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Saturday, September 13, 2008

Hard-wired and soft-wired differently

Warning: A phd student is about to talk about research methods and philosophy (potential for boredom is high). But it actually leads to something personal.

When it comes to taking a scientific approach to learning, one uses methods. There are two general categories of methods of research: quantitative and qualitative. There are also mixed methods, which in some way, are a hybrid of these two general categories of methods.

In science, your research question typically drives your method. If you want to know the correlation between levels of adolescent trust of the parent and levels of parent knowledge of adolescent daily activities, then you are going quantitative - think numbers with quantitative methods.

However, if you want to know about the lived experiences of adolescents disclosing sensitive things to their parents, then you are going to go with qualitative methods - think stories with qualitative methods.

These kinds of methods take VERY different kinds of thinking and analysis. With the quantitative (numbers) methods you need to know how to how to do statistics. With qualitative (stories) you need to know how to identify themes across the stories. OK, there is much more to it than that, but for now we'll leave it at that.

I believe I am hard-wired to know statistics. It is very hard for me, but it also makes sense once I get it. Statistics tell me lots of things and can show relationships. I like knowing how much? How much changed? Is it significant? etc.

However, there are some philosophical assumptions (or seductions) which come with quantitative methods. These assumptions have to do with truth. What is true for your sample is true everyone who is like your sample. With stats it is extremely tempting to the point of intexication at times to believe that when you get a result with statistical significance, you have learned something which is true. Here is where I fall apart. True for who? Under what conditions? For how long? What about the people who do not fit in the normal distribution of the study? What about people left out of the study? The claims of quantitative methods sometimes are the pinnacle of either arrogance of naivete.

With qualitative methods, you have different assumptions. These assumptions are more specific to the people you studied and there are no claims that the findings go beyond the study. The philosophy here is that there is local knowledge and that is important. There is more room for difference, creativity, and deep exploration with qualitative methods. Truth is not TRUTH, but truth...and even then is self-reflective. Qualitative methods can allow the researcher to locate herself in the study...hopefully a confession of sorts of bias (rather than a report of objectivity - something humans are incapable of achieving).

I am hardwired to do quantitative methods and softwired to do qualitative methods. This makes it very hard to be a student and researcher. It makes me want to do everything.

And I am learning that I cannot do everything...the hard way.

4 comments:

Lonely Dissertator said...

Some claim it is not so much the difference between quantitative or qualitative, but one of epistemology. The more I think about methods (or better, research methodology), I agree with such an assertion. I point you to an excellently helpful book: "The foundations of social research: Meaning and perspective in the research process" by Michael Crotty.

Fajita said...

Yes. Perhaps I was talking about leaves and your were talking about roots. Methods are a function of epistemology.

I guess I struggle with my ways of knowing. Although I am skeptical of what numbers can do toward knowing or nearing truth, I cannot dismiss them either.

I gravitate more toward knowing via communication, interaction, contact, narrative, context, and story. And yet, I am skeptical that such a method arrives at truth either.

Heck, maybe I should buy the suggested book and learn more about this stuff.

Lonely Dissertator said...

Hey, at least you have the hard-wire part. I only have the soft-wire part, it seems. Do they make viagra to harden up the wires of non-numerate folks like me?

Crotty is amazing for people who want to get at the roots of research. I bought a copy for my own keeping even though I read much of it via the library copy. Be careful though, after you've read Crotty, you might even baffle faculty members with your thoughts. It's amazing how we just take things for granted in the busy world of "doing our thinking" where we really ought to be funded more effectively so that we can also think through our thinking before actually doing.

Lonely Dissertator said...

Hey, at least you have the hard-wire part. I only have the soft-wire part, it seems. Do they make viagra to harden up the wires of non-numerate folks like me?

Crotty is amazing for people who want to get at the roots of research. I bought a copy for my own keeping even though I read much of it via the library copy. Be careful though, after you've read Crotty, you might even baffle faculty members with your thoughts. It's amazing how we just take things for granted in the busy world of "doing our thinking" where we really ought to be funded more effectively so that we can also think through our thinking before actually doing.