While many graduate students think of a formal research study as an exercise in quantitative analysis, there is a growing movement inspired by a new generation of scholars which is causing researchers to consider the option of conducting a study using qualitative analysis to gather and examine the data generated from their findings.
In some collegial learning communities, the idea of conducting measurement without disaggregating numerical data seems absurd. However, more academicians have found confidence in the data which can be gathered through activities such as interviews, observations and artifact gathering. Concurrently, more professors and research journal editors are taking greater notice of the findings which have derived from qualitative research, and have given the approach a newfound credibility.
What exactly is qualitative research? In its simplest form, it represents a general framework in which most of the data for a study is gathered in a non-numeric fashion. In other words, most of the findings come from deep within numerous interviews and observations, as opposed to adding and dividing the results of a survey given to a group of participants.
But this only scratches the surface of the differences between qualitative and quantitative research. Qualitative research is sometimes described as ethnographic, interpretive, critical or postmodern research (Creswell, 1997). On the other hand, quantitative research has been called empirical, positivist, postpositivist, or objectivist (Henrickson & McKelvey, 2002). Within these groups of terms lie specific nuances. However, in spite of the differences, most of these frameworks can be characterized as having a set of family resemblances (Wittgenstein, 1973). Each family has unique qualities, but there are enough commonalities to form a group. In a sense, both the qualitative and quantitative research paradigms define a certain way of approaching the process of researching.
Granted, there are a number of occasions when quantitative research should be the preferred method, and in actuality, most researchers will employ both forms of research to conduct a mixed-methods study. However, there are some instances when it is best to examine the qualitative world view to gather information.
One example of this is found in Basics of Qualitative Research, considered to be the foremost publication used to describe the grounded theory process, a popular form of qualitative study. Authored by Juliet Corbin and the late Anselm Strauss, the book is thorough in its step-by-step approach of how to perform a grounded theory study. As a change to the third edition, which was published in 2008, 12 years after Strauss’ passing, Corbin rewrites the second half of the book to give an example of a study which could be used. Although the study has not been completed, the data is worthy of attention.
For her “study,” Corbin chose to examine a group of Vietnam veterans to gain a sense of their collective war experience. Throughout her study, the keys to analysis become evident. Her preparation for the study is noted by literature immersion, or reading as much available information about her subject(s) as possible, before beginning the interview process. She then works through each phase of the analysis. In her first interview, the subject says that being in the Vietnam War was “not a big deal.” Surprised, Corbin filed the information away and went on to her next subject. His experience was much more harrowing, and she learned that it was because Subject #2 was a combatant, while Subject #1 spent most of his time in a hospital and was not required to perform as many life-risking duties.
Through her series of interviews, she notes the importance of the process, through methods such as coding information to help develop the similarities among the veterans, member checking for accuracy, and using the constant comparative method to allow for ongoing comparisons. But her means of acquiring information reflect the best methods for the qualitative researcher to use – the interviews, structured, semi-structured and emergent, observations, and the use of artifacts. All of these will be used to help Corbin develop the data needed to finish the study when she chooses to.
There are several books to help better explain the benefits of qualitative research methodologies in educational settings. Along with Corbin and Strauss, Foundations of Qualitative Research by Jerry Willis does a credible job at explaining the basics, while Qualitative Research & Evaluation Methods, from M.Q. Patton is also useful.
Corbin, J. & Strauss, A. (2008). Basics of qualitative research: Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Creswell, J. W. (1998). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five traditions. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Patton, M.Q. (2002). Qualitative research & evaluation methods (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Willis, J.W. (2007). Foundations of qualitative research: Interpretive and critical approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.