Qualitative Research is….
This is my take on describing what marks a qualitative approach. There are other frameworks one could use, but this is useful as a starting point to consider what qualitative researchers value and how their processes and practices are grounded.
Let’s begin with a recognition that the distinction between qualitative and quantitative is a false one. It has evolved as a dominant way of characterizing research practice but if we turn to the epistemological premises undergirding research practice, most research calling itself ‘qualitative’ is actually characterized by open-ended, immersed, and iterative processes. These are processes that seek to achieve a subjective, rather than an objective understanding. They are often explorative rather than explanatory.
Scholarship in this vein allows methods to emerge as needed to suit the changing circumstances of the study. As one immerses oneself in the study, the questions will necessarily change since one is learning more and more but at the same time recognizing that they know far less than they thought they did at the outset. The focus of attention oscillates between close, emic perspectives and more distant etic perspectives, shifting as various new elements of the phenomena surface or become salient.
inductive + deductive
Qualitative research involves the logics of both inductive and deductive thinking. These two concepts are not binary opposites, but rather, may feel more or less dominant during particular moments of the project’s lifespan. Induction and deduction are more akin to orientations toward the project, the context, and one’s methods. At certain stages, one may be driven by a desire to explore in an open-ended fashion and ready to be surprised, both earmarks of an inductive/emergent approach. At other times, one might be more deductive/apriori, driven by the desire to confirm what one already suspects. To be clear, terminology such as subjective, inductive and emergent are often equated with the term “qualitative.” And within an interpretive or other non-positivist worldview, research questions and analytical perspectives are more often guided by (emerging from) the people, places, bodies, and materiality of the context rather than by theory or hypotheses or one’s original research questions.
methods are always mixed
One’s tools may be either qualitative or quantitative, often a mixture. While not in the same way a statistician would, qualitative researchers are often counting things, using basic principles of math and statistics. We often pay attention to frequency as a measure of relevance or importance. We also use formulas (internal logics, a model or algorithm, even, for how a successful project should be enacted) that combine relevance with time pressure for project completion, disciplinary tendencies or norms, and other standards or factors to make decisions about what to pay attention to. We make selections from the mass of things we could attend to through a process of what some fields call ‘sampling’ and other fields call ‘narrowing the field’ In either case, the choice is not random but purposeful, a systematic selection of what to pay attention to and what to discard as non-relevant. The point to take from this description is that what is broadly called “qualitative inquiry” is not guided by the qualitativeness of the method, but by the open-endedness of its practitioners’ mindsets. We are led not by method or tool but by the phenomenon.
methods change and emerge
Likewise, qualitative research always involves different methods at different stages. The type of method one might use to collect material or data is not the same as the type of method one uses to analyze this material. Likewise, the method one uses to sort and manage and narrow the scope of inquiry is not the same as the method one will use to present one’s interpretation to others. Many sensibilities mingle to coordinate meaning and the more important quality of qualitative research is that the mindset of the researcher is open, in a state of readiness to use whatever tools are fruitful as the investigation proceeds.
studying complexity through open-endedness
Interpretive approaches are often linked to the epistemological premise that there’s not not a single answer because meaning is situated in the context and more specifically, the people from whom the researcher is seeking to gain knowledge about a phenomenon. Interpretive researchers often let methods emerge as needed. The phenomenon, the context, the people and the data they produce teach the researcher, leading them in often unexpected directions, guide them toward particular questions. This characteristic of an ’emergent’ approach allows for one to be extremely open ended at the outset, to allow the phenomenon to wash over us, swamping us with its depth and complexity. Once we surrender to this complexity, we can then look around, play with various methods, lenses, or specific tools to think about “what is going on here.” As a next step, since it would in any case (read: every case) be impossible to find only a single answer to this question, the adept researcher will then choose a more informed research question to guide another deep dive into the phenomenon. As this description emphasizes, the process is immersive and marked at the outset by a radical openness to being surprised and overwhelmed. As one chooses progressively more narrow questions, the field narrows and with playful experimentation, an appropriate set of tools will emerge to guide one’s analysis of a subset of material, which one may or may not call ‘data,’ depending on what discipline they are drawing on for overall guidance. An interpretation is the outcome of inquiry.
Interpretive approaches consider richness and depth rather than generalizable explanations. The outset of the process toward knowing is to dive in, follow the data, the metaphor, the people, the story so as to explore. The middle part of this process is to analyze the material one has gathered or generated to articulate, as I phrase it for my own students: “how it happens when it happens.” The end of the process is to know enough to know that you can stop, and to then create a convincing argument (or story) that resonates with the audience for one’s research product.
Reflexivity is an important part of qualitative inquiry. Close level immersive processes are embodied, situated, and based on the unique sensibilities of the scholar, but this is not to suggest that one’s interpretation is simply based on one’s opinion. Reflexivity is a practice that helps researchers reflect on their own role and situatedness, to understand better how they influence what is identified as relevant in the field, how their choice of a unit of analysis is entangled with their embodied positionality. Reflexivity is also a practice that enables researchers to critically interrogate not only their choice of particular methods or tools, but their skill and abilities with these tools. Since qualitative methods are not –for the most part– strictly delimited or guided by parameters for how they should be applied as lenses, the researcher is required to assess their own strengths and limitations.
The list above can get one started, but there’s much more to it! There are many sources and deeper explorations/explanations for the material above, even if not cited here. The list would actually be too long if i were to begin to include the thousands of voices involved in discussions around what counts as qualitative method.
Annette Markham, Denmark, March 2020