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The difference between “quals” and “quants”

In an article on U.S. foreign policy and domestic politics, Samantha Power writes:

Since 1968, with the single exception of the election of George W. Bush in 2000, Americans have chosen Republican presidents in times of perceived danger and Democrats in times of relative calm.

So here’s the difference between qualitative and quantitative researchers. Samantha Power knows more about foreign policy and politics than I’ll ever know. But she could whip off the above sentence without pause. Whereas, when I see it, I think:

– Why start in 1968? Is this just a convenient choice of endpoint? Eisenhower ran as a national security expert, no?
– What evidence can you expect to get about public opinion from the essentially tied elections of 1968, 1976, and 2000?
– Anyway, if you’re talking public opinion, it was Gore who won more votes in 2000–so it’s funny to be taking that as an exception at all!
– How are “perceived danger” and “relative calm” defined? Was 1988, when George H. W. Bush floored Michael Dukakis, really such a time of “perceived danger”?

I have no expertise to comment on the rest of Power’s article; I just think it’s funny that she’d throw in a sentence like that. It’s just a throwaway comment she made; I wouldn’t put it in the class of David Runciman’s “but viewed in retrospect, it is clear that it has been quite predictable” or John Yoo writing an entire op-ed on something he appears to know nothing about. It’s just one of these things that rings alarm bells to a “quant” such as myself but just passes right by the qualitative analyst.

P.S. On an unrelated note, that same issue of the New York Review of Books had this great line by Michael Dirda: “Real readers always read for excitement; only the nature of that excitement changes through life.”


  1. Sebastian says:

    While your 100% right to call on Sam Power, I see the difference not between "quant" and "qual", but between scholar and journalist/pundit.

    None of the serious "qual" people in political science or sociology would make a statement like this one. Actually, there is a reason almost all work on public opinion is quantitative: Most "Qual" people believe that quant tools are better for PO research.

    Which bascially brings brings this story down to a journalist or pundit making a statistically/inferentially unsound claim: And as you know that a) happens all the time and b) is at least as likely to happen if said journalist tries to use statistics.

  2. Antonio Ramos says:

    I'm not sure whether this is a different between "quant" and "quali" or just about those who care about research design and those who don't.

  3. Now you have me worried. My whole degree is qual, with no option of learning quant.

  4. sqkelly says:

    I am Quant-Qual.

    But funny, as a "quant" you should recognize the danger of generalizing based on an N of 1.

    I think it is more an issue of being analytical, being critical, and not looking to "spin".

  5. David says:

    Re: the first comment, Sam Power may be playing the role of a journalist/pundit, but a journalist/pundit with a faculty position at Harvard. Therefore this level of scrutiny is very much warranted. Andrew doesn't mention whether this was an article in a scholarly journal or something more for mass-consumption, but I would argue that it doesn't make a difference.

  6. techie says:

    I agree with suqelly, the level of scrutiny is warranted therefore it will void some of the statistics.

  7. Sebastian says:

    oh I'm all for the scrutiny –
    although the quote is from the NY Review of Books
    and Sam Power, while Harvard Faculty, is not a social scientist (her endowed chair is "for the practice of global leadership", whatever that is) I fully agree she is so prominent as to merit plenty of scrutiny.

    I was criticizing Andrew not for his critique of Sam Power, but for using it to draw any (apparent) conclusions from this to the practice of qualitative social science.

  8. Antonio Ramos says:

    I agree with Sebastian the those mentioned people don't use no method at all, whether quali or quanti.

  9. antonio Ramos says:

    correcting the english:

    I agree with Sebastian that those mentioned people don't use any method at all, whether quali or quanti.

  10. Keep powerful people honest. Great post. This is why the academic blogosphere has pretty much completely replaced journalist media for me.