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Glenn Perry - New Directions in Astrology Research

In the halls of academia, a rising chorus of voices are asserting that quantitative research methods are inappropriate for the human sciences.[1] Human behavior is determined by a complex interplay of internal and external factors that are not reducible to simple causes and effects. It follows that for researchers to utilize quantitative methods in astrology, which requires the imposition of a linear, deterministic, cause-effect model, they are forced to conceptualize astrology in a way that distorts and betrays its true nature. Such a model has led to endless frustration and embarrassment for astrology's proponents. History has shown that when astrologers allow themselves to be seduced by the lure of "proving" astrology through quantitative methods, they put the proverbial noose around their own necks.[2]

Fortunately, we have options, and they can be organized under the general heading of "qualitative research." In this column, I'll provide a brief overview of qualitative research and explain how and why it differs from its quantitative counterpart.

 

A Historical Perspective

Although the history of research in astrology is not nearly as long or as detailed as that of psychology, there are important parallels. Psychology has been characterized by an interesting schism in the area of research methods. Starting in the 19th century, the promotion of the scientific method and the emphasis on experimental methodology helped give psychology an identity as a hard science and legitimacy as a discipline. Yet, from the beginning, observations of behavior formed the very basis of the field of psychology. Psychologists such as Freud and Piaget used observational qualitative methods to form their theories, which continue to be major cornerstones of contemporary psychology.

Likewise in astrology, we have accumulated an impressive body of knowledge over the centuries through simple observation and correlation; that is, astrologers for millennia have been observing empirical phenomena and correlating these phenomena to astrological factors. Grounding interpretive statements in evidential data is how any discipline builds up a reliable body of knowledge. Although almost all of what passes for valid knowledge in astrology has not been the product of formal (quantitative) research, it can be argued that astrological concepts are the product of informal qualitative methods—the case study and grounded theory in particular.[3]

Whereas astrologers have utilized ad-hoc qualitative research methods for millennia (albeit unknowingly), quantitative approaches to research are modeled after the physical sciences of the 18th and 19th centuries. Their major aim has been the discovery of general principles or universal laws that provide the possibility of explanation, prediction, and control. In conventional science, these approaches have been privileged over qualitative methods, which are recommended only as interim strategies that might provide suggestions or hints for later quantitative studies. 

Over the past few decades, however, it has become clear that quantitative research is simply too limited in what it can reveal about general principles that might underlie psychological processes and experiences. By aping the experimental method of the physical sciences and uncritically accepting its underlying philosophical assumptions, human scientists have ignored and even trivialized vast realms of meaningful human experience. Accordingly, the assumptions and protocols of quantitative research have increasingly been scrutinized, questioned, and critiqued by various practitioners.[4]

The gist of these critiques is that the experimental method has been useful in certain areas of science for certain purposes; however, its underlying assumptions are incomplete, contain unnecessary biases, and are unsatisfactory for addressing complex human actions and experiences. To counter an overly narrow conception of science and research, and to correct previous imbalances, new research models have evolved that are based on complementary assumptions and practices. These qualitative approaches provide a more complex, expanded view of science and research that can fully apprehend the breadth and depth of the human condition.

 

In Table I, the main characteristics of orthodox and the proposed complementary (expanded/new) science are compared.[5]

 

Orthodox Science
  New Science

 

 

Mechanistic paradigm

 Organic Paradigm

Reductionist/analytical

 Integrative/synthetic

Objective

 Participatory

Outer-oriented

 Inner-oriented

Quantitative

 Qualitative

Efficient Causality

 Final Causality

Monocausal/monolevel

 Multicausal/multilevel

Replicable/nomothetic

 Unique/idiographic

Skeptical doubt

 Open-minded clarity


Table I                                                                                               

As the reader may surmise, the right side of the table presents a model of science and research that is more compatible with the astrological world-view. Starting from the top and working down, the following propositions illustrate this inherent consonance:

 

  1. Astrology depicts the Universe is an organic, intelligent, and purposive whole.
  2. To understand a horoscope, the practitioner has to be skilled in chart synthesis—the ability to integrate multiple parts into a meaningful unity.
  3. Astrological inquiry entails a participatory approach in that human consciousness is embedded in a larger consciousness—planetary archetypes—immanent throughout nature.
  4. Objective conditions are recognized by astrologers to be synchronistic reflections of an inner, subjective realm that is prepotent.
  5. Astrology is inherently a qualitative language of consciousness.
  6. Psyche is teleologically motivated to realize its essential identity with the greater whole/cosmos of which it is a part (final causation).
  7. The ancient maxim, "as above, so below" directly implies a multicausal/multilevel relationship between psyche and cosmos.
  8. Because every chart is unique, astrology is best studied from an idiographic (single instance) perspective.
  9. Whereas orthodox science is skeptical, doubting, and distrustful of "merely anecdotal" subjective reports, qualitative researchers are open-minded and willing to trust that people are sufficiently aware and discerning to give valid accounts of their own experiences.

 

Old Versus New Science

Because quantitative methods are wedded to conventional science, they are appropriate for the study of relatively simple systems that are self-contained and isolated from dynamic interactions with other systems. Bearing in mind that a system is a hierarchically organized unity comprised of parts in dynamic interaction, it should be apparent that a human being (and corollary horoscope) is not a simple system; there are simply too many levels (atomic, cellular, biological, mental, spiritual) and too many moving parts. In addition, human beings are not isolated from other systems. The primary suprasystem that encompasses all levels is, of course, the solar system. Accordingly, quantitative methods, which were designed to study simple nonorganic systems in isolation, are largely inadequate for the study of human being-systems whom are alive, complex, intrinsically dynamic, interactive with systems on multiple levels, self-aware, volitional, and motivated to evolve toward higher states of awareness.

In new science, the overriding philosophical assumption is that the Universe is an indivisible, living whole in which every part is connected to every other part. This wholeness extends from the physical plane to the biological, human, and yet higher states of consciousness (the God-concept). Useful explanations of phenomena within this model provide descriptions of the purposive and synchronistic relations between systems at lower and higher levels. Because events are so interconnected that a change in one can affect all, simple causes and effects are but partial arcs of larger feedback cycles that are all encompassing. There is no ultimate, reductionistic cause, because the entire system—from cellular to solar—is intrinsically conscious, dynamic, and self-organizing. The whole (Being) predominates over its parts.

Older, quantitative methods of research are based on a simpler classical physics depiction of reality, which has been superceded by developments in relativity theory, quantum mechanics, dissipative structures, chaos, and general systems theory. Expanded approaches to research are informed by these more recent developments.[6]

Qualitative research accepts that reality is contacted through the physical senses, but since we are a part of the oneness, we can also discern its nature through a deep interior knowing. Awareness extends from the five senses to emotional, cognitive, aesthetic, intuitive, and mystical sensibilities. While a certain level of understanding is attainable through detached, objective modes as befits experimental science, other types of understanding are possible through alternative ways of knowing, such as identification with the object of inquiry. A radical and intentional submersion of one's subjectivity into the phenomenon being studied can lead to a deeper, more complete understanding.

Whereas quantitative research is limited to objective, publicly observable, and mathematically verifiable accounts of reality, qualitative research embraces individual, first-person experiences that are openly shared. With the gradual marginalization of the experimental method in psychology, interest has shifted to studying experiences themselves, as they occur in everyday life, and in the various ways people understand and attribute meanings to them. Accordingly, qualitative methods have evolved that are able to systematically focus on particular instances—stories of unique individuals—in order to discover what they might reveal.

 

Defining Qualitative Research

Given that there are multiple approaches to qualitative research—including, but not limited to, phenomenology, hermeneutics, biography, grounded theory, ethnography, and the case study— it might be helpful to establish some common ground before describing the various traditions themselves. In fact, I will leave the task of differentiating the aforementioned methods for another day. For now, let us see if we can arrive at a clear definition of qualitative research itself. 

It is somewhat difficult to sharply define qualitative research, as it can be differentiated from quantiative research primarily in terms of its findings not being arrived at by statistical or other quantitative procedures. Qualitative research makes no attempt to measure or count, but rather tries to capture the full complexity of social or psychological phenomena through descriptive analyses that focus on the details and nuances of people's subjective worlds as revealed through their words and actions.

Applied to astrology, differences with quantitative inquiry are immediately apparent. In a quantitative study, the researcher may seek, for example, to understand the cause of depression by postulating a relationship between an astrological signature for depression and various depressive symptoms as they occur in test subjects.[7] The intent here is to understand how a multi-factor variable (the astrosignature) causes or correlates to another variable (the depressive condition). This, in turn, may provide insight into the comparative frequency of depression in different astrological groups, i.e., those with the signature (the experimental group), and those without it (the control group). Again, the goal would be to discover if specific astrological factors facilitate or inhibit depression.

This is certainly a worthy objective, although the presumed relationship between an astrological factor and a behavioral or experiential outcome has been notoriously difficult to prove. Undaunted, NCGR's research director, Terry McCartney (2005), is an advocate of this approach, "I envision that astrosignatures will become the standard of astrological diagnostic criteria, serving a purpose similar to the one the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV) serves for the psychiatric community" (p. 23). Given the history of quantitative research in astrology, I would be pleasantly surprised if she is proven right. 

Meanwhile, a qualitative astrological study has entirely different goals. The researcher would not strive to establish an astrological cause or corollary to depression that could be expressed in quantitative terms; rather, she would seek a deeper understanding of the actual experience of subjects who have a particular astrological signature. If for example, the researcher hypothesizes that Saturn square the Moon is a corollary to depression, a qualitative design would attempt to understand the experience of people who actually have that aspect. Describing and explaining the full complexity of Saturn square the Moon, which is likely to range across a broad spectrum of meanings, would be the quest of the qualitative researcher.

Qualitative research takes place in a natural setting where the researcher is the prime instrument of data collection. He or she gathers words or pictures, analyzes them inductively, focuses on the meanings that participants attribute to their experience, and describes the results in persuasive language, i.e., in terms that attempt to convince the reader of the rightness of the interpretation. Multiples sources of information—interviews, observations, historical documents, and visual texts—are utilized to describe and interpret significant aspects of people's lives. Once a method is chosen on the basis of its applicability for exploring a social or human phenomenon, researchers attempt to build a complex, holistic picture of the phenomenon through analysis of pertinent data.

The key difference between quantitative and qualitative inquiry is that quantitative researchers work with a few variables and many cases, whereas qualitative researchers rely on few cases and many variables. For example, a quantitative study might attempt to correlate learning disabilities with hard aspects between Mercury and Neptune. Here, the variables are relatively few, but to establish a strong statistical basis for the correlation would require hundreds if not thousands of cases. Conversely, a qualitative study might strive to study a dozen people with Mercury in hard aspect to Neptune; yet, the numbers of variables would increase tremendously since the aspect would not be operationalized in narrow terms pertaining strictly to a learning disability, but would include all possible manifestations as expressed in the lives of the participants. Qualitative research is therefore holistic; researchers study phenomena in their entirety rather than concentrating on narrow features defined as dependent variables.

 

In qualitative inquiry, the researcher must be prepared to do the following:

  1. Spend extensive time in the field collecting data and endeavoring to gain an "insider" perspective.
  2. Engage in the complex, time-consuming process of data-analysis, which entails organizing data into themes and categories.
  3. Interpret the data from multiple perspectives, including quotes from participants, in order to provide persuasive evidence to substantiate knowledge claims.
  4. Demonstrate flexibility and creativity in structuring the inquiry in a manner that best fits the subject.

 

From the foregoing, it should be clear that qualitative research is not merely the collecting of anecdotal reports; rather, it is a time consuming, intellectually challenging, rigorous, systematic, and creative tradition of inquiry. As such, it should not be viewed as an easy substitute for a statistical or quantitative study. Creswell (1998) makes this plain: "Qualitative inquiry represents a legitimate mode of social and human science exploration without apology or comparisons to quantitative research” (p. 3).

 

Phases In The Design Of A Study

The format for a qualitative study follows the traditional approach of presenting a problem, asking a question, collecting data to answer the question, analyzing the data, and answering the question. Yet, the structure of the design is kept loose so that as learning occurs, new approaches to gathering and analyzing data can develop.

Certain philosophical assumptions inform the study, namely the recognition that knowledge is within the meanings that people make and is gained through people talking about their experiences. This process of meaning-making is invariably laced with personal values and biases; thus, topics are emotion laden and close to how people actually live their lives. Research problems are tied to people and their experiences, how they feel about them, and how they make sense of them. What subjects know and believe is an organic process that emerges, mutates, and evolves in a manner inextricably tied to its historical and cultural context. The actual words of research participants are reproduced in a written narrative in order to illustrate and substantiate the general categories of meaning discovered.

Inquiry proceeds on the basis of open-ended questions that do not presume foreknowledge or expert status on the part of the questioner.[8] As learning unfolds, the researcher's questions may change in ways that reflect an increased understanding of the problem. In this regard, the researcher is an instrument of data collection, and his or her experience may constitute an essential aspect of the study. The backbone of the research process is extensive collection of data from appropriate sources. Again, information comes in various forms—interviews, observations, documents, and audio-visual materials.

Data is analyzed by working inductively from particulars to more general perspectives, which are then organized into themes, dimensions, or categories. Collecting and analyzing data does not proceed in discrete, linear stages, but may overlap and interpenetrate. For example, provisional insight gained into the meaning of an astrological configuration could stimulate new questions that reflect one's developing understanding. As results are tabulated and analyzed, this may, in turn, catalyze an interest in sources of information not previously considered.

In writing up the results, the researcher constructs a narrative that addresses the traditional phases of problem, question, method, and findings. Forms of analysis are endlessly creative and may involve making metaphors, or developing tables and flow charts that reflect the reconfiguration of data into new categories. A narrative may assume various forms, including a theory, a description, a detailed view, or an abstract model. Reports are shaped not only by the nature of the phenomenon and the way it was studied, but also by the creativity of the writer.

Audiences are often more receptive to this type of research because it can be reported in an engaging, narrative style that is more interesting than quantitative studies rife with dry statistics—arguably the most boring literature in the world! First-person, narrative reports are persuasive in that readers ideally experience "being there" and become totally immersed in the nature of the described experience. Findings are believable and realistic to the extent that they accurately reflect the complexities of real life.

 

Focus and Topic of Research

Qualitative research is designed to exhaustively explore a topic in order to better understand its essence and, perhaps, develop a theory about it. This type of research allows for in-depth understanding through attention to detail. Individuals are studied in their natural settings via observation and interview. Research is inclusive of all possible sources of information, past and present, across all disciplines, scientific and creative. The guiding principle in data acquisition is whatever may be relevant to the topic at hand.

Unlike quantitative research, which focuses on public experiences that are general and consensually validated, qualitative research addresses human experiences that are personal, subjective, significant, and relevant to the research participants. Such experiences, which may have been momentous—e.g., peak experiences or transformational events—provide a richness of detail and allow for a fuller, deeper insight into the nature of being human.

Again, this can be contrasted with conventional science, the goal of which is the discovery of general principles or universal laws that provide the possibility of explanation, prediction, and control. An expanded view of science allows for alternative aims that entail the full description, understanding, and appreciation of individual cases or instances. Although both aims have equal legitimacy, nomothetic (universal law) approaches to research should be distinguished from idiographic (specific instance) approaches.

The goals of qualitative and quantitative research are clearly different. Quantitative research seeks to establish causal relationships between variables and reveal key differences between experimental and control groups. In qualitative inquiry, causal relationships or group differences might be discovered, but these realizations occur only after a deeper understanding of the subject has been achieved. They are not the primary goal itself.

For example, while interviewing research participants who experienced transiting Uranus opposing their Venus, it might be discovered that among those who were in a non-married committed relationship 59% experienced a break-up during this period, whereas only 17% of married couples terminated their relationship. While these findings could be interpreted to mean that transiting Uranus opposed natal Venus is a possible contributing factor in relationship break-ups, the discovery of this phenomenon was incidental to the purpose of the study.

Qualitative research methods are designed to answer how and what questions. For example, how do people feel, think, and behave during their Saturn return? What are the main behavioral and experiential themes of a natal Venus-Pluto square? This is in contrast to quantitative questions that ask why and strive to measure a causal connection between variables, e.g., does Pluto square Venus explain why some woman marry prison inmates? And if so, what percentage of Venus-Pluto women marry inmates? And how does this incidence compare to a control group of woman without the aspect? Such a study might conceivably establish that woman with Venus square Pluto have a 5% greater probability than the average population of marrying a prison inmate, but it will tell us nothing about the actual thoughts, feelings, beliefs, values, and experiences of woman that have Venus square Pluto. 

 

Objectivity Versus Participant-Observer

Experimental science entails a quest for certainty and is thus characterized by an obsessive concern with fine-grained nets of causality—what "really" caused what? The ideal stance is to be as neutral, uninvolved, and distant as possible, so as to not contaminate test subject's responses. Virtually identical findings are expected from all researchers who repeat the research procedures, provided they are appropriately skilled and properly trained. Ideally, the research environment is isolated from other influences and characterized by simple sets of variables whose mutual interactions can be straightforwardly analyzed to determine sources and directions of causality.

Conversely, in qualitative research, it is accepted that objectivity has a certain value, but it is also recognized that objectivity can never be absolute. Choice of research topic and method is itself a statement about the researcher, and thus reveals a bias for a certain type of knowledge and a certain way of knowing. The notion of an impartial, objective researcher that stands apart from his study is an illusion. The researcher's biases, characteristics, expectations, and intentions unavoidably influence every aspect of research. Materials are collected, categorized, interpreted, and expressed through the filter of the researcher's personal sensitivities and cognitive abilities. Since what is known is inextricably bound up with the capacity and qualities of the knower, the nature of reality and one's way of knowing are co-constitutive.

Qualitative research is necessarily a creative process, beginning with the choice of topic to be explored, the nature of the question asked, and which research methods are to be employed. In this expanded view of research, the researcher's status is not privileged over the participants; thus, rather than use the term subject, the terms coresearcher and participant are used in order to emphasize an egalitarian stance toward all contributors. Instead of pretending to be objective, the researcher's awareness of his or her responses to the study is highlighted.

The continuous dynamic interplay between research and personal development loosens and dissolves the boundaries between knower and known. As development occurs in cognitive sensitivities, new types of knowledge become available. Sensitivities shape our perception of reality and reality molds our sensitivities in an endless, cocreative, dialogical dance. Whereas quantitative research describes, explains, predicts, and controls a phenomenon, qualitative inquiry expands, enriches, opens, interconnects, awakens, and transforms our understanding of phenomena.

 

Circumambulating the Topic

In their book, Transpersonal Research Methods, Braud and Anderson (1998) remind us that the word re-search suggests searching again, going back over the same ground, circling about the topic, round and round. This image of circling provides a fine metaphor for the research enterprise:

By moving around a topic, examining it carefully from many perspectives, we eventually gain a more complete understanding of what we are examining. The image of the circle suggests completeness, wholeness, regularity, order, and, indeed, disciplined inquiry itself. The image and metaphor bring to mind a statement Carl Jung made in connection with personal growth and development: "There is no linear evolution; there is only circumambulation of the Self." (p. 26)

I was particularly struck by this last statement, as the unifying motif in astrology is likewise a circle—the zodiac—around which the planets ceaselessly orbit, and which has sometimes been related to Jung's concept of the Self, the center and circumference of the psyche.[9] Perhaps this round and round movement is how human consciousness evolves, i.e., by going over the same subject again and again, and gaining ever new perspectives via the repeating cycles of transits and progressions around the zodiac—until, perhaps, we become the circle itself.

 

Conclusion

Although it is perhaps too soon or too radical for astrologers to abandon quantitative research entirely, they should take comfort in knowing that qualitative methods provide a viable alternative. In fact, there are several advantages to qualitative inquiry.

First, it is inherently compatible with the astrological world-view and therefore more likely to yield meaningful results. Rather than becoming mired in quantitative studies, which, at best, produce harmless but valueless statistics that have no relevance to astrology as practiced, qualitative studies provide an opportunity for actually deepening one's understanding of a given topic area.

Second, qualitative inquiry eliminates the risk of participation in ill-fated and flawed experimental research designs that produce outcomes that appear to invalidate the astrological hypothesis. As the saying goes, "been there, done that."

Finally, qualitative inquiry allows astrologers to go back to what our forerunners have been doing for centuries—ask questions about the stars, gather data, analyze the results, and provide answers. Armed with fresh, upgraded, qualitative methods, we can do this better than ever before.

 

* * * * *

Glenn Perry, Ph.D. is a professional astrologer and licensed psy­chothera­pist in East Hampton, Connecticut (USA). Dr. Perry is founder of the Academy of AstroPsychology, an online school that offers courses and training in psychological astrology. He has written eight books, including An Introduction to AstroPsychology, and lectures internationally on the application of astrology to the fields of counseling and psychotherapy. Glenn is a board member and qualitative research advisor for ISAR. Contact: www.aaperry.com

 

References

 

Bok, B.J., & Jerome, L.E. (1976). Objections to as­trology. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.

Braud, W, and Anderson, R. (1998). Transpersonal research methods for the social sciences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications

Creswell, J. (1998). Qualitative research inquiry. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications

Culver, R.B., & Ianna, P.A. (1984). The gemini syn­drome: A scientific evaluation     of astrology. Buf­falo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.

Dean, G. (1977). Recent advances in natal astrology: A critical review 1900-1976. Southhampton, Eng­land: The Camelot Press.

Harman, W. (1987). Toward an extended science. Noetic Sciences Review, (3), 11- 14.

Polkinghorne, D. (1983). Methodology for the human sciences. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Sheldrake, R. (1991). The rebirth of nature: The greening of science and God. New York: Bantham.

 

Weiss, R.S. (1993). Learning from strangers: The art and method of qualitative interview studies. New York: Harcourt, Brace Janovich.

 


Notes

 

[1] See especially Braud and Anderson's (1998) Transpersonal Research Methods for the Social Sciences, p. 6.

[2] Over the past 30 years, with few exceptions, the vast majority of ex­periments de­signed within the framework of mecha­nistic science have failed to confirm the astrological hypothesis. See especially, Bok and Jerome, 1976; Culver and Ianna, 1984; Dean, 1977; Eysenck & Nias, 1982; Gauquelin, 1983). In the last issue of this Journal, Mark McDonough pointed out that only one quantitative study in astrology has ever been replicated (see "Every Astrologer A Researcher, Part II," p. 48).

[3] Bernadette Brady points out that astrologers have unknowingly developed their own non-standardized, ad-hoc qualitative methods. See her paper, "The Newtonian Merry Go Round," submitted for the Masters program at Bath Spa University College and posted at www.geocosmic.org.

[4] Notable critics include Polkinghorne (1983), Harman (1987), Sheldrake (1991), and many others.

[5] Adopted with some modifications from Braud and Anderson's (1998) Transpersonal Research Methods for the Social Sciences, p. 7.

[6] See, for example, Sheldrake, R. (1991). The rebirth of nature: The greening of science and God. New York: Bantham, as but one of many proponents of new methods for a new science.

[7] In theory, any number of astrological variables might be postulated as a hypothesized "signature" of a particular condition. The experimental method lies in the attempt to establish and measure a connection between the astrological "cause" and a behavioral or experiential "effect."

[8] See especially Weiss's (1993) Learning From Strangers.

[9] For a discussion, see, Perry, G. (1998). An introduction to AstroPsychology, p. 62, available at www.aaperry.com.