My sixth grade science teacher, Mrs Fiore, had curly brown hair. She used blue and red markers on an ELMO-brand overhead projector. And there were about 30 other pre-teens in the room when she taught me the difference between qualitative and quantitative methods.
Quantitative methods (n for numbers) collect and record measurable or countable data, while qualitative methods (lit for literature) encode the descriptive and sensory. Both of these are established means of documenting the details and context of a laboratory experiment, archaeological excavation, or ethnographic encounter. And clearly they’re effective: by these methods I can depict a classroom I sat in when I was twelve years old.
Of course, the term methods is a bifurcated one; it encapsulates not only the means of collecting data, but also one’s approach to interpreting that data. Any responsible social scientist needs to account for her epistemological method or hermeneutic approach. But really, if we try hard enough, can’t these methods also be categorized as either quantitative or qualitative—or some combination of the two—as well? Some anthropologists conduct calculations with caloric intake and expenditure, or strontium levels. Others search for symbolic linkages between micro-level and macro-level social processes or gloss the language of stories and songs. Surely, we can call these interpretive approaches qualitative.
So what happens when an anthropologist takes a picture?
A Thousand Words is a Ridiculous Conversion Factor
Simply stated, the shades and shapes located in the viewfinder of the camera are preserved either on film or in a digital file. The result—a photograph—is an image which can be repeatedly referenced over time, losing nothing to the vagaries of a selective or imperfect memory, and which may reveal things initially unnoticed by the ethnographer. In characterizing photography this way, I do not ignore the vast amount of scholarship critiquing the notion that a photograph can be a neutral, objective, or total representation; I am merely illustrating the standard view of photography as a method of data collection and ultimate representation. This view, however, precludes photography from functioning as a hermeneutic method.
The act of taking a picture is a process—it involves the posing or selection of a scene, a moment, and the requisite “cropping” of reality, as well as a level of technical skill. Moreover, bringing a camera into any social setting immediately alters the milieu. The way we set up for the photograph is informed by this awareness, as well as by a unique sense of the temporality and dissemination of our research; The seemingly simple act of weighing the decision whether or not to whip out a hefty SLR entails significant realizations and new insights into the complexities of the contexts in which we conduct ethnography. It is impossible to call this process anything other than an interpretive or epistemological process—but the photographic method isn’t calculating anything, nor is it simply describing. It does not seem to be either quantitative or qualitative.
Other Invaluable Methods
Photography is not alone in its typecast role as a method of representation, rather than a knowledge-production process—an epistemological method—which is neither quantitative nor qualitative. Writing fiction is another example; the work of imagining alternatives to a directly perceived reality, and of making these alternatives informative and relevant, is a process necessarily involving an identification and elaboration of the salient themes in an ethnographic context. Poetry is plagued by the same miscategorization. There are anthropologists who write creative, evocative, or moving poetry—those whom Renato Rosaldo calls anthro-poets. But this poetry is generally viewed as a personal and artistic outpouring that comes with reflecting on their work. Yet the mental work of recasting a world into metaphoric, or sensory, or nongrammatical language—making use of the expressive freedom that poetry offers—must generate ethnographic interpretations and the realization of connections that could not have happened any other way. The fictional stories and poetry ethnographers write certainly do not quantify the contexts where they work. Neither do they describe the data collected. They are epistemic methods, yielding new and nuanced interpretations of data collected by more traditional methods. Theatrical performance, dance, song, and other creative ways of producing ethnographic knowledge can be seen as occupying this same confusing category of methods that are neither quantitative nor qualitative.
This view of the methodological options available to natural and social science as either qualitative or quantitative is intractable for many; it is a dichotomy that I’ve retained since the sixth grade. But it leaves more creative means of arriving at new conclusions in a liminal space, outside of the naturalized landscape of scientific epistemology. This condition must be at least partly to blame for the ongoing disciplinary view of creative epistemology as less scholarly, legitimate, and productive. Perhaps if we begin to break down the polarized divide between qualitative and quantitative methods, there will be room for a positive proliferation of other hermeneutic approaches.
I think even Mrs Fiore would see this as a good thing.
Allison Mickel is a first-year doctoral student in the anthropology department at Stanford University, focusing specifically on archaeology. She works at Çatalhöyük in Turkey and at Petra in Jordan. Her primary research interests are in archaeological representation and archaeological writing, creative epistemology, and the ethics of public engagement.