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    Alexandra Cuncev

    Is the British preference for qualitative methods an issue of philosophy or a response to the relative poverty of maths teaching in British schools?

    Jeremy Miles

    Both. And maybe more.

    (In my experience) students are drawn to qualitative methods because they think it’s going to be easier because there are no numbers – they don’t realize that doing a t-test is a whole lot easier than an in depth qualitative analysis.

    It’s also a philosophy – people have to be taught by someone, and they inherit, to a reasonable extent, the philosophy of their mentors. There’s very little item response theory in the UK, and I think that’s in part because there’s very little item response theory in the UK.

    But people also get less statistics training in their (graduate) studies. In the US, people take a wider range of courses before they get into their dissertation, in the UK, they launch almost immediately into their dissertation. It’s not uncommon in the US for a social scientist to have acquired a master’s degree in stats on the way to their PhD. It’s almost unheard of in the UK.

    I guess the next question is (possibly) is that a bad thing?

    (Jeremy, who used to work in the UK and now works in the US).


    I agree with Jeremy to some degree, but there’s more to it too. I think there is also a structural dimension to this issue that relates to the nature of British schooling. In Britain, most pupils have to select a limited range of A-level options when they are very young – at age 15 or 16 – and they commonly only choose to study 3 (occasionally 4) subjects. this tends to force students to choose between broadly ‘arts-based’ and broadly ‘maths/science-based’ subjects. Few take a mix. Because mathematics and sciences also tend to be poorly taught in British schools, a majority of promising pupils opt for the arts-based option at this stage and that effectively cuts them off from maths in post-16 education and strips them of confidence when it comes to selecting quantitative approaches in later life. My own personal opinion is that A levels need to be abolished and we need to end the schools-based arts/science dichotomy if we are to encourage arts-based A-levellers to use quants and, also, science-based A-levellers to do qualitative research. Time for the bacaulareate perhaps?

    Kevin Fisher

    An interesting question – I am working in a national policy area reporting directly to Government Departments – the Civil servants and politicians always tend to want quantitative research.

    Qualitative research findings are used to support policy – but usually where quantitative research already exists. We commission almost always quantitative research – possibly with some qualitative questions – which are always converted into quantitative analysis….



    Theo Gokah

    I find Alexandra’s question very interesting i.e. Is the British preference for qualitative methods an issue of philosophy or a response to the relative poverty of maths teaching in British schools? I thought the issue of which methodology is the best approach has been settled. Alexandra’s question however gives it a new dimension which means that we still have to keep the flame alight. Whereas there might be some truth in people’s preference for a particular methodology because of their weakness in a related field, to think that British lecturers’ choice of qualitative methodology is due to poverty of maths may be over generalisation. Although not British (but a product of British education) I have always admired the typical American positivist approach to analysis. The hard truth is that, most of these presentations are unable to tell us the REASONS behind the figures displayed. This leaves qualitative analysts wondering and seeking in-depth answers. Quantitative analysts “bluff” their way through figures which the ordinary man/woman does not understand. What makes qualitative analysis interesting and important is exactly what quantitative experts have failed to achieve. To reverse the question, why are quantitative analysts dazzled by large volumes of text. Are they poor readers? Or they just can not figure out how to manage large volumes of text. If any of the above questions apply, then, it implies that a soft option is to do quantitative analysis rather than ‘playing where angels fear to thread’ (qualitative analysis).


    This question is overly general and makes immense assumptions. One could just as easily ask: Is the US-American preference for quantitative methods an issue of philosophy or a response to the relative poverty of reading and writing teaching (read illiteracy) in the USA?

    Berkay Ozcan

    I don’t think that the question can be reversed in that way. Because it bluntly assumes that the quantitative researchers are lacking the reading and writing skills. Yet, the researchers that use quantitative methods are just as good readers and writers as the qualitative methods users (if not more). Writing and reading poverty in the US could not be the reason why for the preference (if there is any) for the quantitative methods at the research level. Quantitative researchers also go through almost the same training as the qualitative researchers. The answer of Alexandra’s question lies somewhere in the institutional settings and faculty compositions. Academia has a very path dependent/ self-reproductive structure. When one starts as a Phd student in a Sociology department in UK, how many good quantitative course/ professor/ adviser she can get is also important. I think lack of trainers is a huge factor.

    Theo Gokah

    Thanks Putri. It is not that qualitative research is not well done. Both approaches must be valid and rigorous. What we might be confronted with is “how rigorous should a method be”? There are standard measurements to rigour accepted in research phenomenology; even so, its debate is on-going. As others have said before, the choice of method is dependent on the aim of your research. What is it that you want your research to show?. For instance, I have always believed in knowing reaons behind the figures. In other words going deep into my respondent’s mind to know why s/he ticked the ‘yes’ box gives me a better undersatning than just having the general trend as an answer. My experience in doing census surveys tells me that some people tick boxes without giving their reasons a second thought. In this case our ‘margin of error’ in respect of that particular policy research may be skewed. Again, we all are aware of the pitfalls of using postal questionnaires for example. This is not to say that qualitative interviews do not have their pitfalls as well. In effect, I agree with senior authors like Sandelworski, Silverman, Denzin etc who argue that both methods are useful. I think researchers’ need to reflect properly on their method other than jumping onto murky grounds. The purpose of our research should define the appropriate method(ology). There are no easy options. My other question is “can a methodology lead to misdirection in specific discipline research”? Why do Mathmaticians and Statisticians use different methods to arrive at similar answers? At the same time, both Mathmaticians and Statisticians do not agree on a single method or answer. The difference has always been a .01 or a fraction of 0.1 yet mathematics and statistics have always been perceived as the right way to measure issues. Can social scientist settle their differences?

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