Qualitative methods and the pursuit of economic understanding


In this paper, I describe the qualitative methods deployed in a series of investigations examining post-disaster recovery following Hurricane Katrina. I argue that qualitative methods, particularly ethnographic field interviews, are essential tools in contexts that the interpretive frameworks (mental models) of the research subjects play a dominant role in shaping broader patterns of social coordination. Given the importance, Austrian economists attribute to non-deterministic learning as the source of endogenous change and discovery in contexts of genuine uncertainty; I argue that this underutilized set of tools ought to be considered particularly valuable.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. 1.

    This book project is part of the Crisis and Response to Hurricane Katrina project sponsored by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

  2. 2.

    Post-war reconstruction offers a similar context in which the social order must be reestablished. See Hirshleifer (1987) and Coyne (2008).

  3. 3.

    For a more in-depth argument on the merits of viewing quantitative and qualitative analysis as complements rather than substitutes, see Ragin (1994). For excellent primers on qualitative research methods, see Weiss (1994) and Marcus (1998).

  4. 4.

    Virgil Storr is Director of Graduate Student Programs at the Mercatus Center and Research Associate Professor in the Department of Economics at George Mason University.

  5. 5.

    This approach is well known within the sociology literature, as described, for example in the classic sourcebook Qualitative Data Analysis by Miles and Huberman (1994). I have also used this approach in my work on female entrepreneurship in sub-Saharan Africa (Chamlee-Wright 1997, 2002, 2005).

  6. 6.

    For a critique of the manner by which econometric evidence is interpreted, see Ziliak and McCloskey (2008).

  7. 7.

    In making a distinction between “Newtonian time” (in which moments can be plucked out of context) and “real time” (that sees time as a flow of events), O’driscoll and Rizzo (1996) use a musical metaphor. Once stripped of its context of the musical score, any single chord is meaningless. Similarly, to describe any particular chord as the “most important chord” makes no sense. The chord only has meaning as part of a whole (or at least a cluster within the whole).

  8. 8.

    For a discussion of the variety of causal relations, see Cartwright (2007).

  9. 9.

    For a similar argument on how qualitative methods advance an “economics of meaning”, see Storr (2010).


  1. Cartwright, N. (2007). Hunting causes and using them: Approaches in philosophy and economics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  2. Chamlee-Wright, E. (1997). The cultural foundations of economic development: Urban female entrepreneurship in Ghana. London: Routledge.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  3. Chamlee-Wright, E. (2002). Savings and accumulation strategies of urban market women in Harare, Zimbabwe. Economic Development and Cultural Change, 50(4), 979–1005.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Chamlee-Wright, E. (2005). Entrepreneurial response to ‘bottom-up’ development strategies in Zimbabwe. The Review of Austrian Economics, 18(1), 5–28.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Chamlee-Wright, E. (2007). The long road back: Signal noise in the post-Katrina context. The Independent Review, 12(2), 235–259.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Chamlee-Wright, E. (2010). The cultural and political economy of recovery: Social learning in a post-disaster environment. London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Chamlee-Wright, E., & Storr, V. (2009a). Filling the civil society vacuum: Post-disaster policy and community response. Mercatus Policy Series, Policy Comment 22 (February).

  8. Chamlee-Wright, E., & Storr, V. (2009b). There’s no place like New Orleans’: Sense of place and community recovery in the ninth ward after hurricane Katrina, with Virgil Storr. Journal of Urban Affairs, 31(5), 615–634.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Chamlee-Wright, E., & Storr, V. (2009c). Club goods and post-disaster community return. Rationality & Society, 21(4), 429–458.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Coyne, C. (2008). After war: The political economy of exporting democracy. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Dickinson, H. D. (1933). Price formation in a socialist economy. Economic Journal, 43, 237–250.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Hayek, F. A. (1935 [1948]). Socialist calculation I: The nature and history of the problem. In F. A. Hayek (Ed.), Individualism and economic order (pp. 119–147). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Hayek, F. A. (1937 [1948]). Economics and knowledge. In F. A. Hayek (Ed.), Individualism and economic order (pp. 33–56). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Hayek, F. A. (1940 [1948]). Socialist calculation III: The ‘competitive’ solution. In F. A. Hayek (Ed.), Individualism and economic order (pp. 181–208). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Hayek, F. A. (1945 [1948]). The use of knowledge in society. In F. A. Hayek (Ed.), Individualism and economic order (pp. 77–91). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Hayek, F. A. (1946 [1984]). The meaning of competition. In F. A. Hayek (Ed.), Individualism and economic order (pp. 92–106). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Hayek, F. A. (1952 [1967]). The sensory order: An inquiry into the foundations of theoretical psychology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Hirshleifer, J. (1987). Economic behavior in adversity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Lange, O. (1938). On the economic theory of socialism. In B. Lippincott (Ed.), On the economic theory of socialism (pp. 57–143). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Lavoie, D. (1985). Rivalry and central planning: The socialist calculation debate reconsidered. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Marcus, G. E. (1998). Ethnography through thick and thin. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  22. Miles, M., & Huberman, M. (1994). Qualitative data analysis: An expanded sourcebook (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Mises, L. (1981 [1922]). Socialism: An economic and sociological analysis. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

    Google Scholar 

  24. O’Driscoll, G. P., & Rizzo, M. J. (1996). The economics of time and ignorance. London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Ragin, C. C. (1994). Constructing social research: The unity and diversity of method. Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Storr, V. H. (2010). Schutz on meaning and culture. Review of Austrian Economics, 23(2), 147–163.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Weiss, R. (1994). Learning from strangers: The art and method of qualitative interview studies. New York: Free Press.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Ziliak, S., & McCloskey, D. (2008). The cult of statistical significance. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Emily Chamlee-Wright.

Additional information

This essay was prepared for the presidential address to the membership of the Society for the Development of Austrian Economics in San Antonio, Texas, November 22, 2009 and is an abbreviated version of the methodology chapter of my book The Cultural and Political Economy of Recovery: Social Learning in a Post-Disaster Environment, used here with permission from Routledge, Taylor Francis Group.

I wish to thank Christopher Coyne, Virgil Storr, Deirdre McCloskey, Peter Boettke, Steven Horwitz, and Peter Leeson for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper and the Mercatus Center for their generous financial support in pursuing the field work that informs the arguments presented here. The usual caveat applies.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Chamlee-Wright, E. Qualitative methods and the pursuit of economic understanding. Rev Austrian Econ 23, 321–331 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11138-010-0114-4

Download citation


  • Austrian economics
  • Qualitative methods
  • Hurricane Katrina
  • Post-disaster recovery

JEL codes

  • B41
  • B53