Clarification on quals and quants

by Andrew Gelman on January 14, 2012 · 3 comments

in Methodology,Political Science and Journalism

In response to my post criticizing David Brooks for making a broad claim that seemed unsupported by the facts, several commenters rightly jumped on my for making my own sweeping statements about “quals” and “quants.”

Let me briefly clarify. I think both qualitative and quantitative work is necessary. Just for example, The Road to Wigan Pier is a classic work of qualitative social science as well as being classic journalism. My criticism of Brooks (and earlier of Samantha Power, Michael Barone, and others) was that they made claims which they could easily evaluate quantitatively—-simply by carefully enumerating—-but they didn’t seem to think of doing so. In other contexts, I’ve criticized quantitative researchers for jumping to a poorly-thought-through qualitative “story time” without noting the gap in their reasoning. In those latter situations, it is the quantitative researchers who are not taking seriously the demands of qualitative thinking.

{ 3 comments }

Sebastian January 14, 2012 at 3:19 pm

I think you really need to rethink your use of the label “qual” vs. “quant,” for this type of smackdown (it’s not like this was the first time you do this) especially on a polisci blog. As I’m sure you know, there is a rather intense qual vs. quant debate in polisci – though it’s become much less acrimonious of late (I think because we have more, especially younger scholars, with rigorous training in both traditions).
Lumping sloppy pundits with qualitative researchers is not helpful – it’s not just offensive, as people have noted in the comments, it also obscures the issue. You’re not objecting to a qualitative approach, you’re objecting to broad statements made without any concern for a systematic empirical basis.
You must have overlapped with Sartori at Columbia, no? The concepts we use and the labels we give them matter – maybe that’s one thing you could learn from the quals?

Andrew Gelman January 14, 2012 at 6:02 pm

Sebastian:

Yes, that sounds reasonable. Thanks for the suggestions.

EmilyKennedy January 16, 2012 at 5:40 am

I thought at the time of your original post, and still feel the issue is that we need to work together better. We need to be honest about the limits of our knowledge, and if we’re not interested in learning new information, we need to connect with people who have that information.

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