Research News

Shaffer’s ‘Quantitative Ethnography’ provides new methodology for era of big data

June 13, 2017

UW-Madison’s David Williamson Shaffer is the author of a recently released book that puts forth a groundbreaking new science for understanding what people do and why they do it titled, “Quantitative Ethnography.”

Shaffer explains that his latest publication is a methods book that gives investigators the tools they need to bridge the gap between quantitative and qualitative research in the age of big data.

“This is a book about understanding why, in the digital age, the old distinctions between qualitative and quantitative research methods, between the sciences and humanities, and between numbers and understanding, limit the kinds of questions we can ask, in some cases, and lead us to accept superficial answers in others,” Shaffer writes in the book. “ ‘Quantitative Ethnography’ is a research method that goes beyond those distinctions to help us understand how to make sense of our increasingly data-rich world.”

What makes this approach revolutionary, explains Shaffer, is the way in which it combines qualitative and quantitative methods to let researchers use statistical methods on field notes, interviews, observations and other kinds of “thick” data.”

“We have developed several tools that are used around the world, and work with people using everything from fMRI and eye-tracking data to people analyzing classroom video, surgical simulations, and teacher interviews,” says Shaffer, the Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of Learning Sciences with the No. 1-ranked Department of Educational Psychology.

Shaffer book cover“Quantitative Ethnography” is based on work backed by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and conducted by Shaffer at UW-Madison for more than a decade. Shaffer, who also is director of the Epistemic Games Group in the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, notes that this book project has involved collaborators from both across campus and at other universities.

In a review of Shaffer’s book, Morten Misfeldt –- a professor of education, learning and philosophy at Aalborg University –- explains how: “‘Quantitative Ethnography’ is a joy to read. Shaffer explains abstract and complex issues with references to literature, history and popular culture. The book can be read as an engaging first introduction to research methods for students, an introduction to data science and learning analytics for qualitative researchers, or an introduction to the humanities for statisticians and data scientists. But it is also a compelling philosophical and intellectual journey for anyone looking for a way to understand learning, culture and behavior in the age of Big Data."