Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A Clarification on "Qualitative" and "Quantitative" Difference

In several recent posts (“Measurement and Interpretation: Let us Speak no more of Quantitative and Qualitative Research;” “Thinking Problem: Rethinking Ethnographic Methods in Relation to a Study of Students’ Cultural Models of Drinking;” and “Ethnographic Research Methods and Ethnographic Writing;”) I have argued that the terminological distinction between “qualitative” and “quantitative” research is a false distinction that would be better replaced with an emphasis on certain aspects of the research endeavor, “measurement” and “interpretation,” that we encounter with all good research.

In two other recent posts, I used the distinction between qualitative and quantitative difference as a critical component of my arguments. In “Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and the Experience of Art (Musical and Visual),” among other things, I argued that the experience of viewing an original work of visual art was (typically) different from that of viewing a reproduction and that the experience of listening to live musical performance was different from that of listening to recorded music. I further argued that the differences between viewing original and reproduced art and between listening to live and recorded music were only partially analogous. With both domains of artistic experience, there is a quantitative difference at play. One typically experiences “more” with the original work of visual art – one sees aspects of size more accurately, the textures are more clearly discerned, etc. With live performance of music, a fuller sense of the total dynamic qualities of music might be experienced, but with live music there is also a qualitative experience as well. The experience of original or reproduced works of visual art is the same sort of experience, the experience of seeing or looking. Live and recorded music are qualitatively similar in involving hearing, but live performance, especially of music of high volume, low pitch with long wavelengths, or played with acoustic instruments which not only produce soundwaves but also displace air physically, also can involve a bodily feeling as the live music is experienced literally viscerally, resonating through one’s body in a way that recorded music almost never does (the only time I’ve ever experienced this bodily sensation from recorded music was with dance music with very low, constant bass sounds, played extremely loudly in a dance club from speakers about 15 feet tall).

In “Shamanism, Fascism, Gulags, and Genocide,” I argued that while some terms, like “shamanism,” might be extended from their original contexts to apply to qualitatively similar phenomena in other cultural settings to make useful cross-cultural comparisons, so long as the extension of the term is done carefully. At the same time, I argued that other terms, such as “fascism” or “gulag,” should ideally be restricted to their original cultural and historical contexts. It’s one thing to compare fascism with other sociopolitical phenomena – that can be useful – it’s quite another to refer to other phenomena by that term when there are important quantitative and qualitative distinctions between fascism and other phenomena.

So, when I object to the terminology of “quantitative research” and “qualitative research,” it’s not at all the difference between “qualitative” and “quantitative” to which I object. Making valid distinctions is an important component of any scholarly activity, and that includes the ability to distinguish between different types of differences. Distinguishing between differences of amount and differences of type or category is obviously important and useful. My objection to “qualitative research” and “quantitative research” is twofold. (1) There is no pure qualitative or quantitative scholarly work. (2) Not only is there no pure research of one type or the other, but all research is thoroughly qualitative and quantitative.

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