How can we study what we can’t measure?

As I drove on Lakeshore Drive this morning, I noticed a car on the side of the road with a flat tire. I did my shopping and returned, and the car was gone. It made me wonder: If I had been an hour later, I never would have seen the car, and would never had known it was ever there.

This is a problem for research (social) scientists as well. How do we study something we can’t see or measure? How do we know, for example, whether a person has a soul? How can we measure the effect, if any, of prayer? What is that quality, that essence, of those teachers who inspired us to grow, to reach, to excel?

In trying to convey this point in my qualitative research courses, I have handed out transcripts of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech. I asked them to break out into groups of 2 or 3 and decide between them on a couple sentences that are the most important in the speech. What words or phrases encapsulate the essence of King’s message? I then asked each group to share their findings.

In general, students have found the speech to be a point of inspiration: King’s words are powerful and potent. We have talked about qualitative research and using transcriptions of interviews or other written data sources for analysis. Qualitative research requires us to use written or verbal sources, select the most meaningful passages, and present the analysis in a manner that tells the story. And, I point out, that’s what we just did.

But how do the words compare to the real thing? I start the video of King’s speech, and we watch his melodious voice rise as he looks over the crowd and speaks in his timeless cadence. Many of us have been moved to see him speaking the words we just studied.

After the speech is over, I have asked the students to tell me about the experience of watching King give the speech. Then I asked them, as qualitative researchers: If our data include this speech, how do we convey to the readers, the experience of this video? How do qualitative researchers “translate”’ the transcripts they are working with back to the real experience of the interview? This has led to valuable and fruitful discussion—how can we convey something that is beyond words?

But I’m not done yet. I dim the lights one more time, and let them know I want them to watch it again. And I ask them to think of themselves as having lived in a time of separate bathrooms, of lunch counters closed to them, of limited space in the back of the hot bus, of separate schools, facilities, and civil rights. And they had been in a bus for 24 hours to ride to D.C. to see this man speak, waiting for hours on the Mall. I asked them to imagine they were not watching a videotape decades later, in black and white: they are there, in living color. And I start the tape.

I leave the room dark when it is over. It’s almost the end of class. I allow for a moment of quiet. If there is such a difference between the printed transcript  and the videotape of King’s I Have a Dream speech, then how can we convey the actual experience? How can our research do the same?

Now we are ready to research that which we cannot measure.

This entry was posted in assumptions, experience, human dimensions, prayer, qualitative research, research methods. Bookmark the permalink.

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