Today I attended a nice little workshop about qualitative methods. It was pretty valuable, both in terms of highlighting the importance of qualitative research (I didn’t need much convincing) as well as a good bit of practical advice for going through the process.
So maybe I should back up a couple of steps for those who aren’t familiar with exactly what qualitative research is. Here’s a bit of context.
In sociology (and other fields as well), there are two very broad ways of doing research and gathering data: qualitatively and quantitatively.
Quantitative research is numerical, or statistical data that is analyzed. This can be gathered in several different ways, but is often compiled through different surveys that are distributed to large groups of people. This is how we get certain numerical data and statistics. These kinds of numbers are often helpful and can go a long way in really giving people a grasp of different things that people are trying to illustrate. People love to throw around numbers and statistics to support what they believe. (A word of caution – always be careful when listening to some of these statistics that some of these people do throw around – consider the source and always try to understand the question itself as well as the sample who is answering!)
Qualitative research is the more descriptive type of data. This doesn’t deal with numbers and statistics in the same way that quantitative data does. This would include things like participant observation, interviews, and content analysis. This provides the type of “rich” and detailed, in-depth data that really delves into a particular group or topic. When doing this type of research, it may be slightly more difficult to generalize across a large population because the researcher’s sample is often smaller and slightly more specific.
There’s always been somewhat of a divide between these two camps of researchers in sociology. The quantitative camp has often considered itself “more scientific” in some ways, largely because they are able to “back up” their research with statistical analyses and conclusions. (They have often been seen as more legitimate by those outside of sociology as well.)
However, qualitative research brings a lot of important information to the table as well. And although it’s not as grounded in “scientific” statistical analyses, it does have the ability to be very rigorous and legitimate when done well. (Keep in mind that just doing a statistical or quantitative analysis does NOT make that work rigorous in and of itself.) Qualitative research has different methods of cross-checking and verifying conclusion.
Looking for variation and counter examples within your specific case is a great way to approach this problem of controlling for outside variables and generating comparative leverage. This can be quite powerful when done correctly and with the right case.
So when looking to find the right case for your qualitative research, there are several things to consider. You want to choose an interesting case; this can be interesting because it is substantively intriquing or because it might have some sort of interesting theoretical contribution to make. You do not want to choose the “average” or “typical” case necessarily; you want to choose a specific case that will provide some range of variation. The purpose is not to generalize to an entire population (and remember you can’t because of a small sample size!), but the purpose is to show a particular process going on within a certain interesting case. That process can then be looked at as it may apply to a larger population.
You also need to understand that practicality is often an issue. So while the most interesting case, or the best theoretical case may exist in some small village deep in a secluded jungle, or in a city on the West Coast, if you are unable to get to that particular location, there may be viable alternatives that are worth examining. Rarely will a study have the perfect sample anywhere; so take what you’ve got access to and make a compelling argument for why that is a good case to examine.
So now that you’ve found a case that you can make a compelling case for why it is interesting substantively and theoretically compelling and you’ve got some loose theoretical concepts that may be useful for understanding this (though always be flexible and willing to allow your data to guide your theory!), it’s time to gain access to the particular group.
This is kind of a tricky dance that is very dependent on the particular group or topic that you’re trying to study. Sometimes it may be useful to join that particular group and gain some rapport before breaching the topic of wanting to study them as a research project, sometimes it may be necessary to get the permission of directors or heads of organizations, and it’s always required to gain the permission of your IRB. All of these things are often entangled and sometimes occurring simultaneously, thus making it a tricky process.
This is simply the beginning. This is simply gaining access to the particular group that you’re trying to study. Now the real task remains – it is actually time to study the group that you’re interested in.
I won’t go through the nuts and bolts of this entire process here – though it truly is a process! This involves all kinds of note-taking, journaling, data entry, interviewing, transcribing, analysis, reading, re-reading, induction, finding alternatives, knowing your subjects and topic, and then eventually story-telling. All in all, a very time-consuming and potentially overwhelming process. This puts you in the heart of the study and gives you the task of telling a compelling and rich story that is accurate and compelling while understanding how to weave it back into something theoretically meaningful. A difficult task to say the least. But one that talented ethnographers and field researchers can do masterfully.
A well-written ethnography is something that, I would argue, draws many people into sociology. This is where we see some of the most interesting studies presented, and gain some of the rich details and explanation that we often crave. We get in-depth information about a particular group or topic. We can see some of the answers to how and why certain groups and individuals act in certain ways. This is the type of research that initially drew me into sociology. And this is the type of research that I could see myself doing (though I continue to see research as secondary).
So although much of this information wasn’t completely new, it was a nice way to put a little spark back into thinking about qualitative research and actually getting something off the ground.
“De-mystifying Qualitative Research” turned out to be time well-spent on a Saturday.
Plus, there was free pizza for lunch. Can’t beat that.
* A special thanks to putting on the panel: Tim Hallett, Laura Backstrom, Emily Meanwell, and Mike Vasseur