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Home arrow Environment arrow Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches
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ABOUT NUMBERS AND WORDS: THE QUALITATIVE/ QUANTITATIVE SPLIT

The split between the positivistic approach and the interpretive-phenomenological approach pervades the human sciences. In psychology and social psychology, most research is in the positivistic tradition, but much clinical work is in the interpretivist tradition because, as its practitioners cogently point out, it works. In sociology, there is a growing tradition of interpretive research, but most sociology is done from the positivist perspective.

In anthropology, the situation is a bit more complicated. Most anthropological data collection is done by fieldworkers who go out and stay out, watch and listen, take notes, and bring it all home. This makes anthropology a thoroughly empirical enterprise. But much of anthropological data analysis is done in the interpretivist tradition; some empirical anthropologists reject the positivist epistemological tradition, and other empirical anthropologists (like me) identify with that tradition.

Notice in the last two paragraphs the use of words like ‘‘approach,’’ “perspective,” ‘‘tradition,’’ and “epistemology.” Not once did I say that ‘‘research in X is mostly quantitative” or that ‘‘research in Y is mostly qualitative.” That’s because a commitment to an interpretivist or a positivist epistemology is independent of any commitment to, or skill for, quantification. Searching the Bible for statistical evidence to support the subjugation of women doesn’t turn the enterprise into science.

By the same token, at the early stages of its development, any science relies primarily on qualitative data. Long before the application of mathematics to describe the dynamics of avian flight, qualitative, fieldworking ornithologists did systematic observation and recorded (in words) data about such things as wing movements, perching stance, hovering patterns, and so on. Qualitative description is a kind of measurement, an integral part of the complex whole that comprises scientific research.

As sciences mature, they come inevitably to depend more and more on quantitative data and on quantitative tests of qualitatively described relations. But this never, ever lessens the need for or the importance of qualitative research in any science.

For example, qualitative research might lead us to say that ‘‘most of the land in Popot- lan is controlled by a minority.’’ Later, quantitative research might result in our saying ‘‘76% of the land in Popotkm is controlled by 14% of the inhabitants.” The first statement is not wrong, but its sentiment is confirmed and made stronger by the second statement. If it turned out that ‘‘54% of the land is controlled by 41% of the inhabitants,” then the first part of the qualitative statement would still be true—more than 50% of the land is owned by less than 50% of the people, so most of the land is, indeed controlled by a minority—but the sentiment of the qualitative assertion would be rendered weak by the quantitative observations.

For anthropologists whose work is in the humanistic, phenomenological tradition, quantification is inappropriate. And for those whose work is in the positivist tradition, it is important to remember that numbers do not automatically make any inquiry scientific. In chapters 18 and 19, I’ll discuss how texts—words and pictures—can be collected and analyzed by scholars who identify with either the positivist or the interpretivist tradition.

In the rest of this book, you’ll read about methods for describing individuals and groups of people. Some of those methods involve library work, some involve controlled experiments, and some involve fieldwork. Some methods result in words, others in numbers. Never use the distinction between quantitative and qualitative as cover for talking about the difference between science and humanism. Lots of scientists do their work without numbers, and many scientists whose work is highly quantitative consider themselves humanists.

 
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