Criticisms of Quantitative Research

Bryman (2016) identifies four criticisms of quantitative research:

Quantitative researchers fail to distinguish people and social institutions from the world of nature

Schutz (1962) is the main critique here.

Schutz and other phenomenologists accuse quantitative social researchers of treating the social world as if it were no different from the natural world. In so doing, quantitative researchers tend to ignore the fact that people interpret the world around them, whereas this capacity for self-reflection cannot be found among the objects of the natural sciences.

The measurement process possesses an artificial and spurious sense of precision and accuracy

Cicourel (1964) is the main critique here.

He argues that the connection between the measures developed by social scientists and the concepts they are supposed to be revealing is assumed rather than real – basically measures and concepts are both effectively ‘made up’ by the researchers, rather than being ‘out there’ in reality.

A further problem is that quantitative researchers assume that everyone who answers a survey interprets the questions in the same way – in reality, this simply may not be the case.

The reliance on instruments and procedures hinders the connection between research and everyday life

This issue relates to the question of ecological validity.  

Many methods of quantitative research rely heavily on administering research instruments to participants (such as structured interviews or self-completion questionnaires), or controlling situations to determine effects.

However, these instruments simply do not ‘tap into’ people’s real life experiences – for example, many of the well known lab experiments on the A-level sociology syllabus clearly do not reflect real life, while surveys which ask people about their attitudes towards immigration, or the environment, do not necessarily tell us about how people act towards migrants or the environment on a day to day basis.

The analysis of relationships between variables creates a static view of social life that is independent of people’s lives. 

The main critique here is Blumer (1956).

Blumer (1956) argued that studies that seek to bring out the relationships between variables omit ‘the process of interpretation or definition that goes on in human groups’.

This is a combination of criticisms 1 and 3 above, but adds on an additional problem – that in isolating out variables, quantitative research creates an artificial, fixed and frozen social (un)reality – whereas social reality is (really) alive and constantly being created through processes of interaction by its various members.

In other words, the criticism here is that quantitative research is seen as carrying an objective ontology that reifies the social world.

The above criticisms have lead intepretivists to prefer more qualitative research methods. However, these too have their limitations!

Sources:

Bryman (2016) Social Research Methods

 

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