Why do qualitative research?

Compared to quantitative research a qualitative studies generally focus on a much smaller sample, do not isolate variables, and results are almost by definition impossible to reproduce. So, why bother?  At its base I think that qualitative methods are epistemologically very similar to quantitative studies and can often bring important insights not found in quantitative studies. The point here is not that one is better than the other, but we need both.

Howard Becker makes the argument that the epistemological aims of qualitative research are not fundamentally different from quantitative work—its just that the benchmarks, questions, and methods tend to be different. Becker labels these principles breadth, precision, and accuracy. Instead of isolating variables, qualitative work generally tries to look at a broad range of interconnected processes or causes. Rather than test a hypothesis, qualitative research tends to engage in a much more dialectic process between the questions asked and data observed. New questions and information gathered in the process of research shape the questions as the research is being done. And in place of reproducible results, qualitative researchers generally aim at accuracy—getting at the everyday realities of some social phenomenon and studying important questions as they are really practiced.

The actual research part of a qualitative study usually relies on a combination of participant observation, interviews, and historical research. On the most basic level this means both understanding the specific background context of a research site and also spending a lot of time with the community one wants to research. In other words, in order to meet the standards of qualitative research, you have to “be there”. For anthropology, Malinowski is the guy attributed with pushing this idea. He argued that to truly understand a society one had to spend enough time there to learn the language and acclimate to the situation. When Becker refers to accuracy, this is what he means—trying to get close to lived reality.

Malinowski pushed researchers to get off their verandas

Although time consuming to conduct, qualitative research tends to offer forth a wealth of varied information on a small case or set of cases over a broad set of data. The breadth Becker refers to means being open to the multiple causes of every event. Well done qualitative research is limited in its scope, but very rich in depth. It can help us see how many different causes and actions lead to specific outcomes.

Likewise, a qualitative approach can point out the limitations of our own theories and categories. Allowing the research questions to adjust with new information, what Becker calls precision, means that we can be more sure we’re actually getting at what we say we’re getting at. Qualitative researchers are also often acutely aware of how their own preconceptions and presence may affect a situation. This attention can, I think, lead to better research that helps clarify our vision.

So what are the advantages of such an approach? In short, it helps us see how general forces play out in specific circumstances and to ask questions that can’t be easily put into numbers. Qualitative research focuses attention on the contingent nature of social reality. Institutions, technologies, and broad social forces matter, but their effects are always specific to a particular context. The case-study nature of qualitative research allows a focus on how things went down, how general forces and individual wills played out in a specific situation. This impulse is incredibly relevant for development work. The video Andrew posted about several failed development technologies in some ways follows this point—we need to pay attention to affects in particular contexts and under real human conditions.

In practice this is always a lot sloppier, imperfect, and ethically complicated. Caveats in place, what I will show you over my next couple of posts are some examples of well conducted qualitative research that can help shape the way we think about development.

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One Response to Why do qualitative research?

  1. Jason Kerwin says:

    >getting at the everyday realities of some social phenomenon and studying important questions as they are really practiced.

    This is vitally important, and economists typically get it wrong, particularly the “you have to be there” part. There is a growing trend (probably originally borrowed from sociology) toward doing actual fieldwork, though; it’s already standard practice in development economics and it’s spreading into work done domestically.

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