This is an exciting time to be writing about the character of inquiry in social science for there is a growing interest in and openness to new forms of inquiry. Researchers throughout the social sciences are increasingly working with qualitative data – interview transcripts, verbal reports, videos of social interactions, drawings, and notes – whether they view these as “soft data” (Ericsson & Simon, 1984), “messy data” (Chi, 1997, p. 271), or “the ‘good stuff’ of social science” (Ryan & Bernard, 2000, p. 769). Research projects that include such empirical material are becoming increasingly popular. In addition to self-styled “qualitative researchers,” investigators in the learning sciences, developmental psychology, cultural psychology, and even in survey research, as well as many other areas, have turned to nonquantitative material and are exploring ways to collect, analyze, and draw conclusions from it.
At the same time, a strong backlash has developed against this kind of inquiry. In the United States, as in England and Australia, the funding priorities of government agencies emphasize “evidence-based” research. We are told repeatedly that there is a “gold standard” for research in the social sciences, the randomized clinical trial. Other kinds of research – typically cast as naturalistic, observational, and descriptive – are viewed as mere dross in comparison, good only for generating hypotheses, not for testing them. They are seen as lacking the rigor necessary for truly scientific research and as failing to offer practical solutions to pressing problems. Clinical trials, in contrast, are seen as relevant because they test treatments and interventions, and as rigorous because they involve direct manipulation, objective measurement, and statistical testing of hypotheses. Any suggestion that there might be research that follows a logic of inquiry different from that of traditional experimental research is dismissed. The possibility that complex human phenomena might require a kind of investigation that traces them in time and space and explores how they are constituted is not considered.
In the 1980s, there was general agreement that the “paradigm wars” had ended (Gage, 1989). For many, the correct way to proceed seemed to be with “mixed methods” that combined qualitative techniques with aspects of traditional experimental design and quantification. Arguments against mixing “qual” and “quant” are often dismissed as an unnecessarily belligerent perpetuation of the conflict. But now the “science wars” are being fought over much the same territory (Howe, 2005; Lather, 2004).