Sunday, December 10, 2017

Economics and Qualitative Research

Economics is mostly a quantitative discipline from the basic undergraduate principles courses to the most recent editions of the top journals. The extent to which economics students should be exposed to qualitative research methods is being debated in various ways in the UK, particularly in the context of the ESRC postgraduate training guidelines, that stipulate that all ESRC-funded postgraduates should receive training in both quantitative and qualitative research methods.

There a plethora of cultural, philosophical, and practical barriers to integrating such methodologies into mainstream economics. Many economists will object that the strength of economics has been the ability to generate testable predictions from rigorous mathematical theoretical models. Others might simply point to the expectations of students arriving onto graduate Economics programme that they will be provided with the most rigorous quantitative tools to perform modern economic analysis. Having said that, Economists are increasingly become involved in real-world field trials, where an element of qualitative research is necessary to understand the process and potentially also the mechanism of the interventions and policies being tested. Professional economists in this context will increasingly be required to understand, at least, how to intelligently consume such information.

There have also been some strong precedents for the use of qualitative research methods in Economics. Truman Bewley's famous work on why wages don't fall during a recession is one example of a well-regarded Economics work that came from structured interviews with business decision makers. More generally, the potential for qualitative research to provide greater understanding of the nature of various types of economic phenomena needs to be discussed in greater depth.

Thanks to Jeff Round (@unhealthyecon on twitter) for recommending the recently released "Qualitative Methods for Health Economics".

I will use this post to keep track of some useful references on qualitative research in Economics. Suggestions and comments welcome.

The review paper below provides a useful overview of qualitative and mixed methodological designs that might be useful in Economics.
Starr (2014). Qualitative and mixed-methods research in economics: surprising growth, promising future. Journal of Economic Surveys, Volume 28, Issue 2,  Pages 238–264.
Qualitative research in economics has traditionally been unimportant compared to quantitative work. Yet there has been a small explosion in use of quantitative approaches in the past 10–15 years, including ‘mixed-methods’ projects which usequalitative and quantitative methods in combination. This paper surveys the growing use of qualitative methods in economics and closely related fields, aiming to provide economists with a useful roadmap through major sets of qualitativemethods and how and why they are used. We review the growing body of economic research using qualitative approaches, emphasizing the gains from using qualitative- or mixed-methods over traditional ‘closed-ended’ approaches. It is argued that, although qualitative methods are often portrayed as less reliable, less accurate, less powerful and/or less credible than quantitative methods, in fact, the two sets of methods have their own strengths, and how much can be learned from one type of method or the other depends on specific issues that arise in studying the topic of interest. The central message of the paper is that well-done qualitative work can provide scientifically valuable and intellectually helpful ways of adding to the stock of economic knowledge, especially when applied to research questions for which they are well suited.
The chapter "Does Qualitative Research fit in Economics?" is also worth reading.

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