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First, what is the purpose of research in the social sciences?
Where the physical sciences sought to understand and control ‘nature’; the social sciences focus on the nature and purposes of society. If we can understand people and the societies they produce better, then perhaps we can develop a better, more peaceful world?
It seems to me that everyday life in varying degrees involves struggle, the struggle for work, for self expression, for one’s own safety and well being. such struggles can be thought of as generating either a sense of conflict, war and the survival of the strongest or it can be thought that people are naturally peaceful, co-operative and desire consensus. This has led to different ‘schools’ of thought concerning the nature of people and the forms of social organisation that they create.
Qualitative research recognises the complexity of social life. There is a view that qualitative research focuses only on the small scale and so does not answer the big social questions. In my view this is incorrect. The greater context always has to be taken into account. Within the greater contexts of social organisation qualitative research studies the details of how everyday life is meaningfully produced by particular social actors (whether as individuals, groups, communities and the whole range of different forms of social organisation) what is to be taken into account is the relation between the individual and the general, the single and the many, the particular and the universal category. So as researchers with the focus of how everyday life is experienced by individuals we can also explore such broader questions as:
The modern sciences are often thought of as having their origins in the revolution of thinking stimulated by Descartes and the Enlightenment philosophers. In answer to the question ‘What is Enlightenment?” Kant wrote this:
Nothing is required for this enlightenment, however, except freedom; and the freedom in question is the least harmful of all, namely, the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters.(Kant, ‘An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? (1784) – full text )
The use of reason publicly in all matters is fundamental to what I mean by science. The exemplar of reason was that of geometry because it could be applied in the real world. The mathematical forms of reasoning so appropriate for the analysis and theoretical exploration of the physical world also began to be applied to the emergent social sciences. However, the forms of reason appropriate to the natural sciences were considered by some not to be appropriate for the social sciences. Hence Weber saw the forms of mathematical reasoning as producing an ‘iron cage’ to restrict people. Dilthy and Simmel sought an approach that focused upon experience and meaning. Pearce, James, Dewey, Mead (1934) developed a form of reasoning based upon everyday experience which came to be known as pragmatism. The focus upon meaning, experience and pragmatic forms of reasoning influenced the development of what has come to be known as the Chicago School of sociology. Key figures included Park and Burgess (1925), Cooley (1902), Thrasher (1927), Thomas (1928) in the first instance, then later on there were Whyte (1943), Blumer (1969), Goffman (1959, 1970, 1975) amongst others. Alongside this development was the use of Husserlian phenomenology by Schutz (1976) to study the typical social forms of the everyday life world. The ethnomethodology of Garfinkel (1967) and Cicourel (1964) grew out of the focus of phenomenology on the everyday forms of reasoning. The focus on particular viewpoints – whether relating to gender, ethnicity, culture, faith, age, social class, physical and mental abilities and so on – has led to the many critical and radical approaches to research such as feminist, anti-racist, post-colonial, queer theory and so on. The focus on the limits of reason in relation to experience, motives, values, beliefs and so on has contributed to the various forms of post-modernist and post-structuralist critiques of modernity and the use of Reason to master nature and the social world.
Qualitative research then, is in many ways a short hand for this history of a search for alternative methodologies and methods for the use of reason publicly for the study of and for action within everyday life. Research, in all its manifestations involves the concept of a ‘public’ as the sphere within which reasoning about, acting within and relations between individuals and the social and physical worlds takes place.
So, what is qualitative research?
Briefly, qualitative research is a short hand term for the public use of reason based on systematic inquiry into the forms, practices and objects of social life that focuses on the meanings, understandings, values, reasons, motives and purposes of the people involved. It may be seen as a reaction against the reduction and abstraction of the complexity of social life to the simpler, measurable units necessary for statistical analysis as the social sciences modelled themselves on the natural sciences.
A further distinction is often made between the micro and the macro. Qualitative research is typically considered to focus in-depth at the micro-level whereas quantitative research can be employed at the large scale or macro-level. However, it is also the case that quantitative research can be employed for micro-level studies as qualitative research can also be employed on large scale studies. Rather, the distinction may be more akin to what Kuhn (1970) called a paradigm clash. That is, they are different ways of seeing the world that lead to different principles, procedures and methods governing what counts as ‘data’ and how to collect, analyse, critique it and apply it. Each, however, employ reason to make statements that go well beyond the particulars that have been the source of their data.
The validity, reliability and generalisability of statistical research depends upon adhering to a number of assumptions concerning the physical, observable world, the categories that represent the observed particulars and the rules and procedures through which data is processed and manipulated, calculations undertaken and predictions made. As Cohen (1944:134-5) pointed out some years ago:
In the end, the truth of a generalisation from a sample depends on the homogeneity of the group with respect to which we wish to generalise. A single experiment on a new substance, to test whether it is acid or alkaline, is much more convincing than the result of a questionnaire addressed to millions of army men to measure their intelligence. For the latter is not a simple quality of a uniformly repeatable pattern. In this respect the methods of social statistics are gross compared with refined analysis, so that when our analysis is thoroughgoing, as it generally is in physics, one or two samples are as good as a million. If what we are measuring is really homogeneous, one is sufficient. In the social field, therefore, statistics cannot take the place of analysis ....
What is at issue is the degree of uniformity of the particulars that compose a category. The more uniform (and the consistency evidenced in the use of the categories over time and across contexts), the greater the credibility concerning generalisation. In the study of people and their social forms, processes, practices and so on, it is the issue of uniformity (and consistency) that becomes the key focus for critical analysis, contention and debate.
Given that qualitative research focuses upon meanings, i.e., the symbolic dimensions of lived experience, it is not surprising that researchers would draw upon those philosophies and disciplines most associated with the analysis, interpretation, understanding and theorisation of experiences, practices and forms of social organisation, for example:
There are a number of positions that one can adopt as a researcher towards qualitative research:
and employs the following methods
Across the following kinds of methodologies/perspectives/approaches:
All in varying degrees take the view that as social actors we construct our realities (whether consciously or unconsciously). And all focus on how meaning is constructed and used by people and how people are shaped by the meanings that have been and are continuously being constructed, de-constructed, transformed and created.
The literature relating to all the above perspectives (and all the variants that draw upon them) constitute the resources available for the qualitative researcher. Examples of the books that I have found useful are provided in the references. There is no short cut to learning about qualitative research, and how to carry out fieldwork, analysis, critique, action and writing up. It involves reading. More Reading. And still more reading…. in fact, the reading never stops…. And it involves exploring what you’re reading in relation to what you’re researching by writing, writing and still more writing….. do it everyday…. write journals, write notes, write chapters, conference papers, journal articles, …. all this becomes a resource to draw upon when it comes to writing the final version of the thesis.
Developing the Research Design
Essential to the development of a ‘robust’ research design is to build in the capacity of triangulation. Triangulation is a process of cross checking from multiple points of views and methods:
On a map, a position can be defined by correlating – or triangulating – its latitude and longitude or its position in a grid. Metaphorically, the validity, objectivity, and, indeed, reliability of an observation, and object, a category, a meaning, a state of affairs, or an event is increasingly established through correlating – or cross-checking –a multiplicity of viewpoints directed toward it over time and across contexts. ….. The more agreements there are between different methods and viewpoints on social phenomena, the stronger the triangulation.
Keeping in mind the method of triangulation, the key elements of research design can thought about in terms of phases. Each phase involves developing the capacity to
So, for each phase ask yourself: what is needed in order to make sure I get a good set of triangulations on what I want to study? What are the:
Then it’s a matter of trying to get the best methods to answer such questions. And that is where the research design comes in.
Phase 1 Setting up
Phase 2 Mapping the field
Get a sense of the vitality of the data and don’t lose it
Phase 3 Analysing data for critical debate
Never lose the vitality of the data in deadening abstractions. The task is to keep alive the relationships that emerge between the particularity of lived experience and its relation to universalising or generalising categories through which people organise their experience, their ‘subjectivity’, their ‘identity’, their ‘knowledge’, their ‘beliefs’ their ‘powers’ in their lives. The critical questions include asking:
vocabularies of motive
categories structured as binaries
Phase 4 Theoretical Sampling and Progressive focusing in the Field
Theoretical sampling is quite different from random sampling. Following a phase of analysis, conjectures concerning possible theories, models, explanations, interpretations may well emerge. The task then is to try and test these out. To do that specific locations are chosen for observation and people for interview or documentation for study that compare and contrast with the previous sites, people and documentation. The task is to find situations that will really test the robustness of the emergent findings.
Phase 5 Representational strategies
The key purpose is to ensure that the full range of voices have been identified and that their views have been articulated. What is important is to identify the range of possible arguments, rationales, reasons, demands, needs, issues. It may be that only one person subscribes to a particular point of view and that the rest take an entirely different account. That one view is important to consider alongside the majority view and the views of elites. There was a time when very few thought that the Earth was a globe rather than flat. The majority are not always right. This is particularly so in the case of social justice issues (see Schostak and Schostak 2008, 2010)
The multiplicity of views can be represented in a report in many ways, such as:
Phase 6 Reiteration of phases 1 – 5
Since the ‘phases’ are not necessarily discrete or indeed sequential, they may happen to some degree in parallel and are likely to be repeated as the project progresses.
Phase 7 Writing up
A good first plan is to write a synopsis of the reports identifying what goes into each chapter or section. In this way, you can get a first sense of the arguments that need to be made, the linkages that are necessary between each section and chapter. A synopsis for example may well include the following:
If you have been developing your field diary, your analytic and theoretical memos and undertaking masses of reading in methodology and the substantive areas of your research you should already have a large resource upon which to draw for the final stages of putting the thesis together.
As phase 6 suggests, none of these phases (from 1-7) are necessarily discrete. I have separated them for analytic and discussion purposes. They could be re-framed as ‘dimensions’ of the research that may, or may not, occur in parallel, and repeatedly throughout the research period.
Making a difference requires a combination of analysis, theorisation, critique, debate from a multiplicity of points of view, public decision making, recommendations and action.
Every moment during the research process is a moment when both learning about the other and critical analysis is taking place. There is both an ethical and political dimension to this process – we might call it ‘ethico-political’ to underline its fusion/coupling. Analytic categories do not just appear naturally, but rather are historical constructs, continually evolving and continually contestable. In the physical science, the particulars that are placed into categories are processed and definable in ways that make them identical to each other, In this way variables can be controlled. In the social sciences there are few, if any, occasions where this can be done with the same degree of certitude and precision. Rather, particulars are placed into the same category when they have, let’s say, a family resemblance to each other. Take the notion of ‘social class’, and in particular, the term ‘working class’. When set alongside the terms middle and upper classes, it typically refers to those people who have what are considered to be lower skilled employment that is low paid. Crudely, it could, however, be extended to cover anyone who works for those who own the means of production. It could be argued then that this generates the conditions, at least potentially, for a struggle between workers and owners since they each have quite different class interests. Research may seek to explore the relations between the different classes, the social functions of having different classes, the strategies of exploitation and resistance, the organisation of power and laws to maintain a divided society and so forth. Qualitative research, in particular, may be carried out to explore what it means to be working class, middle class, upper class from the perspectives of those who identify themselves with one of the classes. In doing so, it may find that the clear boundaries and definitions for a given class become indistinct, or indeed, too crude to be useful. Take for example, the call for workers of the world to unite in order to break free from the ways in which their labour is exploited by those who own the factories, the financial institutions, the farms and so on. Recently, there was the example of British workers protesting against the employment of foreign workers in the context of Gordon Brown saying that there should be ‘British jobs for British workers’. Rather than worker solidarity, there is a division between ‘nationalities’. There is a sense of ‘ownership’ of ‘British’ jobs. Further divisions, of course may be found when inquiring further into ‘Britishness’ or any other sense of national ‘identity’. In the 1990 Norman Tebbit (in)famously said:
"Where you have a clash of history, a clash of religion, a clash of race," he said, "then it's all too easy for there to be an actual clash of violence. A nation is a nation because of what it shares in common."
Tebbit complained that "a large proportion" of Britain's Asian population failed to pass what he called the "cricket test."
"Which side do they cheer for?" he said. "It's an interesting test. Are you still harking back to where you came from, or where you are? And I think we've got real problems in that regard."
The search for what is ‘common’ becomes even more fraught with difficulty of definition when further distinctions along gender lines, or faith, or regional or gang allegiances are drawn into the debate. Perhaps the notion of a national identity is more imaginary than real in the sense that Benedict Anderson argued in his book Imagined Communities (1983). However, the imaginary also has real effects if as Thomas put it: "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences". In such a view, then, qualitative research explores the processes through which people define their realities and the consequences of doing so. This places an emphasis upon their discourses, that is, the way they talk about their realities, the particular vocabularies, phrases, forms of reasoning they employ to distinguish between things, events, the people and the forms of social organisation that compose their worlds and bring about a sense of meaning, order, and a capacity for action.
Theorisation involves a process of trying to make connections between seemingly diverse particulars and events in order to formulate explanations and understandings of social life. Grounding the processes of theorisation in the discourses of everyday life provides steps towards theorisation at two ‘levels’: that is, 1) how people make sense of their lives, and 2) how the researcher makes sense of that sense.
Grounded Theory (Glaser and Strauss 1964, 1967; Charmaz 2006) Strauss and Corbin 1998) provides a way of thinking about these two levels. the broad idea is that through a systematic process of comparison and contrast key descriptive categories and categories of reasons employed by actors accounting for their behaviour, beliefs and values are identified that can form the basis for the generation of theories. Because the theories are generated from and tested (by triangulation, by progressive focusing, by constant comparison and contrast) in practice, they are likely to be both valid and robust.
As a way of progressively theorising the fieldwork experience
it is useful to record reflections in terms of analytic memos and theoretic
memos. In the development of theory one needs to give attention to issues
How are particulars used in relation to:
In these ways the potential unpredictability of life and its events is controlled to varying degrees and thus rendered increasingly predictable.
Critique, it seems to me requires three things: first, the capacity to de-construct the categories or assumptions about the world that are employed as ‘real’, ‘solid’, ‘given’, ‘unproblematic’ by people; secondly, a consideration of what is to count as ‘social justice’; and thus thirdly, a debate concerning the ‘good society’. Qualitative research brings into relationship the multiple views that can be offered upon the circumstances and contexts affecting people’s lives. By mapping the range of views that can be brought to bear, it creates the conditions through which each can critique the other publicly.
In general terms then, qualitative research, if it is to be
‘qualitative’ must include the range of voices that give their
accounts, their meanings and make their demands upon the world about. Thus
qualitative research cannot avoid debate, contest, and the politics and ethics
of the social world(s) of people in the exploration of what is ‘fair’,
‘socially just’ and what is considered the ‘good’
by each of the social actors.Action to make a difference
Critique makes possible the opening of new possibilities for action that can make a difference in peoples lives to address issues of social justice. Critique may reveal the gaps, the conflicts, the exploitation, the grievances that occur when needs and demands are not addressed by the prevailing forms of social organisation and distributions of rewards and opportunities. Recommendations strategies for action to implement change may then be identified. Qualitative research may thus form a key strategy in both evaluations and action research programmes that seek to address issues of change.
Where critique interrogates power and seeks to tell truth to power; action seeks to create the conditions for the exercise of powers publicly and to create the conditions for the use of reason publicly by all actors in all social institutions on all occasions.
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