Becker, H. S. (1990). The epistemology of qualitative research. S.l.: Howard S. Becker.
Becker poses that in social science it’s unavoidable to compare the epistemological questions of “qualitative-ethnographic” and “quantitative-survey” methods. While both approaches aim to research how society works, it is the method to which is the debate.
Conference organizers posed the question “What’s the epistemology of qualitative research?” The author believes that the similarities of the quantitative and qualitative research are more important and relevant than its differences. Both methods overlap on one another implicitly and explicitly.
Characteristically, qualitative epistemology concerns itself with the “oughts” <subjective>rather than the “is’s”<concrete>. It has been viewed as a negative discipline for it is what you do if you do not want your activity to merit the title of science.
Becker points out that his paper is not about how one should or shouldn’t do science it will, “talk about how ethnographers have produced credible, believable results, especially those which have continued to command respect and belief”(p2).
Is There A Difference?
Quantitative epistemology researchers view their results in terms of numerical differences in groups to explain the relationship.
Qualitative epistemologists view the relationships in terms of the system. Who are the people? What were their relationships before, during and after event?
Quantitative epistemology research data gathering is more concrete. No big surprises from data unless there are some open ended questions. Overall, you know in advance the information you will be able to attain.
Qualitative epistemologists are immersed in the data. In the field, it’s a lived experience where variables and ideas are continually added to their models.
Becker acknowledges the view of the actor as a qualitative ethnographer. This is “Taking the Point of View of the other”. It is the ability of the researcher to become the participant in order to describe the experience of whom they are observing. Accuracy is crucial as the actor. If not done properly, attributes of the research will be implied or guessed upon which is a disservice to the people they are studying. Misinterpretations of people’s experience are common but “don’t make up what you could find out” (Lieberson 1992).
Furthermore, ethnographers feel as if they getting closer to the lived experience by in situ the virtue of observing behavior. This is the notion of how people interact in the real world even though they know they are being observed.
The experience of in situ provides a detailed bank of data to draw from. Ethnographers pride themselves on providing dense, detailed descriptions of social life known as “thick” (Geertz 1974). This is an attempt to reproduce the “lived experience”. Rather, a full approach is taken where photos, audio and video recording add better clarity to the lived experience more than “thick” detailed approach. Thick and Full are both good approaches but “breadth” is a better goal as it finds out something about every topic and gives you a broader picture.
Becker concludes, “that qualitative and quantitative methods seem to have different philosophies of science but they really just work in different situations and ask different questions”
- Which do you think warrants more scientific merit Qualitative Ethnography or Quantitative Ethnography?
- Are qualitative and quantitative methods really that different? Why?
- How would you define the “oughts” and the “is’s”? Provide one example of each.
- In terms of thick, full or breadth, does one method truly supersede another?