Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Qualitative Research

I've been starting to get a little different picture about research than just straight statistics as I've learned a little about qualitative research lately. As a researcher, I’ve never considered myself a positivist, but postpositivism seems to draw me in, although not quite as narrowly defined by Denzin & Lincoln (1998). In terms of teaching and learning, I consider myself a constructivist.

I can see myself doing some mixed-methods research. That only makes sense, especially as described by Silverman (2000), that research methods should be chosen based on the problem being addressed, not based on personal preference. More often than not, it seems likely that both qualitative and quantitative methods can be used together to provide the best picture of what is actually occurring.

Carspecken’s (1996) discussion of qualitative research as being most useful to criticalists, looking to solve social inequalities and bring about positive social change, is a good place to start. Of all the issues we deal with in society, much can be measured using quantitative methods, but without actually jumping in and feeling the human side of what is going on, it is often less than useful to know there is a correlation between two variables.

We may be able to show by the numbers that the legalization of abortion in the United States led to a drop in crime two decades later, but where do we go from there? (Levitt & Dubner, 2005). Does that make abortion good? Do we see other social problems crop up, even though crime drops, due to the increase in abortions? Is there something else society could be doing that would prevent the unwanted pregnancies to begin with? Is there even a causal relationship there at all, or were both phenomena caused by something else? How does any of this help the people with unwanted pregnancies and are weighing their options? Once the numbers show us that some phenomenon is possibly occurring, qualitative research needs to come in and help us decide where to go next, because in order to make decisions we often need a complex, detailed understanding of the issues (Creswell, 2007).

Silverman (2000) provides some good advice for students, to avoid casting too wide of a net at the expense of any depth to the analysis. I call that the encyclopedia approach. Most of the readings on qualitative research recommend to the researcher to keep his or her mind and senses open to everything. We should be willing to change our research questions, and we should record all possible information that we can. Basically, Silverman is trying to say that although we need to be open to what the research collection might find, at some point, a line needs to be drawn and the paper written. That scope issue seems to be less of a problem with quantitative research. If anything, quantitative research seems to be so focused at times that it is not really applicable anywhere. That is interesting to note, since it is normally qualitative research that gets the bad rap for not being generalizable, at least according to the quantitative researchers.

Stake (1995) helps make sense of scope by pointing out that when qualitative researchers are expected to be open to whatever phenomena they find, they are not expected to study every phenomenon, but they are permitted, if not expected, to change the focus of a study while it is in progress. That, of course, is definitely not allowed with most quantitative research.

Stake (1995) provides an interesting chapter on the role of a researcher, as a teacher, an observer, a participant, a storyteller, an advocate, etc. Thinking about all these roles, the ethical issues we face, whether doing quantitative or qualitative research, really seem to come to the surface. People depend on researchers to provide trustworthy information, following acceptable practices. Stake’s experience of writing a positive report on a successful urban school in Chicago next to another researcher writing a negative report about a very similar school in the same area demonstrates the potential to observe and report very different information from the same or similar observed circumstances. Sometimes such differences are on purpose and other times due to naïveté on the part of the researcher.

Qualitative research makes a lot of sense as a way of balancing out some researchers’ dependency on raw numbers. It is unfortunate that qualitative research gets portrayed at times as not representing good research or as being too soft, although qualitative researchers can also be too hard on their quantitative counterparts for ignoring the context around their numbers.

Carspecken, P.F. (1996). Critical ethnography in educational research: A theoretical and practical guide. New York: Routledge.

Creswell, J.W. (2007). Qualitative inquiry & research design: Choosing among five approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Denzin, N.K., & Lincoln, Y.S. (1998). Collecting and interpreting qualitative materials. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Levitt S.D., & Dubner, S.J. (2005). Freakonomics: a rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything. New York : William Morrow.

Silverman, D. (2000). Doing qualitative research: A practical handbook. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Stake, R. E. (1995). The art of case study research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

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