One outcome of the community conversations at ICQI was the decision to launch a series of blog posts related to this year’s presentations. If you are interested in contributing a post, let us know at DigitalTools@queri.com. This month’s post is by Kristi Jackson of Queri, Inc. Let us know what you think!
DETERMINISM VS. CONSTRUCTIVISM: THE POLARIZING DISCOURSE REGARDING DIGITAL TOOLS FOR QUALITATIVE RESEARCH AND HOW IT THREATENS OUR SCHOLARSHIP
The Power Broker, written in 1974 by Robert Caro, won a Pulitzer Prize as a biography of one of the most prolific and polarizing urban planners in American history, Robert Moses. Known as the “master builder,” his racism and elitism were evident in much of his work. He publically resisted the move of black veterans into Stuyvesant Town, a Manhattan residential area created specifically to house World War II veterans. He also set his sights on the destruction of a playground in Central Park to replace it with a parking lot for the expensive Tavern-on-the-Green restaurant. Although he was never elected to any public office, he once held twelve titles simultaneously, including NYC parks Commissioner and Chairman of the Long Island State Park Commission (Caro, 1974).
In his piece, “Do artifacts have politics?” Landon Winner (1980) describes the 204 bridges over the parkways of Long Island that were built under the supervision of Moses. Some of these bridges had only nine feet of clearance. Based on a claim by a co-worker, Moses purposefully constructed the low bridges to prevent busses from traveling through the area’s parkways. This privileged white, upper-class owners of automobiles who could fit their vehicles under the bridges. It simultaneously restricted access for poorer people (often blacks) who tended to ride buses. This is one of Winner’s examples of the social determination of technology: That there are explicit and implicit political purposes in the histories of architecture and city planning.
Because I am here to talk about QDA Software and Digital Tools for Qualitative Research – industries with builders, owners, developers, consultants and trainers – you may be starting to see where I am going with this. While we QDA Software experts like to think we are building bridges – that is, building access – our critics sometimes insist that we are being obstructionist. Before coming back to my story of Robert Moses, let me define my two key terms. As a caveat, I am setting aside some of the diverse understandings and controversies around these terms.
- Determinism presumes that all events, including human actions and choices, are the results of particular causes. This approach to knowledge isolates elements and tends to define them as causes or results.
- Constructivism presumes that views of ourselves and our world are continually evolving according to internal processes of self-organization. These views are not the result of exposure to information or dedicated adherence to principles like Occam’s Razor. Rather, our views of ourselves and our world expand, contract, plateau and adjust from within.
From my insider perspective, experts in QDA Software tend to emphasize constructivist perspectives. Researchers carve out their own paths in the use of the software for a particular study. As Miles and Huberman (1994) argued, the flexible, recursive and iterative capabilities of software provide unprecedented opportunities to challenge researcher conceptualizations. Lyn and Tom Richards (1994) stated that as they began developing NUD*IST, their analysis entailed a constant interrogation of themes. They also stated that one of their primary goals was to allow for a diverse range of theories and methodologies to be applied, and for these to be adjustable over time.
From my vantage point, many critics who argue that QDA Software compromises the qualitative research process are invoking the language of determinism. The particular flavor is one of technological determinism. The most common critiques include the tendency for this genre of software to
- Distance researchers from the data (Agar, 1991).
- Quantify the data (Welsh, 2002; Hinchliffe, Crang, Reimer & Hudson, 1997).
- Homogenize the research process (Barry, 1998; Coffey, Holbrook & Atkinson, 1996).
- Take precedence over researcher choices (Garcia-Horta & Guerra-Ramos, 2009; Shonfelder, 2011).
- Lull researchers into a false sense confidence about the quality of their work (MacMillan & Koenig; Schwandt, 2007).
The point is that when it comes to the debates between critics and supporters of QDA Software, a markedly different perception of freedom is in play. While critics often frame QDA Software with the language of determinism, the advocates often frame it with the language of constructivism. To the former, the software limits personal agency by standardizing processes; to the latter, the software expands options and promotes diversity.
For their scholarship on Robert Moses, Caro received a Pulitzer and Winner has been cited widely. But, suspicious of some of the characterizations of Moses, Bernward Joerges (1999) carefully examined the historical details and he presents us with another picture. The regional planner who claimed that Moses purposely built the low bridges to limit access did so almost 50 years after the event, and through his own deduction after measuring the bridge height. Next, Kenneth Jackson, a historian and editor of the New York encyclopedia, repeatedly had his students research some of the themes and episodes in Caro’s thirteen hundred page biography and found that many were “doubtful or tendentious.” Most tellingly, correspondence with US civil engineers noted that commercial traffic such as busses and trucks was prohibited from such roads anyway, and so building more than 200 unnecessarily high bridges would have been fiscally irresponsible. Finally, Moses constructed the Long Island Expressway alongside the parkways which didn’t restrict commercial traffic and could provide access to the beaches in any vehicle.
So, what are we to make of these different characterizations of Robert Moses and what do they have to do with determinism, constructivism and the scholarship about QDA Software?
Thomas Gieryn (1983; 1999) initially introduced boundary work as the activity among scholars who purposefully attempted to demarcate science from non-science. Gieryn argued that boundary work among scientists was part of an ideological style that functioned to promote a public image of some ways of knowing over others and was a key factor in the ascendance of the scientific method. He argued that this boundary work could occur in any discipline, including history (such as my description of the bridges of Robert Moses), and research (such as my descriptions of QDA Software). What I am pointing to, as part of my conclusion, is that most scholars view the bridges of Robert Moses as the contested entity; the bridges are the artifacts that either liberate human behavior on one side by facilitating agency or controlling human behavior on the other by limiting it.
However, as Joerges (1999) notes in his assessment of the many different ways the bridges have been described for different purposes, the artifact is the telling of the story, not the bridges, themselves. The bridge story has been used over and over because it’s handy. Because it tells well. Because, in my rendering of it, the telling of the bridge story is an allegory of the many deterministically-laden critiques of another artifact: QDA Software. Together these critiques of QDA Software amount to a one-sided, inaccurate view of how the software limits agency and limits we who use it, and it is a story told over and over as part of professional boundary work by those who critique it; just as we use constructivist language to promote it.
But as a QDA Software expert, I am aware of our own boundary work in the way we sometimes talk of qualitative researchers who do not use QDA Software. Unflattering descriptions like:
- Behind the times
- Wildly uninformed about the capabilities of the software
In contrast, most of them would probably use the same constructivist language to define their own work as we do: Flexible, diverse, etc.
As a larger community of qualitative researchers, we often use the language of determinism to critique the “other,” by invoking fairly simplistic cause-and-effect characterizations such as the unflattering ones I just unleashed. This is a form of boundary work that both camps use to allegedly protect the values of freedom, diversity and individual agency against the oppressive, homogenizing other. After all, that is, collectively, what we qualitative researchers tend to do when we perform boundary work with quantitative researchers. It is a strategy we’ve honed over the years to help demarcate and protect our approach to knowledge.
So, you see, the lesson regarding these determinist versus constructivist discourses may be less about epistemologies and more about the language we use to engage in boundary work: To other-ize each other. This has never lead to any positive, innovative changes in practice in any field, and it won’t in ours either. Our challenge is to find new avenues for scholarship that minimize the boundary work and maximize the collaborative work.
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