Qualitative research may be broadly said to be research in which data in the form of words are collected and examined thematically. In other words, what is of interest to the researcher is an exploration, in a natural setting, of the meanings people bring to the qualities, nature, or essence of a phenomenon. The aim of qualitative research is to understand the meaning of human action and to explore and tell the human story. Qualitative research is a broad term that encompasses genres such as ethnography, case study, narrative inquiry, phenomenology, grounded theory, life history, oral history, biography, and auto-ethnography.
This article briefly describes the background of qualitative research; five of the most prominent methodologies (grounded theory, phenomenology, ethnography, case study, narrative inquiry); how to collect data through the use of interviews, observations, and artifacts, data analysis; methods to enhance trustworthiness (a qualitative term for validity and reliability); and possible future directions of qualitative research.
While qualitative research has been around for some time (since the late 1800s in the United States; e.g. Chicago school sociology, 1892), it has been held in varying levels of respect and acceptance throughout the history of research. Over the last quarter of a century, qualitative research has seen a new level of acceptance in academia. At the same time, ironically, government funded research has touted the so-called gold standard of experimental research, which has relegated government-funded qualitative research to mere window dressing for randomized experimental designs. The intersection of the tension between government research funding standards and current levels of interest in qualitative research as seen in the increase of qualitative journal articles, conferences, courses, textbooks, and dissertations is the point at which any qualitative researcher is situated today.
Grounded theory (GT) is a type of qualitative research in which the primary purpose is to develop a theory based on data. GT is an approach that involves induction, deduction, and verification, although the primary focus is on induction. The term grounded theory refers to both the method of data investigation and the analysis as well as the final product of the research. Grounded theory consists of a set of analytic guidelines that allow researchers to inductively build theories. Data collection and analysis occur simultaneously. The process begins with initial data collection typically through unstructured interviews in the field. Data analysis begins by sorting the data into categories that can comprise events, instances, or happenings. The researcher then goes back into the field to collect more data in an attempt to verify or discredit emerging findings. Analysis continues as comparisons between the data are made and the emerging categories are tested and revised. This is referred to as the constant comparative method. Data collection and analysis continue until saturation is reached. Saturation is the theoretical term for the moment when it seems no new data need to be collected due to repetition or redundancy in the data.
The data analysis portion of grounded theory consists of three types of coding: open, axial, and selective. When coding data, the researcher breaks field notes or interview transcripts into meaningful chunks or clusters. Each cluster is assigned a code, which is a word or phrase that encapsulates the meaning of the cluster. The clusters could be words, phrases, sentences, or paragraphs. This first phase of coding in a GT study is called open coding. It can be thought of as the first pass at creating categories. The researcher then identifies properties of the categories. Open coding is followed by a deeper level of coding called axial coding. When conducting axial coding, the researcher looks for new ways to categorize clusters of information. The researcher identifies a central phenomenon, explores occurrences, emotions, or beliefs that influence the phenomenon, and examines the results of the phenomenon. The final phase of coding in GT is selective coding. In selective coding, a “story line” is identified that integrates the codes found in axial coding. This story line becomes, in essence, the grounded theory.
While grounded theory refers to the iterative methods of data collection and analysis, it also describes the result, a social theory. The theory, or set of hypotheses, developed about the central phenomenon being studied is based completely in the data, in that all attempts are made to avoid using other theoretical ideas or notions to inform the analysis. The theory is “grounded” in the data, hence, grounded theory. Grounded theory is typically presented with five components: a central phenomenon, causal conditions, strategies, conditions and context, and consequences.
The focus of a phenomenological study is to explore the meaning of lived experiences. Lived experiences is a term that emphasizes the different and individual lives humans lead. The goal of a phenomenological study is to search for, understand, and explain the essential structure or essence of the phenomenon in question. The experiences are reduced to a description of what all the participants in the study experience.
Phenomenologists tend to use unstructured interviews as their main source of data. The first step in data analysis is to bracket, or set aside, their preconceived experiences about the phenomenon of interest. Bracketing is also referred to as epoche. The phenomenological researcher wants to fully understand the phenomenon from each participant’s point of view. The second step in data analysis is horizonalization, in which all significant statements related to the topic are listed and given equal value. In the third step of analysis, the researcher clusters statements into themes and searches for meaning. Synthesis of themes results in a general description of the essence of the phenomenon.
Ethnography has been said to be the gold standard or hallmark of qualitative research, and it is characterized by in-depth study of a culture’s naturally occurring behavior. While originally developed and employed by anthropologists to study human nature, the use of ethnography may increasingly be seen in the social sciences in general, with developed sub-fields such as educational ethnography and ethno-nursing. Features of ethnography are that the researcher is in the field for long durations of time, uses participant observation to collect data, and examines culture. A long duration of time may be defined as at least one cycle of the phenomenon (e.g., one season, one semester, one treatment cycle). It is important to note that one may use ethnographic methods but may not be conducting a full ethnography. In these instances one may refer to one’s study as ethnographically informed or influenced.
While case study may be considered quantitative, mixed method, or qualitative research, this article addresses holistic, qualitative case studies only. Case study often seems similar to other types of qualitative research such as in-depth interviews or ethnography. However, case study is distinguished from other research in that it is the intense description of one bounded unit (e.g., one client, therapy group, couple, clinic, organization). The holistic case is naturally occurring and bound to its context. The particular nature of the case is what is of interest to the researcher.
Case studies may be designed in multiple ways. The researcher might choose a case for what Robert Stake has called an intrinsic reason or an instrumental reason. Intrinsic means that something about the specific case is of interest. Instrumental cases, however, are chosen to illustrate a general topic of interest. Additionally, multiple or collective case studies may be designed in which each case is similar, dissimilar, typical, or different. A case within case is a design in which a larger case is explored by examining smaller cases that occur within it. For example, a counseling clinic of interest may be explored by studying three of the counselors within the clinic in depth along with an overall study of all of the features of the clinic such as the caseload, funding, philosophy, and director.
Because it is a study of one bounded unit, generalizability of a case is an ongoing issue for case study research. A case study researcher typically believes, along with the field of qualitative researchers, that the detailed, holistic, rich, descriptive information of their research allows users of case studies to determine to what extent the case generalizes to their situations.
A case study researcher makes a case through the presentation of details that convince the reader and make clear the issues of the case. The small number of cases allows for significant depth of data collection. In holistic case study, data are gathered through observation, interviews, and artifact, whenever possible. Then, information is triangulated and presented in a rich, descriptive case report.
Jean Clandinin and Michael Connelly have succinctly defined narrative inquiry as “stories lived and told.” Narrative inquiry may also be said to be a study of the generation of stories of life experiences, a discourse form of research in which a story is examined as it changes over time, and an exploration of experience through stories that people tell. Narratives are the unit of analysis. Most narrative researchers define narrative as text obtained from in-depth interviews or documents such as journals, diaries, letters, and memoirs. However, some narrative researchers have expanded this methodology to include observational research in which the researcher specifically looks for stories that occur contextually in the field.
Narrative analysis may include a variety of procedures for interpreting narrative data. The text tends to be analyzed using the perspective or techniques of a particular discipline. For example, a sociologist may be interested in the relationship of the narrative to meanings in society, while a counselor or psychologist may be more interested in memory, process of recall, and therapeutic understandings of story.
In order to answer the question “what is going on here?” it is important for qualitative researchers to ask, observe, and even experience as much as possible in order to create rich descriptions of what is happening. In general, qualitative researchers first decide what they want to know about what is going on. If they wish to discover something, they may choose a grounded theory approach. If they are seeking to understand, they may choose ethnography. A case study would be used if they want to explore a process. Describing the experience would be accomplished with a phenomenology. If the researchers want to report the stories, then a narrative approach would be taken. In general, qualitative research questions begin with what or how. What is going on here? How does this person relate to the group? In seeking to answer these types of questions, the three common forms of collecting qualitative data are interviews, observations, and examining artifacts.
Interviews can be conducted with individuals or with groups that are referred to as group interviews or focus groups. Interviews can be structured, semistructured, or unstructured. Technology has also impacted interviews, so an interview may be face-to-face, over the phone, or through the Internet. Researchers conducting interviews begin with an interview protocol, which is a list of questions that will be asked of the participant. In structured individual interviews, the protocol lists each question along with a limited set of response categories. Responses to structured interviews are coded into pre-established categories. Unstructured interviews are in-depth and open-ended and are similar to a conversation with equal give-and-take between the researcher and participant. Unstructured interviews in counseling research are recommended for sensitive topics such as rape or incest and when interviewing young children. Semistructured interviews are a mixture of structured and unstructured questions and are the interview design most qualitative researchers employ.
Observation is a key form of data collection. Observations range from being nonparticipatory in nature, in which the researcher tries to remain unnoticed, to participatory in nature, in which the researcher joins in on the activities being observed. In both nonparticipatory and participatory observation, the researcher keeps field notes, or records of observations. Field notes may also be used to record feelings of the researcher. Field notes are considered data and can be synthesized with other types of data such as interviews to help create a complete understanding of the complexities of the cultural group being studied.
In qualitative research, an artifact is anything made by humans that can be picked up and observed. A cultural artifact is something made by a person or a group of people that gives information about that group. Examining a clinic’s physical layout or procedure manual are methods counseling qualitative researchers may use to explore a question. The idea of examining cultural artifacts to understand people emerged from anthropology. In counseling research, an artifact might be a counselor’s case notes, videos of sessions, or a client’s journal or artwork. When exploring the historical aspects of a participant, the artifact might be an historical document such as a legal document, letter, or diary.
It is important to note that from the first moment qualitative data are collected, analysis should be ongoing and recursive. If researchers wait to analyze the data until all the data are collected, they are missing a key opportunity to take advantage of the emergent, flexible, data-driven process of qualitative research. In other words, as each observation, interview, and artifact is examined, new questions emerge that may guide future data collection. With this in mind, data analysis has two major areas for discussion: data management or the organizing of data, and the process of breaking down, reassembling, and interpreting data through qualitative analysis.
When organizing data, it is vital to make copies of all-important papers and put them in at least two locations. Stories abound of lost data never to be generated again. Researchers are advised to allocate time daily to put field notes and interviews in order, catalogue all documents and artifacts, label and store all data, create a table of contents of stored data, check for missing data, and begin reading through and reviewing data, or what is commonly referred to as read, read, and rereading the data.
An organized set of data allows for analysis to begin in a meaningful fashion. Put simply, analysis consists of looking for themes, patterns, or categories of similarities. It is important to note that outliers, notes of dissonance, and unique cases are highlighted and not discarded, because the uniqueness of humans is one of the areas of interest in qualitative research.
While there are a multitude of data analysis strategies, some of which were reviewed under the methodologies discussed previously, only one—an overview of Wolcott’s analysis—will be presented here. The reader is advised to examine the literature for specific analysis strategies when conducting phenomenology and grounded theory. Wolcott has said that all analysis may be said to be a process of description, analysis, and interpretation. During description, the data speak for themselves, and long pieces of the final product are drawn directly from notes, journals, or interviews. The researcher essentially treats descriptive data as facts. While all researchers use description at some level, it is especially useful for concepts that have never been examined in a scholarly manner. Analysis then expands and builds on description using some detailed plan or approach to identifying key relationships in the data. Finally, data interpretation follows analysis or arises directly from description. During interpretation the researcher does not claim to be as scientific as during analysis and is not as restricted as during the description. Here the goal is to make sense of the data by making interpretations of, inferences from, and implications about the data for the field.
Trustworthiness is an overarching term for validity and reliability. Other terms that are used may include dependability, confirmability, and credibility. Validity and reliability of research together compose one of the most hotly debated issues in qualitative inquiry, and they are at the root of many postpositivist researchers’ lack of acceptance of qualitative research. Qualitative researchers are advised to have a full understanding of quantitative and qualitative notions of validity and reliability when defending their research. The most important idea to understand is that there are procedures common throughout the field of qualitative research that allow one to feel more confident that the research data presented show a fully fleshed out picture. However, this picture is not more “true” than the picture provided by quantitative data, just more fully explored. The use of most of these procedures depends on the type of research being conducted and the research question being examined. Some of the most common procedures include member and peer checks, triangulation, audit trail, duration in the field, and reflexivity.
The use of reflexivity may be the most valuable yet least demonstrable way to enhance a study’s trustworthiness. Reflexivity is a critical self-reflection on one’s biases and predispositions. Researchers are encouraged to explore their bias in a researcher journal. Reflexivity may be a means for critically inspecting the entire research experience.
In the first decade of the 21st century, there is a new emphasis among qualitative researchers on ethics, personal responsibility, and moral obligation. In general the field is taking on a new participatory, feminist, democratic, and reciprocal stance. Interviews are becoming more a negotiated accomplishment between the interviewer and the interviewee, and observations and artifacts are not seen as fact but as interpretable data.
Researchers are also increasingly blending qualitative and quantitative methodologies in mixed methods studies. While researchers such as evaluators find this a pragmatic design, others contest the blending of two such seemingly polarized paradigms, feeling either that the quantitative data are being used to “prove” the qualitative data or that the qualitative data are unnecessary in a rigorous quantitative design.
The tides are shifting in academia, as new faculty are less traditional than their predecessors in terms of their academic reporting of qualitative research. It is common to write research accounts of what went on behind the scenes in a study in an effort to make research practice transparent and informative to other researchers. This practice is a decided move away from an objective account that reports research results as though they are facts. Autoethnography, poems, performances, and photo methodologies are becoming acceptable forms of reporting qualitative research. Examples include ethnopoetics and photovoice, a method that uses photography to help give voice to those who otherwise would not have one (e.g., children, those with low language skills, non-English speakers).
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