A case for quantitative methods in demography

Recent years have seen an increased use of qualitative methods in demographic research, which corresponds to demographers having broadened their scope and this includes methods not traditionally associated with population studies. There is still a substantial debate over uses of quantitative and qualitative methods in demography, so here I would like to touch on some recent discussions (from the point of view of a quantitative researcher).

Based on my experience, one of the aims of qualitative demography is to understand demographic behaviour in a different and more profound way – to see the people behind the numbers. Traditional quantitative methods cannot always explain rich concepts and constructs. For example, ‘culture’ encompasses a wide array of explanations and meanings. When comparing different populations, cultural factors have been quantified and used as an explanation (or cause) for the differences between groups. But due to difficulties with measuring culture, the results of this research are contentious, and conclusions can remain vague (Bernardi & Hutter 2007).

The dispute between quantitative and qualitative methods is an epistemological one and belongs to the spheres of philosophy and methodology. For me, one of the defining characteristics of demography is its ability (or at least its aim) to say something about the whole population. Qualitative methods don’t provide such a view because their scientific objective is quite different – usually to analyse an observation group as it is. By analysing the social constructs that people have about some phenomenon, we get a different reality of the way things are.

However, for me such analysis becomes an interpretation of an interpretation – which seems to double the subjectiveness. With quantitative methods, interpretation often aims to ‘neutralise’ subjectivity by agreeing on the meanings of concepts between survey methodologists and scientists designing the questionnaire, as well as by pre-harmonisation and post-standardisation processes. All this (standardisation and meanings of concepts) should be (ideally) reported when reporting the results, to offer the most transparent research. However, even in these cases, objectivity might not be achieved because of different interpretations of answer categories by survey designers, interviewers, interviewees and different contexts. In the end it comes down to the researcher who makes the conclusions and interpretations in both cases and who holds the key in opening up the backgrounds of the survey, questionnaire or research information.

As argued recently, one of the strongest incentives for the development and spread of qualitative research may be the emergence of individualism and appreciation of the individual (for example, see Petit & Charbit (2012)). Perhaps we should value everything that is special, unique, and one-of-a-kind, we should value the person and personality over anonymity and grouping people into boxes. One could say that individualism and related values of human rights is one of the victories of societal development. Coming from an ex-Soviet country, I am personally well aware of the dangers of forgetting the individual. However, any tendency to focus only on the individual requires caution as well – without being able to make generalisations we may fail to see patterns and address larger social processes (including social policy interventions). Relatedly, Petit & Charbit (2012) quote Le Bras: “demography is the only science where process exists in its purest state, with the minimum of hypotheses concerning human behaviour” (2005). I am not sure I would completely agree with the latter part of the sentence, but it definitely gives an idea of the importance of processes for some demographers.

Petit & Charbit (2012) raise the issue that demography has traditionally based itself on the assumption of homogeneity, even with the cohort perspective, and even though heterogeneity exists among and between populations. They also mention that the biographical approach in demography tends to decontextualise the individual as if the person exists in a social vacuum. As Susan Greenhalgh (1997) has pointed out – demography and anthropology have quite different purposes, therefore when anthropological methods are used for demographic research objectives, these methods obtain a different perspective – a demographic one, just simply using a qualitative tool. Ernestina Coast et al. (2007) have provided a guideline for both research lines – a table of what demography and anthropology can learn from each other (p. 508). Along these lines, I think a substantive amount of the demographers acknowledge that there are multiple realities, everything cannot be explained by reasoned action theories (this point is also raised by the theory of conjunctural action). For example, interviewers and interviewees might interpret questions and answers differently, and individuals are not isolated or completely independent actors.

To conclude, the aims of formal demography derive from its historical embededness in quantitative methods. But quantitative demography is more than just plainly reporting numbers, without considering competing explanations or individual differences. On the contrary, much of the quantitative methods in demography have developed to investigate variability. The event history approach is one of the ways, mixed methods is another. I have made a case for quantitative methods here, but I would be keen to hear your thoughts on this, especially from the point of view of a qualitative researcher.

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