Numbers…yesterday I saw a post on Facebook from a few fellow researchers about research methods, and design. It was an old debate about experimentation, utilizing either quantitative or qualitative methods. It brought back memories of grad school in the 1990s when I was working on my Masters. Friday afternoons were devoted to seminar, and discussion. And I can remember the heated, feisty debates, and it always seemed one gender against another. There was the rock solid numbers on one side, and narrative on another. At least in my mind now, that is what I recall.
Where was I at that time? Arguing for mix-methods, for a triangulation of methods because one supported the other, and vice versa. I knew from my methods courses that the prominent and preferred design, aka quantitative (especially in the USA), couldn’t get at the heart of explaining phenomenon. I questioned drawing generalizations and affixing them to a general population. To this day, numbers in this sense, can only describe that specific sample, unless the sample is so large that it can explain behavior of a greater whole. But how big does that sample have to be? Again, the debate continues to this day.
For some reason something clicked in my mind back then, and the ambiguity, to a degree, clarified. Everything fell into place, and uncertainty diminished. (Ironic using terms associated with statistics…isn’t it…)
Quantitative methods exist in time and space. Numbers confine you to a particular snapshot of behaviors. They are myopic, and lack flexibility. They really don’t get at the heart of understanding. You’re locked in a box, not of your own making, or perhaps it is, and the walls have no give, or even a door, to allow you to explore beyond all those walls. Intuitively, you know that there is something that lies beyond your self-imposed entrapment, but your stuck. Numbers have more finite qualities than you think, even if we go to that largest number possible. There is always more…always more.
Whoa, Einstein, you’ve placed a picture of physics equations up there hot shot…come on…explain.
You know the symbol for infinity? ∞, the one that is usually associated with numbers. Yeah that one.
Well, way back in eleventh grade chemistry I stumped Mr. Lantz when he was trying to discuss the atom. I remember sitting there listening, and then raising my hand, as probably a host of students do at this point, and asked, “What else?”
He looked at me quizzically, and I repeated the question. “You’ve given us all the parts, but what makes up them?”
He tried to answer, and I still shot back, “And what makes up that?”
Trying not to sound like a broken record here, but you get the gist. I was the two-year old asking the ‘but why’ question. Frustration thickened the air, and I can still see Mr. Lantz’s red face.
Back to ∞. The universe innately has that complexity. We don’t know if it exists beyond a certain point. We assume so, and affix that darn symbol. It’s the best explanation we’ve got so far. We don’t know beyond a certain boundary, even at the micro levels, or the inner spaces at the neutron level, the nano level. And to me infinity is not a number. It is that complexity that exist beyond the confines of numbers. It is the unanswered questions. It breaks the walls apart and gives flexibility to what could be a concrete form.
It allows us to imagine, and envision potentiality beyond normalcy. Beyond what we do know. It is answers, and more importantly it is questions. It reaches the fringes of the mind, and reverts back to its starting point to tease out currents of thought, and devise explanations. Sometimes the simplicity of the answer is hidden in the complexity of the question.
It demonstrated the connections, and the elasticity of integration, interfacing ideas. It is a window, exposing the landscapes beyond the walls that we might dare to explore, and see that we may have just skimmed the surface of potential.
Okay, back to my original thought. Research has to be more. It has to be more than just quantitative methods. But a triangulation of methods that exposes the soft underbelly of thought. That gets to the heart of hypotheses, but more importantly, breaks the walls, and sees farther, further than what one method allows. That there is breadth, depth to explaining phenomenon that numbers can’t explain alone.
Nothing is concrete. There is too much dynamic functionality to this world to compartmentalized or even marginalize.
So the debate continues…