Quantitative vs. Qualitative

My wife is a sociologist whose main interests are in qualitative research.  Unlike quantitative researchers, who collect a limited number of facts about each of a large number of people and use statistical methods to look for patterns in those collections, qualitative researchers collect a large amount of information about each of a relatively small number of people in order to discern just how those people go about making their decisions.  Qualitative and quantitative research are not schools of thought which compete with each other, but methods which depend on each other to be made useful.  While it is not possible for qualitative researchers to formulate general laws of behavior without transforming their conclusions into hypotheses to be tested by quantitative methods, neither is it possible for quantitative researchers to apply general laws of behavior to any case in the real world without conducting qualitative studies in which they ask people what’s on their minds.

I bring this up because of an item in the 13 December issue of The Nation.  In a review of some books about the history of New York city politics, Samuel Zipp writes of the administration of Mayor John Vliet Lindsay (1966-1973):

Lindsay was what [author Joe] Flood calls a “moralistic crusader.”  He hoped to unseat the old Tammany political machine, which had kept Democrats in power with a finely calibrated exchange of favors and services for votes greased by pervasive graft, and which rewarded loyal white ethnics with patronage while paying lip service to the concerns of the low-income migrants arriving in ever greater numbers from the black American South and Puerto Rico.  At the same time, Lindsay promised to master the chaos of the city by applying the technological marvels of computerization to city service delivery.  Systems analysis, game theory, computer modeling: these RAND innovations in information management promised to give Lindsay’s administration a way to turn the constant stream of information coursing through city agencies into “easily defined variables.”  Perhaps most important, though, was Lindsay’s sense that RAND would give him an advantage over the Tammany machine.  Flood ingeniously describes Tammany as an “information-gathering apparatus.”  As much pragmatic “intelligence network” as craven patronage machine, the system ran on stories collected on the street and sent up the ladder from the ward boss to the Democratic Party clubhouse to City Hall.  Reformers had often struggled to deliver on their promises if good government because they lacked the machine’s intelligence network.  Lindsay counted on RAND to supply an equivalent information system that would shift the power base “from using narrative to using numbers.”  With total information awareness, the city could be turned “into an assemblage of numbers,” a series of inputs and outputs that would easily surpass Tammany in the efficiency department.

As a liberal Republican reformer, Lindsay lacked the connections and manpower to govern the city “using narrative.”  What he found in his two terms in Gracie Mansion, however, was that he did not command even the political resources necessary to collect useful numbers.  Affluent New Yorkers blocked any study that might suggest that their neighborhoods could do with fewer city services, while longtime municipal employees refused to perform the analyses Lindsay wanted.  For example, when the fire department received stopwatches and supervisors were told to use them to produce reports on their reaction times, what fire battalion chiefs in fact reported was an epidemic level of stopwatches crushed as firetrucks accidentally drove over them.

I wonder if New York mightn’t have done better had reformers taken a different approach.  For over a hundred years, from the days when municipal reformer Theodore Roosevelt Senior left the Democratic Party in the 1850s until the fiscal crisis that overwhelmed the city when John Lindsay’s successor Abraham Beame was mayor in 1975, New Yorkers campaigned for good government by campaigning against Tammany Hall.  The goal of all these reformers seems to have been a rational, transparent government.  Perhaps the better way to create this rationality would have been for an enlightened set of leaders to rise to power within Tammany Hall.  One might imagine them formalizing the intelligence network using the tested methods of quantitative research.  Once that was done, we could imagine the machine itself becoming rational and transparent.  Perhaps a new system would have emerged in which Tammany’s long-established dominance in municipal policy and staffing would have been officially acknowledged, and the formal distinction between the machine and the city government would have been erased.

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