When I first embarked upon this course, I only had a vague idea about the purposes of the different qualitative research methods. While I knew the distinctions between grounded theory, case studies, phenomenology, narratives, and ethnographies on an intellectual level, when I assessed different studies over the course of my own research, I was less concerned about the different processes used to reveal the results than I was about the results themselves. By virtue of taking this course, I am much more process-oriented in my analysis. Now I see it is impossible to understand the results of a study without an intimate understanding of how those results were achieved. Critiquing and understanding the final conclusions requires a full understanding of the assumptions and methods of the researcher.
A researcher's choice of methods can affect the accuracy of the results and the standards by which those results are assessed. For example, in the case of narrative research, the main aim of this technique is to bring to light different experiences of a select group of individuals, often by showcasing their unique perspectives and voices. Narrative research illuminates a specific kind of storied experience. In contrast, in the case of grounded research, the purpose is to derive a theory inductively from recorded narratives, research, and observation. Although the standards of objectivity are not as high as with quantitative research, a qualitative researcher using a grounded theory approach will go about 'coding' his or her subjects' responses to compare different sets of data. Grounded theory "derives from collected data a theory that is 'grounded' in the data, but therefore localized, dealing with a specific situation like how students handle multiple responsibilities or what constitutes an effective lesson plan. The method involves comparing collected units of data against one another until categories, properties, and hypotheses that state relations between these categories and properties emerge" (Types of qualitative research, 2013, UCF). The standards of rigor for grounded research are thus more technical than other methodologies, and when evaluating grounded research, a reader must hold the grounded theory derived from the data to a higher standard than research devoted to merely recording experiences.
Qualitative research's greater subjectivity than other types of research is both its detriment and its strength. On one hand, it is able to showcase facets of human experience that might otherwise escape detection or do not neatly fit into a generalized hypothesis. It is also able to study relatively smaller populations of subjects, about whom the 'law of large numbers' or to which the generalizability demanded of quantitative research might not apply. For example, the experiences of women from a specific immigrant community can be documented, even if the findings are only apparently relevant to this population. Also, qualitative research, even in the sciences, can illuminate the human side of experience that might otherwise go overlooked. That is why it is said that "some research questions are best addressed by qualitative enquiry and others by quantitative enquiry…a researcher who chooses to ask patients about their experiences of receiving different treatments for hypertension is clearly seeking to use a qualitative paradigm, as the patients' thoughts and feelings are being considered, so qualitative (non-numerical) data will be collected. It would not be possible to use the quantitative paradigm and collect numerical data for this" (Lee 2006:30). Of course, quantitative experimental analysis is still needed to study the phenomenon of hypertension, such as whether a particular drug for the condition is effective or has side effects. Qualitative research is not a replacement for quantitative research but merely a different way of looking at the world, and the two at best are complimentary perspectives. In fact, the two types of research can often be effectively merged in a mixed-methods approach in which quantitative data derived via testing instruments is paired with interviews of select representative of the subjects under scrutiny.
Qualitative research can be highly influenced by the subjective bias of the researcher. For example, particularly when studying an outside group, in an ethnographic approach the qualitative researcher must be careful not to impose the categories of his or her own society onto another culture. "Extensive fieldwork is usually required in order to give a cultural interpretation of the data and immersion in the culture is common, but a description of the culture (the beliefs, traditions, practices, and behaviors of a group of individuals) and an interpretation of the culture through the point-of-view of an insider to that culture are necessary components of ethnographies" (Types of qualitative research, 2013, UCF).
Of course, complete objectivity is impossible, which has caused some to argue that qualitative research is not a legitimate mode of study. Given the difficulties of being 'objective' many qualitative researchers are very open about their 'situatedness' or personal experiences and include that as part of their research. Defenders of the format also point out that quantitative research can also be subject to bias. Studying the different methods of qualitative research and the degree to which the researcher's own assumptions affect and shape results has made me at least more conscious of my own feelings and worldview, which will hopefully enable me to more accurately assess my subject's responses.
There are skills which I still need to work on as a qualitative researcher. At times, I have a tendency to want to 'bite off more than I can chew' in terms of my research. Unlike quantitative research, qualitative research is very demanding upon the goodwill of the subjects as well as the researchers. Interviews take time, and not all persons are willing to participate for the duration needed for a qualitative approach. The intensive nature of the study means that samplings must be small. Sometimes the conclusions that can be drawn from the sampling are very preliminary. I must be cautious in deciding how many people I can realistically hope to interview and also if the particular population will want to talk to me at all. Researching very sensitive subjects like rape and drug abuse may have additional obstacles because victims do not want to talk about their experiences. The experience of being interviewed can itself be traumatic, and the researcher must be sensitive to this fact.
There are also logistical problems with some aspects of qualitative research, even after a suitable test population has been determined. Getting adequate translators for non-English speakers (a particular concern in ethnography); having counselors on hand for persons recalling traumatic experiences; getting the permission of the parents of minors are all obstacles that may need to be overcome. Before deciding to focus on a specific area of research, I must ask myself how realistic is my intended scope and plan.
I also need to consider more deeply what types of research designs are appropriate to the stage of research I am in: like many researchers, I have a tendency to want to discover something new or to 'prove' something. The more elaborate grounded theory approach is attractive from this standpoint. However, for a preliminary research study, the less rigorous narrative or case study approach might be better. Also, smaller and less elaborate research designs might be needed before embarking upon a full-scale research project, particularly if the area is little studied and there is little existing literature on the subject. I still tend to naturally gravitate to the grounded theory approach, but I must be careful to choose a topic where there is existing research on the subject, to guide me in coding my data.
In terms of data coding and recording, the use of software has been immensely relieving. It is nice to know that there is a method that can make raw data less intimidating, particularly if I embark upon a fairly extensive series of interviews with my subjects. "Qualitative research software…helps people to manage, shape and make sense of unstructured information. It will not do the thinking for the user but provides a sophisticated workspace that enables him/her to work through their information" through "classifying, sorting and arranging information" and so "gives researchers more time to analyze their materials, identify themes, glean insight and develop meaningful conclusions" (What is qualitative research software, 2013, Atlasti). While studying the different approaches have in some ways made me more cautious about generating a sweeping research design that is overly ambitious, the knowledge of the tools I can use has bolstered my confidence.
This course has made me more focused in determining a dissertation topic and more aware of potential obstacles and tools to use in realizing my goal. Although my original topic has not changed, I believe that my approach to research has grown more nuanced and more realistic and will yield more fruitful results because of this greater self-awareness. I feel that I am 'on track' to complete my requirements and have registered for my next residency.
Lee, P. (2006). Understanding and critiquing qualitative research. Nursing Times, 102 (29). 30.