Part 1 Foundations of Qualitative Research
is designed to lay the foundations for doing qualitative research and to help you understand the subsequent parts of this book. It also outlines why qualitative research
has become particularly relevant in the last decades of the twentieth century and at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
begins with an overview of the background to qualitative research. It then introduces you to the essential features of qualitative research (in general, Chapter 1
). Chapter 2
outlines the relationship between qualitative and quantitative research and the possibilities and pitfalls of combining both approaches. We then consider the major theoretical perspectives underpinning qualitative research. These theoretical perspectives can be seen as the theoretical frameworks
of qualitative research. Each of them contains assumptions about the nature of realities, how to address an issue conceptually, and how to plan research (Chapter 3
). In this chapter, we will also encounter two influential discussions in qualitative research. The first concerns positivism
as a basic epistemological assumption; the second focuses on the impact of feminist positions on qualitative research in general. Chapter 4
maps out methods and data in qualitative research (which will be presented in more detail later in this book). The discussion concerning positivism and constructivism will be developed a little more in the final chapter of this part (Chapter 5
). There, we will consider questions concerning the epistemological background of using text in qualitative research and address the basic processes in constructing and understanding texts. Together, these chapters offer a framework to assist the use of qualitative research methods, which are outlined and discussed in greater detail later in the book.
1 Why and How to Do Qualitative Research
This chapter is designed to help you
- understand the main characteristics of qualitative research against its history and background;
- identify common features of qualitative research;
- see why qualitative research is pertinent and necessary in contemporary social research.
The Relevance of Qualitative Research
Why use qualitative research? Is there any particular need for such an approach in the current situation? As a first step, I outline why interest in qualitative research has grown considerably over the last few decades. Due to a development that has become known as the pluralization of life worlds, qualitative research is of specific relevance to the study of social relations. This phrase, associated with what Habermas terms the ‘new obscurity’ (Habermas 1996), seeks to capture the growing ‘individualisation of ways of living and biographical patterns’ (Beck 1992), and the dissolution of ‘old’ social inequalities into the new diversity of milieus, subcultures, lifestyles and ways of living.
This pluralization requires on the part of social researchers a new sensitivity to the empirical study of issues. Advocates of postmodernism
have argued that the era of big narratives
and theories is over: locally, temporally and situationally limited narratives are now required. In this context, the following statement by Blumer becomes relevant once again, with fresh implications: ‘The initial position of the social scientist and the psychologist is practically always one of lack of familiarity with what is actually taking place in the sphere of life chosen for study’ (1969, p. 33).
These developments are triggered by the current processes of globalization (see Flick 2014c) and the increasing migration within and across continents. Rapid social change and the resulting diversification of life worlds increasingly confront social researchers with new social contexts and perspectives. As a result, their traditional deductive methodologies – deriving research questions and hypotheses from theoretical models and testing them against empirical evidence – are failing, due to the differentiation of objects. Instead of starting from theories and then testing them, research is increasingly forced to make use of inductive strategies: in the process, ‘sensitizing concepts’ are required for approaching the social contexts to be studied. Theories are developed from empirical studies. Thus knowledge and practice are studied as local knowledge and practices (Geertz 1983).
Research Questions as a Starting Point
The main reason for using qualitative research should be that a research question requires
the use of this sort of approach and not a different one. Let us illustrate this with an example (we will come back to this in more detail in Chapter 6
). In an ongoing research project we address the following problem. Addiction to drugs and alcohol is the third most frequent mental illness. Young Russian-speaking migrants in Germany are reported to often have particularly strong patterns of alcohol and drug consumption. Thus they have a high risk for drug-associated diseases. At the same time, they are a target group which is largely under- or unserved by existing health services. This study pursues the question of how Russian-speaking migrants perceive their use of substances and possibly consequent diseases, such as hepatitis, and how they cope with them. Of particular interest are conditions of their utilization of professional help and their connected expectations and experiences, and why they may refrain from such utilization.
Why should qualitative research be used for such a study? This is an example of a pluralization of life worlds mentioned above. Our knowledge about this life world (migration, Russian background, addiction) is too limited to start from a hypothesis to test in our research. Instead we need sensitizing concepts for exploring and understanding this life world and the individual (and social) biographical processes that have led to the current situation of our participants. This social group is for several reasons a ‘hard-to-reach’ group (one which will fall out of more general studies and may refuse to fill in a questionnaire, for example). For understanding how and why the participants with hepatitis make use of social and health services or refrain from using these services, we need to understand their personal experiences with the health system, the meanings they link to such experiences, and the discourses and practices concerning these issues in their contexts. Thus we approach the issue and our target group by using qualitative methods – interviews and participant observations, for example (see Chapters 15
Limitations of Quantitative Research
Beyond the general developments and examples like the one outlined above, the limitations of quantitative approaches have always been taken as a starting point for developing more general reasons why qualitative research should be used. Traditionally, psychology and social sciences have taken the natural sciences and their exactness as a model, paying particular attention to developing quantitative and standardized methods. Guiding principles of research and of planning research have been used for the following purposes: to clearly isolate causes and effects; to properly operationalize theoretical relations; to measure and to quantify phenomena; to create research designs allowing the generalization of findings; and to formulate general laws. For example, random samples of populations are selected in order to conduct a survey representative of that population. General statements are made as independently as possible about the concrete cases that have been studied. Observed phenomena are classified according to their frequency and distribution. In order to classify causal relations and their validity as clearly as possible, the conditions under which the phenomena and relations under study occur are controlled as far as possible. Studies are designed in such a way that the researcher’s (as well as the interviewer’s, observer’s, and so on) influence can be excluded as far as possible. This should guarantee the objectivity of the study, whereby the subjective views of the researcher as well as those of the individuals under study are largely eliminated. General obligatory standards for carrying out and evaluating empirical social research have been formulated. Procedures such as how to construct a questionnaire, how to design an experiment, and how to statistically analyse data have become increasingly refined.
Read: Generalization Explained
For a long time, psychological research has almost exclusively used experimental designs. These have produced vast quantities of data and results which demonstrate and test psychological relations of variables and the conditions under which they are valid. For the reasons mentioned above, for a long time empirical social research was mainly based on standardized surveys. The aim was to document and analyse the frequency and distribution of social phenomena in the population (e.g., certain attitudes). To a lesser extent, standards and procedures of quantitative research have been examined fundamentally in order to clarify the research objects and questions they are appropriate to or not.
Negative results abound when the targets previously mentioned are assessed for how far they could be reached. Some time ago Weber (1919) proclaimed that the sciences’ task is the disenchantment of the world by providing analysis and explanations through the research they do. Bonß and Hartmann (1985) have described the increasing disenchantment of the sciences – their methods and their findings. In the case of the social sciences, the low degree of applicability of results and the problems of connecting them to theory and societal developments are taken as indicators of this disenchantment. Less widely than expected – and above all in a very different way – the findings of social research have found their way into political and everyday contexts. Utilization research (Beck and Bonß 1989) has demonstrated that scientific findings are not carried over into political and institutional practices as much as expected. When they are taken up, they are obviously reinterpreted and picked to pieces: ‘Science...