Qualitative Research: Something more than mere description
In our profession, we deploy both Quantitative and Qualitative research methodologies. While both the methods have their own unique uses, that have been widely documented, I have often observed that the former takes a preference in case of a conflict. This could lead to an impression (albeit a false one) in one’s mind that qualitative research is an amateur and less “fashionable” research method and that any research design other than a quantitative one is “non-experimental” and/or “weak”. In my opinion, this stereotyping is both erroneous and simplistic. In addition, I believe it can also discourage novice and budding researchers engaged in qualitative studies.
One of the reasons for this preference is simple enough – it is often easier to rely upon what can be measured as opposed to what can be proven. Another (and less obvious) reason is that while quantitative derivations use verifiable calculations, qualitative results often require experience and foresight, in addition to logic.
This post is an attempt to bring some of the less known but important facets of the qualitative research methodologies into a comparative analysis for a better understanding and appreciation of both types of research methodologies. In this post, neither do I wish to differentiate both research methods (Quantitative and Qualitative) which are quite distinct in their own right, nor do I intend to challenge the statistical and/or analytical merits of quantitative research. This is just a fumbling first step in trying to provide some more context into what goes into qualitative research and what makes it relevant. I will leave it to the reader to delve deeper into the subject as they come across more examples and practical experiences of qualitative research in their work.
Strong proponents of quantitative research may view qualitative studies as ‘non-categorical’ and ‘less scientific’. Qualitative studies, however, can also be categorical and methodical, even if the methods used are relatively less acknowledged in the research community. One of the key factors that prevent a reasonable analysis and debate could be the lack of awareness regarding the array of theoretically and technically sophisticated approaches in qualitative research like Ethnography, Narrative Research, Phenomenology and Grounded theory etc. Needless to say, I’m not including the case study approach as it is widely used by both qualitative and quantitative research practitioners.
I am summarising a few of these approaches below in an attempt to provide the reader with a better understanding of the same.
Narrative research - Focuses on an individual or small group’s story and gives a chronological account of an event, action, experience or a series of them.
Phenomenological study - Focuses on psychological experiences of a concept, event, and/or phenomenon. It describes the ‘lived experiences’ of a group and finds commonalities in the experiences of individuals.
Grounded theory - Focuses on social, organisational situations, processes and generates a theory from data collected form participants who experienced the process/event/action/interaction.
Ethnography - Studies a culture sharing group and develops a portrait of the same. It is usually realistic, critical and advocative.
As the reader may infer from this, qualitative designs also have reasonable and well-considered combination of data collection and analysis techniques. These ‘less acknowledged’ approaches yield valuable results by using logical interpretation and analysis. While content analysis in quantitative research applies pre-existing codes to the data, it is data-derived in case of qualitative research.
Data Analysis in qualitative research involves coding and theme development. Coding in qualitative research involves marking segments with ideas, concepts and relevant points. Categorisation of these codes develops themes. As the codes are generated from the data during the course of the study, there is simultaneous collection and analysis of data in qualitative research. Unlike quantitative research, content analysis of qualitative studies involves not only the manifest of the data, it involves the latent content of the data as well. Thus, qualitative research is more than a mere description of events.
I hope I have been able to provide a very brief flavour of the kind of rigour and methodical approach that is involved in qualitative research as well. As an outcome of my developing understanding of the value of qualitative research, I am of the opinion that claiming one research method as easier, less desirable, less scientific or less valuable than another is unreasonable.
Furthermore, I also believe that neither of the two methods is absolutely weak or strong by definition. It is the purpose of the study that defines and differentiates the usefulness and appropriateness of the method used. In most instances, probably the best strategy is to use “mixed methods research” that combines the strengths of both the quantitative and qualitative research methodologies, thus complementing each another to deliver optimal research outcomes.
In summation, it is critical to re-discover and acknowledge the utility, relevance and significance of qualitative research so that it finds its rightful place as a strong, distinctive and valuable research technique.