April 30, 2014, by Brigitte Nerlich

Doing science: Some reflections on methods

HMS_Beagle_by_Conrad_MartensOver the last few months some members of our Institute, especially Bev Gibbs, Greg Hollin and I have had discussions about ‘methods’ in the (natural and) social sciences. In this post I want to dig a bit deeper into methods and perhaps clear up some confusions (or create more!).

I’ll focus on four methodological concepts: empirical, experimental, quantitative and qualitative. Ideally researchers should all live happily in a paradise of methodological pluralism and should be able to choose any method that suits their object of research, their research question and research topic. However, as things stand, people choose one method over another not only for practical reasons but also for ideological ones, especially when it comes to choosing between quantitative and qualitative methods. Whereas some qualitative researchers accuse quantitative ones of positivism, empiricism, reductionism, determinism, and objectivism, some quantitative researchers accuse qualitative ones of fuzziness, lack of rigour, and subjectivism. These ideological barriers to mutual understanding and acceptance are, in part, based on misconceptions about what qualitative methods are (for) and on misunderstanding words like empirical, experimental and quantitative.


On the whole, qualitative approaches are used in the social sciences in order to gain detailed and deep understandings of how people live in societies. Examples of qualitative approaches are: ethnographic fieldwork, especially participant observation or direct social observation in the context of everyday life, structured and unstructured interviews, documentary historical research, case studies and most prominently in recent years, various types of discourse and conversation analysis. Qualitative researchers aim to achieve a better understanding of how certain groups of people think and act in society with relation to particular issues or problems. The dissemination of findings derived from such qualitative work may, it is hoped, enable those people to gain new insights into the ways they live, make choices, interact with others and so on, and in the end live better lives. One unique aspect of qualitative research is that researchers have to be able to adopt the point of view of the people they study, something that is impossible to do in the natural sciences. They also have to acknowledge their own central position in the construction of knowledge. This does not mean however, that this type of research is not ‘empirical’ or could not be complemented by experimental or quantitative approaches.

Empirical, experimental, quantitative

It is important not to confuse three different methodological strands in research, throw them all into one pot and cover them firmly with a lid marked: empiricism, positivism and reductionism. These three strands are (1) empirical research, (2) experimental research, and (3) quantitative research.

Empirical research has perhaps the longest tradition of the three, having its roots at least in Antiquity and being systematised from the Enlightenment onwards. Interestingly, the word empirical was first used in English in the 16th century in the context of discussing approaches used in medicine (but also to label medical ‘quacks’ and thus distinguish them from academically trained physicians) (see Oxford English Dictionary online). More importantly though, after the 16th century, the word empirical became almost synonymous with science as opposed to speculation, that is, it pointed to systematically (methodically) acquired knowledge derived from the experience of the senses, observation and also experiment.

Naturalistic and systematic observation, that is to say empirical observation, has been used for millennia as part of ‘natural history’ and later biology, palaeontology and so on. In a sense, both quantitative and qualitative methods are empirical, that is, dependent on observations. The only difference lies in how these observations are collected and how they are interpreted. Naturalistic observation should be distinguished from controlled observation under experimental conditions.

Experimental research is of slightly newer date. Initially the word experimental was used almost as a synonym for empirical in the context of ‘experimental philosophy/science’, a type of science extolled by Francis Bacon amongst others. The Oxford English Dictionary provides a quote from 1651 which illustrates this meaning: “… A vindication of Lord Bacon, the Auctor of Experimental Philosophy.” In the social sciences empirical or experimental psychology began to emerge at the end of the 18th century. This approach was institutionalised (and, in a sense, laboratised) in Germany by Wilhelm Wundt and others at the end of the 19th century. However, these psychologists also used what one may call qualitative methods, in particular ‘introspection’ or self-observation.

However, the increasing focus on experimental laboratory studies provoked a backlash from what one may call qualitative researchers from the 1890s onwards. Examples are philosophers like Wilhelm Dilthey and sociologists like Max Weber who claimed that psychology and sociology should focus more on “the interpretation of action in terms of its subjective meaning” (Economy and Society, 1921) within real-life situations.

Every experimental study is empirical but not every empirical type of study is experimental.

Quantitative research emerged in the context of advances in mathematics and statistics at the end of the 19th century and in computing during the 20th century and is concerned with measurement. Observations are of cause still important. They become data which can be subjected to quantitative study. What distinguishes quantitative or statistical experimental methods in psychology in particular from older forms of experimental methods, is the focus away from the individual and towards the aggregate. In the early 20th century there was a shift away from using single subjects in experiments (who, in early experimental psychology, could still be the psychologists experimenting on themselves), towards a pool of subjects. However, the applicability of these aggregate results to individual cases can become a problem, an issue that still plagues the social sciences.

Mixing it all up

The relationship between qualitative, empirical, experimental and quantitative research is complex. Qualitative research can be said to be empirical because it is based on systematic observation; but it does not base its observations on experimentally controlled conditions and variables. Qualitative research is empirical, but is not experimental. Whereas experiments are rejected by most qualitative researchers, qualitative researchers do not altogether dismiss either the use of quantitative data or the summarising and systematising of results in quantitative form. They tend to object to the averaging out of individual and cultural differences by the use of statistics, and the belief that measurement can (automatically) create understanding.

I myself have found it useful to combine (or collaborate with people who can combine) qualitative and quantitative approaches, a mixing of methods that is becoming quite commonplace in fields like applied linguistics for example. This means using qualitative methods like discourse analysis, metaphor analysis or the analysis of social representations to analyse and interpret smaller bodies of text or talk in detail, alongside computer assisted approaches or text mining approaches that enable researchers to sift through large bodies of texts, such as reader comments (and here), interviews or tweets. I even once tried out a more experimental study design but I am really no expert in that. Experimenting with methods is however always a good idea.

And finally, to create understanding in any sort of science we still need imagination (and also some speculation!).


All research, whether empirical, experimental, quantitative or qualitative, or any mixture of the above, needs imagination to succeed. Modern natural sciences need imagination to deal, amongst other things, with theoretical or hypothetical entities that are unobservable in the ordinary sense and modern social sciences need imagination to get into other people’s (unobservable) heads/minds. All science needs imagination to form hypotheses and theories (but that’s another story…).

As John Tyndall said of Charles Darwin in his essay on the scientific use of imagination (based on an address to the British Association delivered in 1870): “In the case of Mr Darwin, observation, imagination and reason – combined have run back with wonderful sagacity and success over a certain length of the line of biological succession” (p 129). Albert Einstein famously said that “imagination is more important than knowledge”.

We need imagination to create understanding of the world and those who inhabit it: us. And we need to use all methods that are at our disposal to do so. In doing science we should not let our creative thoughts be blinkered by ideology and should be able to adopt those methods that are most suitable to our research and most useful for creating greater understanding. We should not forget however that we have to be able to justify our choice of method.

Image: HMS Beagle Wikimedia Commons


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