As many now know, I am a part of the personal medicine revolution and I am on a diet and supplements based on my genetics. Learning about genetic mutations (single nucleotide polymorphisms or "snps") sometime requires reading QUANTITATIVE Research, the kind based on the null hypothesis or the chances of something occurring.
This kind of research worked great during the Enlightenment. Men, mostly, could cut up part of nature, say a frog, and find out what literally made the creature tick. This is basic objectification of nature and I find it pretty offensive even if it has brought us wonderful inventions out of these "scientific" findings.
In grad school for a Master's and then into a Doctoral program, I fell in love with phenomenology and with forms of qualitative research such as Participatory Action Research and most of all Cooperative Inquiry.
You see when phenomenology in psychology began, scientists could no longer dissect nature to find out more about human experience. Houston, we have a problem. Qualitative forms of research don't have this problem because these forms of research are base on human experience.
Here is a short, un-annotated paper I wrote on Qualitative Research. Check it out. You might find it surprising.
We live in a culture that prizes the scientific world a great deal and often we hear, “the research shows” or worse, “the research proves.” If one broadly interprets scientific method as a way to systematically inquire and to then have that inquiry open to comment of at least a peer community, this is how scientific is to be used here. While quantitative research works to find explanations and causes, qualitative research looks to describe and to contextualize human experience.
Sometime in the late 1800’s scientists began questioning the appropriateness of using quantitative methods to learn more about human experience. The method phenomenology may have been the first qualitative research method. Heidegger and others felt the human experience was far too complex to reduce to numbers and simple criteria; the concept of co constituent elements was developed as an option for a more holistic data collection process. With that very general overview of the beginnings of qualitative research, I offer a short descriptive story to perhaps make qualitative research a bit more understandable to someone perhaps not in the field. Recently, as my husband worked at repairing a roof for a client, I sat in the truck listening to the radio; a current events quiz show was being presented.
A guest, who is a journalist, was being interviewed. The guest was a former writer on, and member of, the 60’s counter culture. He is now a conservative Republican.
PJ O’Rourke, the man being interviewed, told the story of a group of his friends and himself, back in the wild and crazy 60’s, deciding to do a “wine tasting.” They purchased 13 bottles of wine, tasted and quickly discarded the Manoshevitz but continued on with the other 12 bottles.
They began, as most scientific inquiry or research does, with a basic assumption and question. They assumed that as they drank they world lose their ability to discern quality and would
simply drink more in order to get drunk. So their question reflected something to that effect: “Would discernment of quality be eroded as more wine was consumed?”
On one level, they were being quantitative, noting how much they had consumed. In a way, they believed as most of us usually do, that quantity in most cases is what is of import; that findings regarding quantity would “prove” and “explain” a “cause.” This is the usual interest in quantitative research. Instead what they found was that as they drank, they actually became more discerning, more able to notice the quality of the wines.
About now I imagine you will ask the same question that the radio interviewer and my husband asked at this point. How did they know they were more discerning? After all, they were drunk!
Well, as a group of journalists they did what researchers do: they took notes and afterward were able to see if indeed their findings were “valid.” They created documentation that they could review and would be open to other “inquirers” (imbibers) for review and consideration. In many ways this is what qualitative research intends: to take an experience and study it in depth while systematically recording the quality of the experience, the findings and outcomes, ultimately to share these findings with each other and others who might be interested in the topic.
We often hear the term wine connoisseur. That is, someone who has spent time going deeply into the qualities of a wine or wines. We, in qualitative research, seek a similar kind of “connoisseurship;” we seek to delve deeply into the qualities of experience and to share the findings with others who may be interested in “refining” their own sensitivities and perhaps, depth of experience. We look to discern and describe qualities of life rather than to enumerate and mathematically evaluate. We imbibe experience, reflect on that experience and share our experience with others in hope of deepening our understanding of life.
The process is as important and perhaps more important than the outcome. The way or method of inquiry that we choose is just as important as the outcome. We notice the context, like drinkers of fine wine: is the environment adding or subtracting to the experience? What else affects our experience? And so on.
While indeed it is valuable to enumerate the number of bottles or experiences we are considering, what is of most interest, on multiple levels, is the quality of the experience.
That, very briefly, is one way to understand qualitative research and perhaps, a little more of scientific research in general.
©N. Peden, 2001