Quals or quants?

guestchrist, church, obedience, service 11 Comments

Today’s post is by The Chorister.  I’m an education professor. In academic research, we talk about quantitative research and qualitative research. In order to avoid boring you to death, I offer a simplistic definition of each to explain the difference. Quantitative research is about statistics; it’s about cold hard facts (of course, there’s no such thing, but that’s a discussion for another day). Quantitative researchers use test scores, statistics and surveys to explore research questions. Qualitative research is about words, stories, narratives, meaning, and context. Qualitative researchers use case studies, observations, and interviews to explore research questions.

I often wonder whether sometimes we at church focus too much on quantitative things. It’s the last day of the month and so we call the people we’re supposed to home or visit teach and ask them if we can come over. And we’re relieved when they say yes, because that means we can go visit them and then check that box off of our to-do list. Have we really fulfilled our calling if that’s the way we do it? Quantitatively, I guess we have, but qualitatively, I would say we definitely missed the mark.

I have known people over the years who, when something bad happens in their lives, will say: “I don’t understand. I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do. I read my scriptures, I say prayers every morning and night, we got married in the temple, we attend the temple once a month (or whatever the number might be), we have FHE every week. So I don’t understand how this bad thing could happen to me.”

I’m not even going to begin trying to understand why bad things happen to people, but I find this tendency that we have to make lists of all the things we’re “supposed to do” curious because it seems, to me, to miss the mark. It seems to be more quantitative in nature. It seems like the kinds of qualities we are supposed to be developing cannot be surveyed; they cannot be checked off on a box or scratched off of a to-do list. They’re not things that we are ever done with. They’re things that are a process and they are difficult, it not impossible, to measure. They’re messy. They’re complicated. Christ did not come to earth and deliver a checklist to us and suggest that once we had checked everything off, we were finished. Sure, he gave us an example to follow and we have commandments that hopefully help us make good choices, but I prefer to think of things as much more of a process of becoming, rather than arriving at some point at which we have done all the right things.

Don’t we sometimes judge people with a checklist? Does he come to Sacrament meeting? Check. Does he do his home teaching? Check. Does he go to the temple every month? Check. Does he keep the (outwardly obvious parts of) the Word of Wisdom? Check. Does he wear a white shirt and tie to church? Check. If you don’t judge people like this, then good for you, but I have been in church meetings and have participated in such conversations about people. It’s not our place to pass those kinds of judgments on people. We don’t know what’s going on in people’s lives and in their hearts. There are some things we can see, but there are so many more that we can’t see. And I think often, those things that we can’t see are what matters most.

So what do you think? Are we (Mormons) quals or quants?

Comments 11

  1. Nice article, thanks for writing it. I think LDS (myself included) most definitely have this checklist problem and we all need to work on judging our brothers and sisters the way God does rather than a checklist. However, I don’t think we are any worse than other religious or secular organizations out there.

  2. I’ve considered this analog before and find it to be very useful. My experience has been that the administrative organization of the Church tends more toward quants out of self-preservation: when you have so many units/members to account for in your stewardship the enormity requires some sort of shortcut.

    It has also been my experience that on the local level the most admired and successful bishops are those who get out of the numbers game and become quals.

    The numbers are too easy to fake, anyway. Ask any experienced bishop whether or not he really believes that when the EQP and HPGL report a combined 95% home teaching that that means that only 5% of the ward went uncontacted.

  3. Except…as an education researcher, I use both. As I’m typing this, I’m also preparing a presentation for the NCME* conference next week based on research I did for my employer (on a rather large government contract).

    What am I doing? Using the cognitive laboratory (cog labs) protocol to examine the revision of background questions for a subdivision of the NAEP (look it up). The cog lab method is essentially a way to gather stories from individuals in a controlled environment–what they feel and think (qualitative) about a quantitative measure (well, in this case, the background questionnaire is more qualitative, but I’m getting side-tracked–it’s NOT an ability measure, which is a further distinction we make).

    How is this relevant? I guess my argument is pretty simple: it’s possible, even desirable at times to take qualitative information and make it quantitative in some regard. It doesn’t need to be one or the other.

    It’s all well and good to say ‘we aren’t here to finish up a checklist for salvation’, but I’m also pretty sure that trying to understand where people are in their lives and then assist individuals make progress to salvation is a laudable goal. I also think that the Lord expects us to use every tool we have to reach that goal, and will step in and correct us when we start to go astray.

    I dunno…I’m just trying to wrap my head around being human and living life some days. I don’t think I do a good job most of the time.

    *NCME==National Council on Measurement in Education.

  4. Lone Danite: I agree that the checklist is perhaps not unique to us, but it’s the only religion I have experience with. However, I have found that when I talk to non-member friends, they do find some of the checking-up-ness that we do peculiar.

    Chad Too: I think you’re absolutely right that perhaps on a larger scale, focusing on numbers is the only way to deal. Clearly, the first presidency can’t worry about the story behind why Sister So-and-So isn’t coming to church. My worry is when as wards and as individuals, we still get stuck on the quant. perspective.

    Benjamin O: Are you going to AERA next week? 🙂 I’m in education, too. I agree that there certainly is a place for both perspectives and that we should use every available tool to help ourselves and each other along their path.

  5. “I often wonder whether sometimes we at church focus too much on quantitative things. It’s the last day of the month and so we call the people we’re supposed to home or visit teach and ask them if we can come over. And we’re relieved when they say yes, because that means we can go visit them and then check that box off of our to-do list. Have we really fulfilled our calling if that’s the way we do it? Quantitatively, I guess we have, but qualitatively, I would say we definitely missed the mark.”

    I’ve thought about this too, but I guess it depends on the visit that occurs after that phone call. I think it just matters if we’re progressing or not. It’s better to do HT/VT as an afterthought, than not at all. It’s better to be conscientious about it, than to do it as an afterthought. It depends on the person and situation I think. The Lord knows when and if we are doing our best, and will always encourage us to do better. I think you’re right that it’s definitely more likely for us to “miss the mark” if we put it off.

    I think it’s good that we do some quantitative stuff, because then we can get a really good handle on whether things are getting done at all. Unfortunately, for many wards, increasing the quality of Home and Visiting Teaching means just helping it to get done in the first place. I’m a big believer that once you commit to going (and actually do) HT/VT *every* month, the quality seems to rise on its own.

    A big HOWEVER here, though, I think that when we talk in our wards about HT/VT, we should focus on quality. I think what helps the most is talking about meaningful experiences and how it is a blessing to us. I don’t think guilt tends to be a big motivator. I will say though, our stake pres. said to us, “What if you knew that those you HT/VT would REALLY need you only one time that whole year? Which month would you skip?” That helped me a lot.

    I dunno, I guess I’m in favor of both. As my ward’s YW pres., I need to be able to see things in that quantitative way because I’m such a visual person, but after that, I need the qualitative info to give context to it.

  6. This is an ongoing issue with missionary work. Most Mission Presidents truly do make a concerted effort to emphasize quality: caring for the members/investigators, being sensitive to needs, following the Spirit, showing love, etc. But the higher you rise from a managerial standpoint, the less useful qualitative metrics become. Missionaries have ‘key indicators’ based on lessons taught, contacts made, etc. When a decision-maker needs information/data on which to base his decisions (particularly when data across multiple areas/zones/missions needs to be aggregated) the truth is that quantitative metrics offer much more precise and measurable insight than ‘this mission really loves and cares for the needs of their investigators.’ It’s unfortunate that those metrics don’t always reflect the realities of the work, but their use seems increasingly inevitable as the research population increases. Apply this to a quorum, a ward, a stake, a district, or the whole church, and I think it’s clear why the checklist approach is favored, flawed as it is.

    On the flipside, Dallin H. Oaks tackled the checklist mentality (at least its application on an individual level) in his landmark talk ‘The Challenge to Become.’

    He said: “It is not enough for anyone just to go through the motions. The commandments, ordinances, and covenants of the gospel are not a list of deposits required to be made in some heavenly account. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a plan that shows us how to become what our Heavenly Father desires us to become.”


  7. You’ve sent me down memory lane with this post, chorister. I chose to take a qualitative approach on my masters thesis after a particularly positive experience with that methodology in an Intro to Research Methods class. Unfortunatly, the only prof who felt comfortable working in qual moved a couple of states away right after I got my precis approved. The other profs did their best to help, but none of them really got it. I ended up abandoning the thesis and going with extra classes and comp exams instead…

  8. I agree that talks like Oaks’ remind us of the importance of a more qualitative emphasis. But I find that it’s hard to juggle the two. Sometimes I think I get it right, and sometimes I’m pretty sure I don’t.

    Last month, I e-mailed one of my VT people on March 27 and invited her to lunch. We ended up going on April 1. I counted it for March. We had a nice lunch and both enjoyed it. Afterwards, I realized that if it weren’t for the end-of-the-month deadline, I probably would not have done it. So while my motive wasn’t pure, the result was. ??

    Chad Too – funny walk down memory lane. My husband wanted to do a qualitative diss., but NO ONE in his department would agree to chair it, so he swallowed the bitter pill (quant.), finished every painful bit of it, and regretted it afterwards. Everyone always says it depends on the research questions, but I think it depends on the personality of the researcher. Maybe it’s that way in the church, too – maybe we need quants and quals?? People who prefer to focus on the getting-it-done/checklist perspective, working with people who prefer the story/context/details.

  9. I think that we are by nature qualitative in that we measure the depth of our relationships rather than the quantity, for example. We don’t necessarily go around looking at things like quantity of life rather than quality of life, though some do that as well. However, in many ways, we’ve become at Church a quantitative people always counting this or that as a measure of success. How many attend, how many prayers, how many HT/VT, how many this and how many that.

    When I was EQP, I used to get to tell the SP during my interviews that if I could guarantee that the right 65% of my families we being Home Taught each month, I’d be happy with that number. Of course, we weren’t and he wasn’t real happy with that number.

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