This post originally appeared on the Cognitive Edge blog on December 6, 2010.
My job as Consultant at Cognitive Edge doesn’t require keeping up with the Joneses (or any other Welsh families for that matter). Nonetheless, I recently was reading some of The Savage Mind, the classic 1966 work by French anthropologist and structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss. In it, he used bricolage — roughly translated as “tinkering” — as a metaphor for combining existing ideas and information to create new perspectives. This contrasts with the traditional approach of science, which uses an existing structure (the scientific method) to create new knowledge.
As a result, bricolage, has become a common term for the multiple methodologies of qualitative research. And a qualitative researcher can be described as a bricoleur, a professional handy person who uses the tools of his or her methodological trade, plus whatever unifying strategies and situational constraints are at hand, to understand the phenomena under examination (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005). Again, this (typically) synthetic approach contrasts with the analytical number-crunching or simulation of the hard sciences.
In most of the projects that I do for Cognitive Edge, I find myself taking on both of these roles — bricoleur and scientist. Depending on the project, the “materials at hand” may be in various states of (de)construction or (dis)repair, to extend the metaphor, and I may have to modify what I do on-the-fly as client requirements continuously shift. I have found that this contrast, between qualitative tinkering on the one hand and quantitative analysis on the other, can be helpful in explaining the diversity of what I do in my job. Lest that seem too abstract and ethereal, however, I should add that, when I explained this to my husband, he said, oh, so you’re a cross between Tom Swift and MacGyver, with a qual-quant Swiss army knife in your pocket.
So there you have it, with all the intellectual stuffing removed. I am somewhere between the turn-of-the-20th-century boy-scientist memorialized in such classics as Tom Swift and His Photo Telephone (1914) and the adventurous TV hero who could solve almost any problem with duct tape in under 45 minutes.