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.