More on the economic profession: qualitative vs. quantitative economists

There is a very big divide within the economic profession between those that uses quantitative and those that use qualitative methods. Very few economists shift back and forth from one set of methods to the other depending on the problem they are addressing. This issue is in many ways a taboo for economists, and for a reason. Many quantitative economists fundamentally believe that the not-so-quantitative are really not economists.   They think that qualitative research is made by lazy, or less than excellent minds;  that it easier, or that it asks questions that are irrelevant (like what is the meaning of an act of consumption), or that it discovers things that are not generalizable outside the cases observed.  The fracture, which is common to other domains of social science such as evaluation, is so deep that itis hard to reconcile.

Now, after having used this distinction I am going to dispute it. For me this distinction is false.  There is no quantitative or qualitative social science: a more clear-cut divide, instead, exists between people that are gifted in the use of quantitative methods, and people  that are not.  Of course, like most other skills, mathematics to a certain extent can be learned. Personally, I consider myself not particularly talented in math, but I have been trained in quantitative methods.

A lot more could be said about this.  The use of numbers does not necessary involve adopting the principles of the scientific method (replicability, falsification).  Research papers which use numbers  may be descriptive, and very different from others that are theory-oriented (usually employing formulas without numeric values).  As I have argued in my previous post in italian, the problem lies in the value system inherent in much of the economic profession, and in some other social sciences, which rewards the use of quantitative methods irrespective of their ability to solve real world problems. Learning them is very costly to the point that the time invested  in this training creates, for those who have  made it, a powerful incentive to use them.

Summing up: I don’t stand on either of the two sides in the quantitative-qualitative divide, because the dichotomy does not exist.  Isn’t that great?


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