Qualitative Methodology

Qualitative Methodology

1. Introduction to Qualitative Methodology

The first chapter is therefore a useful orientation to the entire book. Primarily, qualitative research is distinguished by its subject matter, which can best be described as the human world, and by its methods, which are designed to capture that world in the form of verbal data. This is not to say that qualitative research is restricted to a particular domain of research or restricted to certain methods. Indeed, some qualitative work in psychology involves little contact with human subjects. However, it is useful to think of the term ‘qualitative methodology’ as denoting an approach that is not so much a set of techniques as a way of approaching science in general. The basic ideas of most of ‘qualitative psychology’ are applicable to research using quantitative methods. A method designed to investigate the human world is suitable for that world only to the extent that its assumptions and procedures are attended to in the work of human beings. So, the distinction between qualitative and quantitative research lies primarily in the different subject matters and the distinctive modes of approach to these subject matters, rather than in the specific methods. Given this, the Comparative Methodology section provides a useful background for the rest of the book.

The introductory chapter of this work contains four main sections. The first sets the context of the book and elaborates on the meaning of the title ‘qualitative methodology’ as it is used in the book. The second provides a detailed comparison of qualitative and quantitative methods from the perspectives of epistemology, practical research issues, and theory of science. The third section focuses on the options and issues in the design of a qualitative study, and the fourth examines the standards of assessment for the quality of a qualitative study and the current state of writing on this topic.

2. Data Collection Techniques

Qualitative methodologists consider the data collection process to be a vital component of their research. Given the close relationship that usually develops between the investigator and the informant, the quality of data is often a direct result of the quality of the interaction. There are a wide variety of data collection techniques used in qualitative research. As has pointed out, the only thing that all qualitative data collection techniques have in common is that the researcher is the human instrument for data collection. The open-ended, flexible nature of qualitative research allows and necessitates this. Data collection techniques can be divided into two categories, depending on whether the source of data is the primary goal of the data collection process, or whether the data are being collected to test a hypothesis. The first category of techniques involves using the informant as the primary source of data. These include techniques such as open-ended interviews or questionnaires, focus groups, participant observation, case studies, etc. In these situations, the quality of the interaction can greatly affect the quality of the data, and thus the skills of the qualitative researcher as an interviewer, moderator, facilitator, etc. are called into play. These techniques can provide very detailed rich data but are also very time-consuming.

3. Data Analysis Methods

Qualitative coding methods often involve accessing or generating a great number of documents relevant to your research study, thus the “mountains of data” with which qualitative researchers are so fond of teasing their methodologically cleaner and often narrower-focused quantitative colleagues. Traditional content analysis is often quite appropriate when the research question is focused on describing the nature, characteristics and prevalence of certain messages or symbolic elements in the recorded communication (e.g. a particularly effective form of contraception among teenagers propagated through an episode of ‘Friends’ television show). For researchers focused on obtaining a surface-level understanding and more generalised findings about a body of qualitative data, existent forms of content analysis and potentially other methods of computer-assisted qualitative data analysis (CAQDAS) may be the best mode of data analysis. Other qualitative research questions often require a process aimed at uncovering understanding and/or theory at a deeper level. In such cases traditional content analysis will usually provide just an initial step in the analysis of recorded communications, the next steps will require a method of analysis and coding that is more interpretive and inferential in nature. A great number of qualitative researchers from varied fields of study have found that such an initially inductive but more interpretive and inferential analysis can be achieved through utilising grounded theory methods of coding and analysis. This is regardless of whether or not the specific aim is in fact to generate a grounded theory, as grounded theory methods have been found to be useful across many and varied fields of qualitative inquiry.

4. Validity and Reliability Considerations

This section outlines concerns related to an overall integrated scale for reliability and validity, and how technology can affect these factors. Reliability is the consistency of measurement. Before qualitative data can be assessed for reliability, one must recognize the differing commitments to the foundational assumptions of what constitutes knowledge (ontology) and the criteria for the validation of knowledge claims (epistemology). Through addressing the ontology and epistemology, one will be faced with the challenge of influencing the tendency to conceptualize social and human behavior as being context-sensitive and changeable. Given that research is concerned with social processes taking place within a context of social and cultural change, there is a stronger case for approaching reliability as a form of reliability across change and context, rather than stability and equivalence. This presents a challenge to conventional forms of reliability testing. Techniques for assessing reliability usually entail replicability of the data collecting procedures and assessment of the stability of the instrument over different conditions of data collection. Assessing validity for qualitative research is an ongoing process wherein concepts are refined and developed and should never be defined at any one point in the research. The core concern for the qualitative researcher is to study the phenomenon under investigation unambiguously and to demonstrate the credibility of findings. This means that the researcher will often be striving to show that findings have internal and external validity. Internal validity is the persuasive quality of research. This may sound like an issue of research worthiness, but what it means in practice is conducting research in a manner that is compelling and interesting to the consumer of research (e.g. a funding organization) and persuading them that the findings are of value. Validity is a major concern in an era wherein qualitative data is increasingly required to “answer” evidence-based criteria in public policy and health research. This has triggered a tendency for qualitative research to become excessively oriented to the methods of data collection rather than being concerned with in-depth understanding of a given subject area, as research workers seek to detach themselves from a research label that is seen as pejorative and lacking in evidence. This is an issue that qualitative research must come to terms with, and there are both strengths and weaknesses in enhancing qualitative research methodology. With regard to external validity, the generalizability of research findings is an issue that causes interactive tension as to the value of research conducted in a specific research area. This is not merely an issue of cross-case comparisons but more an attempt to relate research findings to some form of universal knowledge.

5. Ethical Considerations in Qualitative Research

Furthermore, evaluation of the level of understanding of potential participants may lead to the realization that the research is inappropriate or impossible with certain target groups and may help to identify when the vulnerability of a particular population means that research should not go ahead. Time constraints do not permit an in-depth look at each and every ethical consideration in this section of the essay. However, a similar version of the consent process described in the case of Asbell is another complexity on a different level with the Quinlan and Elvins cases, the details of which are far too intricate and numerous to cover here.

The Asbell (2001) case is a particular example of a scenario where it was not clear what constituted as consent from participating subjects. Asbell had been studying an Ivy League fraternity which eventually performed acts of extreme deviance (including serious criminal behavior), and although Asbell had conducted interviews with members of the fraternity and was observing the group when they committed the deviant acts, he then published a book about the fraternity using pseudonyms and generalizing events in an attempt to protect the identity of participants and the case study site. When the book was revealed to the public, the fraternity took legal action against Asbell and Cornell University. However, several court rulings were inconsistent in whether or not the information was too generalized to constitute the group and members as research participants, and therefore whether the judgment on the book being released was, in fact, damage to a community or individuals. This case is demonstrating that the nature of qualitative research sometimes can mean that consent is an ongoing process and event.

There are many ethical considerations inherent in qualitative research, and the informed consent process is one that is often intersected with some complexity. From the reading of the consent form to potential participants, to negotiating prolonged access to the field site, or the conducting of interviews with persons with cognitive impairments, the notion and process of gaining informed consent is not always a one-off or clear event in qualitative research. The consent process is based on the principle that a person should be given sufficient information about a study and have a sufficient understanding of what their participation involves before they can agree to participate in the study.

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