Reflections on a Course in Qualitative Methodology

The following was from a final task reflecting on a semester-long course I took in qualitative methodology. As doctoral students, our degree is in philosophizing. In that regard, I found the course to be highly meaningful and valuable for shaping my outlook on a research career. Although I don’t expect to base my entire career around qualitative research methods, my appreciation for the methods has been heightened; despite being in a field where qualitative research is not utilized enough, I could see myself using it at some point. Here’s what I took away from the course.

The Value of Qualitative Research

It is easy to underestimate the value of qualitative research, particularly for doctoral students “raised” in the American paradigm of teaching research methodologies. We are primed to believe that the only valid forms of published research utilize positivist research methods and statistical analyses. This is not the case. While statistical analyses may foster a robust understanding of whether and how phenomena occur, they are largely ignorant of the teleological question plaguing researchers from all disciplines: WHY? To that extent, qualitative methods may help fill that critical gap, serving in a deep-rooted capacity to unearth phenomena and build deeper perspective that may even prove fruitful to positivist hypothesis testing.

Qualitative research is often lost on researchers espousing the positivist paradigm. To the positivists, research is defined by segmented numerical values; positivists base causation on divisions between subjects, without regard for how individual characteristics drive phenomena. Furthermore, positivists use statistical analyses with arbitrary cutoff values (often p < .05), suggesting that a 95% confidence interval of a “normal” distribution is supposed to provide insight as to the existence of a phenomenon. But when researching people, what is “normal?”

The normality of a population distribution is never truly “normal” and qualitative research engages active minds to philosophize about this point. Yet, research methods programs in the United States seem to continue to breed familiarity in the normalcy of data. Research methods courses often neglect to teach—or at least introduce—students to qualitative research. This performs a disservice to doctoral students, particularly when they are pursuing doctorates in philosophy. Studying qualitative research in contrast with quantitative research strengthens doctoral students’ ability to philosophize about research, grappling with epistemological and ontological points-of-view; it even forces students to reconcile the actual meaning and inference of “p < .05”.

The misconceptions of qualitative research even carry into the norms of publication, where our journals focus primarily on publishing research featuring quantitative analyses. American academic journals hope that by creating more sophisticated models, the behavior of an entire population can be estimated. Yet, although quantitative research has its strengths, it is limited to what it can explain, particularly when there is no basis on why a phenomenon is occurring. Edmondson and McManus (2007) stress that methodological fit is necessary to increase the robustness of a research question. When an area of research is in its nascent stages, qualitative research is extremely important, as it drives an understanding of phenomenon and increases our theoretical knowledge. When an area of research is theoretically saturated, positivist research tends to be more appropriate. Only by encouraging the publication of more qualitative research in our journals will academics truly start to take stock in the questions they’re answering… and the questions they’re asking.

 

Quality in Qualitative Research

One of the concerns of many doctoral students of business is that qualitative methods lack methodological rigor, leading to results that are invalid and meaningless. If anything, these misconceptions couldn’t be farther from the truth and only serve to diminish the intellectual traditions of sociology and anthropology in which they are rooted. Quantitative researchers often use terms such as “reliability,” “validity,” or “triangulation,” to demonstrate the quality of their research However, the indicators of quality research are important to qualitative inquiry, just as they are to quantitative research; qualitative investigators have gone through great lengths to assure quantitative researchers publishing in the same journals that their research is not a hodgepodge of arguments with meaningless data and incomplete analysis.

In our marketing domain, researchers such as Russell Belk, Susan Fournier, and James McAlexander have paved the way for an increased use of qualitative research in published marketing research. In their paper on buyer-seller behaviors, Belk, Sherry, and Wallendorf (1988) used participant-observation to develop theoretical themes for future hypothesis generation and testing. Included in the methodological descriptions of their research was information on techniques such as purposive sampling, triangulation across researchers, emergent theme analysis, autodriving, memoing, member checks, and auditing. Although in certain other journals in the domain (such as the European Journal of Marketing, perhaps) the extent of their methodological discussion might have been exaggerated, in the American journals, analogizing such methodologies to quantitative discussions on validity and reliability makes it easier for quantitative researchers to internalize.

One example of this type of epistemological analogizing is in the member checks proposed by Lincoln and Guba (1985). This procedure seeks to establish what qualitative researchers know as “validity” by sharing findings with respondents in order to determine the accuracy of the representation of the phenomenon as depicted by the researcher. Performing member checks allows the qualitative researcher to gain “intersubjective verifiability,” or a corroboration of the truthfulness of data and analysis between researcher and respondent. This corroboration forces an absolute “truth,” a concept that many qualitative researchers may find more reassuring, not only on an epistemological level, but on an ontological level as well.

Belk, Sherry, and Wallendorf offer a list of 10 advantages their naturalistic research has over traditional positivist research and 5 disadvantages of their method compared to traditional positivist research. Through these comparisons, researchers versed in traditional positivist terminology should identify with the intellectual rigor needed to perform qualitative research. Additionally, these comparisons should indicate that quantitative research has many shortcomings of its own. For instance, the use of coding schemes to move between levels of abstraction (Grounded Theory; Glaser and Strauss 1967) achieves the same—if not more—intensity of generalization as quantitative research. In epistemological terms, this produces research that is just as rigorous and just as high quality as research that is quantitative.

 

Why Observe?

In broad terms, there are two types of qualitative research techniques: observational research and interviews. Each of these techniques is drastically different and the analytical approach to “using” the data may differ as well. Doctoral students are probably already familiar with the idea of using interviews (typically structured or semi-structured) to produce data. However, this type of interviewing has the potential to be limited in nature as it lacks context. Taylor and Bogdan write, “whereas participant observers conduct their studies in natural field situations, interviewers conduct theirs in situations specifically arranged for the purposes of the research. The participant observer gains firsthand knowledge of what people say and do in their everyday lives. The interviewer relies extensively on verbal accounts of how people act and what they feel.”

It may seem as though performing field observations sans research questions and before interviewing is a backwards approach to performing research. Doctoral students are often taught to develop their hypotheses before collecting and using data to confirm these hypotheses, rather than to develop questions as data is produced. Nonetheless, the fact that qualitative data is “produced” through the researcher-as-instrument rather than merely “collected,” requires the researcher to come to a more complete understanding of the data. Without this understanding, the research analysis would be incomplete.

Rather, the production of observational data before interviews allows the researcher to enter a setting without full conceptualization of the research, creating a more fluid research environment for research question-refinement. After all, without an adequate understanding of the actual environment, how can a qualitative research make the claim that his research questions are appropriate, or that he hasn’t ‘discovered’ alternate research questions? To the extent that Taylor and Bogdan make valid points above, it would be difficult to continue interview-based research without an understanding of an informant’s background.

Instead, the qualitative researcher should attempt to regard himself as an explorer, mapping his way through uncharted waters. The researcher sets sail, knowing only that the winds will carry him wherever they may. As the boat of exploration sets sail, the researcher notes his position, any wildlife, sea life, and weather conditions, and reflects on himself and the land from whence he came. This allows him to come to terms with what he might find once he comes ashore. Once he comes ashore, he starts exploring the new land, continuing with his observations, noting everything in the setting that may influence any inhabitants he could encounter. Upon encountering inhabitants, the researcher has already gained a better, but not full understanding of his exploratory setting. He may have even picked up pieces of the language—furthering his understanding—but only then could he have a sufficient basis upon which to start interviewing willing inhabitants.

 

The Difficulties of Qualitative Research

The process of performing participant observation research is far more complex than most quantitatively-trained doctoral students are led to believe. These “emotional, social and more difficulties” to which Steve Barley refers to present themselves at most phases in the observational process, from the initial conception, through the process of gaining research access, and even following in the handling and analysis of data. From the start, qualitative researchers must decide on an appropriate setting to research, eventually developing at least some sort of reason for studying the setting, even if that reason lacks a priori assumptions of findings. Without sufficient reasoning, the researcher may need to reevaluate the research mission, which can be inherently disheartening.       The researcher then heads into the task of gaining access to the research setting. At this juncture, months of preparation can be for naught if the gatekeepers of the research setting decide not to let the researcher into the organization. Gaining access to an organization may often entail negotiations with these gatekeepers to at least get a foot-in-the-door. Negotiations may be protracted, depending on the policies of the organization or even on the personalities of the two parties negotiating. In some instances, pragmatism is the key to gaining access; in other instances, patience is key to gaining access. For the researcher who faces course and publication deadlines, this may be extremely vexing and increase levels on the researcher before the observations have even started.

However, even the process of negotiating access with gatekeepers should start to provide the researcher with an idea of how the organization works. For instance, in my own research, negotiating access with gatekeepers was a long, protracted process for a project with a limited timeframe. During that time, I was afraid I would need to abandon the project. However, it turned out that some of the reservations the gatekeepers seemed to display to me were more the result of a new business operating in a highly competitive business environment. The prioritization of an academic researcher’s needs was relatively low on their list. Nonetheless, a bit of patience finally prevailed, and I was finally able to gain access.

Once I finally did gain access, I was unsure to what extent I would be permitted to carry out my observation work. I was faced with a variety of dilemmas, including where I would position myself, whom I would interact with, how I would interact, and what times were appropriate for me to perform my observations. These among the real issues that the qualitative researcher faces in the observational setting, particularly since the researcher acts as the primary instrument for data production. Although everything should be recorded as data, the boundary conditions of observational research constantly abut the researcher’s sensitivities to the setting and to informants.

These dilemmas are compounded when it comes to handling sensitive data. Although my observational data seemed rather mundane to me, there were pieces of data that my informants may have viewed as compromising, particularly if they were leaked to other business competitors. Identifiable information had to be made anonymous. In the case of Steve Barley, the power dynamics or politics between different groups of peoples were often at odds, putting Barley in the position where the information he gathered about one group could be pitted against another group; his research required a balance of pragmatism and sensitivity.

The balance of ethics is one that may be extremely emotionally trying on researchers, particularly in covert research settings. Thompson (1985) spent nine weeks in a slaughterhouse, making mental observations and having to write up fieldnotes at the end of each workday. The process of fieldnote writing is long, tedious, and mentally taxing; having to maintain a cover may only compound the stresses of observational research. Yet the outcome and purpose of research is fundamental if the researcher is to continue forward, disseminating his findings to others.

 

Readings on Qualitative Research

As I mentioned before, one of the key pieces of reading when being introduced to qualitative research should be Edmondson and McManus’s (2007) article on methodological fit. Edmonson and McManus demonstrate how different research questions (and level of knowledge generated behind answering the questions) can lead to nascent, intermediate, or mature theory. Even the quantitatively-trained researcher should be able to appreciate this article, as it discusses the epistemological implications of qualitative versus quantitative research. Rather than diminishing or invalidating either research paradigm, Edmondson and McManus argue that both paradigms are equally meritorious depending on the level/stage of theory-building and empirical robustness. If we take the view that all research leads to a greater understanding of the world around us, then the constant state of theory building and hypothesis testing is critically bidirectional. Understanding the epistemological ramifications of how methodological fit appropriately answers those research questions makes us not only better researchers, but better purveyors of knowledge.

Another key piece of reading for the burgeoning qualitative researcher is Schram’s (2006) book chapter titled “Clarifying your perspective.” Schram provides an overview of different ontological points of view, offering a few exercises as well to help would-be researchers clarify those points of view. And although certain texts provide a paradigmatic framework of ontological points of view, as human beings, we often operate along a continuum. Much in the way religion offers questions of ontological points of view, so does qualitative research. Much in the way there are adherents to strict religious beliefs and practices and adherents who are more liberal in their beliefs and practices, there are qualitative researchers who operate the same way. Schram’s piece forces the researcher to take a closer look at his ontological assumptions in qualitative research, even if those assumptions operate somewhere in the middle of the ontological continuum.

Finally, we may look at an exemplar of good qualitative research. Craig Thompson’s (1996) piece on gendered consumption is an indicator of how good, robust qualitative research may not only be performed, but be published in one of the top marketing journals. The beginning of the piece introduces the theoretical background behind hermeneutical methodologies before shifting to extensive interview procedures that draw out consumption phenomena. Thompson takes both an emic and an etic approach to data analysis, moving through various levels of abstraction and leading to robust theory building for theoretical research. After reading an article like this, even quantitative researchers should have a healthy appreciation for the value and quality of qualitative research.

References

Barley, Stephen R. (1990) “Images of imaging: Notes on doing longitudinal Fieldwork,” Organization Science, 1(3), 220-247.

Belk, Russell W., John F. Sherry, Jr. and Melanie Wallendorf (1988), “A Naturalistic Inquiry into Buyer and Seller Behavior at a Swap Meet,” Journal of Consumer Research, 14(4), 449-470.

Edmondson, Amy C. and Stacy E. McManus (2007), “Methodological Fit in Management Field Research,” Academy of Management Review, 32(4), 1155-1179.

Glaser, Barney G. and Anslem L. Strauss (1967), The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research, Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company.

Lincoln, Yvonne and Egon Guba (1985), Naturalistic Inquiry, New York: Sage.

Schram, Thomas H. (2006) “Clarifying your perspective”, Conceptualizing and Proposing Qualitative Research, 2nd edition, Pearson, 39-57.

Taylor, Steven J. and Robert Bogdan (1998), Introduction to qualitative research methods: A guidebook and resource, (3rd ed.), New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Thompson, Craig J. (1996), “Caring Consumers: Gendered Consumption Meanings and the Juggling Lifestyle,” Journal of Consumer Research, 22(4), 388-407.

Thompson, William E. (1985), “Hanging tongues: A sociological encounter with the assembly line,” Qualitative Sociology, 6(3), 215-237.

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