The Nature of Qualitative Inquiry
Chomsky’s famous attack on Skinner’s behaviourist framework presents a case study in how divergent assumptions about a paradigm’s ontology can inhibit the nature of inquiry among practitioners (Chomsky, 1959/ 1967). What Chomsky found curious was “the particular limitations on the way in which the observables of behaviour are to be studied” (I, emphasis mine). Although both scholars worked within empirical positivism, Skinner’s behaviourism followed Comte’s belief that science was a descriptive endeavour (Comte, 1865). Chomsky’s assault focuses keenly on the lack of “explanatory force” in Skinner’s theory (Chomsky, 1959/ 1967, IV). They also diverged over epistemology. Chomsky argued that behaviourism, or empiricism as he later reframed it, was “unable to infer causes from behaviour” (Cohen et al., 2007, p 19); There was lack of a break point in Skinner’s circular logic, who was unable to develop his theory to answer the ‘why’ of behaviour. Chomsky warns that the nature of the information coming ‘in’ to the researcher must inevitably by governed not only by the ‘out’ of the data but also by the ‘how’ of the methodology (Chomsky, 1959/ 1967, XI).
This positivist perspective was dominant in science research for most of the twentieth century. However, “methodological resentments simmering” among those who recognised that a quantitative approach fails to address key issues of “how individuals make meaning of their social world” (Hesse-Biber, 2010, p. 455). This led to the paradigm wars and resulted in the acceptance of mixed-methods approaches (Denzin, 2010).
The distinction between quantitative and qualitative research is problematic. The Latin root in quant-itative points to quantus, which asks the question of how many/ much or of what size: in other words, it demands a numeric answer. Qualis, from which we derive ‘quality’, requires a property, description, or disposition. As number may be one property of an object, but an emotion, for example, is not a number, we can place quantity as a sub-set of quality. This leads Valsiner to claim “that quantitative methods are derivates of a qualitative process of investigation” (Valsiner, 2000, abstract). That said, perhaps it is more useful to concur with Punch who includes “a whole way of thinking” inside each method (Punch, 2005, p. 3).
Researchers utilise diverse methodologies to arrive at a more nuanced understanding of phenomenon as methodological techniques around a topic triangulate to provide multi-dimensional views of that topic. Because “reality is multi-layered and complex” (Cohen et al., 2007, p. 22), research methods, similarly, need to be sophisticated in order to grasp the deeper natures of our varied, richer, and subjective ontologies. The ability to generalise quantitative studies that have large and statistically secure datasets is perhaps matched by the depth of subjective investigation possible through, for example, qualitative case studies. Yet whereas case study researchers can hardly hope for replicability of their studies, they can hope for “relatability” (Bell, 2005, 11) or “trustworthiness” (Cousin, 2008, p. 8). Cresswell claims that qualitative research may be conducted when a “complex, detailed understanding of the issue” is required (2007, p. 40). He sums up the prevailing attitude for using qualitative methods “because quantitative measures and the statistical analyses simply do not fit the problem” (Creswell, 2007, p. 40).
Bell, J. (2005). Doing your research project: A guide for first-time researchers in education, health and social science. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Chomsky, N. (1959). A review of Skinner’s verbal behaviour. Language, 35(1), 26-58. In Leon A. Jakobovits & Murray S. Miron (eds) Readings in the psychology of language. (1967). Retrieved April 30, 2015 http://cogprints.org/1148/1/chomsky.htm
Cohen, L., Manion, L. & Morrison, K. (2007). Research methods in education (5th ed). London: Routledge.
Comte, A., & Bridges, J. H. (1865). A General View of Positivism. Translated by JH Bridges.
Cousin, G. (2008). Researching learning in higher education: An introduction to contemporary methods and approaches. London: Routledge.
Creswell, J. W. (2007). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five approaches. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
Denzin, N. K. (2010). Moments, mixed methods, and paradigm dialogs. Qualitative Inquiry, 16(6), 419-427.
Hesse-Biber, S. (2010). Qualitative approaches to mixed methods practice. Qualitative Inquiry, 16(6), 455-468.
Punch, K. F. (2005). Introduction to social research: Quantitative a qualitative approaches. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
Valsiner, J. (2000). Data as representations: Contextualizing qualitative and quantitative research strategies. Social science information, 39(1), 99-113.