The difference between “quals” and “quants”
In an article on U.S. foreign policy and domestic politics, Samantha Power writes:
Since 1968, with the single exception of the election of George W. Bush in 2000, Americans have chosen Republican presidents in times of perceived danger and Democrats in times of relative calm.
So here’s the difference between qualitative and quantitative researchers. Samantha Power knows more about foreign policy and politics than I’ll ever know. But she could whip off the above sentence without pause. Whereas, when I see it, I think:
– Why start in 1968? Is this just a convenient choice of endpoint? Eisenhower ran as a national security expert, no?
– What evidence can you expect to get about public opinion from the essentially tied elections of 1968, 1976, and 2000?
– Anyway, if you’re talking public opinion, it was Gore who won more votes in 2000–so it’s funny to be taking that as an exception at all!
– How are “perceived danger” and “relative calm” defined? Was 1988, when George H. W. Bush floored Michael Dukakis, really such a time of “perceived danger”?
As commentators have pointed out, the difference is either between researcher and pundit or between a good and a sloppy research design. If Power had been my student and I had been grading her essay as a paper, I – as a basically qualitative researcher – would ask exactly the same questions because the principles guiding your choice of cases are critical for the results when you do a small-n study.
That said, many students often assume that qualitative research is easier to do than quantitative while I would argue that from a technical point of view doing good qualitative research is harder than doing good quantitative research because the criteria for assessing results are less formalised. That there is a lot of sloppy qualitative research around is another matter.
PS: The Power essay in New York Review of Books is available here.