Frequently Asked QuestionsLinksContact Us
The Socrates Institute  
The Socrates Institute
About UsClass Room CurriculumProfessional DevelopmentLessonsResearchNews and Eventssponsorshow to contribute


Designing Qualitative Models:
Making it Easier to Interpret and Understand Multiple Realities

Course Description:

The purpose of this 10-hour course is to:
Introduce participants to the concept of a "qualitative model" in order to facilitate interpretation of multiple sources of narrative, visual, and numeric information; Provide examples of numerous kinds of qualitative models for study and critique; Present a heuristic for designing qualitative models so as to better understand the theories revealed in the study of a given culture and to represent the emergent theory in new ways.


A qualitative model is the synthetic visualization of a process (e.g. communication, teaching) or a system (e.g. a culture, a political structure) theorized on the basis of data from social science research.

This broad definition encompasses many things, including, for example: business organizational charts, economic systems, and political maps showing army movements or exports. In this course, however, we focus particularly on qualitative models based on grounded theories which seek to account for and explicate complex, chaotic, or elusive phenomena. A fundamental understanding of the tenets of qualitative research is a prerequisite for this course. Experience in the gathering, organizing, and analysis of ethnographic data is strongly recommended, though not required.

Qualitative modeling is important because, during the latter part of the 20th century, the social sciences have undergone a paradigmatic shift from the purely positivistic (where verification of existing theory was considered the only responsibility of research) to include and even favor, the naturalistic (where the emergence of new theory is considered the most valuable discovery of research). Books and articles reporting these new grounded theories have devoted thousands of pages to their descriptions --- and rightly so. Yet having been so deeply involved with the linguistic and statistical forms of data, we have limited our ways of thinking about the phenomena we study; consequently, we have also limited ourselves to conceiving certain thoughts.

The value in visualizing concepts is that we are able to take a global view of them, prompting new ideas and questions about the ideas therein, encouraging different examinations of old concepts, drawing our attention to multiple realities otherwise not considered, and possibly identifying conflicting realities.

Participants in this course will be required to develop flexible thinking approaches to complex problems and seemingly chaotic environments in order to try to make sense of them, and to express them in visual representations. They will also be required to construct and present at least one individual and one group model, both of which seek to meet general criteria for excellence, and which demonstrate an understanding of the various kinds of qualitative models discussed. Although published and presented models may be sketched by hand, made with draw programs and clip-art, constructed out of small objects, stand free, hang from the ceiling, be dynamic, etc., no sophisticated or expensive equipment and supplies will be required for this course. While a clear and aesthetically-pleasing model is likely to be better than a rough drawing, the effectiveness of the model depends in large part upon its conceptual base, not its slick look. We are interested in contributing to our understanding of a process or a system, not in selling the latest gimmick to a consumer.

Course Outline

Session 1 - Introduction:  What is a model?
  • Examples, Working Definition:  A "sign complex" whose purpose is to allow the creator or viewer to think about the concepts in different ways than linguistically or mathematically. Activities to develop flexible thinking and to heighten powers of observation.

  • Metaphoric Thinking Through Literal And Figurative Imagery:   Tap into processes which involve imagination, creativity, and innovative problem-solving, appealing to other intelligences. Examples: science; dealing with personal relationships; politics; police work; learning a foreign language; hospital cultures; an elementary school; the army, etc.  How do these metaphors contribute to our understanding of the setting?
  • Kinds And Purposes Of Qualitative Models:   Models may use a mode of representation that is either iconic (based on resemblance) or symbolic (based on purely conventional signification). They may be seen as denotative, where there is a single, direct relationship of signification between signifier and meaning; connotative models show an indirect relationship of signification where one signifier stands for another, while still referring back to a same concept (the signified). Consider models literally or figuratively.
  • Dissecting Qualitative Models: Identify their characteristics, their seemingly intentional design strategies and any unintended connotations they may have.

Session 2 - Standards of Excellence for Qualitative Model

General Criteria

  1. Provide a synthesis of a complex reality or multiple realities.
  2. Cause the viewer to consider both the substance and construction process of the model.
  3. Ensure that every constitutive element actually carries meaning, etc...

Technical Criteria:

  1. Resist depending upon unnecessary gimmicks which distract the viewer from the substance or metacognitive study of the model.
  2. Train the eye on different pieces and different levels of information in the model.
  3. Use color, shading and spatial arrangement in relevant rather than arbitrary ways, etc.

Image/Text Balance
While either text or image may be independently comprehensible, together they offer a potential for greater understanding of the phenomena being studied.

Heuristic for Developing Qualitative Models

  • Initial Data Analyses Category Juxtaposition
  • Conceptualization and Development of a Literal Model Metaphoric Model Development
  • Considering Intentional and Unintentional Connotations Challenging the Models
  • Refining the Models Judge the Image/Text Balance

Excerpted Readings:
Atkinson, P. (1990). The ethnographic imagination. New York: Routledge.
Eisner, E. (1991). The enlightened eye. New York: Macmillan.
Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1981) Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press
Nöth, W. (1995). Handbook of Semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Tufte, Edward R. (1983). The visual display of quantitative information. Cheshire, CN: Graphics Press.
Tufte, Edward R. (1990). Envisioning information. Cheshire, CN: Graphics Press.



CyberEthics Project

Home | About Us | Research | Curricula | Lessons | Sponsors |
Prof. Development | Press Room | Contribute | Contact Us


The Socrates Institute