“While qualitative research methods produce authentic accounts of human thoughts, feelings and behaviour, they are unrepresentative

and unreliable and are therefore of little use in the study of politics and international relations.” Discuss. In the world of social science, there is significant debate over the validity and reliability of results produced by qualitative research methods. Whereas some researchers value qualitative research, arguing that it brings 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 a bias-injecting hodgepodge of inconclusive studies. While its critics have valid arguments, that we will acknowledge, we shall argue that this is not completely true: qualitative research, albeit controversial, provides us with a variety of different methods to gather data for particular studies. In fact, these methods could very well be the best approach possible for handling particular issues when contrasted with quantitative methods. We also argue that qualitative research, if it is not to be the star of an analytical show, can at least play a supporting role alongside other research methods thus refuting the question’s claim that these methods are of little use in social science studies. Thus, the essay shall be structured like this: first, we shall define qualitative research along with validity and reliability so that we know what qualitative research embodies and what sort of criteria it needs to meet in order to be considered a legitimate and useful method for social scientists to use. Next, we shall examine the ethnographic methods used by qualitative researchers (participant observation and interviewing in particular), summing each one up with their benefits and why others argue against them. We shall then finish by discussing how qualitative research can involve case studies, including a combination with quantitative methods better known as triangulation. This will ensure that even if we cannot settle the disputes amongst social scientists in general over the merits of qualitative research methods, we can at least finish the debate demonstrating that in some cases qualitative research methods can at least be used alongside their quantitative counterparts. As is often the case in debates, this dispute is as a result of a split between two main trains of thought amongst social scientists. On one side, we have the positivist approach. Positivists believe that social phenomena can be measured and studied in ways similar to how scientists study the natural world. Positivists generally share a “preference for measurement and quantification of observable events and a search for statistical regularities that can be understood as casual laws” (Seale, 1999:21). Thus, it makes sense that they will more likely prefer formal 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 approach too simplistic and dismissive of the unpredictability of man – better known as the ontological position (the belief that reality is not objective and therefore cannot be quantified (Harrison 2001:77)). Thus, greater

emphasis is placed on deductive and intuitive methods to further our understanding of how society works. Obviously, this implies interpretists would rather use qualitative research methods – which we shall now properly define. This is in itself a debateable issue, for as David Silverman points out, qualitative research appears to be defined more for what it is not (“non-quantitative”) than for what it is – it has a “negative epithet”, in other words (2001:25). Thus, as a clear-cut definition of qualitative research cannot be found, we shall base it on Silverman’s own criteria for qualitative research. This means that qualitative research is: soft, flexible, subjective, political, speculative, grounded and involves the use of case studies (Silverman, 2000:2). Qualitative research thus sounds more “loose” and intuitive compared to quantitative methods, which are more objective and “fixed” in nature, adhering more to the methods used by the natural sciences (Silverman, 2000:3). With qualitative research defined, we need to address the question’s claim that it is unrepresentative and unreliable. The issue of representation is better known as validity. In the world of social science, validity is “the degree to which the researcher has measured what he set out to measure” (Smith, 1975:61). Thus, a qualitative researcher must ensure that his methods are appropriate for the project in question. As we will see, qualitative research methods do appear to fit the bill for certain kinds of issues. We also need to determine whether qualitative research methods are reliable – that is whether the tests conducted using qualitative methods will produce the same, consistent results if other researchers were to use the same methods for the same issue (Smith, 1975:58). Obviously, the more identical the results, the more reliable qualitative research methods would be in social science studies. So far we have merely defined three words – it is time to add meat to the bones and analyse the qualitative research methods themselves. A key tenet of social science research is ethnography – the study of people. This kind of approach “revolve[s] around the notions of people as meaningmakers, around an emphasis on understanding how people interpret their worlds, and the need to understand the particular cultural worlds in which people live and which they both construct and utilize” (Goldbart and Hustler, 2005:16). Thus, a qualitative researcher may choose to get involved in his or her study either indirectly, such as being present at a protest march to ask the participants questions, or directly – otherwise known as participant observation. This method is when the researcher will directly join the organisation or group for a certain period of time in order to gather information for the study. This was recently seen when Channel 4 sent an investigator undercover as a member of the far-right British National Party for six months to gather information their 2004 documentary Young, Nazi and Proud (channel4.com). A researcher can enjoy a number of benefits from this method. For instance, participant observation enables the researcher to “conduct the analysis by abstracting everyday actions to uncover the principles governing behaviour and by modifying theoretical generalisations to accord with perceived behaviour” (Bastin, 1985:92-93). In other words, Bastin is pointing out that alongside quantitative methods such as social surveys

and structured interviews, the researcher is able to experience firsthand how societal behaviour measures up to trends found in his data. If we were to base this method on Bastin’s hypothetical situation – that of a researcher studying a community on the causes of vandalism (1985:93100) - then this qualitative method is certainly valid as it enables the researcher 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 the results 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 with different studies. Yet, interpretists would argue that this is a weakness of quantitative research methods more so than qualitative. After all, it through this informal, deductive method that such problems would be identified in the first place – this begs the question as to how, through sheer numbers and statistics, quantitative methods would fare any better. Yet, critics of qualitative research will reply with two points against participant observation. First, they may argue that the reliability of the results will be fatally flawed, as transcripts and tape recordings of interviews may blur the proper response that a person gave to the questions (the stop-start method with tapes for instance may miss out vital pauses indicating the respondent thought deeply before answering a question (Silverman, 2000:10)). There is also criticism regarding the validity of participant observation which Silverman labels as “anecdotalism”: a researcher may use some of his data to present a particular point, yet ignore contradictory transcripts that damage his findings (2000:10). In this criticism, qualitative researchers are portrayed as “journalists” whose methods are akin to the media’s more so than scientists’, 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 in social science. Yet, there are simple explanations that can counter these arguments. For instance, a commonly-cited refutation in regards to reliability is from Marshall and Rossman, who argue that reliability is only really a concern to positivists, as interpretivists (who are more likely to use qualitative research methods) assume that society is in a constant state of flux. Thus, it should be expected that results will vary from time to time (1989:146). There is also a simple answer in response to the question of validity. While qualitative researchers readily admit there is the danger of bias in their research, especially in methods such as participant observation, this is a problem apparent to all students of social science. Quantitative research methods may too be subjected to bias such as in structured interviews, for instance. As Silverman points out, quantitative data was even accused of bias during the Margaret Thatcher years when the calculation methods used to measure unemployment and inflation were often changed to make the readings look good for the Conservatives (2001:26). Thus, the argument is that validity (in particular bias) is a problem for all methods of research – not just qualitative. Therefore, when we take these points into account, we can consider

participant observation a legitimate and useful method of research if one wishes to gain a more intimate understanding of communities and societies. There are other ethnographic-based qualitative research methods that we need to discuss such as interviews. A researcher can interview people in a variety of ways such as by using telephone, email correspondence, internet instant messaging or with the simple face-to-face method. Each form has their own cost and benefit, for instance, email provides quick, back-and-forth interaction, but provides the opportunity for the participant to provide brief answers and, subsequently, dilute the quality of the data. Face-to-face interviews on the other hand provide large volumes of quality data, yet is time consuming on the researcher’s study. Regardless of the method chosen, Barbour and Schostak (2005:41) mention the potential problems researchers face when applying this method: encounters can be “messy; the level of “commitment” engaged in the interview can be a factor; there is the problem of “truth”, leading back to our previous discussion over the problem of bias; there could be hidden agendas at play; and finally, the ethics of the interview – what tactics would the researcher resort to in order to extract certain answers from his participants? For instance, Ben Stein, a creationist arguing against the biological theory of evolution, deliberately set up the scientist Richard Dawkins to make him appear as if he believed life on earth came from aliens. In the interview’s true context, Dawkins was merely speaking in hypothetical terms (richarddawkins.net). It is this sort of occurrence that gives critics of qualitative research the opportunity to argue that such subjective techniques of research can lead to bias and ethical problems. There is also a problem more seen in elite interviews – the issue of reluctance of the respondents to express honest answers. This, for instance, could be seen when researchers interviewed politicians in Northern Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement; they were reluctant to give answers that may go beyond party lines (McEvoy, 2006:184). While such problems exist for the qualitative researcher, such interviews can provide good quality data when conducted correctly – arguably better than when using quantitative methods. Lisa Harrison (2001:75) argues that qualitative interviews “allow people to talk freely and present their perspective on their terms. In comparison to simply ticking boxes on a questionnaire, in-depth interviews allow interviewees to use their own language, so the discussion should flow more freely”. This, in theory, should therefore lead to greater quality data as it gives the respondent the opportunity to answer at length. Another advantage of interviewing qualitatively is the use of focus groups. Rather than survey hundreds of respondents, a focus group consists of a small number of people that are interviewed at great length to produce quality data. Although critics will still argue that such interviews can lead to biased, unreliable results, Harrison (2001:76) points out the benefits of such a method. For instance, focus groups, unlike surveys, ensure that the research question is covered. The researcher also has the option of asking for clarification if he is not satisfied with a response, and most importantly, focus groups enable the researcher to understand how a respondent’s opinion is given

in relation to the answers and reactions of other participants in the group – this cannot be noted with the use of surveys. Thus, to summarise in regards to interviewing, there appears to be two main critiques of qualitative-style interviews: the danger of bias and misrepresentation. While qualitative researchers will fully admit this is a potential flaw in their methods, that is not to say that under the right conditions, such methods cannot be both reliable and valid when used correctly. In fact, it could be argued that qualitative interviews are more reliable than quantitative as it is through these methods that such problems can be identified and rectified. There is also debate over the use of case studies – another method used more so by qualitative researchers. Case studies are, in essence, an indepth study of social phenomena from the “outside” rather than from the “inside” (Stark and Torrance, 2005:33). That is, the researcher will rely on a range of primary and secondary sources to come to a conclusion on an event – pretty much like historians - thus making case studies more of an approach rather than a research method (Stark and Torrance, 2005:33). Famous examples include Graham Allison’s Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis and Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s All the President’s Men, an analysis on the Watergate scandal that signalled the end of Richard Nixon’s presidency. And yet, inevitably, there are criticisms regarding the validity of case studies. For instance, Stark and Torrance comment on how there is the issue of generalisation: it is impossible to generalise statistics based on a select on the general population, thus questioning both whether it would be appropriate (valid) to use such a research method and whether the results would be reliable if used in other studies (2005:33-34). There is also the argument that case studies, often based on the occurrence of one phenomenon, are merely inferences “based on simple expectations of what the data would have been had the X not occurred” (Smith, 1975:100). While these are certainly valid arguments against case studies, they lead us on to the method that researchers often use to mitigate these problems - triangulation. Triangulation is the culmination of a variety of research methods in order to extract more data from and improve the reliability of the results (Silverman, 2000:98). As Silverman points out, triangulation can enable, “as in trigonometry...the true state of affairs by examining where the different data intersect. In this way, some qualitative researchers believe that triangulation may improve the reliability of a single method” (2000:98-99). Thus, as he points out through the scenario of a policeman (who may use quantitative methods such as interviewing suspects and recording arrests along with qualitative methods such as observing the suspects and consulting documents), there can be a strong argument that triangulating methods could be the best way to ensure valid and reliable results. This has been justified in the real world when researchers studying the content of political party resources employed both quantitative methods (evidence from interviews) and qualitative methods (the study of party election broadcasts (Harrison, 2001:110)). Yet, Silverman acknowledges that triangulation may not always be the best method for a researcher to use, thus indicating that there will still be a

divide between positivists and interpretists. Indeed, Robert Walker (1985:16) mentions two arguments against triangulation. First, researchers may struggle to determine which results to accept from his different methods. Second, merging qualitative and quantitative research methods may take the methods out of their proper theoretical context, and therefore, make the methods “more of a liability than an asset”. These arguments imply that there remains mistrust amongst positivists and interpretists in regards to the others’ preferred choice of research methods. However, when used correctly, triangulation methods can reap many benefits, of which Clive Seale (1999:54) mentions four. First, the multiple methods used produces “richer descriptions of phenomena”. Second, team research approaches leads to the researchers working together and voicing their concerns, thus weakening the effects of bias on their research. Third, the range of methods leads to different theories that in turn lead to different hypotheses – each can be compared to the data to see how well they fit together. Fourth, and the most obvious, is the fact that there are many possible combinations available to the researcher engaging in triangulation – qualitative methods such as observation and quantitative methods such as interviewing being the most common combination. Thus, we can see that case studies, especially when merged with other methods that can include quantitative research methods (triangulation), do have their problems like all research methods but certainly have the potential to produce valid and reliable results. To conclude, it appears that qualitative research methods have been harshly criticised. This is likely because the question has taken up the role of a positivist, which would explain the emphasis on validity and reliability. As we have seen, however, reliability through the eyes of an interpretist is not much of an issue for when studying the fickle human race, change in results should be expected. Thus, reliability is not too much of an issue regarding qualitative research methods. The validity of qualitative research methods was where we saw most of the debates focus on. Through our examination of participant observation, interviewing, focus groups, case studies and triangulation we saw that qualitative research methods can produce more than just “authentic accounts” of human behaviour; we saw that when used in the appropriate contexts, qualitative research methods can produce richer quality data compared to or combined with quantitative research methods, allow greater manoeuvre for respondents to air their views and feelings (which can further benefit the researcher) and, through observational techniques in particular, can enable the researcher to make continual checks on his study to further ensure the validity and even reliability of his results. Therefore, although qualitative research methods have their flaws, as does every research method, it would be too harsh to accuse qualitative research methods of being completely useless as the question implies. Word count: 3077

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