Research Design Review recently summarized 10 distinctive qualities of qualitative research which succinctly capture the essence and utility of the kind of work performed by researchers like me.
In her Research Design Review piece, author Margaret Roller observes that qualitative research happens because researchers “acknowledge the human condition and want to learn more, and think differently, about a research issue than what is usual from mostly numerical quantitative survey research data.”
Below are Roller’s 10 attributes (in bold) and the reasons I consider them useful.
- Absence of “truth”
- As suggested on this blog regularly, knowledge is constructed from information and in context. It is the the product of the process of research; it is not truth but rather “possibility” (plausible interpretation). I often describe my findings or interpretations as “ONE truth” or “one version of truth/reality,” emphasizing that my interpretation is well-informed but always subject to negotiation based on further context
- Importance of context
- The setting, culture, research parameters and questions always influence the ways in which we can interpret data.
- Importance of meaning
- Meaning is created through understanding the blooms from the intersections of many points in analysis. Roller suggests sources for meaning include “any number of variables such as: the context, the language, the impact of the participant-researcher relationship, the potential for participant bias, and the potential for researcher bias.”
- The interpretations and the process of research are performed through and organized by and described through the researcher. This has many benefits including the potential for nuanced findings and “thick description” but it is also important to consider the bias, approaches, and institutional contexts of the researcher – as well as the power the researcher wields as an instrument of qualitative analysis. Remember, many choices, and therefore the exercise of power, play a role in final interpretations.
- Participant-researcher relationship
- This is element of qualitative research is extremely important in performing and getting useful and accurate interpretations. Communication, rapport, and accountability all play a role in a successful participant-researcher relationship and shape the outcomes of data collection and analysis.
- Skill set required of the researcher
- Perhaps the most underrated of these qualities, qualitative research “requires a unique set of skills from the researcher, skills that go beyond the usual qualities of organization, attention to detail, and analytical abilities that are necessary for all researchers,” Roller observes. She goes on to list rapport-building and active listening as further examples, but her most notable point is that specific and nuanced analytical toolkit is necessary to “meet the demands of “messy analysis” (see below) in qualitative inquiry where context, social interaction, and numerous other inter-connected variables contribute to the realities researchers take away from the field.” This is often the most difficult thing to explain when entering a project but often unfolds without stakeholders realizing. If it’s a smooth researching process with audiences, you’ve likely brought on board a skilled researcher.
- Flexibility of the research design
- Again, an extremely complicated skill to bullet point on a resume. Yet, a flexible researcher knows how to stay active and continue to derive communication while simultaneously analysing the information; second and third passes over the data will allow for even more robust findings. In other words, the intended questions may be set aside to capture the reality of the researching space and research may take iterations to flesh out hidden meanings and perspectives.
- Types of issues or questions effectively addressed by qualitative research
- Especially for questions that really mean “to what extent” rather than “how much” or seeking to understand group behaviors and cultural values that emerge concurrently with or contradict official/dominant perspectives.
- Messy analysis and inductive approach
- Qualitative research may start with a general question and create understanding as knowledge is being attained. Roller writes “without a doubt, qualitative research analysis is messy. The analysis of qualitative data does not follow a straight line, where point ‘A’ leads to point ‘B’, but rather is a multi-layered, involved process that continually builds upon itself until a meaningful and verifiable interpretation is achieved. The messiness of the interconnections, inconsistencies, and seemingly illogical input reaped in qualitative research demand that researchers embrace the tangles of their data from many sources. A large contributor to the “messiness” of the analytical process is the inductive method. Qualitative researchers analyze their outcomes from the inside out, organizing and deriving meaning from the data by way of the data itself.“
- Unique capabilities of online and mobile qualitative research
- Finally, technology allows for new techniques AND new research spaces – and supports general communication and connection (and conflict!) between groups of people. The resulting research space, as Roller suggests, offers new power dynamics between researcher and participants but also offers shared control of findings and more flexible ways to gather, respond, organize and distribute research findings.
Qualitative research is excellent for unlocking detailed case studies, understanding communication and communities, and understanding audiences and every day lives, as well as helping flush out and answer the assumptions and further questions that often emerge in quantitative analyses.