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Thursday, July 24, 2003

On the Generation Gap: Part 4

I can't believe it! He's still trying to tell me how to do things. Who, my own son. I've heard of the arrogance of youth, but this is getting ridiculous. It all started with a throwaway comment that I have to learn not to talk so much when interviewing people. (When pushed, I blame my garrilous excesses on my Welsh upbringing). So he comes back at me virtually accusing me of trying to 'steer' people, and sends me a host of transcripts across the pipe-waves (which incidentally all but crash my mailbox) with some very informative viewpoints on the state of the Georgian health system by some highly intelligent doctors there. I write back protesting that it is not quite the same thing interviewing barely-legal immigrants who are nervous about being interviewed, and may need verbal re-assurance to talk, and look what I get for my pains:

" Immigrants who are not completely legal and secure, are another matter".... - not at all, surely my point is even more relevant here. You keep stum and let them talk otherwise you may lead them too much. They say what they expect you want to hear. Its very easily done. There is a balancing act where you have to allow some insight to be developed but also get to the heart of the issues you are trying to find out about.

Try Handing over control of the conversation and allow a rapport to develop?. I don't rate social science research as particularly valuable when it relies heavily on interview and informal qualitative methods but then again how else can you investigate certain phenomena? what exactly are you trying to investigate and how?

So I try to clarify as follows:

"I don't rate social science research as particularly valuable when it relies heavily on interview"

But as you say, what else have we got. Looking at economics where there is a lot of conjecture about how people behave and form expectations, what is most noticeable is the lack of investigation on the ground of what people actually do. This is pretty incredible, especially considering how much money is at stake, and how cheap good qualitative surveys are. The quantitative surveys I see really are very limited. No, I don't agree with you, I'm impressed with what I am learning.

And what to you imagine I get for my pains, another lecture:

Again you are right ... qualitative surveys are bloody useful. But i always ask myself "for what?"

And i agree that quantitative methods when done badly are a waste of time. Economics is a great example here. The problem with economics is the difficulty in putting a 'value' figure on things (obviously in the perfect market the market dictates the value by ascribing a price. but as we have discussed this often doesn't apply). Just as in medicine how do u actually find out how valuable an extra year of life is to a particular individual? You can sort of do it (using stuff like those quality adjusted life year questionnaires and doing cost benefit analyses.... however the difficulty again is how to actually 'value' the cost and the benefit when applying value to more abstract less quantifiable things such as time and quality of life). For me there is no accurate tool to do this. You can apply the tool (for example a EuroQol health index score) to the same person numerous times and each time you may get a different value (not repeatable or empirical) or else you may get different values for different persons who may appear to be in similar circumstances or from different cultures ( i.e. not generalisable).

Furthermore if you are trying to assess the usefulness of an intervention that you can't go out and measure discreetly (as you might with a blood test)....a good example might be the level of depression a person has.... and you are conducting research into a talking therapy that you have developed there are issues of value freedom. For example, If i am conducting research into something I believe will work then I have a value base.

Now by applying that intervention I will automatically be affecting the level of successful outcomes (purely through my behaviour). I believe it is important for this intervention to be a success and so immediately i affect the experimental environment and the intervention looses its generalisability. Problems. Particularly if there is a large degree of subjectivity in intervention style and outcome assessment. The qualitative paradigm looses out because it is not empirical or objective enough.

So where does all this leave me..... well a bit stranded. As Popper points out how do you measure the outcome of a work of art, or rather how do you falsify a work of art... I mean you can't. (i don't think any measure would ever be particularly useful anyway). I suppose neitzchse would be content and say well we have uneducated ourselves about the problem now we can start actually learning from a clear and unpolluted starting point. How do we figure out the problem? (or on the other hand he could just faint in an opium induced psychosis!) the problem is essentially one of perception: either the external (human) world exists externally and thats its properties can be measured through objective methods rather than being inferred subjectively or through intuition.


the social world is very different from the natural world and the key task is to develop insight into social reality or perception. Now the latter is obviously relevant and useful (as well as important) as it allows us essentially a pragmantic way of dealing and resolving issues of social inequalities and allocation of welfare resources etc.However The former is a larger question no? and essentially a metaphysical one i think. Can we merge the two?

It also strikes me that much of this stuff is and has been debated for a long time with not much headway. I'll leave you with this quote from some Piaget i was reading briefly (before it got too complicated):

"Every psychological explanation comes sooner or later to lean either on biology or on logic (or on sociology, but this in turn leads to the same alternatives). For some writers mental phenomena become intelligible only when realted to the organism. This view is of course inescapable when we study the elementary functions (perception, motor functions, etc.) in which intelligence originates. But we can hardly see neurology explaining why 2 and 2 make 4, or why the laws of deduction are forced on the mind of necessity. Thus arises the second tendency, which consists in regarding logical and mathematical relations as irreducible, and in making an analysis of the higher intellectual functions depend on an analysis of them. But it is questionable whether logic, regarded as something eluding the attempts of experimental psychology to explain it, can in its turn legitametely explain anything in psychological experience. Formal logic, or logistics, is simply the axiomatics of states of equilibrium of thought, and the positive science correspondingto this axiomatics is none other than the psychology of thought"

am I making sense here?

Is he making sense, well only sort of. In my day medical students tended to restrict themselves to playing rugby, throwing paper darts in class, drinking voluminous quantities of beer, and flirting with the nurses (male or female) on their days off (oh yes, and downing lots of amphetamines at exam time). But please remember that in the case of those 'quality of an extra year of life' assessments, the intervention he is talking about might be yours. Meantime, anyone got any adoption papers handy!!

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