Monday, November 2, 2015

Qualitative Research: Gathering courage for the plunge into ambiguity

Megan Barolet-Fogarty, PhD, ABD
University of Delaware

            Unlike some of the previous contributors to this blog, I have always known myself to be a qualitative researcher. The idea of gathering data through interviews and ethnographic methods resonates with me on a personal and professional level. It capitalizes on my interpersonal skills and allows me to engage in research that I feel is meaningful and potentially transformational for all parties involved. Therefore, it was natural early on in my academic career to gravitate towards Anthropology, a field deeply steeped in a tradition of ethnographic methods.
            However, I have always drawn from multiple disciplines, so when I landed in a PhD program for Human Development and Family Studies, the interdisciplinary nature of the field made it a very good fit. As I progressed in the program however, it became clear that while open to interdisciplinary influences, the foundations of this field grew out of clinical psychology, and large-scale randomized studies with complex statistical analysis remain the “gold standard” of research. Nevertheless, I enjoyed my research methods courses and tried to learn from the careful thought and detail that went into quantitative study design and data analysis, and admired the generalizability of findings on a larger scale than is possible through ethnographic study. The possibilities of mixed-methods research capitalizing on the strengths of both approaches particularly appeal to me.
            I will not rehash here the longstanding debate about the validity of qualitative data, with its open acknowledgment of researcher bias and subjectivity, its limited scope, and typical lack of randomization. I do not need to be convinced of the contributions that this type of research can make, for I have seen no quantitative study that truly captures the voice of participants or delves deeply into the “why?” which drives human behavior. I have enough experience collecting data for large-scale quantitative research studies to wonder how often those surveys and data points fail to capture the lived reality of participants.

            However, immersed in the analysis of qualitative data that I have collected for my doctoral dissertation on Latina Mothers in Early Head Start, there are times that I envy the strict protocol and statistical analysis methods of my quantitative colleagues. Qualitative analysis is hard work. It’s time consuming and intellectually demanding. Despite having completed a qualitative Master’s thesis and coursework for multiple graduate level qualitative research methods classes, the analysis of qualitative data remains a somewhat ambiguous and fluid process in my mind. This flexibility is part of the strength of this approach to research, but it is also daunting and overwhelming.      Inspired by the call to rigorous and transparent qualitative research I have attempted to utilize methods such as multiple coding of transcripts and have relied upon qualitative software to help organize codes and themes. However, while I might run data queries with my software and read closely about the process of axial and selective coding, there comes a point as a scholar when I just have to make some decisions as to the direction of my analysis. This leap into ambiguity requires great faith in my own interpretive skills. So while positivists might highlight this admission as proof of the fallacy of qualitative reliability, and qualitative purists will hold it up as an example of the subjective nature of all research, in the end I find myself alone on the high dive, gathering courage to take the plunge.

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