Chapter 9: Qualitative Methods

  1. What are some ways that qualitative research characteristics are fundamentally different from quantitative research?
  2. Consider a research study you might conduct. What is the role of gatekeepers?
  3. To what extent do you think having data analysis in qualitative research goes hand-in-hand with data collection, and write-up of findings may cause confusion for the researcher?
  4. Discuss the relative merits of hand coding as opposed to using computer software when completing qualitative data analysis.

CHAPTER 9 QUALITATIVE METHODS

Qualitative methods demonstrate a different approach to scholarly inquiry than methods of quantitative research. Although the processes are similar, qualitative methods rely on text and image data, have unique steps in data analysis, and draw on diverse designs. Writing a method section for a proposal or study for qualitative research partly requires educating readers as to the intent of qualitative research, mentioning specific designs, carefully reflecting on the role the researcher plays in the study, drawing from an ever-expanding list of types of data sources, using specific protocols for recording data, analyzing the information through multiple steps of analysis, and mentioning approaches for documenting the methodological integrity or accuracy—or validity—of the data collected. This chapter addresses these important components of writing a good qualitative method section into a proposal or study. Table 9.1 presents a checklist for reviewing the qualitative methods section of your project to determine whether you have addressed important topics.

Table 9.1 A Checklist of Questions for Designing a Qualitative Procedure

Are the basic characteristics of qualitative studies mentioned?

___________

Is the specific type of qualitative design to be used in the study mentioned? Is the history of, a definition of, and applications for the design mentioned?

___________

Does the reader gain an understanding of the researcher’s role or reflexivity in the study (past historical, social, cultural experiences, personal connections to sites and people, steps in gaining entry, and sensitive ethical issues) and how they may shape interpretations made in the study?

___________

Is the purposeful sampling strategy for sites and individuals identified?

___________

Is a clear recruitment strategy for enrolling participants mentioned?

___________

Are the specific forms of data collection mentioned and a rationale given for their use?

___________

Are the procedures for recording information during the data collection detailed (such as protocols)?

___________

Are the data analysis steps identified?

___________

Is there evidence that the researcher has organized the data for analysis?

___________

Has the researcher reviewed the data generally to obtain a sense of the information?

___________

Are the ways that the data will be represented mentioned—such as in tables, graphs, and figures?

___________

Has the researcher coded the data?

___________

Have the codes been developed to form a description and/or to identify themes?

___________

Are the themes interrelated to show a higher level of analysis and abstraction?

___________

Have the bases for interpreting the analysis been specified (personal experiences, the literature, questions, action agenda)?

___________

Has the researcher mentioned the outcome of the study (developed a theory, provided a complex picture of themes)?

___________

Have multiple strategies been cited for validating the findings?

The qualitative method section of a proposal requires attention to topics that are similar to a quantitative (or mixed methods) project. These involve telling the reader about the design being used in the study and, in this case, the use of qualitative research and its basic intent. It also involves discussing the sample for the study and the overall data collection and recording procedures. It further expands on the data analysis steps and the methods used for presenting the data, interpreting it, validating it, and indicating the potential outcomes of the study. In contrast to other designs, the qualitative approach includes comments by the researcher about their role and their self-reflection (or reflexivity, it is called), and the specific type of qualitative strategy being used. Further, because the writing structure of a qualitative project may vary considerably from study to study, the method section should also include comments about the nature of the final written product.

THE CHARACTERISTICS OF QUALITATIVE RESEARCH

For many years, qualitative writers had to discuss the characteristics of qualitative research and convince faculty and audiences as to their legitimacy. Now these discussions are less frequently found in the literature and there is some consensus as to what constitutes qualitative inquiry. Thus, our suggestions about the method section of a project or proposal are as follows:

Review the needs of potential audiences for the proposal or study. Decide whether audience members are knowledgeable enough about the characteristics of qualitative research that this section is not necessary. For example, although qualitative research is typically accepted and well-known in the social sciences, it has emerged in the health sciences only in the last couple of decades. Thus, for health science audiences, a review of the basic characteristics will be important.

If there is some question about the audience’s knowledge, present the basic characteristics of qualitative research and consider discussing a recent qualitative research journal article (or study) to use as an example to illustrate the characteristics.

If you present the basic characteristics, what ones should you mention? A number of authors of introductory texts convey these characteristics, such as Creswell (2016), Hatch (2002), and Marshall and Rossman (2016).

Natural setting: Qualitative researchers tend to collect data in the field at the site where participants experience the issue or problem under study. Researchers do not bring individuals into a lab (a contrived situation), nor do they typically send out instruments for individuals to complete. This up-close information gathered by actually talking directly to people and seeing them behave and act within their context is a major characteristic of qualitative research. In the natural setting, the researchers have face-to-face interaction, often extending over a prolonged period of time.

Researcher as key instrument: Qualitative researchers collect data themselves through examining documents, observing behavior, or interviewing participants. They may use a protocol—an instrument for recording data—but the researchers are the ones who actually gather the information and interpret it. They do not tend to use or rely on questionnaires or instruments developed by other researchers.

Multiple sources of data: Qualitative researchers typically gather multiple forms of data, such as interviews, observations, documents, and audiovisual information rather than rely on a single data source. These are all open-ended forms of data in which the participants share their ideas freely, not constrained by predetermined scales or instruments. Then the researchers review all of the data, make sense of it, and organize it into codes and themes that cut across all of the data sources.

Inductive and deductive data analysis: Qualitative researchers typically work inductively, building patterns, categories, and themes from the bottom up by organizing the data into increasingly more abstract units of information. This inductive process illustrates working back and forth between the themes and the database until the researchers have established a comprehensive set of themes. Then deductively, the researchers look back at their data from the themes to determine if more evidence can support each theme or whether they need to gather additional information. Thus, while the process begins inductively, deductive thinking also plays an important role as the analysis moves forward.

Participants’ meanings: In the entire qualitative research process, the researchers keep a focus on learning the meaning that the participants hold about the problem or issue, not the meaning that the researchers bring to the research or that writers express in the literature.

Emergent design: The research process for qualitative researchers is emergent. This means that the initial plan for research cannot be tightly prescribed, and some or all phases of the process may change or shift after the researcher enters the field and begins to collect data. For example, the questions may change, the forms of data collection may shift, and the individuals studied and the sites visited may be modified. These shifts signal that the researchers are delving deeper and deeper into the topic or the phenomenon under study. The key idea behind qualitative research is to learn about the problem or issue from participants and to address the research to obtain that information.

Reflexivity: In qualitative research, inquirers reflect about how their role in the study and their personal background, culture, and experiences hold potential for shaping their interpretations, such as the themes they advance and the meaning they ascribe to the data. This aspect of the methods is more than merely advancing biases and values in the study, but how the background of the researchers actually may shape the direction of the study.

Holistic account: Qualitative researchers try to develop a complex picture of the problem or issue under study. This involves reporting multiple perspectives, identifying the many factors involved in a situation, and generally sketching the larger picture that emerges. This larger picture is not necessarily a linear model of cause and effect but rather a model of multiple factors interacting in different ways. This picture, qualitative researchers would say, mirrors real life and the ways that events operate in the real world. A visual model of many facets of a process or a central phenomenon aids in establishing this holistic picture (see, for example, Creswell & Brown, 1992).

QUALITATIVE DESIGNS

Beyond these general characteristics are more specific approaches (i.e., strategies of inquiry, designs, or procedures) in conducting qualitative research (Creswell & Poth, 2018). These approaches have emerged in the field of qualitative research since it has matured in the social sciences since the early 1990s. They include procedures for data collection, analysis, and writing, but they originated out of disciplines in the social sciences. Many approaches exist, such as the 28 identified by Tesch (1990), the 22 types in Wolcott’s (2009) tree, and the five approaches to qualitative inquiry by Creswell and Poth (2018), and Creswell (2016). Marshall and Rossman (2016) discussed five types common across five different authors. As mentioned in Chapter 1, we recommend that qualitative researchers choose from among the possibilities, such as narrative, phenomenology, ethnography, case study, and grounded theory. We selected these five because they are popular across the social and health sciences today. Others exist that have been addressed adequately in qualitative books, such as participatory action research (Kemmis & Wilkinson, 1998), discourse analysis (Cheek, 2004), or participatory action research (Ivankova, 2015). In these approaches, researchers study individuals (narrative, phenomenology); explore processes, activities, and events (case study, grounded theory); or learn about broad culture-sharing behavior of individuals or groups (ethnography).

In writing a procedure for a qualitative proposal, consider the following research tips:

Identify the specific approach that you will be using and provide references to the literature that discusses the approach.

Provide some background information about the approach, such as its discipline origin, the applications of it (preferably to your field), and a brief definition of it (see Chapter 1 for the five approaches or designs).

Discuss why it is an appropriate strategy to use in the proposed study.

Identify how the use of the approach will shape many aspects of the design process, such as the title, the problem, the research questions, the data collection and analysis, and the report write-up.

THE RESEARCHER’S ROLE AND REFLEXIVITY

As mentioned in the list of characteristics, qualitative research is interpretative research; the inquirer is typically involved in a sustained and intensive experience with participants. This introduces a range of strategic, ethical, and personal issues into the qualitative research process (Locke, Spirduso, & Silverman, 2013). With these concerns in mind, inquirers explicitly identify reflexively their biases, values, and personal background, such as gender, history, culture, and socioeconomic status (SES) that shape their interpretations formed during a study. In addition, gaining entry to a research site and the ethical issues that might arise are also elements of the researcher’s role.

Reflexivity requires commenting on two important points:

Past experiences. Include statements about past experiences with the research problem or with the participants or setting that help the reader understand the connection between the researchers and the study. These experiences may involve participation in the setting, past educational or work experiences, or culture, ethnicity, race, SES, or other demographics that tie the researchers directly to the study.

How past experiences shape interpretations. Be explicit, then, about how these experiences may potentially shape the interpretations the researchers make during the study. For example, the experiences may cause researchers to lean toward certain themes, to actively look for evidence to support their positions, and to create favorable or unfavorable conclusions about the sites or participants.

How can reflexive thinking be incorporated into your qualitative study (Creswell, 2016)? You can write notes about your personal experiences during the study. These notes might include observations about the process of data collection, hunches about what you are learning, and concerns about reactions of participants to the research process. These ideas can be written as memos—notes written during the research process that reflect on the process or that help shape the development of codes and themes. In writing these reflective notes, how do you know whether you are being sufficiently reflexive for a qualitative study? Sufficient reflexivity occurs when researchers record notes during the process of research, reflect on their own personal experiences, and consider how their personal experiences may shape their interpretation of results. Also, qualitative researchers need to limit their discussions about personal experiences so that they do not override the importance of the content or methods in a study.

Another aspect of reflecting on the role of the researcher is to be aware of connections between the researcher and the participants or the research sites that may unduly influence the researcher’s interpretations. “Backyard” research (Glesne & Peshkin, 1992) involves studying the researcher’s own organization, or friends, or immediate work setting. This often leads to compromises in the researcher’s ability to disclose information and raises issues of an imbalance of power between the inquirer and the participants. When researchers collect data at their own workplaces (or when they are in a superior role to participants), the information may be convenient and easy to collect, but it may not be accurate information and it may jeopardize the roles of the researchers and the participants. If studying the backyard is essential, then the researcher is responsible for showing how the data will not be compromised and how such information will not place the participants (or the researchers) at risk. In addition, multiple strategies for validation (see approaches to validation later in this chapter) are necessary to demonstrate the accuracy of the information.

Further, indicate steps taken to obtain permission from the institutional review board (IRB) (see Chapter 4) to protect the rights of human participants. Attach, as an appendix, the approval letter from the IRB and discuss the process involved in securing permissions. Discuss steps taken to gain entry to the setting and to secure permissions to study the participants or situation (Marshall & Rossman, 2016). It is important to gain access to research or archival sites by seeking the approval of gatekeepers, individuals at the site who provide access to the site and allow or permit the research to be done. A brief proposal might need to be developed and submitted for review to gatekeepers. Bogdan and Biklen (1992) advanced topics that could be addressed in such a proposal:

Why was the site chosen for study?

What activities will occur at the site during the research study?

Will the study be disruptive?

How will the results be reported?

What will the gatekeeper gain from the study?

Comment about sensitive ethical issues that may arise (see Chapter 4). For each issue raised, discuss how the research study will address it. For example, when studying a sensitive topic, it is necessary to mask names of people, places, and activities. In this situation, the process for masking information requires discussion in the proposal.

DATA COLLECTION PROCEDURES

Comments about the role of the researcher set the stage for discussion of issues involved in collecting data. The data collection steps include setting the boundaries for the study through sampling and recruitment; collecting information through unstructured or semi-structured observations and interviews, documents, and visual materials; as well as establishing the protocol for recording information.

Identify the purposefully selected sites or individuals for the proposed study. The idea behind qualitative research is to purposefully select participants or sites (or documents or visual material) that will best help the researcher understand the problem and the research question. This does not necessarily suggest random sampling or selection of a large number of participants and sites, as is typically found in quantitative research. A discussion of participants and the site might include four aspects identified by Miles and Huberman (1994): (a) the setting (i.e., where the research will take place), (b) the actors (i.e., who will be observed or interviewed), (c) the events (i.e., what the actors will be observed or interviewed doing), and (d) the process (i.e., the evolving nature of events undertaken by the actors within the setting).

Discuss the strategies being used to recruit individual (or cases) to the study. This is a challenging aspect of research. Indicate ways of informing appropriate participants about the study, and cite the actual recruitment messages sent to them. Discuss ways to provide incentives for individuals to participate, and reflect on approaches that will be used if one method of recruitment is not successful.

Comment on the number of participants and sites involved in the research. Aside from the small number that characterizes qualitative research, how many sites and participants should you have? First of all, there is no specific answer to this question; the literature contains a variety of perspectives (e.g., see Creswell & Poth, 2018). Sample size depends on the qualitative design being used (e.g., ethnography, case study). From a review of many qualitative research studies, we have some rough estimates to advance. Narrative includes one or two individuals; phenomenology involves a range of 3–10; grounded theory, 20–30; ethnography examines one single culture-sharing group with numerous artifacts, interviews, and observations; and case studies include about four to five cases. This is certainly one approach to the sample size issue. Another approach is equally viable. The idea of saturation comes from grounded theory. Charmaz (2006) said that one stops collecting data when the categories (or themes) are saturated: when gathering fresh data no longer sparks new insights or reveals new properties. This is when you have an adequate sample.

Indicate the type or types of data to be collected. In many qualitative studies, inquirers collect multiple forms of data and spend a considerable time in the natural setting gathering information. The collection procedures in qualitative research involve four basic types and their strengths and limitations, as shown in Table 9.2.

A qualitative observation is when the researcher takes field notes on the behavior and activities of individuals at the research site. In these field notes, the researcher records, in an unstructured or semi-structured way (using some prior questions that the inquirer wants to know), activities at the research site. Qualitative observers may also engage in roles varying from a nonparticipant to a complete participant. Typically these observations are open-ended in that the researchers ask general questions of the participants allowing the participants to freely provide their views.

In qualitative interviews, the researcher conducts face-to-face interviews with participants, telephone interviews, or engages in focus group interviews with six to eight interviewees in each group. These interviews involve unstructured and generally open-ended questions that are few in number and intended to elicit views and opinions from the participants.

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Printed by: [email protected] Printing is for personal, private use only. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted without publisher’s prior permission. Violators will be prosecuted.

Printed by: [email protected] Printing is for personal, private use only. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted without publisher’s prior permission. Violators will be prosecuted.

,

Printed by: [email protected] Printing is for personal, private use only. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted without publisher’s prior permission. Violators will be prosecuted.

Printed by: [email protected] Printing is for personal, private use only. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted without publisher’s prior permission. Violators will be prosecuted.



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