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Thoughts and Hallucinations

Talk for Ohio State Qualitative and Complexity Group

What If We Called It “Qualia”-tative And Already Knew That Methods Were Mixed?

Michael Agar
Ethknoworks LLC, Eldorado NM
Professor Emeritus of Linguistics and Anthropology, University of Maryland

Two key arguments drive this presentation. The first holds that the "qualitative boom" actually reinterprets the centuries-old argument that human social research is different in fundamental ways from natural science. The reinterpretation presented here will center on the term “qualia” in the title, meant as a concept that unites the variety of qualitative approaches that have multiplied over the last few decades. The presentation will suggest and elaborate four key characteristics of any such approach, whatever its label: 1) A particular kind of logic that is abductive, recursive and iterative; 2) A continual focus on differences in context and meaning, though Schrödinger’s cat will complicate things here; 3) A representational goal akin to translation with much attention paid to the translator; 4) A nonlinear dynamic research process that calls for new guidelines for evidence and credibility. The argument will be that these characteristics allow for us to configure “qualia”-tative research for many applications—brief and elaborate, bounded and unbounded, as well as focused and exploratory, among a variety of different subject/audience/researcher intersections.

The second key argument, time permitting, involves the second part of the title, that we “already knew that methods were mixed." The qualitative world grew rapidly and fragmented quickly, in part because of different discipline-specific historical trajectories, in part because of the incentive structure of the academy, in part because of growth on the basis of a cover term that only clearly refers to a type of data. The argument here is that the “qual-boom” needs to articulate its core, otherwise the boom might turn into another case of self-destructive historical marginality. On the other hand, broader changes in society and science suggest an irreversible “qualia-tative turn,” a possibility that will end this presentation and lead into discussion among a group who probably embody it.

And here's the abstract for the complexity talk:

Ethnography, History and Complexity: The Explanation of Illegal Drug Epidemics

In a seven year NIH-funded project, the speaker looked at several epidemics of heroin and cocaine in the U.S. The result was a "trend theory" that showed their common emergent histories as complex adaptive systems. While the project was ongoing, a wave of heroin experimentation occurred in Baltimore County that allowed for ethnographic research. Based on that research, an agent-based model was written in the Netlogo language and used as a thought-experiment laboratory for youth explanations of how and why the wave occurred. The core of this presentation will be the model, the problem of translating ethnographic conclusions into computer code, and the policy- and practice-based implications of the results.

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