The Power of Qualitative Observation

In today’s Chronicle of Higher Education, Marc Dunkelman questioned the way that numerical data now drive scientific inquiry.

Over the past several decades, the value we once put in simple observations has been eclipsed by the power of statistics. It’s not that anyone believes that data should be ignored. In many cases, hard figures offer us valuable insights and empower us to hold individuals and organizations to account. … But it’s come now to the point where hard data aren’t just the means to a conclusion—data have emerged as the parameter for our questions. …

The point isn’t that we ought not to be rigorous in testing and challenging suppositions. It’s not that we should ignore hard facts when they’re available. But the world of scholarship—whether inside the academy or out—can’t be limited to the boundaries of measurable data. There are too many important questions for which we can’t compute answers. The absence of numerical evidence shouldn’t discourage an investigation. Quite the opposite: If a question is worth answering, then the underlying issue should be considered worthy of simple and sustained observation.

As I tell my graduate students, quantitative research is important in the quest for knowledge, but it is only a piece of the research puzzle. Qualitative research is the other piece, and it is just as important. Among other things, qualitative research is necessary for generating the hypotheses that can later be tested using quantitative methods. Novel hypotheses tend to emerge from “simple and sustained observation” (Dunkelman, 2014).

Perhaps William Bruce Cameron said it best:




Dunkelman, M. J. (2014, August 19). What data can’t convey. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from


2 thoughts on “The Power of Qualitative Observation

  1. Dorothy J. Della Noce says:

    Hi Tony! Thanks for your comment and the reference to your own work. I believe that both the qualitative and quantitative perspectives have a place in the pursuit of knowledge. I value data; for example, I like to base decisions about diet and health on peer-reviewed research. At the same, I agree with Marc Dunkelman that we cannot let a love affair with statistical data overshadow the value of exploration. We need the wonderers…those who see anomalies, new phenomena, and new relationships between phenomena, and want to dig in and explore what it all means.

  2. Tony English says:

    These extracts from the Introduction in my book (English 2010) on international negotiation are relevant:

    “Rather than survey a large statistical (probability) sample, I wanted to use interviews to delve into the experience of a small judgment sample of veterans and select whatever data would give me the best insight into international negotiation without giving equal space and weight to everyone. Like Henry Mintzberg, doyen of managerial researchers, my interest lies less in large samples, statistical analysis, frequency and ‘truth’ than in the richness of individual lives and the meaning we can draw from them, based on attempts to understand how informants see and manage their reality. … Discovered, inferred or constructed meaning might or might not be relevant to other people in similar circumstances. In the jargon of the flock of deskbound academics who see the world as numbers, and are lambing fast, my limited sample has low external validity (which does not mean my tension-based model of negotiation is wrong).

    Software is now available to analyse interview transcripts and other written sources, but qualitative research is still slow sculpture with no quickfire equivalent of statistics packages. If done well it tends to take longer than quantitative research and to generate fewer papers per capita, which creates anxiety for many academics. Quantity outweighs quality in promotion or tenure rounds in the modern university, where the annual quota of publications works against scholarship…. One colleague says he needs only a bottle of cognac, a computer, a statistics package and access to a public database to build the pile of papers demanded of him. His method is more prolific than mine but it also looks too much like sausage production. He wonders why I torture myself for years on a single work, playing with what he calls “intangibles”—he means “uncountables”. Another Henry, more lethal than Henry Mintzberg, got it right when he criticised academic researchers for avoiding intangibles because they are hard to pin down: “Things are done because one knows how to do them and not because one ought to do them” (Kissinger 1977: 29). My need to see the eye colour of interesting people outweighs my need for promotion (if not for cognac)….

    I am starting to realise why most of my colleagues seek refuge in the number-crunching that bolsters their sense of scientific detachment as they seek incremental findings based on other people’s incremental findings. But increments and safety do not concern me any more than numbers
    in this study. My purpose is to develop a new, tension-based model that encourages researchers to revel in uncertainty, not try to deny it, while looking for manageable order in the chaos of negotiation as an open system. I generate theory that quantitative researchers might choose to test in their own way—I do not dismiss statistics packages, as long as other people use them to dredge for meaning rather than massage it to suit the method. Wright makes a case for qualitative research as a flexible generator of theory, “while quantitative methods are most useful for testing the generalizability
    of particular factors” (1996: 77). She says we will miss out on a lot “if we are straight-jacketed into looking only at that which can be measured” (63). Terrence Hopmann, a 30-year veteran of quantitative research, argues for qualitative method as a richer way of getting at the nuances of the negotiation process and overcoming the basic assumptions “that the actors are motivated by instrumental rationality and engage in some sort of formal bargaining process, and that the goals and moves may be quantified and subjected to systematic analysis” (2002: 74)….

    Certainly, my method is meant to be a long way from hard science. A positivist might want to design research to test my propositions and claims to theoretical sense, and to assess my findings for validity, reliability, and so on.”

    English, T. (2010) Tug of War: The Tension Concept and the Art of International Negotiation. Common Ground: Melbourne & University of Illinois.

    Hopmann, P. T. (2002) Negotiating data: Reflections on the qualitative and quantitative analysis of negotiation processes. International Negotiation Journal, 7(1), 67–85.

    Kissinger, H. (1977) American Foreign Policy. 3rd edition. W.W. Norton: New York.

    Wright, L. L. (1996) Qualitative international management research. In: B. J. Punnett and O. Shenkar (eds), Handbook for International Management Research. Blackwell: Cambridge, Mass. 63–81.

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