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Qualitative Research, Conceptual Skills, and Social Justice

Qualitative Research, Conceptual Skills, and Social Justice

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Published by Jane Gilgun
This article describes the skills researchers require to be effective qualitative researchers. Qualitative research requires strong conceptual skills coupled with creativity and imagination. These approaches represent ways of thinking about what it means to be human beings. As Strauss (1991) wrote about grounded theory, “This is a general way of thinking about analysis and we said so in the discovery book (p. 2). Other qualitative researchers make similar observations. The task is difficult, but the results are an amazing array of products that contribute to the common good. Qualitative research is innately emancipatory.
This article describes the skills researchers require to be effective qualitative researchers. Qualitative research requires strong conceptual skills coupled with creativity and imagination. These approaches represent ways of thinking about what it means to be human beings. As Strauss (1991) wrote about grounded theory, “This is a general way of thinking about analysis and we said so in the discovery book (p. 2). Other qualitative researchers make similar observations. The task is difficult, but the results are an amazing array of products that contribute to the common good. Qualitative research is innately emancipatory.

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Published by: Jane Gilgun on Apr 29, 2011
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Qualitative Research, Conceptual Skills,and Social Justice
By Jane Gilgun
Qualitative research requires strong conceptual skills
coupled with creativity andimagination. Qualitative researchers require these skills because qualitative approaches representways of thinking about what it means to be human beings. As Strauss (1991) wrote aboutgrounded theory, “This is a general way of thinking about analysis and we said so in thediscovery book (p. 2).” The “discovery book is
The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research
(Glaser & Strauss, 1967).Bogdan (Bogdan & Biklen, 2007) said something similar about how Blanche Geer (Becker & Geer, 1957; Becker, Geer, & Hughes, 1968; Becker, Geer, Hughes, & Strauss, 1961)taught field research.
We were required to do an observation and a corresponding set of notes eachweek. It was a lot of work. Part of the enjoyment was feeling my mind working in a way it had never worked before. I liked what the process produced. I arranged my week so I could do the work for the seminar. Blanche modeled how to think conceptually. What I got out of her seminar wasnot the content. She was teaching a way of thinking. I felt right at home….(Gilgun, 1992c, p. 9).
Thinking conceptually means to be able understand the complex dimensions of humanexperiences and to identify concepts that help organize the complexity.
The Significance of the Experiences of Others
What happened to Bogdan has happened to many qualitative researchers: we become lessself-referential and more drawn into the experiences of others. The change does not stop there.We cannot lose our analytic stances even when we participate vicariously in other people’sexperiences. We make sense out of the experiences of others in their own terms and our own. Weoften go through a prolonged period of not knowing as we attempt to understand others.
 
We position ourselves to think deeply about other persons’ accounts of their experiencesif we are to come up with concepts that might organize those experiences and render themcommunicable to others. Qualitative research is inherently theory-driven because researchersrequire theoretical concepts in order to understand research material, organize it, and thencommunicate findings.
Not Knowing
“Not knowing” means that we wait for evidence to come in before we draw conclusionsand, more practically, before we decide upon the concepts that we believe help organize the rawmaterials of accounts of experience. In addition, we continually look for evidence that adds to,contradicts, and undermines our evolving thinking. This is a multi-layered process that involvesshifts in perspectives that happens when try to understand the worlds of others as well as shifts inthinking as we attempt to represent and then interpret our understandings, while all the time being aware of the differences between our experiences and interpretations and those of research participants.As we conduct research in these ways, our worldviews may change. Mine did as Iinterviewed perpetrators of family and community violence. While committed to social justiceand care before I began, I am even more deeply committed in response to what I experiencedthrough this research (Gilgun, 2008; 2010). Other researchers, such as LePlay in the nineteenthcentury, Wax (1971) and Stack (1974) more than 100 years later reported similar experiences.They were concerned about social injustice before they did their research and took on roles of advocates in response to their research (Gilgun, 1999, in press).
An Informed Public
Some, while committed to social justice, believed an informed public would take on rolesof social change agents, and researchers should not. For instance, Park, an early developer of the principles on which this present paper held this position during his years as a university professor. He railed against women reformists, but he wanted research to contribute to the socialgood (Bulmer, 1984; Deegan, 1990; 1996). Earlier in his life, he said he had been a muckraking journalist intent on social reform (Park, 1974).Qualitative research, therefore, appeals to researchers who have the conceptual skills thatenable them to do credible representations and interpretations of other people’s experiences, andwho want to contribute to the social good. Researchers who do other kinds of work may havesome of these qualities, but the combination of the four characterizes persons drawn toqualitative research.Ogburn, for example, a leader in moving early social research toward what he thoughtwas objective science, certainly had strong conceptual skills and believed in the power of research, in particular technology and mathematics, to transform society, but his commitment towhat he defined as objective science contributed to his rejection of the principles of immersion,vicarious participation in the lives of others, and understanding of complex experiences frominformants’ points of view (See Laslett, 1991).
 
Many of today’s researchers share Ogburn’s ideas about science, objectivity, andquantification, stemming back at least to the ideas Descartes explicated more than 300 years ago(Christians, 2010; Hamilton, 1994).
Not For Everyone
 Not everyone trained in qualitative methods, however, takes to them. O’Connor (2001),in a brief written account of her experiences as a Ph.D. student of Bogdan’s and Biklen’sresearch methods courses (Bogdan & Biklen, 2008), reported on the six weeks of qualitativemethods training in the required first-year methods sequence that Biklen taught at SyracuseUniversity
The most striking memory I have from that class was how we as students separated ourselves out. There were those students who just didn’t connect with the process. It was too unclear. Those unknowns, I began learning, was what I loved…I liked and understood the ambiguity, the inquiry, the discovery. The handful of us who went onwith the qualitative process began to sit on the same side of the room talking among ourselves and feeling very engaged in the process. Other classmates were frustrated.
O’Connor meant by “those of us who went on with the qualitative process” that thesewere the students who took the optional one-year course of study on qualitative methods thatBogdan taught the following year.O’Connor’s account of her classmates and herself fit well with Dewey’s (1958)observations of other philosophers who rejected the pragmatist emphasis on experience becauseof its instability and precariousness and the difficulty of understanding it. Perhaps a bit crankily,he wrote that some have abandoned the study of experience and substituted
“theoretical 
securityand certainty” (p. xi) (emphasis in original). They prefer, said Dewey, to craft universals, laws of nature, and systems that emphasize unity among entities. They back away from particulars, pluralism, and processes of change.
Products of Qualitative Research
Qualitative research is worth doing because of the amazing range of products that canresult. These products include theories and/or typologies grounded in personal, contextualizedinterpretations of experience. In addition, qualitative methods yield rich descriptive material thatresearchers sometimes let stand on its own because of its value in fostering deeper understandings and its capacities to illuminate other similar situations. This descriptive materialcan also be re-crafted to become items in various types of instruments such as surveys, clinicalrating scales, and practice guidelines.Qualitative methods can also be used in concert with experiments and research on direct practice, such as social work, nursing, therapy, counseling, and education, in order to understandhow participants experience the interventions. Some qualitative researchers create performancesand write songs and poetry that use the words of informants so that audience members canunderstand other people’s experiences and participate in them imaginatively.

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