‘Thick Description’ and Qualitative Research Analysis

In Chapter 8 of Bryman, Beel, and Teevan, the authors discuss qualitative research methods and how to do qualitative research. In a subsection entitled Alternative Criteria for Evaluating Qualitative Research, the authors reference Lincoln and Guba’s thoughts on how to assess the reliability, validity, and objectivity of qualitative research. Lincoln and Guba argue that these well-known criteria (which developed from the need to evaluate quantitative research) do not transfer well to qualitative research. Instead, they argue for evaluative criteria such as credibility, transferability, and objectivity.

Saharan Caravan Routes

Saharan Caravan Routes–The dotted red lines in the above map are caravan routes connecting the various countries of North Africa including Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Mali, Niger and Chad. Many of the main desert pistes and tracks of today were originally camel caravan routes. (What do the green, yellow, and brown represent?)

Transferability is the extent to which qualitative research ‘holds in some other context’ (the quants reading this will immediately realize that this is analogous to the concept of the ‘generalizability of results’ in the quantitative realm). The authors argue that whether qualitative research fulfills this criterion is not a theoretical, but an empirical issue. Moreover, they argue that rather than worrying about transferability, qualitative researchers should produce ‘thick descriptions’ of phenomena. The term thick description is most closely associated with the anthropologist Clifford Geertz (and his work in Bali). Thick description can be defined as:

the detailed accounts of a social setting or people’s experiences that can form the basis for general statements about a culture and its significance (meaning) in people’s lives.

Compare this account (thick description) by Geertz of the caravan trades in Morocco at the turn of the 20th century to how a quantitative researcher may explain the same institution:

In the narrow sense, a zettata (from the Berber TAZETTAT, ‘a small piece of cloth’) is a passage toll, a sum paid to a local power…for protection when crossing localities where he is such a power. But in fact it is, or more properly was, rather more than a mere payment. It was part of a whole complex of moral rituals, customs with the force of law and the weight of sanctity—centering around the guest-host, client-patron, petitioner-petitioned, exile-protector, suppliant-divinity relations—all of which are somehow of a package in rural Morocco. Entering the tribal world physically, the outreaching trader (or at least his agents) had also to enter it culturally.

Despite the vast variety of particular forms through which they manifest themselves, the characteristics of protection in tbe Berber societies of the High and Middle Atlas are clear and constant. Protection is personal, unqualified, explicit, and conceived of as the dressing of one man in the reputation of another. The reputation may be political, moral, spiritual, or even idiosyncratic, or, often enough, all four at once. But the essential transaction is that a man who counts ‘stands up and says’ (quam wa qal, as the classical tag bas it) to those to whom he counts: ‘this man is mine; harm him and you insult me; insult me and you will answer for it.’ Benediction (the famous baraka),hospitality, sanctuary, and safe passage are alike in this: they rest on the perhaps somewhat paradoxical notion that though personal identity is radically individual in both its roots and its expressions, it is not incapable of being stamped onto tbe self of someone else. (Quoted in North (1991) Journal of Economic Perspectives, 5:1 p. 104.


The Trilemma of International Finance

In IS210, we will be reading about domestic political economy next week. Understanding the role of state and market, politics and economics, we can learn about what causes some countries’s economies to grow quite rapidly and other countries’ economies to grow more slowly. We’ll look at the role of domestic institutions and policy choices as key root causes in economic development. [How does this contrast with Inglehart’s arguments, or Weber’s idea of the ‘Protestant work ethic?’] Increasingly, though, our ever more globalized and interdependent world economy provides domestic economies with opportunities and threats that didn’t exist to nearly this extent even 50 years ago. We’ll look at economist N. Gregory Mankiw’s New York Times editorial piece on the “trilemma of international finance.”

Have a look at this Frontline excerpt on the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and the role that fixed exchange rates played:

Indicators and The Failed States Index

The Failed State Index is created and updated by the Fund for Peace. For the most recent year (2013), the Index finds the same cast of “failed” characters as previous years. There is some movement, the “top” 10 has not changed much over the last few years.

The Top 10 of the Failed States Index for 2013

The Top 10 of the Failed States Index for 2013

Notice the columns in the image above. Each of these columns is a different indicator of “state-failedness”. If you go to the link above, you can hover over each of the thumbnails to find out what each indicator measures. For, example, the column with what looks like a 3-member family is the score for “Mounting Demographic Pressures”, etc. What is most interesting about the individual indicator scores is how similar they are for each state. In other words, if you know Country X’s score on Mounting Demographic Pressures, you would be able to predict the scores of the other 11 indicators with high accuracy. How high? We’ll just run a simple regression analysis, which we’ll do in IS240 later this semester.

For now, though, I was curious as to how closely each indicator was correlated with the total score. Rather than run regression analyses, I chose (for now) to simply plot the associations. [To be fair, one would want to plot each indicator not against the total but against the total less that indicator, since each indicator comprises a portion (1/12, I suppose) of the total score. In the end, the general results are similar,if not exactly the same.]

So, what does this look like? See the image below (the R code is provided below, for those of you in IS240 who would like to replicate this.)

Plotting each of the Failed State Index (FSI) Indicators against the Total FSI Score

Plotting each of the Failed State Index (FSI) Indicators against the Total FSI Score

Here are two questions that you should ponder:

  1. If you didn’t have the resources and had to choose only one indicator as a measure of “failed-stateness”, which indicator would you choose? Which would you definitely not choose?
  2. Would you go to the trouble and expense of collecting all of these indicators? Why or why not?


install.packages("gdata") #This package must be installed to import .xls file

library(gdata) #If you find error message--"required package missing", it means that you must install the dependent package as well, using the same procedure.

fsi.df<-read.xls("http://ffp.statesindex.org/library/cfsis1301-fsi-spreadsheet178-public-06a.xls")  #importing the data into R, and creating a data frame named fsi.df

pstack.1<-stack(fsi.df[4:15]) #Stacking the indicator variables in a single variable

pstack.df<-data.frame(fsi.df[3],pstack.1) #setting up the data correctly

names(pstack.df)<-c("Total","Score","Indicator") #Changing names of Variables for presentation

install.packages("lattice")  #to be able to create lattice plots

library(lattice) #to load the lattice package

xyplot(pstack.df$Total~pstack.df$Score|pstack.df$Indicator,  groups=pstack.df$Indicator, layout=c(4,3),xlab="FSI Individual Indicator Score", ylab="FSI Index Total")

Statistics, GDP, HDI, and the Social Progress Index

That’s quite a comprehensive title to this post, isn’t it? A more serious social scientist would have prefaced the title with some cryptic phrase ending with a colon, and then added the information-possessing title. So, why don’t I do that. What about “Nibbling on Figs in an Octopus’ Garden: Explanation, Statistics, GDP, Democracy, and the Social Progress Index?” That sounds social ‘sciencey’ enough, I think.

Now, to get to the point of this post: one of the most important research topics in international studies is human welfare, or well-being. Before we can compare human welfare cross-nationally, we have to begin with a definition (which will guide the data-collecting process). What is human welfare? There is obviously some global consensus as to what that means, but there are differences of opinion as to how exactly human welfare should be measured. (In IS210, we’ll examine these issues right after the reading break.) For much of the last seven decades or so, social scientists have used economic data (particularly Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita as a measure of a country’s overall level of human welfare. But GDP measures have been supplemented by other factors over the years with the view that they leave out important components of human welfare. The UN’s Human Development Index is a noteworthy example. A more recent contribution to this endeavour is the Social Progress Index (SPI) produced by the Social Progress Imperative.

HDI–Map of the World (2013)

How much better, though, are these measures than GDP alone? Wait until my next post for answer. But, in the meantime, we’ll look at how “different” the HDI and the SPI are. First, what are the components of the HDI?

“The Human Development Index (HDI) measures the average achievements in a country in three basic dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, access to knowledge and a decent standard of living.”

So, you can see that it goes beyond simple GDP, but don’t you have the sense that many of the indicators–such as a long and healthy life–are associated with GDP? And there’s the problem of endogeneity–what causes what?

The SPI is a recent attempt to look at human welfare even more comprehensively, Here is a screenshot showing the various components of that index:

Screen shot 2014-01-23 at 2.17.50 PMWe can see that there are some components–personal rights, equity and inclusion, access to basic knowledge, etc.,–that are absent from the HDI. Is this a better measure of human well-being than the HDI, or GDP alone? What do you think?

US President Obama Picks new Head of World Bank

This week POLI 1140 will be focused on the international political economy (IPE). As we’ll learn, much of the international institutional infrastructure for the current global economy was set up at a meeting in July 1944 in the New Hampshire mountain resort town of Bretton Woods. At the meeting, which the ailing economist John Maynard Keynes attended, created the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). (The International Trade Organization, which was planned, never came to fruition, and the General Agreement on Trades and Tariffs (GATT), would later be formed, which has been morphed into the World Trade Organization (WTO). These three institutions–World Bank, IMF, WTO–support the liberal (neoliberal) economic order, each of which provides a different main function.

Yesterday, US President Barack Obama named an academic–Dartmouth College president Jim Yong Kim–as his nominee to head the World Bank. Convention dictates that the USA be given the power to select the World Bank president while European states are given the right to select the head of the IMF.

This definitely counts as an “outside-the-box” pick for Obama. First, Dr. Kim is a global health expert, and not an economist. This may signal a change in direction and philosophy at the World Bank.The New York Times reports:

Highly respected among global health experts, Dr. Kim is an anthropologist and a physician who co-founded the nonprofit Partners in Health and a former director of the department of H.I.V./AIDS at the World Health Organization.

“The leader of the World Bank should have a deep understanding of both the role that development plays in the world and the importance of creating conditions where assistance is no longer needed,” President Obama said Friday. “It’s time for a development professional to lead the world’s largest development agency.”

This move bears watching in the future. It also signals one of the major differences between Democratic and Republican presidents. It is highly doubtful that any of the Republican candidates for president would name somebody with a similar resume as the head of the World Bank.

For a quick video of the creating of the Bretton Woods system, see the video below (the relevant excerpt begins at 36:36).

Development and Underdevelopment–the Commanding Heights

We addressed the topic of development and underdevelopment in POLI 1100 this week. Amongst the many issues covered, we started to explore some of the alleged causes of economic growth and development. Why is there still such disparity in income and economic growth around the world, not only between countries, but within? Why have countries in the global “South” lagged behind, for the most part, their counterparts in the global “North”? There are various answers to this question and we addressed a couple of them in class. I showed clips from a fantastic documentary series put together by PBS, called (and based on the book of the same name) The Commanding Heights. All the information you’ll need is at the PBS website. Fortunately, each of the three 2-hour episodes has also been uploaded (in its entirety) to the Internet. From the narration at the beginning of the first episode, we learn that

This is the story of how the new global economy was born. A century-long battle as to which would control the commanding heights of the world’s economies–governments or markets.

I encourage you to watch all three episodes.


Has Poverty in India Really Dropped?

In POLI 1100 yesterday, we analyzed the topic of development and underdevelopment and noted that, according to some estimates, the world has become less unequal (more equal) over the last 10 years or so, primarily (we noted) as the result of the economic rise of China and India. Given that these two countries contain more than 1/3 of the world’s total population, what happens to them (and their citizens) has dramatic global impact. So, if incomes (and wealth) in India and China are rising, then it’s not surprising that the world is becoming a wealthier (and more equal) place. Take a look at the chart below. You’ll notice differences in the two trend lines, which can be accounted for by the rise in income in China and India.

While there have been rumours for many years that official Chinese economic statistics may not be the most reliable, a recent story in the New York Times asks the somewhat surprising question “Has Poverty Really Dropped in India?” It turns out that the answer is most likely yes, though it appears, on the surface, that some of sleight was at work. However, in the end the drop in poverty seems legitimate:

Remember when the public was outraged at the idea that the poverty line should be 32 rupees, or 63 cents, a day in urban areas?

We’ve now learned it should really be 29 rupees. And believe it or not, this is no sleight of hand to show a drop in poverty.

The Planning Commission’s latest poverty estimates, [click on this link for the statistics, which are grouped by caste, religion, and other demographic indicators] released Monday evening, show a 7 percentage-point drop in India’s poor, the largest fall since the figure was first calculated in 1962.

Some critics say the Planning Commission has reduced an already controversially low poverty line even further, using the new thresholds to create the appearance of a large drop in absolute numbers.

By the way, how much is 29 rupees–the poverty threshold in urban areas? About 57 Canadian cents, at today’s exchange rates! So according, to the Indian government, an Indian living in an urban area can earn only 58% of the one dollar/day threshold and still not be considered as officially living in poverty!! Yikes!