It would appear that, on the surface, there is little to link the two main methodologies used in communication studies. On the quantitative side of the continuum, we are interested primarily in numbers. How many, to what extent, under what circumstances and when are all questions that when data is compiled using statistical analysis, we get results that can be replicated. The scientific method is king, rules are rules and there is little room for error. On the qualitative side, we have reason, we have experience, we have discreet moments in time and we have dialog. The “truth” is nebulous, but good reasons can be gleaned from experience to support human perceptions.
Are the two fields so far removed that there is no compromise, no clear path that delivers coherence across the continuum? Is nothing more than political and economic convenience holding these branches together? Such a superficial alliance might be justification enough, but is there more depth to the melding of these two branches than simply that of mutual aid? Indeed, on a global level, everything that sets humans apart from every other life form is communication. To that end, communication studies can be viewed as an umbrella that captures the entire human experience under it.
But that is not coherence, for if it were the classical “liberal arts” curriculum of days gone by would still be the norm. As human knowledge has expanded, so, too, has the need for specialization. There is simply too much for any one person to “know.” As the different branches of academia have blossomed and as new standards of research such as the scientific method have been installed, the tree of education is unified only at its trunk.
The social sciences are referred to as “soft” sciences - a large branch of the academic tree, if you will. For the most part, the degrees granted to social science majors are Associate, Bachelor and Master of Arts in a given discipline. This alone might compel one to lump qualitative and quantitative communications studies camps together. Don’t we all want to know what makes human communication tick? I am not so sure. In fact, I am not so sure the quantitative branch belongs in communication studies at all.
Although the quant people are indeed interested in human communication, there appears to be more interest in the nuts and bolts. The research deals with what is and not why. These are the questions asked by psychologists, social workers, sociologists and economists. They study how to improve communication, how communication can be manipulated, how to reach the most people, who will do better, what makes some people buy product “X” while others buy product “Y.” Although these questions deal with the act of communicating, they never ask why.
Which brings us back to what makes human communication tick? Why do we respond as we do? What intangible, immeasurable communicative qualities exist between humans? What exactly am I trying to say? It feels so very different than what can be gained through quantitative methodology because it is. Qualitative research gives a glimpse inside the human soul. It cares not about inputs and outputs, but reveals universal human emotion that we can identify with. It’s about making judgments as to what is good and what is bad, what is beautiful and what is not, about conviction as opposed to belief. It’s about what’s inside the box, and why.
What do I really think? We are not a coherent field of study. In my so far limited experience and from my individual perspective of a first semester grad student, the two fields are worlds apart. And that perspective is absolutely qualitative. And how else could that question be answered, through a survey? That would only yield a collection of opinions (or, rather, convictions) that could be compiled, analyzed and reported. It would tell us how many, but couldn’t begin to tell us why.
Although I do not believe we have a coherent field of study, I do believe that epistemology cannot exist without ontology and visa versa. They drive each other. For every study that tells me “what is,” a voice inside says, “why.” When human qualities are described in qualitative analyses, the quantitative researcher surely must think, “how many?” But this paradigm exists between any of the areas of higher education and covers every area of research. Cross-pollination does not require living in the same house.