Qualitative Research Methodology
In this essay I am going to express my understanding of the key principles of qualitative research. In order to understand the nature of qualitative research, we must primarily look at the constructivist ontology and the interpretivist epistemology, which will allow us to develop an understanding of the context in which the qualitative methodology is conceptualised.
Furthermore, I will look at the research design process and the inductive nature of this subjective, value laden procedure. I will then go on to look at the principles of qualitative research, with focus on the concepts of trustworthiness and authenticity from a qualitative perspective, which can help sociologists gain Verstehen with individuals. To conclude my essay, I will look at the strengths and weaknesses of qualitative research, making reference to specific methods.
Ontology and Epistemology
Researchers using qualitative methods of inquiry believe that social phenomena are constructed through human interactions and not determined by governing laws. This is known as the constructivist ontology and aims to understand how a social phenomenon is created through interaction and intersubjective meaning. From their perspective, they believe that social actors create the social world through interactions as opposed to objectivists who believe that social structures determine individual actions and behaviour (Bryman, 2004, p. 3-25).
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This constructivist ontology needs to be investigated using an interpretivist epistemology, and by understanding this epistemology we can therefore appreciate the key principles of qualitative research. By using interpretivism and an inductive form of inquiry, sociologists aim to understand how individuals construct meaning. For interpretivists, subjectivity is incredibly important due to the subjective nature of individuals, and they try to gain Verstehen. They would see value neutrality as unnecessary because it is impossible to gain Verstehen without using qualitative methodologies (Berg, 2007, p. 19-52).
The Inductive Research Process
To conduct qualitative research, you would primarily need to select an area of research and research questions, and in this sense the type of question you select will guide your research process. Qualitative research is inductive, so it does not require an initial hypothesis, unlike quantitative research. This is because behavioural and socio-cultural patterns emerge over time and in some cases are not noticed until after the research has been conducted. After selecting an area of interest, the researchers would need to decide on the research setting and establish what method/s they will use to conduct their research (Bryman, 2004, p. 265-290).
There are many methods that can be used in qualitative research, which, according to Strauss and Corbin is used to describe "any kind of research that produces findings not arrived at by means of statistical procedures or other means of quantification" (1990, p.17). The researchers themselves play an important part in the research process as they bring their values to the research, which complements the interpretivist epistemology.
Researchers have to be aware of the ethical guidelines set out by the British Sociological Association (BSA). Researchers have to take into consideration professional integrity, anonymity, privacy, confidentiality and informed consent (unless research is conducted covertly). Covert research has ethical implications if the research is not important and in the public’s interest. The researchers are in a sense a tool used to collect primary data, and the flexible nature of qualitative research means they are not bound by a rigid process and can adapt their research when needed. The final stage of qualitative research is writing up findings. Research results can be compiled to form a book, journal, article or report (Bryman, 2004, p. 61-82).
The Principles of Qualitative Research
Qualitative research looks at the micro sociological context. That is, qualitative researchers like to study people in their natural environments. This means that qualitative research is context specific. Qualitative research is concerned with the quality of the social research and aims to be explanatory by looking at the interaction between variables.
Qualitative researchers want to understand and explore social situations through generating descriptions from on-site observations and interviews. Qualitative researchers focus on understanding patterns and themes as stated by the author of Jones International University web site:
The real world is complex; qualitative research focuses on the elements of that complexity: emotions, meanings, symbols, motivation, thought processes, feelings, patterns and themes. Qualitative research seeks to make sense of this world by finding meaning through the eyes of participants. (http://www.jonesinternational.edu/schools/courses/edu793.php)
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Using qualitative methodology, researchers are able to give detailed accounts and descriptions of socio-cultural phenomena which do not need to be conveyed quantitatively. In contrast, quantitative, positivist, deterministic research generalizes findings to the whole population and aims to be conclusive by discovering governing laws (Bryman, 2004. p. 3-25).
There are also many other methods qualitative researchers can employ, for example, focus groups, interviews and case studies. After the researcher has decided on the methods, they need to conduct their research. Qualitative researchers are not bound to one particular research method. They can use a variety of different methods if their research requires them to. This use of multi methodology is called triangulation (Berg, 2007, p. 19-52).
Qualitative research design is circular. Qualitative researchers needto repeat and adapt their design to suit the flow of their research. After selecting their methods and collecting their data, researchers need to analyse their findings, which can be done in various ways. For example, the research findings would need interpreting; this can be done by linking data to a larger sociological context and generating concepts. Findings can also be analysed by detecting patterns and trends in the data. This can be done by using textual analysis, such as coding using computer software such as MaxQDA (Bryman, 2004, p. 398-416).
There are different theoretical approaches involved in qualitative methodology, for example naturalism, ethnomethodology, emotionalism and postmodernist research. Each approach is used as a means of interpreting social phenomena by using a value laden perspective where a researcher applies his/her own values to a social context through an unscientific, flexible process and finally an in-depth, subjective methodology. These principles shape the methods used for qualitative research as they compliment both the constructivist ontology and the interpretivist epistemology. I am now going to discuss some of the different methods used by qualitative researchers that apply these principles.
Qualitative data collection can be conducted through observations. Participant observation is one of the most common methods for qualitative data collection. Participant observation has strong authenticity but it does lack in repeatability as the research is difficult to reproduce in the same way. There are many different ways of conducting participant observation, and it typically requires the researcher to become a participant in the culture or context being observed.
Participant observation is often longitudinal; the researcher needs to spend long periods of time with the focus group to be able to gain a “native’s point of view”. Participant observation can be conducted either overtly or covertly, depending on the nature of the research. Covert participant observation involves the researcher hiding their true identity and motives of their research from their subjects. This is effective in socially sensitive areas, such as deviant or criminal subcultures, where a researcher can gain Verstehen by using qualitative research methodologies (Hammersley and Atkinson, 1995, chap 8).
An example of observational methods is ethnography. Ethnography focuses on the sociology of meaning through observation of socio-cultural phenomena; typically, the ethnographer focuses on a small group or community and uses largely participant observation. This research method was employed by the University of Chicago during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Robert Park, an important figure at the University of Chicago in the 1920s, encouraged students to go outside and collect primary information by using observational methods to study social phenomena:
Go and sit in the lounges of the luxury hotels and on the doorsteps of the flophouses; sit on the Gold Coast settees and on the slum shakedown; sit in the Orchestra Hall and the Star and Garter Burlesque. In short, gentlemen, go get the seat of your pants dirty in real research (Park, cited in Prus, 1996, p. 103-140).
Overt participant observation contrasts with covert, as the identity of the researcher and intentions of the research are known to the group being studied. Researchers using this method will often record their findings by making detailed field notes; this, however, can become difficult if the research requires them to take a covert stance, as their ‘cover’ may be jeopardized if they were recording their findings in front of the group. Qualitative research analysis is dependent on building interpretations of the research to gain authenticity and trustworthiness. This may be difficult because of the subjective nature of this method, but due to the ideographic nature of individuals and the interpretivist epistemology, this would not be an issue for qualitative researchers, who ultimately aim to gain Verstehen.
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In conclusion, while this approach can be criticized by positivists for its subjective nature and lack of empirical methods, it does, however, offer a more in-depth perspective into individuals and their lives. Qualitative research is rigorous and highly subjective because the researcher’s investigation is overly influenced by the views of the researcher involved. Also, qualitative research does provide a way of extracting more complex, in-depth and comprehensive information from social contexts that would be difficult to retrieve using quantitative methods.
However, this methodology has been criticised by positivists and the objectivist ontology because of the value laden perspective it takes. If the researcher does have any preconceived ideas of the findings, it may cause bias in the results and therefore affect the authenticity of their work. Also the researcher may misinterpret the social phenomena they are studying and therefore have difficulties establishing the real meaning of that particular social situation.
Qualitative research can also be criticised because of its lack of representativeness of the larger population, as qualitative research typically deals with micro social issues that cannot be generalised to the wider population because they are context specific. However qualitative researchers would see this as an advantage because they require a deeper understanding in order to gain Verstehen. Another criticism would be that qualitative methods are also very expensive to conduct, mainly because of the amount of time it takes to interpret data and conduct observational studies.
Despite these criticisms, qualitative research is a flexible, in-depth form of enquiry that is not dominated by statistics or rigid research methods. It is largely dominated by the constructivist ontology and the interpretivist epistemology which believe that the social world is built upon actions and interactions. Researchers adopt this qualitative approach to enable them to form Verstehen with their research topic or group.
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