The role of Qualitative Methods in (Psychological) Research
This is the second part of a series about the appreciation and use of qualitative research methods in science. In part 1 a lack of education and a general rejection of qualitative methods was established. This post addresses the question of why that could be.
What history can tell us - Part 2
I keep thinking about this joke. One fish asks another fish: “How’s the water?” to which the other fish responds: “What the hell is water?” Of course, it doesn’t need to know what water is in order to live his life. To him these surroundings are normal – he couldn’t imagine the world any other way. Even though to everyone else, these surroundings might appear strange and foreign.
I don’t know whether this fish experienced an existential crisis as a result of this conversation. But I do know that I was quite confused myself, upon realizing that the research-toolkit that psychology students are equipped with, lack some very essential tools. We know very well how to calculate correlations, how to do regression, and how to make graphs. But when we try to ask a simple open question, we are lost. We would not know how to even start to analyse such an answer. Whenever I talk to ‘outsiders’ about this situation, they appear to agree with me that it does seem pretty strange. How, then, can it be the case that psychological researchers themselves conceive this situation as completely normal, and even desirable?
The history of psychology is Boring
The situation is complex, and there are no simple answers. In different parts of the world, there were different developments. But for the history of Psychology, America has been an important stage, and historians agree that few have had an impact like Edwin G. Boring.
Boring was a successful student of psychology, and it didn’t take long for him to become a professor at Harvard. However, he was not content with the situation he found there. The problem was that psychology was not yet really an independent discipline like it is today. Rather, it was only a minor part of the philosophy curriculum, and thus Boring’s position was within the philosophy department. That meant that Boring was very constrained in terms of money – if the philosophers didn’t like his ideas, he would not get the funds to carry out his research. In order to get anything done, it was thus of paramount importance that psychology would be an independent scientific discipline. Boring took that on as his personal mission.
Now, Boring had very specific ideas on how that could be achieved. These armchair philosophers were just sitting and thinking all day, and nobody seemed to ever agree on anything. Subjective opinions prevailed the discussions. This could hardly be regarded as truly scientific in Boring’s view. What was needed to distinguish this philosophizing from the real science of psychologists, was to use methods close to the natural sciences. There were prevalent ideas about a hierarchy of sciences where the more abstract and ‘hard’ sciences such as physics won out over the more applied and ‘soft’ sciences such as pedagogy. The higher the tier, the bigger the funds and recognition, the better off psychology would be. Thus, to become a real empirical science, psychologists would need to remain as objective as possible. That meant an emphasis on experimentation, measurement and pure theorizing, as opposed to application in real-life contexts. So how did Boring manage this?
Changing the future by changing the history
The short answer is that he wrote a very influential history book. In it, he presented the history of psychology as mainly experimental. All the venues of application were downplayed, which was no small feat; the first World War had just given rise to the first largescale use of ‘psychotechnics’. That means that they started to apply knowledge of psychology to some practical problem – in this case they used tests of intelligence in the war-effort to recruit the right people for positions suited to their abilities. While this gave a boost to the discipline of psychology in general, this psychology was not the right, scientific kind, in Boring’s view.
And indeed, while Boring was still struggling for resources and retaining students, the applied field was thriving. This success of the 'softer’ psychology, which sought to solve real and practical problems, only made Boring more committed to reframe the discipline and promote the objective methods it should be concerned with. And in the end it worked: he wrote a rather selective history, which became common material that all students of psychology had to read, and over time internalized. The implicit message throughout the book was simple and hit home: objectivity and experiments are good, subjectivity and application are bad.
American Psychology has been very influential in Europe and in the Netherlands. It is hard to understate the impact that Boring and his views have had on what the discipline of Psychology is, and what it is supposed to do. This resistance to open and qualitative means of understanding is still strong.
Indeed, what qualitative methods excel in, is exactly everything that Boring worked to exclude from science. It gives access to the subjective experiences of people that Boring deemed a threat to the scientific status of psychology. It can help to understand the context in which local problems arise, while we were supposed to only care about abstract laws.
However, times have changed and we have started to appreciate different things in science. In the strategic plans of the RUG and our faculty, a lot of emphasis is put on ‘valorization’. We want to start doing exactly what Boring despised: help people and solve real societal problems. I think this is a great development, but right now we are not well equipped to do that. If this is what we really want, then we need to start to provide students with the tools they will require to address those issues.
That is enough on my personal home discipline of psychology. In the rest of the series I will visit other scientific disciplines and talk to scientists for whom qualitative methods play an important role in their research. On these travels we will find out in what ways qualitative methods actually play a very important in the natural sciences.
Rinske Vermeij is a PhD student at the Theory & History of Psychology department at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences. Her Master Thesis about the place of qualitative research in psychology won the Jan Brouwer Scriptie Prize in 2020. She currently chairs the Qualitative Research Group. To share your thoughts, you can reach her at email@example.com.