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Qualitative Research Essay

Qualitative Research Essay

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Published by Michael Foley
This essay examines qualitative research methods and whether they are reliable and valid enough to be used in social science.
This essay examines qualitative research methods and whether they are reliable and valid enough to be used in social science.

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Published by: Michael Foley on May 14, 2010
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“While qualitative research methods produce authentic accountsof human thoughts, feelings and behaviour, they areunrepresentative and unreliable and are therefore of little use inthe study of politics and international relations.” Discuss.
In the world of social science, there is significant debate over the validityand reliability of results produced by qualitative research methods.Whereas some researchers value qualitative research, arguing that itbrings an extra dimension to the way we extract data from studies,others, as seen in the wording of the question, see it as little more than abias-injecting hodgepodge of inconclusive studies. While its critics havevalid arguments, that we will acknowledge, we shall argue that this is notcompletely true: qualitative research, albeit controversial, provides uswith a variety of different methods to gather data for particular studies. Infact, these methods could very well be the best approach possible forhandling particular issues when contrasted with quantitative methods. Wealso argue that qualitative research, if it is not to be the star of ananalytical show, can at least play a supporting role alongside otherresearch methods thus refuting the question’s claim that these methodsare of little use in social science studies. Thus, the essay shall bestructured like this: first, we shall define qualitative research along withvalidity and reliability so that we know what qualitative researchembodies and what sort of criteria it needs to meet in order to beconsidered a legitimate and useful method for social scientists to use.Next, we shall examine the ethnographic methods used by qualitativeresearchers (participant observation and interviewing in particular),summing each one up with their benefits and why others argue againstthem. We shall then finish by discussing how qualitative research caninvolve case studies, including a combination with quantitative methodsbetter known as triangulation. This will ensure that even if we cannotsettle the disputes amongst social scientists in general over the merits of qualitative research methods, we can at least finish the debatedemonstrating that in some cases qualitative research methods can atleast be used alongside their quantitative counterparts.As is often the case in debates, this dispute is as a result of a splitbetween two main trains of thought amongst social scientists. On oneside, we have the positivist approach. Positivists believe that socialphenomena can be measured and studied in ways similar to howscientists study the natural world. Positivists generally share a“preference for measurement and quantification of observable events anda search for statistical regularities that can be understood as casual laws”(Seale, 1999:21). Thus, it makes sense that they will more likely preferformal quantitative research methods over qualitative. On the other hand,we have the interpretist view. Interpretists work with the premise that“methodological monism is no basis for the study of the social world”(Seale, 1999:21). This train of thought considers the positivist approachtoo simplistic and dismissive of the unpredictability of man – better knownas the ontological position (the belief that reality is not objective andtherefore cannot be quantified (Harrison 2001:77)). Thus, greater
emphasis is placed on deductive and intuitive methods to further ourunderstanding of how society works. Obviously, this implies interpretistswould rather use qualitative research methods which we shall nowproperly define. This is in itself a debateable issue, for as David Silvermanpoints out, qualitative research appears to be defined more for what it isnot (“non-quantitative”) than for what it is – it has a “negative epithet”, inother words (2001:25). Thus, as a clear-cut definition of qualitativeresearch cannot be found, we shall base it on Silverman’s own criteria forqualitative research. This means that qualitative research is: soft, flexible,subjective, political, speculative, grounded and involves the use of casestudies (Silverman, 2000:2). Qualitative research thus sounds more“loose” and intuitive compared to quantitative methods, which are moreobjective and “fixed” in nature, adhering more to the methods used bythe natural sciences (Silverman, 2000:3). With qualitative researchdefined, we need to address the questions claim that it isunrepresentative and unreliable. The issue of representation is betterknown as validity. In the world of social science, validity is “the degree towhich the researcher has measured what he set out to measure” (Smith,1975:61). Thus, a qualitative researcher must ensure that his methods areappropriate for the project in question. As we will see, qualitative researchmethods do appear to fit the bill for certain kinds of issues. We also needto determine whether qualitative research methods are reliable – that is -whether the tests conducted using qualitative methods will produce thesame, consistent results if other researchers were to use the samemethods for the same issue (Smith, 1975:58). Obviously, the moreidentical the results, the more reliable qualitative research methods wouldbe in social science studies.So far we have merely defined three words – it is time to add meat to thebones and analyse the qualitative research methods themselves. A keytenet of social science research is ethnography – the study of people. Thiskind of approach “revolve[s] around the notions of people as
-makers, around an emphasis on understanding how people
theirworlds, and the need to understand the particular cultural worlds in whichpeople live and which they both construct and utilize” (Goldbart andHustler, 2005:16). Thus, a qualitative researcher may choose to getinvolved in his or her study either indirectly, such as being present at aprotest march to ask the participants questions, or directly – otherwiseknown as participant observation. This method is when the researcher willdirectly join the organisation or group for a certain period of time in orderto gather information for the study. This was recently seen when Channel4 sent an investigator undercover as a member of the far-right BritishNational Party for six months to gather information their 2004documentary
Young, Nazi and Proud 
(channel4.com). A researcher canenjoy a number of benefits from this method. For instance, participantobservation enables the researcher to conduct the analysis byabstracting everyday actions to uncover the principles governingbehaviour and by modifying theoretical generalisations to accord withperceived behaviour(Bastin, 1985:92-93). In other words, Bastin ispointing out that alongside quantitative methods such as social surveys
and structured interviews, the researcher is able to experience firsthandhow societal behaviour measures up to trends found in his data. If wewere to base this method on Bastin’s hypothetical situation that of aresearcher studying a community on the causes of vandalism (1985:93-100) - then this qualitative method is certainly valid as it enables theresearcher to measure the issue through direct interaction with the actors.Reliability, however, is arguably the Achilles’ heel of qualitative research,for as we saw in the previous paragraph, it is the consistency of theresults that determine the reliability of a study. Thus, as Bastin admits,the vandalism could have occurred for any number of reasons (1985:94). This implies that researchers in different communities may come up withdifferent studies. Yet, interpretists would argue that this is a weakness of quantitative research methods more so than qualitative. After all, itthrough this informal, deductive method that such problems would beidentified in the first place – this begs the question as to how, throughsheer numbers and statistics, quantitative methods would fare any better. Yet, critics of qualitative research will reply with two points againstparticipant observation. First, they may argue that the reliability of theresults will be fatally flawed, as transcripts and tape recordings of interviews may blur the proper response that a person gave to thequestions (the stop-start method with tapes for instance may miss outvital pauses indicating the respondent thought deeply before answering aquestion (Silverman, 2000:10)). There is also criticism regarding thevalidity of participant observation which Silverman labels as“anecdotalism”: a researcher may use some of his data to present aparticular point, yet ignore contradictory transcripts that damage hisfindings (2000:10). In this criticism, qualitative researchers are portrayedas “journalists” whose methods are akin to the media’s more so thanscientists’, and subsequently, produce data full of bias (Silverman,2001:26). Thus, positivists in particular accuse qualitative researchers of producing biased results and would not be appropriate (valid) for use insocial science. Yet, there are simple explanations that can counter thesearguments. For instance, a commonly-cited refutation in regards toreliability is from Marshall and Rossman, who argue that reliability is onlyreally a concern to positivists, as interpretivists (who are more likely touse qualitative research methods) assume that society is in a constantstate of flux. Thus, it should be expected that results will vary from time totime (1989:146). There is also a simple answer in response to thequestion of validity. While qualitative researchers readily admit there isthe danger of bias in their research, especially in methods such asparticipant observation, this is a problem apparent to all students of socialscience. Quantitative research methods may too be subjected to bias suchas in structured interviews, for instance. As Silverman points out,quantitative data was even accused of bias during the Margaret Thatcheryears when the calculation methods used to measure unemployment andinflation were often changed to make the readings look good for theConservatives (2001:26). Thus, the argument is that validity (in particularbias) is a problem for all methods of research not just qualitative. Therefore, when we take these points into account, we can consider

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