Monday, September 22, 2003

Cavarly Hill: Judging the Paradigms

OBJECTIVE: Take hill 433-42 by 1200 09/22/2003

MISSION: Without aerial support, lone researcher to scale hill unaided and rest control from the occupying quals. Once taken, researcher to introduce hypotheses to purge hill of ethnographic contamination. If enemy fire encountered, government funding artillery barrage is available.

The world of research is a battlefield. The positivist Union has drawn together against the upstart Confederation of qualitative researchers. These two will fight to determine the future of research.

Personally, I find it hard to believe that there are only two paradigms within research: qualitative and quantitative(Singleton, Straits, & Straits, 1988). Furthermore, I find it difficult to support the notion that one is either a “qual” or a “quant” (Frohmann, 1992). The current state of research needs both approaches—in addition to many others—to maintain stability.

The sociologist Peter Galison has explored several battlefields of natural science. His favourite is the high energy physics lab (Galison, 1999). In studying the environs of particle accelerators, Galison detected three kinds of physicists: experimenters, theorists, and instrumentalists. Each community is essential for the overall project of high-energy physics. Each field, however, has seen considerable innovation in the last 15-years. In essence there have been miniature paradigm shifts (Kuhn, 1962) in each. The shifts, however, don’t occur simultaneously across the fields. Galison maintains that these shifts _can’t_ occur simultaneously since the shift still requires some kind of empirical support. A paradigm shift in theory, for example, must be validated by the stable science of the experimenters and instrumentalists. Qualitative research and quantitative research seem to lead a similar symbiotic relationship.

We have, however, seen a qualitative Reformation and must choose our methodology:

“Pragmatically, to use both paradigms adequately and accurately consumes more pages than journal editors are willing to allow and extends dissertation studies beyond normal limits of size and scope.” (Creswell, 1994 pg. 7)

I have to wonder how much “truth” remains in the tacit intertext of our methodologies. To use an LIS metaphor: How much of what we need to know will be suspended forever between LCSH and MeSH in the all-consuming OPAC that is research?

Both qualitative and quantitative research provides us with an ample number of methods. In Potter’s review of qualitative methods (Potter, 1996), we learn that many of them are quite involved and come complete with a strict dogma. In adhering blindly to the Word, how many researchers merely renew their vows by rediscovering the tenets of their faith?

Etienne Wenger, for example, used several qualitative methodologies (ethnography, symbolic interactionism) to investigate insurance claims processors (Wenger, 1998). One of his key observations is that “communities of practice” involve both social practice and the reification of concepts or objects to form stable artefacts. It seems to me that Wenger has merely found the basis of his research methods in the subjects that he studied… regardless of whether or not they were called “subjects” or “collaborators”!

I’m not sure where this leaves me as I mount my horse and ride off to win my own research battles. Should I trust the near sightedness of the quant Union or give in to the zealotry of the qual Confederacy? How do I choose between two enemies who so clearly need each other?

Rubin seems to provide a battle cry. Hopefully, I’ll eventually learn what she means:

"The quest then should not be for the fool's gold of objectivity but for the real goal of self-awareness. For it is not our subjectivity that entraps us, but our belief that somehow we can be free of it." (Rubin, 1981 pg. 103)


Creswell, J. W. (1994). A Framework for the Study. In Research Design: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches (pp. 1-19). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Frohmann, B. (1992). The power of images: A discourse analysis of the cognitive viewpoint. Journal of Documentation, 48, 365-386.
Galison, P. (1999). Trading Zone: Coordinating Action and Belief. In M. Biagioli (Ed.), The science studies reader (pp. 137-160). New York; London: Routledge.
Kuhn, T. S. (1962). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Potter, W. J. (1996). An analysis of thinking and research about qualitative methods. Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates.
Rubin, L. B. (1981). Sociological Research: The Subjective Dimension. Symbolic Interaction, 4(1), 97-112.
Singleton, R. A. J., Straits, B. C., & Straits, M. M. (1988). Chapter 4: Elements of Research Design. In Approaches to Social Research (pp. 67-96). New York: Oxford University Press.
Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice : learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press.


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