From Qual to Quant and Back
Updated: Jan 4, 2022
I started my research career as a research consultant for Human Rights Watch in Israel and the Palestinian territories. My “data” came from what qualitative research: lengthy, face-to-face interviews with knowledgeable people such as politicians, lawyers, human rights activists and ordinary citizens who have either witnessed, or personally experienced, interesting events. (There are other kinds of qualitative research, of course – focus groups, ethnography, journal entries, and more).
Interview-based research is physically and emotionally demanding. It requires building a network of contacts to gain access to the right people; persuading those people to trust and speak with you, often for hours; engaging in emotionally intense, face-to-face discussions; carefully building trust and rapport; and then analyzing piles of typed transcripts, scribbled notes, or taped conversations. You either furiously write during the interview while also trying to listen, engage, and come up with new questions, or desperately try to remember as many details as you can to record in writing later. Sometimes, you are lucky enough to tape the conversation and even hire someone to produce a written transcript. Then, however, you are faced with hundreds of pages to wade through.
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s I did interviews of this sort in multiple countries. Often, I used a translator, which adds complexity to the rapport-building exercise but also gives you more time to take notes during the interview, a research companion to talk about the work, and someone to help you navigate the process of finding the right people to speak with. My first translator was a Palestinian journalist, Walid Battrawi, now an important media figure in Ramallah, capital of the Palestinian Authority.
When my kids were born, I was no longer willing to travel overseas for long periods. I wanted to be with them as much as possible and couldn’t stomach the idea of leaving them for long periods. I reinvented myself as a “quantitative researcher,” even though statistical analysis had never been my strong suit. To compensate for my lack of formal statistical training, I adopted a method that I’ve used ever since: collaborating with smart people who know a lot more than me about numbers. My then-postdoc, Howard Ramos (now a leading figure in Canadian sociology), taught me how to code newspaper articles, build databases, and understand statistical output. I still didn’t do the statistical analysis myself, however, leaving programs such as SPSS and Stata to Howard and another collaborator, Emilie Hafner-Burton, one of America’s great gurus of quantitative human rights research.
In 2012, I began collaborating with David Crow, an extremely talented survey researcher then based in Mexico City, and through him, learned to love the art and science of opinion polls. In collaboration with Shannon Golden, then a postdoc and now a researcher and survey analyst with the Center for Victims of Torture, and the ever-resourceful Archana Pandya, we designed and led surveys all over the global South.
Working with survey companies in the field was a dream come true, as it brought together my long-standing interest in talking to people overseas with my newer interest in generating large amounts of innovative data. Walking the alleyways of low-income neighborhoods in Casablanca, Bogota or Mexico City and listening in on enumerator discussions with respondents was an exercise in pure intellectual glee.
In 2017, Howard Lavine, one of America’s most interesting political psychologists, introduced me to the joys of conducting internet-based surveys. By this time, I was also doing my own coding in STATA, which finally freed me from the need to have a numbers guru with me when looking for macro patterns.
Now, I’m working with China expert, graduate school running partner and business school professor Doug Guthrie to develop a new project based on quantitative and qualitative work. We’re interested in public opinion in the developing world towards China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a vast global effort to revolutionize the world’s infrastructure and influence world politics. We hope to do face to face interviews and focus groups, when Covid permits, as well as cross national and country-specific opinion surveys.
I started my professional life as a face-to-face interviewer in communities very different from my own, and then learned to enjoy the power of quantitative research, survey and otherwise, despite its desk-bound nature. Now, I am looking forward to bringing the two research styles together. Thirty years after my first steps as a professional researcher, I’m in a methodological sweet spot. I think it’s going to be fun.