Keeping Quality in Qualitative Research

••• Andrea Kratzenberg, photographer, Stock.xchng Copyright September 2, 2009

Qualitative research has a PR problem. Its reputation is one of subjectivity and loose science. This perception is fed by the fact that qualitative findings are not numerical even though qualitative data can be converted to quantitative data. In order to fully grasp the scientific foundation and processes of qualitative research, it is necessary to examine the qualitative framework and philosophical grounding.

Qualitative research uses a reasoning process based on continually putting bits of data together to create wholes or gestalts. Through this process, meaning emerges. In qualitative research, meaning is created through the different perceptual filters of the research participants. Taken together, these perceptions contribute to the construction of theory.

Theoretical Framework and Gestalt

Through theory, researchers can establish a gestalt or ways of seeing. When researchers endorse a particular theory, it is because they perceive the theory to make sense and to be correct given the information that they bring to the research. One problem with gestalts is that once a person has embraced a way of thinking, it is often very difficult to perceive a phenomenon outside of the framework the theory provides.

Consider that a theory can both extend and constrain the generation of meaning around a phenomenon. Qualitative research is effective as a way to establish new gestalts and to contribute to the development of new theories. The processes that make up a qualitative research process enable a researcher to get on the outside of established theories and accepted gestalts. There are several formal techniques that prompt a researcher to keep an open mind during qualitative research.

Various strategies are used in qualitative research to aid in gestalt changes. One of these strategies is to simply change focus. Looking at the phenomenon in new ways is often not comfortable in the beginning, but given some time, the mind adjusts to the new way of looking in the same way that people’s eyes adjust to different levels of light. A new gestalt soon takes on a natural feel and attains a level of perceptual and conceptual stability.

Sedimented Thinking

Some phenomenon have strong traditional or historical bases. When researchers explore these phenomena, they may be dealing with sedimented or cemented points of view or theories. These rigid viewpoints are characterized by long-held, unshakable beliefs. The problem is that these cemented beliefs may be incorrect or mistaken.

By following qualitative conventions, researchers can escape the hazards of static theories. This is largely due to the way that qualitative research is oriented: qualitative research moves from the specific (individual meaning) to the general (grounded theory), while quantitative research moves from the general (empirical theory) to the specific (measurement data).

Qualitative research is rigorous, contrary to common criticism, but qualitative research must be evaluated against a qualitative set of rules – a different set of rules than is used to evaluate quantitative data.

The rigor of quantitative research comes from these attributes:

  • Replication
  • Specificity
  • Conciseness
  • Objectivity
  • Theory-based

The rigor of qualitative research comes from these attributes:

  • Openness
  • Experience-based
  • Adherence to philosophical grounding
  • Thorough data collection
  • Considering all data to arrive at theory

Qualitative Research Does Not Mean Value-Free

The context in which qualitative research data is collected is open, but that does not mean that values are not attached to the process of data collection. In fact, every qualitative approach is grounded in a philosophical orientation that shapes and influences data analysis and interpretation. For this reason, qualitative research approaches are presented within a framework that explains the methodology and uses the filter of a specific philosophical orientation.

Important qualitative research approaches include the following:

  • Phenomenology
  • Ethnography
  • Action Research

Qualitative research is sometimes conducted by a participant observer. This is fundamentally the case with social media networking in which a market researcher participates in the dialogue and has conversations with consumers.

A lack of rigor in qualitative research can be the result of poor research practices. Perhaps a researcher has not collected enough data or has collected poor quality data, or the data is not given the careful consideration it deserves, or the theoretical development has been inadequate for one reason or another.