Social science researchers employ so-called qualitative methods, such as case studies, interviews, documentary evidence, participant observation, and the quasi-quantitative method of survey research. Physical science researchers employ quantitative methods; they take measurements, collect and count data points, and formulate equations that model how systems change. The difference in methods is said to make the social sciences more subjective compared to the hard sciences. Interdisciplinary studies departments worldwide now offer courses combining quantitative and qualitative methods as a compromise intended to resist the privileging of one method over the other. In this talk, I will argue that we’ve been coming up with answers to the wrong question.
Quantitative methods are appropriate for modeling how any complex system stays more or less the same. Qualitative methods are appropriate for understanding how any complex systems change significantly. I will argue that the processes that cause change involve the qualities of similarity, proximity, and arbitrary association, which inhere in the relationships of the system’s interactions themselves and are not imposed by an external observer. These local interactions give rise to emergent features that can be modeled quantitatively. Thus the conventional ways of thinking about the objective/subjective dichotomy needs some serious reevaluation.
21st Annual Biosemiotic Gathering
Hosted by the International Bateson Institute, Stockholm, Sweden
Applying Biosemiotics to the Theory and Practice of Quantitative vs. Qualitative Methods
V. N. Alexander