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Qualitative methodology is used by social scientists in the study of human behavior. This methodology may be used in addition to or in place of quantitative methods. The use of qualitative methods by social scientists allows the researcher to obtain a rich set of data that is not easily obtainable with the use of quantitative methods. Qualitative methods encompass a variety of methodologies, including observation, interviewing, document analysis, and archival document analysis.
Observation and Interviewing
Two key methods used in the social sciences are observation and interviewing. Observation involves the examination of research subjects in the natural social environment, with particular attention paid to the subject’s behavior and actions. These observations are made firsthand by the researcher. An important element of observation is to study the subject’s unmodified, natural behavior. Observational methods include several types of examination. Unobtrusive observation is one in which the researcher does not directly participate in the activities that are being observed. Unobtrusive measures are often used to prevent researcher influence on the subject’s behavior. Participant observation allows the researcher to take part in the activities that are being observed and to gain familiarity with the subject’s experiences. Researchers can become fully involved in the activities being observed or they may observe activities they are involved in themselves.
Adrian Holliday, in “What Counts as Data” (2002), creates a schema of the different types of data that may be collected and the methods in which they are collected. Data may include description of (1) behaviors, in which the researcher describes the subject’s behaviors and verbalizations; (2) events, in which the researcher or the subject involved in the event describes the behaviors observed; (3) institutions, in which the researcher describes the rules, regulations, or rituals of the institution; (4) appearance, in which the researcher describes how the environment or the subjects in the environment appear; (5) research events, in which the researcher describes what subjects say or how they behave in the research setting, such as those occurring in interviews; and (6) settings, in which the researcher describes what is actually occurring in a particular setting. These types of data can be obtained through observation notes, research diaries, photographs, or video recordings.
The use of observation as a method of research is valuable for several reasons. Observation allows the investigator to study human behavior as it naturally occurs, with or without the researcher’s influence on the behavior. In other words, human activity is observed without the filtering effects of the subject’s interpretation of their interactions.
Interviewing involves direct interaction between the investigator and the research subject. The investigator speaks directly with the subject asking questions related to a specific topical area. Interviews are generally recorded utilizing audiotapes, videotapes, or written notations. Interviewing may take the form of structured or semistructured interviews.
Andrea Fonatna and James H. Frey, in “The Interview: From Structured Questions to Negotiated Text” (2000), note that structured interviewing allows the researcher to ask targeted questions of the research subjects. This form of interviewing consists of a prepared series of questions asked of all subjects. The subjects’ responses are limited, leaving little room for variation among the answers. The questions are directed at obtaining answers to specific topics of interest for the researcher. Semi-structured interviewing, by contrast, allows for more freedom of discussion with the subject and aims for a greater understanding of the subject. Questions are prepared to prompt topical areas of dialogue. The goal of these questions is to allow the subject to expand upon the question and reveal information that cannot be achieved with a structured interview.
Interviews have several benefits to research. They allow the researcher to discover the meanings of experience that subjects create in relation to the research topics. Interviews provide richer understandings of human behavior by providing real-life examples.
Methods of Analysis
Document analysis and archival document analysis are two additional methods utilized in qualitative analysis. Document analysis entails the study of photographs, diaries, newspapers, government documents, books, memorandums, and other written documents. Archival document analysis involves the study of historical documents, including historical examples of those listed above. Importance is placed on analysis of original documents, as opposed to photocopies or other reproductions. While this method allows access to difficult study subjects such as historical figures or societal elites, the study of documents does not allow the investigator to speak to the individual who has created the document. This may lead the investigator to theorize the meanings of the documents and the motivations underlying their creation. These types of studies require the researcher to hypothesize the relationship of the document to the social environment of the time.
The analysis of qualitative data includes a variety of methods, including grounded theory, narrative analysis, and computer-based approaches. As Kathy Charmaz notes in “Grounded Theory: Objectivist and Constructivist Methods” (2000), grounded theory involves an ongoing analysis of the data as it is collected. The data are coded as they are collected and categories begin to emerge. With these categories, theories begin to develop related to the data. These then guide further data collection.
Narrative analysis focuses on the narratives, or stories and experiences, of subjects. Through narrative analysis the researcher endeavors to understand the meaning attached to the experiences of the subject. The researcher may also analyze the specific words employed to describe these experiences.
Computer-based analytic approaches look to the burgeoning World Wide Web for new research subjects. Innovative research is being conducted on subjects found in a variety of Internet communities and through a variety of methods, including online chat rooms, online or e-mail based interviews, and document-type analysis of Web sites. These approaches allow the investigator to contact communities of individuals with similar interests and individuals located outside the investigator’s region or around the world.
Research Validity, Reliability, and Ethics
The use of qualitative methods, however, can be challenging in several respects. As Valerie Janesick notes in “The Choreography of Qualitative Research Design” (2000), qualitative researchers have struggled to address issues of validity and reliability. These terms are used primarily in the interpretation of quantitative data, yet qualitative researchers too are called upon to adhere to these standards of research.
For research to be considered valid it must actually measure what it proposes to measure, and the results should reflect the activity being studied. In other words, the data should accurately reflect the topic being studied. The notion of validity as it relates to qualitative methodology differs from its understanding in quantitative methodology. As Janesick contends, validity in qualitative research asks whether the description and the explanation fit. In an effort to achieve qualitative validity, researchers may permit participants to review the data for accuracy or ask a fellow researcher to do so.
For research to be considered reliable it must yield similar results in subsequent tests. Quantitative reliability is achieved when results are found to be consistent in subsequent tests. Unlike qualitative studies, quantitative reliability is determined through the use of mathematical equations to determine reliability, such as the determination of alpha. Qualitative tests are considered reliable when similar findings are achieved in subsequent tests. However, some debate exists as to whether reliability is pertinent in conducting qualitative studies, particularly since qualitative studies target the meanings and interpretations of experience by the subject and may involve investigator bias. One argument made by some researchers, including Caroline Stenbacka, is that, owing to the nature of qualitative studies and their aim at understanding rather than explaining human experience, the reliability of qualitative research is difficult to assess. Other researchers, such as James F. Davis, Robert Hagedorn, Morton B. King, Jerome Kirk and Marc L. Miller argue that a form of reliability is achievable in qualitative research.
Ethical issues are a concern when using qualitative methods. The protection of the research subject is of the highest priority. Ethical concerns include whether or not the subjects should know they are being observed, how investigator involvement may influence the behaviors under study, how the investigator-interviewee relationship may influence research results, and the bias involved in interpreting qualitative data, as well as protection of subjects’ identities.
In particular, the influence of the investigator on responses given by a subject in interview has been an ongoing concern. Subjects may provide answers they believe the interviewer prefers rather than providing their own unique answers. Subjects may construct answers due to a lack of knowledge of the topical area. Interviewers may unintentionally influence the subject’s answers through their body language, facial gestures, or other responses. As well as the information garnered from interviews is information that has been filtered and interpreted by both the subject and the researcher, calling into question the validity or reliability of the data obtained.
- Charmaz, Kathy. Grounded Theory: Objectivist and Constructivist Methods. In Handbook of Qualitative Research. 2nd ed. Eds. Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, 509–535. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
- Crittenden, Kathleen , and Richard J. Hill. 1971. Coding Reliability and Validity of Interview Data. AmericanSociological Review 36 (6): 1073–1080.
- Davis, F. James, and Robert H 1954. Testing the Reliability of Systematic Field Observations. American Sociological Review 19 (3): 345–348.
- Ellis, Carolyn, and Arthur P. Bochner. Autoethnography, Personal Narrative, Reflexivity: Researcher as Subject. In Handbook of Qualitative Research. 2nd ed. Eds. Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, 751. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
- Fonatna, Andrea, and James Frey. 2000. The Interview: From Structured Questions to Negotiated Text. In Handbook of Qualitative Research. 2nd ed. Eds. Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, 649–651. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
- Holliday, A 2002. What Counts as Data? In Doing and Writing Qualitative Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
- Janesick, V 2000. The Choreography of Qualitative Research Design. In Handbook of Qualitative Research. 2nd ed. Eds. Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, 379–399. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
- King, Morton , Jr. 1944. Reliability of the Idea-Centered Question in Interview Schedules. American Sociological Review 9 (1): 57–64.
- Kirk, Jerome, and Marc Miller. 1986. Reliability and Validity in Qualitative Research. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.
- Stenbacka, Car 2001. Qualitative Research Requires Quality Concepts of Its Own. Management Decision 39 (7): 551–556.
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