Qualitative methods and the pursuit of economic understanding

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  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).

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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.

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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

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Keywords

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

JEL codes

  • B41
  • B53