Sigh. For better or worse, I am known as the qualitative person around here. While I do, admittedly, have a strong fondness for qualitative work, I know better that to think it is the right tool for every job. Yet, my reputation precedes me and I’m often asked to defend qualitative work in the tired quant-qual debate that so bores me.

Mostly, I am sick of this debate because people expect me to ride the party line and I just can’t do it. The party line (for both quant and qual) is so full of assumptions about ontology and epistemology that I end up disagreeing with the side I am supposed to be defending and that sort of takes the adversarial fun out of the debate. The main issue is this:

Qualitative work is often described as indivisible from constructivism (the perspective that reality is constructed by individuals and so multiple realities exist and evaluation should represent them) and inductive reasoning (the use of case examples to frame a study that builds to a theory). While those are nice ideas for polarizing and contrasting, I don’t buy it.

I believe there can be no such thing as true inductive reasoning among paid evaluators. According to the textbook definition, that process is such that one does not have any working theories that guide data collection or analysis, but that the theory comes from the data. Yet this is much like saying there is such a thing as value-free inquiry. Even the choice of research topic in an exploratory orientation still posits that “there is something going on in X,” which is a theory (albeit with a lowercase “t” perhaps). Though true grounded theory researchers try to go through analysis without existing theory to guide them, (1) its like saying their research experience and expertise in the topic can be ignored and (2) grounded theory itself is a theory that knowledge can be generated through this process. In other words, we wouldn’t be hired for the job if we weren’t bringing something valuable (other than a method) to the table and inductive reasoning doesn’t fit well with that.

More frustrating than my position as the token qualitative person is the rampant oversimiplification of beliefs, as if we could collapse the world into two opposing camps and never the twain shall meet. That sort of either/or-only-one-can-be-right kind of thinking is exactly the sort of debate designed strictly to annoy qual loves, like me.

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