People as Measurement Devices

Measurement and qualitative research

In his presentation at the 2009 International Philosophy of Nursing Conference in Bristol, John Paley argued that qualitative research could be understood as a kind of measurement. I was reminded of this provocative thesis when I read a new essay by Gualtiero Piccinini “First-Person Data, Publicity & Self-Measurement” (Philosophers’ Imprint, Vol 9, 2009). Piccinini engages the literature that tries to defend a “science of consciousness.” He criticizes the idea that first-person reports create a special kind of science, but concludes by accepting first-person data (when rightly understood) as scientifically legitimate and valuable.

These lines of argument challenge two common nursing conceptions of qualitative research. First, they challenge the characterizations of qualitative research that use measurement as a defining feature of quantitative research. Second, they challenge the common idea that the qualitative investigator is the measuring instrument.

First-person data and measurement

Paley’s argument – and note, this is based on my memory of his presentation in Bristol, so it may not accurately represent his view – assimilated qualitative research to a larger conception of measurement. Measurement is a form of representation, and the use of numbers to scale the measurement is a special case. Paley’s presentation described some interesting techniques for measuring attitude and belief that are semantically sensitive in the sense that they locate the subjects’ belief (attitude) in a semantic network. There is no numeric scale, yet there is an apparently reliable representational scale.

Piccinini is concerned with more with the scientific value of direct, first-person reports. He is arguing against those who take first-person reports of, say, pain or mental imagery to be private, yet legitimate scientific data. Those who support such a view hold that because first-person reports are private, any science which relies on them must have a different character than the familiar sciences with their public, reproducible data.

Puccinini challenges the notion of private scientific data on several grounds, and he ultimately rejects the idea that “the validity of first-person data is untestable by public means” (p. 10, cf. p. 3). His positive view is that first-person data are legitimate scientific data because they are public. Pain reports are a kind of first-person data that is essential to nursing research. One of the mistakes behind supposing that such reports are private is to suppose that the person who is in pain is an observer of the pain. Puccinini suggests that the subjects who are in pain are not the observers: the investigators are. The investigator measures (and thereby observes) the pain through the first-person reports of the subject. Thus:

A subject generating first-person behaviors to fulfill the purposes of a scientific observer is a self-measuring instrument. When a subject generates first-person behaviors, she embodies not only (part of) the experimental materials but also (part of) the measuring apparatus. (p. 11)

A person pointing at a degree of a pain scale thus provides an observation of pain in much the same way as a Geiger counter provides an observation of radiation.

Consequences for qualitative research

Paley and Puccinini are exploring an interesting and new way of assimilating qualitative and quantitative research. If they are right, then “measurement” does not discriminate between qualitative and quantitative research. Interviews (even if conceptualized as phenomenological researchers do) are measurements in much the same sense as glucose assays.

Even more interesting is Puccinini’s argument that the scientist is the observer, not the subject who reports the pain (etc.). Qualitative researchers have often said that the investigator is the measuring instrument of qualitative research. This is supposed to mean that investigator is to record her own responses to the interview, along with what is said (or done). The interpreter’s impressions are the data for the qualitative research. This is a mistake, if Puccinini is right. The researcher is not studying herself, she is studying a population (albeit a small one). They are the ones with the experiences, and their first-person reports of those experiences are the basis of any qualitative research. Puccinini’s essay is a nice reminder that qualitative research is more than autobiography.


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5 Responses to “People as Measurement Devices”

  1. gualtiero Says:

    Hey Mark,

    Thanks for your interest in my work. If you ever write anything about this topic, I hope you will send it to me.

  2. Bob Newsom Says:

    One further thought. In reading this I am reminded of Dennett’s “heterophenomenology”. In a nursing research context, Dennett’s idea here is that the subject (patient) is the final arbiter of, say, “what it is like” for him to be a COPD patient gasping for air. The difference between a Dennettian “heterophenomenolgist” researcher and a “phenomenologist” researcher would be that the Dennettian is NOT “bracketing” the existence of anything. Although he wouldn’t necessarily put it quite that way, I think Dennett has in mind what you and John do, which is that this COPD patient is a self-reporting, self-monitoring system. This is not so strange. We create such systems all of the time – my Volvo and my laptop are good examples. Typically, we treat the reading on the dashboard dial as warrant for our belief that the car is over-heating. It is data. And, obviously, the parallels don’t end there. My circulatory system and my volvo’s fuel, air and cooling systems are alike in interesting ways. This also, I think, may form a basis for asserting that we simply cannot avoid “telos” entirely. But that would be a different subject.

  3. markrisjord Says:

    Hi Bob,
    Wonderful to have you in the conversation!

    What you say is right on target: these arguments are heirs to the Sellars/Wittgenstein ruminations on privacy. I read Brandom into this as well. He is less suseptible to accusations of behaviorism (largely because of his presentation). He makes it clear that there are two kinds of responsiveness involved: the responsiveness of the subject (person in pain) and the responsiveness of the observer. Pain language requires both.

    The consequences for qualitative research are important. Qualitative researcheers in nursing like to talk in terms of experience. This couldn’t be private: if it were, then qualitative research would be nothing but autobiography. It has to involve the investigator responding in the right way to what the subject says. But this means that the qualitative researcher is treating the subject as a measuring instrument!

  4. Bob Newsom Says:

    OOPS! Should have said that “the view that a subject’s pain can’t be “data”. Was in too much of a hurry!

  5. Bob Newsom Says:

    Hi Mark:

    I found this blog by accident! Wish I had known about it earlier.

    Am I wrong in thinking that both Sellars (who I have been thinking about a LOT lately) and Wittgenstein offer support for the view you (and John)are advancing here? The “PLA” and the “Myth of Jones” both seem to me to suggest that a subject’s pain can’t be “data” is just wrong headed. After all, how do we learn to use the word “pain” in the first place, except by observation of the pain of others?

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