Fancy a spot of qualitative, exploratory research?

Explaining the Nature & Background of Qualitative, Exploratory Research

If you read a previous blog post of mine you might remember that I spoke a bit about my own research and then in general about the range of interpretive paradigms you can choose from when designing your own research programme. I also suggested you could even have fun choosing between the plethora of options open to you!

On the various national and international collaborative research projects I’ve worked on, we used a variety of approaches, but for my PhD I did qualitative research, in an exploratory and descriptive mix.

It was exploratory (Robson, 1993) because it was concerned with a new area, i.e. how people made sense and demonstrated learning with complexity science as evidenced in a work-focussed diary. So I did the research to find out what was happening in this context in a qualitative way.

It was also qualitatively descriptive (Zikmund, 1991) because it provided a description of a portrayal of events, situations and people, where my research participants were engaged in diary writing while being involved in a research process and engaging in communication with me.

As a researcher you do have to bear in mind your own frame of reference; where you are coming from, what you bring with you to the ‘party’. Did you ever think of research as a party??? Well, it is. So anyway, you need to articulate your frame of reference as part of the influences and limitations on your research design as well. The primary reason I chose a qualitative route for myself was my skills set, training and background as a researcher – ancient history, social anthropology, and a little bit of journalism.

The second reason, adding validity to the chosen path, had to do with what came out of my literature review: the domains of complexity science, sense-making and learning, and the use of diaries, which all leant themselves strongly to qualitative research because of the volume and depth of descriptive data this specific combination could produce.

In addition, complexity science especially is in sympathy with much of the postmodern critique on positivist research I was influenced by. Quantitative data was produced from my research study (e.g. concerning diary word counts, frequency and regularity of diary writing, and theme frequency). But, to address my particular research questions, quantitative data wasn’t overly relevant. I did though refer to quantitative data at high level in a specific chapter of my PhD thesis, and provided further, associated tabulated information in an appendix. But you know what? If someone else came along and wanted to look at my research questions from a quantitative angle, I am sure they could, and it would add another level of interesting interpretation and results to the area. So I wouldn’t be against it.

 As Hutton (1990) states though, qualitative research uses a different range of techniques to quantitative research, has a very different role, but is no less valuable. In contrast to the structured nature of quantitative studies, respondents in qualitative research, such as interviews, are encouraged to qualify or elaborate on points made in order, for example, to clarify their point of view (Hutton, 1990).

The rest of this blog post outlines the understanding of qualitative research that my own PhD research study was based on. In presenting it here I imagine it might provide an example for others to work out their own path, which will probably vary in line with the context of your own work. I’m interested in any feedback and if you want to get in touch to ask more about any of this, please feel free.

Denzin and Lincoln (2003) locate the origins of qualitative research in the history of sociology and anthropology (anthropology gets a special mention there, wahey!). In sociology, they refer to the ‘Chicago School’ of the 1920’s and 1930’s, where importance was established in the use of qualitative inquiry for the study of human group life. Meanwhile, at about the same time in anthropology, studies by authors such as Boas, Mead, Benedict, Bateson, Evans-Pritchard, Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski appeared detailing methods of fieldwork, where observers studied the customs and habits of other societies or cultures (you really need to check out some of the ethnographies they produced – some amazing stuff!). These approaches were then taken up by other social science disciplines, including education, history, political science, communications, and business and management (Denzin and Lincoln, 2003). And quite rightly, too! What a brilliant tool set to provide a richly nuanced, descriptive flavour of a situation or set of circumstances around a topic.

So where and how to start? Miles and Huberman (1994) identify a loose framework of criteria for what determines qualitative research. Their list includes: intense and prolonged contact in the field; research that is designed to achieve a holistic or systemic picture; the gaining of perception from the subjective point of view of the understanding of the research participant; research that revolves mostly around the analysis of words; data that provides multiple interpretations; and, a lack of standardised research instrumentation (Miles and Huberman, 1994).

Denzin and Lincoln (2003) define qualitative research as:

“A situated activity that locates the observer in the world. It consists of a set of interpretive, material practices that make the world visible. These practices transform the world. They turn the world into a series of representations, including field notes, interviews, conversations, photographs, recordings, and memos to the self. At this level, qualitative research involves an interpretive, naturalistic approach to the world. This means that qualitative researchers study things in their natural settings, attempting to make sense of, or to interpret, phenomena in terms of the meanings people bring to them” (2003:4-5).

Partington (2002) describes a qualitative research design simply as:

“One where the data are collected in the form of words and observations, as opposed to numbers. Analysis is based on the interpretation of these data as opposed to statistical manipulation” (2002:109).

And qualitative research as being:

“Associated with research questions and phenomena of interest that require exploration of detailed in-depth data, aimed at description, comparison or prescription … In qualitative research, the aim is usually to provide detail, and large sample sizes are not normally feasible … In the main, qualitative research tends to be either descriptive or comparative” (2002:109).

These loose definitions and criteria can be refined further depending on the qualitative research ‘tradition’ followed (Jacob, 1987), for example, ecological psychology, holistic ethnography, cognitive anthropology, ethnography of communication, or symbolic interactionism (look these up separately! Oh, go on, you know you want to!)

Kuhn (1970) linked research traditions to the discipline, or a school within the discipline, to which the research was related. Since my own PhD study was related to individuals engaged in work and/or management activities in a self-employed capacity and/or with significant links to organisations, the relevant ‘qualitative research tradition’ taken into consideration was that associated with management research.

Partington (2002:114-115) considers five helpful and important aspects of conducting qualitative research in a managerial environment:

  1. Qualitative research is designed to operate well in areas that are complex, messy, causally ambiguous and there is little extant knowledge.
  2. Qualitative research is usually descriptive or comparative but may also be prescriptive.
  3. Qualitative research is conducted from the point of view of the informant and a high degree of engagement with the informant’s world is central to its success. Consequently most forms of qualitative data collection provide very rich data sets.
  4. As a result of data richness, there are many interpretations available at the point of analysis. The challenge is therefore to provide the most compelling interpretation of the data by paying attention to transparency and trustworthiness whilst holding on to intuition and insight.
  5. Qualitative data collection and analysis rely on the development of skills to attend to, extract and gather rich information, and to uncover insights that lie within the data.

Partington further goes on to suggest that such qualitative research lends itself to an inductive approach, where less structure in the research design permits the exploration of questions not thought of at the outset of the study. This is great because it means you can give permission for your work to evolve and grow. However, challenges to qualitative research include gaining access to private experiences, how to interpret data, accuracy of information, establishing objectivity and subjectivity, handling potentially large amounts of data, and, reliability and trustworthiness of findings (Johnson and Harris, 2002; Easterby-Smith, Thorpe, and Lowe, 2002).

Dominant methods of carrying out qualitative research include ethnography, observation, various types of interviewing, and document analysis – e.g. company documents or diaries and journals (Johnson and Harris, 2002; Easterby-Smith et al., 2002). Many authors advocate the combining of methods (Bennet, 1983; Denzin and Lincoln, 2003). It’s all highly interesting and fascinating stuff – I recommend delving in and finding out what suits you, your topic area, and your research projects and questions.

A strong influence in my PhD study has was the approach of grounded theory, which I will give an overview of in another blog post, another time…. because I am SURE you will want to know all about that 😉

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