Invitation to the Psychohistory Forum (Hybrid) Meeting
on Saturday, May 6, 2023


Using Qualitative Observations to Understand Everyday Phenomena
(Previously titled: “Qualitative Methods and Quantitative Research: Competitive, but Loving Siblings”)

Presenter: Burton Norman Seitler, PhD (S.P.U.R. and Private Practice)

Date/Time: May 6, 2023 (Saturday); 10:00am-1:00pm EDT/NYC

In-person Location:
Fordham University Law School – Lincoln Center Campus

113 W 60th St, NYC 10023; Room 604

Virtual Participation v ia Zoom:
Virtual room opens at 9:30/9:45am EDT/NYC time

RSVP is required for anyone who wants to attend this meeting (in person or virtually) – fill out the registration form.

Please read Dr. Seitler’s paper prior to the meeting – see text below.

Dear Colleagues,

Burton Seitler’s paper, “Prove it to Me! I Double Dare You! Using Qualitative Observations to Understand Everyday Phenomena,” is included below (please scroll down).

Note that physically the meeting will occur at the Lincoln Center Campus of Fordham University as well as online. This meeting of the Psychohistory Forum initiates the Society for Psychoanalytic Understanding Through Research (S.P.U.R.) as a membership group, which is seeking younger and other colleagues to join in its leadership, including those with statistical capabilities. We are interested in attracting academic psychologists who do qualitative work on the whole person.

Firstly, we look forward to a lively and informative May 6th presentation and discussion, which I hope you can attend after reading the paper. Secondly, we hope that you will consider becoming a member of S.P.U.R., write for its journal (J.A.S.P.E.R.), and join its leadership team and/or inform colleagues about it.

Best regards,


Paul H. Elovitz, PhD, Historian, Research Psychoanalyst, Professor, Director of the Psychohistory Forum, Editor, Clio’s Psyche, and the Author of The Making of Psychohistory: Origins, Controversies, and Pioneering Contributors (Routledge Publisher),

Here is Dr. Seitler’s Note to Meeting Participants and His paper:

Dear Colleagues,

I am honored that I have been asked to make the case in favor of qualitative research, a subject that fits well with the work of psychohistorians, as well as other researchers, academicians of all stripes, in addition to the rest of us with curious minds. I am proud that the Psychohistory Forum has supported JASPER, the official journal of SPUR, which in only its third year of existence won the coveted Gradiva® Award. I look forward to speaking with you about these matters on May 6th. [My paper is provided below.]

Warm regards,


Burton Norman Seitler, Ph.D., Director of SPUR and Editor-in-Chief, JASPER
Faculty, Gordon Derner Institute Postdoctoral Program at Adelphi University
Chair, Board of Trustees, New Jersey Institute for Training in Psychoanalysis

Prove It to Me! I Double Dare You!
Using Qualitative Observations to Understand Everyday Phenomena

Burton Norman Seitler, Ph.D.


For too long, quantitative analyses have had the glowing aura of be-all, end-all standards against which all research was to be compared, so much so that it has been called the “gold standard” of investigatory methods. However, many contemporary researchers have taken issue with this ostensible coronation, calling it a premature and incorrect presumption. This author views quantitative studies as tools, that have strengths and weaknesses. This paper enumerates many of the drawbacks and thus, limitations of the quantitative approach, with an eye towards providing greater balance to what has previously been a somewhat lopsided contention that quantitative methods are inherently superior to all other methods.

What is truth and how does one go about the business of seeking it out? Simply put, one creates hypotheses and “tests” them out. While this sounds like an extraordinarily difficult, almost herculean task, it is much more commonplace and ubiquitous than one might think. It happens all the time in everyday life and begins at a much younger age than many might envision—namely, childhood.

Case in point, psychoanalytic canon holds that when the mother comes to the child who cries, the child forms an image of the mother so that when s/he cries again, the mere image of the mother’s footsteps momentarily soothes the child until the mother actually arrives. This is believed to be an implicit (imagistic) hypothesis that the child forms on a pre-verbal level, one which associates the child’s crying with the mother coming to the rescue.

In the latter respect, let me say that children are keen observers of their environment. Moreover, because of their natural curiosity, they are constantly formulating their own hypotheses about their world. However, because children are not always able to make sense of things that they perceive, they are filled with questions, just waiting to be sprung on their unsuspecting parents. It doesn’t take long for a parent to become all too aware of the ubiquitous, almost non-stop questions that children ask, like, “Why is the sky blue?” and the sometimes-awkward inquiry, “Where do babies come from?” Wondering, fantasizing, guessing, surmising, and asking are some ways in which the child learns about things. When this is encouraged and nurtured, the child grows up to be inquisitive and open to the acquisition of new information. Furthermore, in addition to the child using his or her senses, s/he is dependent upon an authority figure, usually a parent, to learn about the world writ large. So, it is no wonder that one form of information-gathering comes to be associated with authority. This represents one of the central means by which knowledge is acquired and transmitted. But it is only one way in which information may be conveyed. More will be said about this in a moment.

As a preschooler, I distinctly remember playing a game with myself in which I would mentally predict what someone I knew very well would say next. Interestingly, I was often correct. Perhaps those early “insights,” if they can truly be called that, were foreshadowing my future career as a psychoanalyst and editor of a psychoanalytic research journal, JASPER.1

1JASPER, since its inception, has been interested in articles by psychohistorians, such as Meyers, W.R. (2017), Richards, A. (2017), Szaluta, J. (2018), O’Keefe, D. (2018 & 2019), D’Agostino, B. (2018); Schwartz, J. (2020); O’Loughlin, M. & Kulsa, M.K.C. (2023); and Fuchsman, K. & Cohen, K.S. (2023).

To reiterate, if we were to sit down and think about it, we would quickly recognize that the earliest research occurred when we were children. That’s the time when we made our first hypotheses aboutthe world. Of course, we didn’t call our thoughts about what was going on around us or even inside of us “hypotheses.”

We neither paid much mind to these goings-on, nor labeled them. They were just our thoughts, imaginings, fantasies, wishes, fears, and whatnot. Inaccurate as our conjurings might have been, in terms of the world of objects, we had all sorts of ideas about what things were made of, how they worked, and what we could expect would happen next. In fact, when you get right down to it, these were our very first forms of qualitative research.

Ultimately, all qualitative research starts with an idea, which may be coupled with a fantasy and/or observation. It represents an attempt at explaining what has been thought and/or observed. When the ideas become crystallized and spelled out, they become the basis of qualitative studies. Before that, they are merely a set of more or less organized bits and pieces.

It should be understood that quantitative research must begin with the qualitative. That is, before a phenomenon can be put to the test, so to speak, it first exists as an idea, random speculation, or carefully delineated observation. Although quantitative studies may seem to have many advantages over qualitative analysis when doing research, such as the use of statistical analysis in an attempt to produce or increase levels of objectivity, standardization, constancy, discrimination, and their potential for replicability, the question still exists as to whether the above criteria are totally accurate, much less dependable. Even if their accuracy were assured, is that all there is? Does quantification of measurable displays of “love,” for example, tell us anything meaningful about love? And are these quantifiable criteria the final word in our attempts to truly know something?

Moreover, if our intention is to “know” something, then it behooves us to consider what that means. How one goes about the business of “knowing” has a long, and sometimes turbulent history, often affected by powerful external intrusions. I have listed four general methods associated with “knowing” the truth (with a small “t”).

Method of Authority—

At one time, the principal means by which one ascertained what is true, was ordained on high from the powers that be: the parent, High Priest, Elders, King, Church, and so on. These main means of transmitting the norms of the moment were by virtue of what I call the Method of Authority. Under this method, information was transmitted downward from those cited above. Typically, this method was autocratic. Not infrequently, truths derived from any of these sources were enforced through the administration of severe punishments to those that deviated from the authority’s dictum. Again, lore, and sometimes law, were passed down from the powers in charge, where they often became a part of a tradition and held sway. As part of this, “if it was good enough fer pappy (or the king, the church, the government, the president) then it’s good enough fer me.” It did not matter then if the information did not correspond to reality. It was to be accepted simply on the basis that an authority declared it to be so. Thus, the earth was flat and that was that.

Method of Tenacity—

This simply refers to the fact that the authority hath spoken and what hath been rendered is practically etched in stone, tantamount to a religious “that shalt” utterance.

Method of Inquiry—

This is also referred to as the Socratic method. In this instance, the question is as important—perhaps more than—the answer. All things were to be questioned, including, but not limited to, our sacred cows. Socrates’s foremost proponent of the search for truths via persistent use of the inquiry approach made him a very dangerous man and ultimately cost him his life. For his insistence on questioning everything, he was condemned by the Sophists—whose only goal was to win disputes by clever argumentation rather than make attempts to achieve even the most basic levels of truth.

Scientific Method—

In this method of knowing, the intention is to observe events, things, or phenomena in a careful, meticulous, exacting manner—paying particular attention to details that do or do not fit together—to provide explanations regarding the subject(s) under investigation.

How can this be done? Two main ways of utilizing the scientific method are through qualitative and quantitative research methodologies. Some believe that qualitative research suffers from subjectivity and that only quantitative studies should be utilized. Others, like Paul Wachtel (2010), do not fully agree. He sees the insistence on exclusively using quantitative research methodologies as very limiting. He points out that quantitative methods cannot measure many things.

In speaking about the shortcomings of quantitative research, Wachtel expressed the following admonition, which questions the almost knee-jerk imperative to solely utilize quantitative methods, such as Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs) to study various phenomena. He wrote:

The idea that evidence obtained via methods other than RCTs is suspect—indeed so suspect that any therapy not investigated in this particular manner is not eligible to be regarded as empirically supported or evidenced-based—reflects a view of science that would warm the hearts of Creationists and other opponents of Darwinian theory. For virtually all of the vast body of research that supports evolutionary theory is not research of the sort that “EST” [Evidence Supported Treatment] advocates depict as the “gold standard” (p. 258).

Quantitative analyses, particularly RCTs, have been so valorized that one would think that the observational studies, filmed reports, and videotapes used by Margaret Mahler; Mary Ainsworth and Silvia Bell’s “strange” situation experiment; filmed documentation of Annie Bergman’s work with an autistic child; Beatrice Beebe’s split-screen photography; Ed Tronick’s demonstration and effect of the “still face;” longitudinal studies; as well as Hermann Ebbinghaus’s use of an N of 1 had no value. On the contrary, Wachtel indicated that we cannot exclusively use quantitative methods, for example, with respect to studying the harmful effects of smoking tobacco, in which some people would be required to smoke three packs of cigarettes a day, while others would be forbidden to place a single cigarette in their mouths.

Instead, an amount of qualitative evidence gleaned from a wide swath of observational (hence qualitative) studies needed to be utilized. Because cancer often takes a long time to develop, the argument that kept the tobacco industry afloat was that any number of factors may have entered along the way to produce the illness. In this instance, inherent weaknesses in quantitative research methods made it nearly impossible to “prove” that cigarettes cause cancer. It was only the massive amount of consistent qualitative observations over a long period of time that eventually won the day, not hard-nosed quantitative research demonstrations, as some might believe.

But I am getting ahead of myself. As Socrates asked, what do we mean by qualitative research? Let’s start by defining the term. Essentially, qualitative methods of research involve the collection and analysis of presumably non-quantitative data, like audio, videos, texts, concepts, opinions, personal experiences, and so on. There are also many other types of qualitative inquiries. The following is a short (owing to concerns over length) but necessarily incomplete list and description of qualitative areas of research:

Phenomenology studies—

This methodology attempts to understand and make interpretations that fit the personal lived experiences of the participants being studied.

Case Studies—

Similar to studies of phenomenology, case studies attempt to understand complex processes by a detailed description of the subjects involved, how they act individually (or in a group, as a group), each individual’s history or make-up, behavior, reported thoughts, feelings, relations to others and themselves, and so on. It differs from quantitative analysis in that it focuses on the individual and his/her differences, as opposed to comparing the individual against statistical norms gleaned from group behaviors. In this regard, the individual is “measured” against him/herself. This can be accomplished through observations of the individual in a number of different settings and under different circumstances, through interviews, written work, etc.

Observational investigations—

This is a particular approach that initially heavily relied on the use of detailed field notes. Current modern technology has introduced more sophisticated recording tools, which may take advantage of video and audio devices to document what you have seen, heard, or encountered. In fact (with permission of each patient), individual psychotherapy sessions have been recorded. This now permits us to hear exactly what the patient and the analyst said, what their interaction sounds like, and even to develop possible ways to codify these interactions into some sort of systematic way for current or future reference.

Surveys also fall within the observational category. This approach can be performed via written or telephone questionnaires, on-the-street question-and-answer interviews, pre-polls, exit polls, etc.


Using this method represents an attempt to understand the “why” of history to appreciate and gain an understanding of one’s behavior in the context of social influences, including the zeitgeist of the times. It also seeks to understand an individual’s possible intentions by implementing data derived from the examination of that individual’s childhood, the kinds of parenting the child may have had, and the effect of his environment on his-her inner character and outward behavior.


This is similar to the brief description of the use of psychohistory to understand how certain things came about. It goes further in that it examines the individual in greater depth, much like a case history. One could argue that psychobiography is a sub-set of the much broader field of psychohistory in that its concern is one individual at a time rather than a class of people, a land, or a country.


Generally speaking, this refers to a study of a particular group’s culture. It is a type of qualitative research that involves studying a particular community, organization, or society by having the researcher embed him/herself into their culture as much as possible (and as much as the members of that culture will allow) rather than studying them from the outside. However, the counterargument holds that, even in the best of instances when acting as a participant-observer, the very act of immersing oneself into that culture imperils the results of the study by virtue of its inherent likelihood of subjectivity.

While this is the same argument that is made against the use of qualitative methods, as it turns out, quantitative methods are also open to this critique. That is, the choice of what measuring instruments to use, what scoring systems to develop, and, even the choice of what data to focus on (as opposed to other material that might not be seen as fruitful in producing important information) might be unconsciously influenced by the wish to make a specific point. The latter possibility sometimes occurs when one is seeking tenure, trying to establish a reputation, or seeking advancement (or even to please the benefactor who underwrote the study), as Ioannidis (2018) pointed out.

As much as I derive a great deal of satisfaction when a plan comes to fruition, the same holds true when a research study produces solid, replicable results. Frequently, we associate such findings with quantitative studies. However, as I have written before (JASPER, 2019), which I will paraphrase here, quantitative studies, particularly RCTs, are not the most suitable designs for evaluating complex, context-dependent behaviors.

As far as I am concerned, so long as the researcher can safeguard against the negative effects of selection bias on effecting outcomes, the study’s results can be valid and reliable in their own right. As it turns out, quite several researchers have indicated that many of the qualitative methods listed above do not systematically process biased results. In other words, as they say, there are many ways to skin a cat, not just one method.

Psychohistory has its own means by which to check itself and its interpretation of events. Psychohistorians, as far as I can discern, are not particularly shy about calling each other short when certain hypotheses or interpretations do not meet their sniff test. I believe that quantitative analysis using RCTs, or other means, is an important research tool; but it is not the only tool. What can be concluded is that the methods that are ultimately chosen ought to be based on the individualized needs and idiosyncratic nature of the phenomena under examination. Qualitative studies can do things that quantitative techniques cannot do. It can go into places where quantitative methods just won’t fit. In short, one size cannot fit all dimensions and should not be forced to do so.

Thus, it is important to discern what methods we can and should use in each situation and what methods are contraindicated. In the latter regard, perhaps it would be better to develop sufficient flexibility in our approach(es) so that we can have more than one acceptable methodological arrow in our quiver.



  • Ainsworth, M.D. & Bell, S.M. (1970). Attachment, exploration, and separation. Illustrated by the behavior of one-year-olds in a strange situation. Child Development, 41(1), 49-67.
  • Beebe, B. (2017). Mother-infant research informs mother-infant treatment. In B.N. Seitler & K.S. Kleinman (Eds.), Essays from cradle to couch (pp. 35-82). International Psychoanalytic Books.
  • D’Agostino, B. (2018-19). Militarism and the authoritarian personality: Displacement, identification, and perceptual control. JASPER International, 2(2), 45-71.
  • Ebbinghaus, H. (1885). Über das gedächtnis (Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology). Columbia University Press.
  • Fuchsman, K. & Cohen, K.S. (Eds.) (2023). Healing, rebirth, and the work of Michael Eigen: Collected essays on a pioneer of psychoanalysis. Routledge.
  • Ioannidis, J. (2018). Randomized controlled trials: Often flawed, mostly useless, clearly indispensable. Social Science and Medicine, 210, 53-56.
  • Mahler, M. & Margaret, S. (1980). The original work of Margaret Mahler. Mahler Psychiatric Research Foundation: Gift of William Singletary (1997).
  • Meyers, W.R. (2017). Trump among the demagogues: When does the irreal become real? JASPER International, 1(1), 79-98.
  • O’Keefe, D. (2018-19). Quality or quantity: A relational re-conceptualization of the Contact Modal and impact of quantity and quality of contact with immigrants on negative attitudes. JASPER International, 2(2), 21-44.
  • O’Loughlin, M. & Kulsa, M.K. (2021-23). A review of Healing, Rebirth, and the Work of Michael Eigen: Collected Essays on a Pioneer of Psychoanalysis. [K. Fuchsman & K.S. Cohen, Eds.]. Routledge. JASPER International, 5(1), 91-109.
  • Richards, A. (2017). Psychoanalysis in crisis: Art, science, or ideology? JASPER International, 1(1), 43-59.
  • Seitler, B.N. (2019). All that glitters may not be gold(standard). JASPER International, 3(1), 41-57.
  • Schwartz, J. (2020). Seeing past the lies. A review of Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy, by David Zucchino. JASPER International, 4(1), 153-158.
  • Szaluta, J. (2018). A psychoanalytic view of an historical event. A film review of Captain Phillips. JASPER International, 2(1), 123-128.
  • Tronick, E., Adamson, L.B., Als, H. & Brazelton, T.B. (1975). Infant emotions in normal and perturbed interactions. Paper presented at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development.
  • Wachtel, P.L. (2010). Beyond “ESTs”: Problematic assumptions in the pursuit of evidence-based practice. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 27(3), 251-272.

Burton Norman Seitler, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, a psychoanalyst in private practice, and the former Director of Counseling and Psychotherapy Services in Ridgewood and Oakland, NJ. Dr. Seitler is the editor of JASPER International (the Journal for the Advancement of Scientific Psychoanalytic Empirical Research) and the Director of SPUR (the Society for Psychoanalytic Understanding through Research). Dr. Seitler serves on the Board of Directors of the International Society for Ethical Psychology and Psychiatry, and is on the Editorial Board of the journal Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry, as well as the International Journal of Controversial Discussions. Currently, he is the Director of the New Jersey Institute for Training in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. He is also a Research Associate of the Psychohistory Forum and may be contacted at:

RSVP form