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QUALITATIVE RESEARCH ASSIGNMENT/DISSERTATION/THESIS CHECK-LIST

John Schostak

ELU

1990, revised 2008


Introduction

The following is a check-list to help in the preparation of the research based assignment, dissertation or thesis employing qualitative methods. It is not meant to be a 'straightjacket' to be followed slavishly, nor is it likely to be exhaustive since each research based piece of writing will have its own demands depending on the nature of the subject being studied. However, any dissertation is likely to include within its structure, the elements or themes set out in the following sections. It is up to the assignment, dissertation or thesis writer whether these are appropriate to their own purposes and if according to the judgement of the writer in consultation with their research/university appointed supervisor they are found appropriate, then it is still up to the writer to interpret them in ways that are appropriate, interesting and useful. In short, all depends on the creativity, insight and knowledge of the assignment, dissertation or thesis writer. The checklist is merely a prompt for critical reflection

It was first developed for a masters degree course and is presented here, substantially extended, as a way of thinking through some issues that assignment, masters, doctoral students often face when preparing to write up their research. They should be read in conjunction with other books and guides on research and in discussion with friends, colleagues and supervisors. It is to be stressed again, the checklist in no way represents a recipe for doing or writing up research, nor does it provide a model to be slavishly followed. The quality of the research and how it is written up is down to the work, the creativity, imagination and careful reasoning of the thesis/dissertation writer. I hope the following helps the process.

 

Approaching the Checklist

There are three ways of approaching the process of doing the research as well as writing it up. I call them simply:

The traditional format

The traditional way of approaching a research assignment, a dissertation or a full-fledged doctoral thesis is to sketch out a clear and distinct research design. This design sets up its broad aims, its focused objectives, its clearly worded research questions. The assignment/dissertation/thesis is then a description of the processes and procedures undertaken to assure the quality and acceptability of the data according to some 'scientific' methodology, the findings that have been obtained, the contribution to 'knowledge' made by the research and the conclusions and recommendations that then may be drawn from the findings.

 

The ermergent format

The emergent format for carrying out the research involves suspending judgement as to the core set of aims, the key research questions and the nature of the data to be collected. In short, through a process of critical reflection during the process of engaging in the research the design emerges, shaped by researcher's engagement with the broad scene of research under study. The writing up the research process thus reflects this process of emergence. In one sense this approach is riskier than the traditional format. But it is also more exciting, more creative and more likely to provide results and findings, that are closer to lived experience and the realities of the social scene being researched.

Emergent formats are apprpriate for those perspectives where theory emerges from engagement with the scene of study as in symbolic interactionism (Mead 1934, Blumer 1969), phenomenology (Schutz 1976), and the grounded theory of Glaser and Strauss (1967) and its later developments (e.g., Strauss and Corbin 1998) or constructivist groudned theory (Charmaz 2006). It is appropriate for research undertaken by professionals (e.g., business, teachers, health professionals, police, social workers and so on) who critically reflect upon their own practice in order to improve their understanding, decision making and action as in Action Research. Democratic forms of evaluation also will take on an emergent format. (see in particular, Schostak 2002). More specifically, radical qualitative research methods draw upon deconstructive strategies to develop the potential of emergent frameworks for the inclusion of multiple viewpoints (Schostak 2006, Schostak and Schostak 2008)

The creative format

The creative format rests upon the inventive resources and ability to write, compose and perform of the researcher far more than either of the other two formats. It may draw upon each as a 'genre' of writing and researching and exploit them for creative purposes as particular 'voices' to be played with in the textual representation of the research. The writer may employ for example, the form of a play, novel, or documentary as organising devices for the work. Its style may make use of poetic forms, irony and a variety of rhetorical devices. It is harder for many to do this well. However, when it works it can be spectacular. Examples are provided in Schostak 2002.


 

The check list


The checklist is not a research design nor is it the plan of a research assignment, dissertation or thesis. However, it may be used to think about what is involved in the process of designing and writing. As the writing emerges the writer can re-read what has been written to see whether the relevant elements of the checklist are adequately addressed. They are as follows:

a. opening statement of purpose, aims, argument to be presented, perspective to be employed or the problem to be investigated, or the question to which you do not know the answer, and for which research is therefore necessary. If these 'emerged' during the process of the research, then the narrative of the emergence needs to be detailed (probably in one or more chapters following the introduction): how emerged, what led to what, what problems were encountered, how overcome, what unanticipated theoretical, methodological issues arose, how these shaped the emergent design, and what social, political, cultural, professional, personal psychological, etc issues emerged as the fieldwork was undertaken).

b. background to the research. - what led to it?- the nature of the debate (political, social, cultural, economic, professional ... etc) that has led to it . In short, this is a justification for doing the research, indicating for example, its personal, professional, academic, methodological, social, political etc importance. This may be included in the introduction, however, if it is substantial it may be a full chapter on its own.


c . the research methods and methodology:

This is typically a separate chapter. Depending on the focus of the writing (stressing methodology and using the substance of the research as illustrative as opposed to stressing the substance, employing the methdology as the means of developing findings/conclusions/recommendations that are convincing), the methodology and the methods may either be discussed and detailed in one chapter or separated into two or more chapters.


- description of and justification of methodology/perspective chosen (e.g., why qualitative, or case study, or quantitative; why symbolic interactionism, phenomenology, feminism, marxism, critical realism, ...etc)
- outline of methods employed (interview, participant observation, statistical etc)- descriptions of how many interviewed etc
- justification of methods employed (i.e., why particularly appropriate for the subject under study), indications of their limitations
- how and degree to which objectivity and validity are achieved; or, degree to which subjectivity is justified
- discussion of ethical issues in collecting, processing, and re-presenting data


d . Description of 'field site' where data gathered

This may well include a description and a discussion of the implications for the ressearch of:

- the physical site .

- relevant organisations involved and their relevant organisational features

- nature of the population, composition (relevant gender, ethnic, age, cultural, etc factors)

- relevant historical background

- relevant social, economic, political, religious, etc factors/circumstances

As an illustrative instance see 'visions and voices'.


e . Review of the relevant literature - there are four kinds of review that can be done: a review of perspectives; a methodological review; a theoretical review; a substantive review. The purpose and focus of the assignment, dissertation or thesis will place different stress on one or more of these. Each review may be merged in one chapter or may be located in other apprpriate chapters, or may be woven into the emergent body of the writing throughout its chapters. In each case each the review will address such questions as: What's the debate? What rationales are employed by the protagonists, where are the weak spots and the strong points of each protagonist?

 

Review of perspectives. This should focus on developing the rationale for the choice of a particular perspective. The perspective may be a unique blend drawn from a 'family of perspectives' or from a creative, critical dialogue between distinct even apparently opposing perspectives. Or the perspective may attempt to be faithful to a particular approach, often promoted by a particular author or group. For example, the perspective may attempt to be faithful to the particular blend existential phenomenology of Sartre, or Heidegger; or it may favour a particular form of Marxism; or the de-construction of Derrida. Others may employ the approach made popular by one such as Denzin (1970, 1989), or Schutz (1976), or Goffman (1959, 1969), or Bhaskar 1975, 1986, (see Sayer (1993) for a sociological form of critical realism). Yet others may adopt a more avant guarde posture by providing a re-assessment of such persectives in relation to contemporary debates about the postmodern condition (as an introduction to such debates see for example, Bauman 2001, Fontana 1994, Jameson 1984, Lyotard 1984, Marshall 1992, Owen 1997, Schostak 2002)

Methodological review. A review of the relevant literature relating to the chosen methodology, showing how it is logically related to or derived from the chosen perspective. This will also include a discussion of the implications of the chosen methdology for the representation of data, the development of arguments concerning their 'truth', 'objectivity', 'generalisability', 'reliability', 'validity', 'knowability'.

Theoretical review. A review of relevant theories that claim to present understandings and explanations of the social, cultural, professional, organisational, etc processes, events, phenomena to be explored by the assignment, dissertation, thesis.

Substantive review. This involves a review of the relevant research, policy documentation or other documentation relating to the broad focus of study, and particular issues, themes, current understandings. views, beliefs regarding the subject of study.

All the above need to be tied into, cross referenced with, or in some way linked with issues and discussions emerging from data analysis.

f. Representation of the data and the scene of the research. Data can be re-presented in various ways: as illustrative extracts from interviews, as vignettes, as stories, as plays, (see also the alcohol cultures report) or indeed as illustrations of highly abstract categories derived from the analysis of the data. Examples of and issues regarding representation are discussed in Schostak 2002, Schostak 2006 and Schostak and Schostak 2008.

In broad terms the presentation of the data should be done in a way which:

describes the field of study,

describes the 'dramatis personae', the key actors involved in events

gives a sense or 'picture' of the 'realities' of the everyday lives of those being studied, drawing on interviews, observational records, photos, films and any other documentary product or artifact employed in the lives of people

presents an analysis of the phenomena under study and

offers interpretations

g. Analysis

There are many approaches to carrying out analyses. As always, a particular analytic approach needs to be justified. This can be done by showing how it follows from the perspective and methodologies chosen: the grounded theory approach to analysis, hermeneutic analysis (Howard 1982), semiotic analysis, discourse analysis, structural analysis ..... etc. The acceptability of the analysis will depend upon the methodological arguments employed to assure (or at least legitimise or render plausible) the validity of the analytic categories employed. Needham (1983) distinguishes between nomothetic and polythetic forms of classification. Nomothetic forms are appropriate when elements to be classified are seen to fall into clear and distinct groups. Each member of a given group are identical to each other. This form of classification underpins statistical forms of analysis. Polythetic forms of classification are appropriate when the elements to be classified fall into groups where each member bears a family resemblance to each of the others. For example, people may be categorised according to certain characteristics which they share in common: e.g., income level, gender, ethnic background. However, there are many other ways in which each of these individuals may be quite dissimilar. Indeed, their dissimilarities may be more important than their similarities. However, for research purposes decisions have to be made, boundaries drawn. How these boundaries are drawn become an important part of the argument that can be used to critique the research (see Schostak 2002, 2006, Schostak and Schostak 2008).

h. Critique

A critique can only take placce if there is a framework of values by which to make judgements. Such a framework may include such criteria as 'consistency', 'validity', 'trustworthiness', 'objectivity', 'reliability', or indeed, values such as 'equality', 'rationality', 'freedom' and so on that pertain to social justice.

Critical reflection can thus focus on such factors as:

It is the quality of critique that a writer can bring to their assignment, dissertation or thesis that distinguishes it. This critique may show itself in reviews of the literature as well as critical reflection upon the writer's own research processes. Postmodern and poststructuralists approaches to research adopt a deconstructive or skeptical approach to any overall 'grand narrative' or 'master narrative' concerning 'truth', 'values', 'objectivity'. Critique should explore what is at stake in the contemporary debates concerning such terms as 'reality', 'reason', 'truth' and so on.

i. Argument.

Each section and/or chapter of the written text should contribute to the central argument of the assignment, dissertation or thesis. One useful exercise is to try to encapsulate the argument in a single paragraph and then link each section/chapter to a particular step in the argument. Ask yourself (repeatedly over the course of the writing up) - what is the key 'message' that I want my reader to take away with them when they've finished reading my thesis? How does each chapter, each section of each chapter, and each paragraph of each section contribute to the argument that underpins that 'message'?

j . Discussion:

in the discussion section/chapter, the literature (and the research data) will be discussed in relation to the argument which you wish to make in relation to the issues generated by your reading and research. The whole discussion should be pervaded with a sense of drawing upon the evidence and critically reflecting on the processes of interpretation in the formation of arguments, findings, conclusions, recommendations.

k. Contribution to knowledge.

All research, if conducted thoughtfully, will contribute in some way to 'knowledge'. The doctoral thesis, of course, is typically defined in terms of its contribution to knowledge. In a traditional thesis gaps in knowledge are identified which the the thesis seeks to fill. It is rare that truly 'new knowledge' is discovered. It is more likely that a thesis will contribute to growing evidence concerning a particular theory, model, or approach to professional practice. By carrying out research with a community of practitioners, definable group, or in a particular setting etc, the researcher can claim to contribute to the development of knowledge through the further provision of original (that is, what the researcher collected) evidence. Interesting twists and turns in theory development, inventive theoretical formulations, critical insights into previous approaches to understanding tend to set the better theses apart. Indeed, the thesis may well not come up with any firm 'knowledge' but may claim to have found a better way of formulating the essential questions. Thus, the formulation of the key questions that should underpin a domain of inquiry may be the 'contribution to knowledge' of a particular thesis.


l . Recommendations (if any)

All recommendations should logically follow from the 'findings', the evidence, and/or the discussions put forward in the assignment, dissertation or thesis. A clear link needs to be made between each recommendation and a particular piece of evidence or argument.


m . Conclusion: typically, this does not introduce anything substantially new but rather sums up and draws together conclusions to the discussions made throughout the dissertation; it may also sum up your own professional learning and your experiences of employing methodology (thus providing a critical account); and point towards future possibilities for research, action, policy making and so on..

Make sure analysis and discussion outweighs description, unless you decide to state the grounds why that should not be so.

 

References

Bauman, Z. (2001) The Individualised Society, Cambrige: Polity

Bhaskar R. (1975 and 1978) A realist theory of science, Hassocks, Sussex ; Harvester Press

Bhaskar, R. (1986) Scientific Realism and Human Emancipation, London, Verso

Blumer, H. (1969) Symbolic Interactionism, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice Hall

Charmaz, K. (2006) Constructing Grounded Theory. A Practical Guide through Qualitative Analysis, London, thousand Oaks: Sage

Denzin, N. K. (1970) The Research Act in Sociology, London, Butterworth

Denzin, N. K. (1989) Interpretive Interactionism, Newbury Park Ca., London, UK, Sage

Feyerabend, P. (1975) Against Method, London: NLB

Fontana, A. (1994) ‘Ethnographic Trends in the Postmodern Era’, in: eds. David R. Dickens and Andrea Fontana, Postmodernism and Social Inquiry, London, UCL Press

Fox, N. F. (2003) The New Sartre. Explorations in Postmodernism, New York, London; Continuum

Glaser, B. G. and Strauss, A. L. (1967) The Discovery of Grounded Theory. Strategies for Qualitative Research, Aldine: Atherton

Goffman, E. (1959, 1969) The presentation of self in everyday life, London, Allen Lane; subsequently published 1971, 1990 Penguin, Harmondsworth

Harber, C. (2004) Schooling as violence. How schools harm pupils and societies, RoutledgeFalmer: London and new York

Howard, R. J. (1982) Three faces of hermeneutics : an introduction to current
theories of understanding
, Berkeley, London, University of California Press

Jameson, F. (1984) “Postmodernism; or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” New Left Review 146: 53-93

Lacan, J. (1977) Écrits. A selection. London: Tavistock/Routlege

Le Corbusier (1927) Towards a New Architecture, London, the Architectural Press

Lyotard, J. F. (1984) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Translation from the French by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, foreward by Frederic Jameson, Theory and History of Literature, volume 10, Manchester University Press

Marshall, B. K. (1992) Teaching the Postmodern. Fiction and Theory, New York and London, Routledge

Mead, G. H. (1934) Mind, Self and Society, university of Chicago Press

Needham, R. (1983) Against the tranquility of axioms, Berkeley, University of California Press

Owen, D. (ed.) (1997) Sociology after postmodernism, London ; SAGE

Sayer, A. (1993) Method in Social Science. A Realist Approach, London, New York: Routledge

Saussure, F. de, (1966) Course in General Linguistics, ed., C. Bally and A. Sechehaye. Translated by W. Baskin, New York, McGraw-Hill

Schostak. J. F. (1999) ‘Action Research and the Point Instant of Change’ Educational Action Research Journal, 7,3

Schostak, J.F. (2002) Understanding, Designing and Conducting Qualitative Research in Education. Framing the Project. Open University Press

Schostak, J.F. (2006) Interviewing and Representation in Qualitative Research Projects, Open University press

Schutz, A. (1976) The Phenomenology of the Social World, tr. G. Walsh and F. Lehnert, London: Heineman

Strauss, A., and Corbin, J. (1998) Basics of qualitative research : techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory, Thousand Oaks, Calif. London ; Sage