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Analyzing Qualitative Data
June 26, 2015
The last two blog post articles were based on a talk I was invited to give at ‘Mind the Gap’, a conference organised by MDH RSA at the University of Sheffield. You can find the slides here, but they are not very text heavy, so don’t read well without audio!
The two talks which preceded me, by Professors Glynis Cousin and John Sandars, echoed quite a few of the themes. Professor Cousin spoke persuasively about reductionism in qualitative research, in her talk on the ‘Science of the Singular’ and the significance that can be drawn from a single case study. She argued that by necessity all research is reductive, and even ‘fictive’, but that doesn’t restrict what we can interpret from it.
Professor Cousin described how both Goffman (1961) and Kenkessie (1962) did extensive ethnographies on mental asylums about the same time, but one wrote a classic academic text, and the other the ‘fictive’ novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. One could argue that both were very influential, but the different approaches in ‘writing-up’ appeal to different audiences.
That notion of writing for your audience was evident in Professor Sanders talk, and his concern for communications methods that have the most impact. Drawing from a variety of mixed-method research projects in education, he talked about choosing a methodology that has to balance the approach the researcher desires in their heart, with what the audience will accept. It is little use choosing an action-research approach if the target audience (or journal editors) find it inappropriate in some way.
This sparked some debate about how well qualitative methods are accepted in mainstream journals, and if there is a preference towards publishing research based on quantitative methods. Some felt that authors felt an obligation to take a defensive stance when describing qualitative methods, further restricting the limited word limits that cut down so much detail in qualitative dissemination. The final speaker, Dr Kiera Barlett also touched on this issue when discussing publications strategies for mixed-method projects. Should you have separate qualitative and quantitative papers for respective journals, or try and have publications that draw from all aspects of the study? Obviously this will depend on the field, findings and methods chosen, but it again raised a difficult issue.
Is it still the case that quantitative findings have more impact than qualitative ones? Do journal articles, funders and decision makers still have a preference for what are seen as more traditional statistical based methodologies? From my own anecdotal position I would have to agree with most of these, although to be fair I have seen little evidence of funding bodies (at least in the UK and in social sciences and health) having a strong preference against qualitative methods of inquiry.
However, during the discussion at the conference it was noted that the preference for ‘traditional’ methods is not just restricted to journal reviewers but the culture of disciplines at large. This is often for good reason, and not restricted to a qualitative/quantitative divide: particular techniques and statistical tests tend to dominate, partly because they are well known. This has a great advantage: if you use a common indicator or test, people probably have a better understanding of the approach and limitations, so can interpret the results better, and compare with other studies. With a novel approach, one could argue that readers also need to also go and read all the references in the methodology section (which they may or may not bother to do), and that comparisons and research synthesis are made more difficult.
As for journal articles, participants pointed out that many online and open-access journals have removed word limits (or effectively done so by allowing hyperlinked appendices), making publication of long text based selections of qualitative data easier. However, this doesn’t necessarily increase palatability, and that’s why I want to get back to this issue about considering the audience for research findings, and choosing an appropriate medium.
It may be easy to say that if research is predominantly a quantitative world, quantifying, summarising, and statistically analysing qualitative data is the way to go. But this is abhorrent, not just to the heart of a qualitative researcher, but also deceptive - imparting a quantitative fiction on a qualitative story. Perhaps the challenge is to think of approaches outside the written journal article. If we can submit a graphic novel as a PhD or explain your research as a dance we can reach new audiences, and engage in new ways with existing ones.
Producing graphs, pie charts, and even the bubble views in Quirkos are all ways that essentially summarise, quantify and potentially trivialise qualitative data. But if this allows us to access a wider audience used to quantitative methods, it may have a valuable utility, at least in providing that first engagement that makes a reader want to look in more detail. In my opinion, the worst research is that which stays unread on the shelf.