Qualitative Research Methods
Qualitative research encompasses a diverse range of theoretical and philosophical traditions that, in general, stem from an interpretivist view of the world. In contrast to quantitative research, which stems primarily from a positivist view of the world and is typically used to measure things that one can see, qualitative research seeks to explain or understand how certain people experience and interpret their lives. Often, qualitative research is used to explore social phenomena and processes in their natural settings, such as how people cope with disease and illness, how the social category of gender is socially constructed through formal education, or how people learn to identify themselves as gay or lesbian. Qualitative research is used to make sense of such phenomena in terms of what they mean to people or how people make sense of such experiences (Hallberg, 2006). Using methods such as detailed interviewing, participant observation, and focus groups, qualitative researchers try to gain insight into the actor's perspective and capture his or her point of view or lived experience.
Keywords: Androcentric; Chicago School; Constructivism; Ethnography; Interpretivism; Positivism; Reflexivity; Transferability; Triangulation; Validity
Qualitative and quantitative research reflect different perspectives on the world and different sets of assumptions about what constitutes knowledge. At the heart of the distinction between qualitative and quantitative research lies a question about the nature of reality (Nicholls, 2009). Positivism is a philosophical tradition that emphasizes the importance of conducting social science research in a way that focuses strictly on causal relationships between behaviors and other social phenomena that can be measured or directly observed (Straus & Corbin, 2002). Positivism holds that objects, events, and social behaviors have objective properties that can be seen, measured, and predicted (Kuhn, 1970, p. 184–85). Thus, the positivist tradition emphasizes the importance of objectivity, which is an approach to creating knowledge that claims to be detached from the phenomenon under study (because the research process does not get involved in the lives of those being studied) and unbiased (because research methods do not reflect the personal values of the researcher).
This approach to research typically relies on quantitative methods — tests, questionnaires, standardized observation instruments, and formal records — to collect data, and analysis aims for precision by attaching numerical values to people's experience. Quantitative methods such as surveys, experiments, and intervention studies are used to measure things that one can see; in social science, what is typically measured are statistical relationships that stand for social behaviors (Shields & Twycross, 2003). These statistical relationships can provide insight into phenomena such as rates of illness and disease in populations or the impact of an education intervention on academic performance. Transferability , or the extent to which a finding is transferable or generalizable to other populations, is important in quantitative research (Silverman, 1993). It is also concerned with validity, of which there are two kinds. Internal validity refers to whether or not a study achieved its aims, and external validity has to do with the extent to which the results can be applied on other contexts.
Criticisms of Quantitative Research
However, quantitative research is generally unable to describe and explain social experience or explore what is taken for granted about a society and its cultural practices. Indeed, for some social groups, there has been something of a loss of faith in positivism (Carpenter & Suto, 2008) because of the tendency of researchers associated with this tradition to make generalizations about social experience. Yet, as Lincoln and Cannella (2004, p. 7) argue, quantitative research, especially when it relies on experimental design, is generally ill-suited to the complex and dynamic social world, which is characterized by differences in, at the very least, "gender, race, ethnicity, linguistic status, or class." Dissatisfaction with quantitative research methods was evident in early twentieth century social research such as that associated with the Chicago School, which in the 1920s and 1930s pioneered research methods that emphasized the importance of capturing the experience of people living in urban settings in their own words and through direct observation.
This kind of research relied on ethnography — fieldwork, case studies, and in-depth interviews — to generate richly detailed data (Hallberg, 2006). Classic qualitative studies include William Foote Whyte's study of young men in an Italian neighborhood of Boston (1993 ), which is underpinned by the assumption that a social phenomenon needs to be studied in its entirety. This tradition relies on an interpretivist perspective on the world and is critical of the positivist emphasis on studying the parts of a phenomenon rather than the whole.
Specific critique of positivism in general and quantitative methods in particular by various protest groups, such as civil rights workers, Marxists, feminists, and disability advocates, followed in the 1960s and 1970s (Nettleton, 2006). These groups identified the ways in which quantitative research methods are based on values that have come to be associated with a male or masculine view of the world and can therefore be seen as androcentric, such as objectivity, detachment, and reason, and dismiss indigenous and vernacular knowledge (people's everyday language and customs) as irrational.
Feminist researchers have been especially critical of how social research using quantitative methods claims to be neutral and objective (Harding, 1991). Such an approach makes assumptions about women's lives and ignores aspects of life that are important to women. For instance, feminism has been critical of the idea that science can be detached and that the researcher is not involved in a relationship with the person who participates in the research. Qualitative methods involve an emotional closeness between the researcher and the research participant that can have the advantage of helping the researcher gain insight into sensitive and previously ignored areas of social life, such as life course changes (e.g., menopause), health care experiences, and sexuality.
Qualitative research sets out to answer a different set of questions from quantitative methods. According to Hallberg,
Qualitative researchers study phenomena and processes in their natural settings and intend to make sense of those matters in terms of the meanings people bring to them … Through detailed interviewing, participant observations, and rich descriptions of the social world, qualitative researchers hope to come close to the actor's perspective and try to capture his or her point of view or lived experience. (2006, p. 141)
The interpretivist tradition on which qualitative research is based tries to understand what it means to be human and asks questions about the meaning of social phenomena, how things work, and how people's perceptions influence their lives. Interpretivism is the basis of a diverse range of theoretical traditions, including ethnography, phenomenology, symbolic interactionism, and postmodernism. There are, however, some differences among approaches to qualitative research that reflect whether the researchers accept an objective reality that is subjectively lived (known as subtle realism) or believe that reality itself is best understood as multifaceted (constructivism).
These variations on how interpretivism is considered influence both data collection methods and analysis in qualitative research. For instance, research that is informed by subtle realism is more likely to use methods that try to represent reality (Mays & Pope, 2000), such as a case study or historical records. Analysis may involve triangulation between different kinds of data (for instance, reports and public records) to ensure that the findings will be seen as reliable and valid (Miles & Huberman, 1994). Moreover, in this view, qualitative research can be evaluated in the same way as quantitative research. That is, its validity can be assessed by reference to issues such as respondent validation, clear detailing of methods of data collection and analysis, and attention to negative cases (Mays & Pope, 2004, p. 51).
In contrast, constructivist accounts of social phenomena reject the importance of objectivity and reliability, emphasizing instead that social analysis (or knowledge) is provisional and context dependent. Constructivist research is more concerned with reflexivity than with reliability or even validity. Reflexivity refers to the way that a researcher's background and assumptions affect what questions are being asked, who the target population is for the study, how the questions are asked, and how the analysis is conducted. The qualitative researcher understands that he or she is not a neutral observer of social life (Haraway, 1991) and that what he or she sees is, in part, determined by his or her assumptions and background. Rather than viewing this insight as a limitation on the reliability or validity of research, reflexivity is viewed as a commitment to acknowledging and questioning the role of the...
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