of scientific ontology and in the logics of inquiry they utilize, but nonetheless many of them share certain affinities as a result of being outsiders in the field.

I agree wholeheartedly with Pratt’s analyses—both regarding the incoherence of the dichotomy and of the work it performs as an expression of disciplinary power relations. It is because of this that I was so confused by Pratt’s conclusion on the “what is to be done?” side of this question.

This confusion stems from what seems to be a contradiction between Pratt’s initial claim that “the real reason for the persistent categorisation of research into quantitative and qualitative…is because the discipline prioritises, empowers, and fetishes the former” and the subsequent, contradictory claim that “‘Qualitative’ research exists as a term because it’s an identity that sounds better than ‘anti-/non-positivist.’” So, is it residual bin created by those with disproportionate power over knowledge production, or an identity created by the marginalized to carve out space for themselves? It isn’t clear.

Which side we come down on this question is fundamental for determining what strategies we will view as appropriate for confronting the problem. Whatever the origin of the divide (again, it is not clear), Pratt suggests “qualitative” scholars will end up reproducing it in pursuit of their own survival. The implication seems to be that if we become too fragmented, we will get steamrolled by positivism. From this perspective, the quantitative v. qualitative distinction will remain as an organizing principle in social science not because the powerful actively use it for disciplinary purposes, but because “qualitative” researchers benefit from the power of being aggregated together in this way.

This is the wrong conclusion to draw. The quantitative v. qualitative dichotomy exists and reproduces itself for no other reason than because it serves the interests of the dominant epistemological and methodological tradition in (American) social science. The subtext driving the distinction is that everyone agrees on the logic of inquiry, there are just different ways of collecting data to serve that logic, some more statistical, some more based in ordinary language. Methodology can be reduced to methods, because we all share an understanding of the epistemic task in which we are engaged. Accepting this way of slicing up the field leaves all possible points of dissent from the normative position depoliticized and thus inert as potential drivers of change.

Better ways of dividing up research communities would make transparent the central commitments of the mainstream and the grounds on which other research communities reject these commitments. In short, they would politicize distinctions that matter such as those between dualist and monist ontologies, between naturalist and anti-naturalist conceptions of the social scientific enterprise, and between empiricist and non-empiricist epistemologies. By activating the boundaries that meaningfully distinguish logics of inquiry, neopositivist commitments would be stated openly and thus subject to examination and critique, rather than allowed to go unspoken and unquestioned.

No binary division seems up to this task. Instead, the actual practice of nonnormative “qualitative” scholars suggests a much more fruitful path forward—one that emphasizes difference and particularity. This strategy prioritizes the rigorous development and articulation of methodologies that depart from the norms of positivism and methodological individualism. 

Of course, research activity tends to be where particularity is expressed most comfortably—which is not to say these approaches are given the hearing they deserve in top journals. Importantly though, scholarship needs to proceed beyond metatheoretical critique of the mainstream and even beyond exemplary empirical work. Prospective practitioners need concrete guidance on how to do research based on the logics of inquiry appropriate for these traditions. This sort of work exists within feministpractice turncritical realist, and especially interpretivist communities, but should be replicated as much as possible. If students do not see a practical path to conducting alternative forms of research, it will be easy for them to revert to the default, regardless of their philosophical inclinations. None of this forecloses the tactical solidarity that Pratt sees as emergent from our common “qualitative” subject position.

There is an institutional angle to this as well. This part is perhaps even more important, although it is also in a more developmental stage. Nonnormative qualitative scholars are best served by carving out their own dedicated spaces for training and workshopping, rather than trying to blend into (neopositive) qualitative circles. Creation of institutional sites to strengthen and reproduce our communities such as ISA Northeast’s “Interpretive and Relational Research Methodology Workshop,” the interpretive track at IQMR, or the ECPR summer methods school, which includes courses on relational and interpretive methods, are good examples. Those with the power to create and sustain these spaces should prioritize it. They provide sources of legitimation, community, and necessary transmission of skills.

Realistically, neither Pratt’s favored strategy nor mine has much hope of leading to a radically more pluralist social scientific environment, particularly during a period characterized by a great leap forward in technical computing capacities, “big data” collection, and major breakthroughs in AI and machine learning. Still, I think it is useful to think through what methods of organization, identification, and resistance could be more effective in principle. While there may be specific circumstances under which mobilizing “qualitative” might be effective, or even necessary, I think the actual practice of many scholars (including Pratt)—emphasizing difference and developing the logic underpinning it—provides a much better option than leaning into an empty signifier.