Qualitative research is engaging research, in the best sense of the word.
A few of the meanings of engage = to attract or hold by influence or power; to hold the attention of; to induce to participate; to enter into contest with; to bring together or interlock; to deal with at length; to pledge oneself; to begin and carry on an enterprise; to take part or participate; to come together; engaged = to be actively involved in or committed; to greatly interest; to be embedded with. (Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary)
There really is no “cookbook” for conducting qualitative research. Each study is unique because the social world is rich and full of wonders, and those of us who are curious about it have our own position in that world and our own understandings and experiences we bring with us when we seek to explore it. And yet even though our reports may be subjective, we can do what we can to make them honest and intelligible to everyone else. Learning how to do that is learning how to be a qualitative researcher rather than simply an amateur observer. Helping you understand that and getting you ready for doing so have been the goal of this book.
According to Lareau (2021:36), excellent qualitative work must include all the following elements: a clear contribution to new knowledge, a succinct assessment of previous literature that shows the holes in the literature, a research question that can be answered with the data in hand, a breadth and depth in the data collection, a clear exposition of the results, a deep analysis that links the evidence to the interpretation, an acknowledgment of disconfirming evidence, a discussion that uses the case as a springboard to reflect on more general concerns, and a full discussion of implications for ideas and practices. The emphasis on rigor, the clear contribution to new knowledge, and the reflection on more general concerns place qualitative research within the “scientific” camp vis-à-vis the “humanistic inquiry” camp of pure description or ideographic approaches. The attention to previous literature and filling the holes in what we know about a phenomenon or case or situation set qualitative research apart from otherwise excellent journalism, which makes no pretensions of writing to or for a larger body of knowledge.
In the magnificently engaging untextbook Rocking Qualitative Social Science, Ashley Rubin (2021) notes, “Rigorous research does not have to be rigid” (3). I agree with her claim that there are many ways to get to the top of the mountain, and you can have fun doing so. An ardent rock climber, Rubin calls her approach the Dirtbagger approach, a way of climbing the mountain that is creative, flexible, and definitely outside proscribed methods. Here are eleven lessons offered by Rubin in paraphrase form with commentary and direct quotes noted:
- There is no right way to do qualitative social science, “and people should choose the approach that works for them, for the particular project at hand, given whatever constraints and opportunities are happening in their life at the time. (252)”
- Disagreements about what is proper qualitative research are distracting and misleading.
- Even though research questions are very important, they can and most likely will change during data collection or even data analysis—don’t worry about this.
- Your findings will have a bigger impact if you’ve connected them to previous literature; this shows that you are part of the larger conversation. This “anchor” can be a policy issue or a theoretical debate in the literature, but it need not be either. Sometimes what we do is really novel (but rarely—so always poke around and check before proceeding as if you are inventing the wheel).
- Although there are some rules you really must follow when designing your study (e.g., how to obtain informed consent, defining a sample), unexpected things often happen in the course of data collection that make a mockery of your original plans. Be flexible.
- Sometimes you have chosen a topic for some reason you can’t yet articulate to yourself—the subject or site just calls to you in some way. That’s fine. But you will still need to justify your choice in some way (hint: see number 4 above).
- Pay close attention to your sample: “Think about what you are leaving out, what your data allow you to observe, and what you can do to fill in some of those blanks” (252). And when you can’t fill them in, be honest about this when writing about the limitations of your study.
- Even if you are doing interviews, archival research, focus groups, or any other method of data collection that does not actually require “going into the field,” you can still approach your work as fieldwork. This means taking fieldnotes or memos about what you are observing and how you are reacting and processing those observations or interviews or interactions or documents. Remember that you yourself are the instrument of data collection, so keep a reflective eye on yourself throughout.
- Memo, memo, memo. There is no magic about how data become findings. It takes a lot of work, a lot of reflection, a lot of writing. Analytic memos are the helpful bridge between all that raw data and the presented findings.
- Rubin strongly rejects the idea that qualitative research cannot make causal claims. I would agree, but only to a point. We don’t make the kinds of predictive causal claims you see in quantitative research, and it can confuse you and lead you down some unpromising paths if you think you can. That said, qualitative research can help demonstrate the causal mechanisms by which something happens. Qualitative research is also helpful in exploring alternative explanations and counterfactuals. If you want to know more about qualitative research and causality, I encourage you to read chapter 10 of Rubin’s text.
- Some people are still skeptical about the value of qualitative research because they don’t understand the rigor required of it and confuse it with journalism or even fiction writing. You are just going to have to deal with this—maybe even people sitting on your committee are going to question your research. So be prepared to defend qualitative research by knowing the common misconceptions and criticisms and how to respond to them. We’ve talked a bit about these in chapter 20, and I also encourage you to read chapter 10 of Rubin’s text for more.
Hopefully, by the time you have reached the end of this book, you will have done a bit of your own qualitative research—maybe you’ve conducted an interview or practiced taking fieldnotes. You may have read some examples of excellent qualitative research and have (hopefully!) come to appreciate the value of this approach. This is a good time, then, to take a step back and think about the ways that qualitative research is valuable, distinct and different from both quantitative methods and humanistic (nonscientific) inquiry.
Why do you employ qualitative research methods in your area of study?
Across all Western countries, we can observe a strong statistical relationship between young people’s educational attainment and their parent’s level of education. If you have at least one parent who went to university, your own chances of going to and graduating from university are much higher compared to not having university-educated parents. Why this happens is much less clear… This is where qualitative research becomes important: to help us get a clearer understanding of the dynamics that lead to this observed statistical relationship.
In my own research, I go a step further and look at young men and women who have crossed this barrier: they have become the first in their family to go to university. I am interested in finding out why and how first-in-family university students made it to university and how being at university is experienced. In-depth interviews allow me to learn about hopes, aspirations, fears, struggles, resilience and success. Interviews give participants an opportunity to tell their stories in their own words while also validating their experiences.
I often ask the young people I interview what being in my studies means to them. As one of my participants told me, it is good to know that “people like me are worth studying.” I cannot think of a better way to explain why qualitative research is important.
-Wolfgang Lehman, author of Education and Society: Canadian Perspectives
For me personally, the real value of the qualitative approach is that it helps me address the concerns I have about the social world—how people make sense of their lives, how they create strategies to deal with unfair circumstances or systems of oppression, and why they are motivated to act in some situations but not others. Surveys and other forms of large impersonal data collection simply do not allow me to get at these concerns. I appreciate other forms of research for other kinds of questions. This ecumenical approach has served me well in my own career as a sociologist—I’ve used surveys of students to help me describe classed pathways through college and into the workforce, supplemented by interviews and focus groups that help me explain and understand the patterns uncovered by quantitative methods (Hurst 2019). My goal for this book has not been to convince you to become a qualitative researcher exclusively but rather to understand and appreciate its value under the right circumstances (e.g., with the right questions and concerns).
In the same way that we would not use a screwdriver to hammer a nail into the wall, we don’t want to misuse the tools we have at hand. Nor should we critique the screwdriver for its failure to do the hammer’s job. Qualitative research is not about generating predictions or demonstrating causality. We can never statistically generalize our findings from a small sample of people in a particular context to the world at large. But that doesn’t mean we can’t generate better understandings of how the world works, despite “small” samples. Excellent qualitative research does a great job describing (whether through “thick description” or illustrative quotes) a phenomenon, case, or setting and generates deeper insight into the social world through the development of new concepts or identification of patterns and relationships that were previously unknown to us. The two components—accurate description and theoretical insight—are generated together through the iterative process of data analysis, which itself is based on a solid foundation of data collection. And along the way, we can have some fun and meet some interesting people!
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