Qualitative, Quantitative Quandries

The following is a response to two recently partially devoured (currently being digested) texts: an article on ‘HERMENEUTICS AND POST-STRUCTURALISM’ by Tony Brown (1997) and ‘A Philosophy of Second Langugae Acquisition’ by Marysia Johnson (2003). This essay originally started off as centred around language but the direction of travel seems to be in the direction of the philosophical issues surrounding visual, audible or sensory language in a more general way.

The two texts describe issues about language that describe and discuss issues around our interpretation of the world: how we interpret the world physically or emotionally; individually or socially, methodically through reason or through instinct; from an internal or external perspective; all predominantly through language but also through other sensory input. The relevant terms arising in both texts include: Hermeneutics (Conservative, Moderate, Radical, Critical) and the post-structuralist influence (Brown 1997) and Cognitivism, Behaviourism, Dialogism (Johnson, 2003) – both detail differences and differences within each discipline.

“Hermeneutics literally means ‘‘the art of interpretation’’; nomothetic science is concerned with explaining and predicting, whereas hermeneutics is concerned with understanding and interpreting natural phenomena.” – Johnson (2003)

I found this a really useful and concise explanation highlighting the basic differences and ergo why Hermeneutics relates closely to the interpretive qualitative methods and Nomothetics (governed by laws or principles) relates to the logical, rational, positivist scientific method of quantitative study. In short, quantitative study of cognitive principles requires laws, controls ‘normals’, external benchmarks against which to compare studied subjects (or objects): a ‘test’ requires a standard. These principles have to acknowledge the possibility of a universal cognitive understanding or experience in order to ‘quantify’. In this way, approached from this premise – the desire to study something quantitatively requires certain paradigmatic approaches in order to satisfy the definition of ‘quantitative’, just as certain paradigmatic standpoints may require a quantitative approach in order to judge them ‘lawful’ or ‘true’ (using the tenets of the positivist standpoint).

To use the qualitative method insinuates a philosophical standpoint (explicitly or implicitly) that highlights the importance of the individual, the interpretive nature of experience: the intrinsic qualities of what we understand by ‘qualitative’. Notice that we can only justify a philosophical standpoint by the principles of its own terms: the terms it has itself created. The terms can only be justified (held correct by its own principles) by a certain philosophical standpoint…a catch 22. To study qualitatively we need to acknowledge the principles that provide qualitative study its definition.

We could (could we? could I?) look at language as the frame of a picture or the lense of a camera: we can look through a different lense (language) we could use a different camera (culture), we can point the camera at something (subject/ object) but the language will always frame the thing we are talking about. Now what I see and what you see could be different but we use language (visual, audio, touch…) to find common ground: language that is not understood is just a noise (to which I’m sure so many foreign listeners to England’s dialects could attest!).

Tony Brown’s essay also provides some insight into elements of reflexive internal discourse: awareness, analysis and development of our own philosophical standpoints. Whilst terribly interesting, this must wait on account of my need to drive home and escape the terribly loud student typist sitting next to me! Seriously, my desk is vibrating with the pounding of the keyboard.


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