Chaos & Problem Solving in Qualitative Analysis

In Conceptual Blockbusting: A Guide to Better Ideas, James Adams offers readers a varied and ingenious collection of approaches to overcoming the barriers to effective problem solving.  Specifically, Adams emphasizes the idea that to solve complex problems, it is necessary to identify the barriers chaotic-lifeand then learn to think differently.  As far as barriers, he discusses four “blocks” that interfere with conceptual thinking – perceptual, emotional, cultural and environmental, and intellectual and expressive – as well as ways to modify thinking to overcome these blocks – e.g., a questioning attitude, looking for the core problem, list-making, and soliciting ideas from other people.

Adams’ chapter on emotional blocks discusses ways that the thinking process builds barriers to problem solving.  One of these is the inability or unwillingness to think through “chaotic situations.”  Adams contends that a path to complex problem solving is bringing order to chaos yet some people have “an excessive fondness for order in all things” leaving them with an “inability to tolerate ambiguity.”  In other words, they have “no appetite for chaos.”  Adams puts it this way –

The solution of a complex problem is a messy process.  Rigorous and logical techniques are often necessary, but not sufficient.  You must usually wallow in misleading and ill-fitting data, hazy and difficult-to-test concepts, opinions, values, and other such untidy quantities.  In a sense, problem-solving is bringing order to chaos. (p. 48)

Problem solving is a “messy process” and no less so when carrying out an analysis of qualitative data.  There are several articles in Research Design Review that touch on the messiness of qualitative analysis.  In particular, “The Messy Inconvenience of Qualitative Analysis” underscores the idea that

Unlike the structured borders we build into our quantitative designs that facilitate an orderly analytical process, qualitative research is built on the belief that there are real people beyond [these borders] and that rich learning comes from meaningful conversations.  But the course of a meaningful conversation is not a straight line.  The course of conversation is not typically one complete coherent stream of thought followed by an equally well-thought-out rejoinder.

Put differently, qualitative analysts must endure a certain amount of chaos if they are to achieve their goal of bringing some semblance of “order” (i.e., interpretation) to their in-depth interview, focus group, ethnographic, narrative, or case study data.  It is their ability to embrace the tangled web of human thought and interaction that allows qualitative researchers to unravel the most complex problem of all – how people think or do the things they do.

It may also be the reason why qualitative analysis remains such a mystery to quantitative-leaning researchers and, indeed, the impediment that discourages these researchers from using qualitative methods, either alone or in mixed-method designs.  Qualitative analysis requires a conscious effort to accept some chaos, to not rush the march to find order in the data, and to feel comfortable in the notion that this process will lead to meaningful outcomes.

Although bringing some measure of order is a necessary ingredient to the analysis process, “the ability to tolerate chaos,” as Adams states, “is a must.”  In this respect, Adams talks about the “limited problem-solver” as one who struggles with

The process of bringing widely disparate thoughts together [and who] cannot work too well because [their] mind is not going to allow widely disparate thoughts to coexist long enough to combine [them into a meaningful solution]. (p. 48)

Qualitative analysis is not unlike solving complex problems that demand problem solvers who are not limited by the need for order but rather embrace the more chaotic and richer world of humans’ lived experiences.

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