A researcher’s dilemma

Science Debate

Image courtesy of http://www.theenergycollective.com

While reviewing my educational background, I chanced upon some notes about one of the subjects in my Masters’ course: Research Methodology. The introductory module explained the importance of qualitative research and discussion in Social Sciences because basically we can’t perform experiments on human beings (or any other social unit). While “tougher” sciences can verify (or reject) hypotheses with the results of an experiment, social scientists like economists and sociologists seem to operate in another action zone. I am specialized in qualitative research- does that make me a “lower-level” type of researcher?

I ask this because the few times I saw a Research job being offered somewhere, it’s usually a “hard-core” researcher they look for- even when the job description clearly states that the study revolves around a subjective concept. Logic would tell us the reason would be because the companies intend to carry out a quantitative analysis. But what about the non-measurable aspects of life? Will they even be glanced at under this type of study?

 A discipline

It’s interesting to note that just like any other Social Science, Economics places human beings at the heart of its studies. (In a nutshell: Economics is the science of resource allocation.) Economists throughout the history have been using methods of quantitative analysis as a tool to measure values and sometimes to make assumptions on future values. My teacher in Research Methodology made a sort-of caricaturized explanation about this stating that the discipline’s forefathers used a lot of Maths* because they wanted to appoint laws to different phenomena. That way Economics could be made into a legit, true-blue science (eg: Law of Supply and Demand). Having said this, we know not all values associated to humans are measurable expecially when referring to feelings, opinions, impressions… So I wonder: what exactly did the forefathers expect to achieve when they started to assign numerical values on things non-quantifiable?

I’m not saying numerical data is unimportant. I’m saying it’s not EVERYTHING. A funny but good example my professors would always use is: if your data says that for a given country, an increase in the number of storks in one year shows an increase in the number of babies born in the same year, does that mean that we have to act on the population of storks to control human population increase in that country? (It’s really not that simple; there are ways to test just how “sensible” data relationships are. But you see where I’m getting at, right?)

I cannot imagine having studied Economics without passing through Algebra, Calculus, Statistics, etc… But I don’t think it has to heavily rely on rigorous statistical computations to be considered a science.

Qualitative research methods

The everlasting question we asked back then was, “Why are we so stubborn in fitting certain aspects of human beings in a mathematical model, when those aspects are subject to as many criteria as there are human beings in this planet?”. I’m pretty sure an econometrist would find a sassy way to put me in “my place” (Ah, Ceteris Paribus**!). Don’t get me wrong, I might even be swayed by it! I’m not belittling anything, but it doesn’t seem to cover the complexity of humans.

This is one of the reasons why qualitative research methods have been developed. A qualitative research is more descriptive in nature; it does not generalize an outcome derived from a certain population. (A scientific law would do this- a statement based on repeated experimental observations. It always applies under the same conditions, and implies that there is a causal relationship involving its elements. But the data gathered from experimentation must be measurable!) One cannot simply put a universal value on how much teenagers love to watch TV or how much more one prefers spring to summer. Well I admit, one could if one wants. For one. But what if I want to make a study for a group of friends? Or what if I want to consider different groups from different countries? Each of them would have their own criteria for scoring so even the same scores would not mean exactly the same thing.

Besides, if I were to make a study based on human or a society’s behavior, why would  I want to generalize my conclusions to the rest of the world or across time? Our society has (in principle) accepted that diversity is enriching, so why not accept a diversity in solutions and conclusions all the same?

Debate as an alternative

One way to enhance a qualitative research is through debate or discussion*** (others include conducting of surveys, interviews, review of literature and more. See sources 2 and 3 below). The convenience lies behind the assumption that as the participants share their thoughts, results and experiences, knowledge is gradually accumulated. Meaning to say that through consensus, some ideas are rejected while others are accepted and continously developed. I’ve no doubt that Maths and especially Statistics are being used but results are enriched by experiences derived from observations from different people with sometimes contrasting perspectives. Remember the microcredit “boom”? First, it was supposed to solve poverty, then it appears not to have been able to do so. Presently, advocates say it’s supposed to work when integrated with other initiatives like improvement of education and health. Debate was an essential tool in getting us where we are now on that issue.

Flashback to Autumn of ’09: when “debate as an alternative” was brought up. Several people in my class did not agree. And why should they, since the very subjects of the study are the ones interchanging their educated opinion? For them, this just gives more room for prejudice based on the person’s background, education and beliefs. I see their point- it presents such a lack of structure. However, I begged to differ.

I was one of those who believe that although not a cure-all, a debate might be a very efficient way for a researcher to develop the matter at hand. First, because one cannot just access the data he wishes to in any given place at any given time. Second, there might already have been very good materials available about the subject and the cost of replicating those kinds of studies might be too much. And third, synergies could take place when you put opposing views face to face. Going back to our example: some policy-makers advocating for microcredits were open to debate and they were attentive enough to consider criticism about their work. This made them investigate the faults in their programs and are now coming up with more effective solutions.

In fact, I used a debate to present my hypothesis in my Master’s Thesis. I wanted to apply a method that would allow me to question something I firmly believed in- Microfinance****. I’m convinced it enriched not only the project, but also me, as an economist.For instance, it paved way for me to explore wider topics of conversation while I was conducting interviews within the community. As for the results, not only was I able to prove the existence of both positive and negative effects: I also found out that for the particular community in my study who were using specific microfinance products, the “negative” effects were a by-product of corporate governance with ample room for improvement. So to speak, it’s not the instrument that’s failing, it’s the way the instrument is being distributed that’s not very effective.

A few parting thoughts

Speaking from a limited experience, I noticed how a lot of people feel more at ease when statements are presented with mathematical models. I would ask myself if it isn’t just”psychological” in the sense that since Maths represent a very exact science, it makes humans feel more stable in the presence of something systematical and accurate. No gray areas there- either it’s black or white. The weakness in structure presented by qualitative research clearly shifts the balance for scientists and learners alike. And in my case, I can debate all I want but the result is what it is.

The day I started to recognize the use of the qualitative type of research was when I realized how everything around me has to do with economics- with resource allocation corresponding to an order of preferences. Everyday, I make decisions that affect how I distribute my time, effort and money among my responsibilities, interests, whims… It may be clear to me what value I give to hanging out with a friend, or how much I would pay to get a few more hours of sleep. But the truth is once I step out of myself, I have not the slightest idea how others think: what factors do they consider in putting a value on social life? is sleep even on top of their priorities? “Talking” about it helps get a better understanding of how the rest of the world arranges their preferences. In some cases, there might even be similarities for people from the same culture, religion, race, gender, etc… But we cannot generalize anything. This is why I believe qualitative research should not be set aside as a mere “support” for quantitative research. In many cases it should be the other way around, especially when human factor plays a key role.

Perhaps when the research to be undertaken has to support the construction of a building, the flight of an aircraft or the functioning of an artificial heart, precision should be expected. In this case, I wouldn’t be surprised if companies would prefer a physicist or a telecommunications engineer over a developmental economist. But sometimes a study would involve non-measurable concepts and ever-changing scenarios. Then, wouldn’t it make more sense to look for someone who could look at numerical data beyond the symbols and discover what stories they tell? someone who is trained to analyze and interpret events (versus numbers) to extract learnings from it?



*Just like Econometrics, which Wikipedia says is the application of mathematics, statistical methods and computer science to economic data to discover exact relationships among data.

**Latin for “with other things the same“. Economists live by this premise.

***Debate is also very widely used in pure sciences but its service to the social sciences is highly valued because of the limited possiblity to conduct experiments.

****Microfinance is an integrated source of financial services comprising microcredits. It could also include microsavings and microinsurance among others.

  1. Wikipedia
  2. Modalidades de investigación, available at: http://metodologiafloresmagon.blogspot.fr/2011/02/1.html
  3. Metodología de la investigación: http://zanadoria.com/syllabi/m1019/mat_cast-nodef/PID_00148556-1.pdf
  4. The Laws of Economics don’t exist, available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2013/04/the-laws-of-economics-dont-exist/274901/

2 thoughts on “A researcher’s dilemma

  1. Research, as a study, is not much of a favorite course among people that I know. Including myself, I find it ahm ahm. See?

    I reckon, however, that there are no bad students, only bad teachers. I’d blame not myself, therefore. Haha!

    By and large, we need research specialists with experience like you here in the Philippines.



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