what-is-qualitative-research-and-what-should-it-be.doc

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Martyn Hammersley WHAT IS QUALITATIVE RESEARCH, AND WHAT SHOULD IT BE? 1 The apparently simple questions in the title to this chapter are, in fact, challenging ones. To start with, it is necessary to ask whether we have two questions here or just one. If we were to interpret ‘What is qualitative research?’ as asking ‘What is its true nature?’, then this would be little different from asking how it should be. Aside from this, it could be argued that in seeking to answer the first question we must know beforehand what ought, and ought not, to be counted as qualitative research in order to recognize examples of it. In these terms, too, we seem to have only one question. However, the two questions are distinct if we set out to answer the first one by reporting how the term ‘qualitative research’ is defined in the literature, or if we interpret the task as identifying the sorts of studies to which this label is usually applied, and the grounds for their being classified in this way. This is the approach I will adopt in the first section of the chapter: I will sketch what currently passes for qualitative research, and how the idea of it as a distinct paradigm developed. In the second section I will turn to the question of whether or not this conception of qualitative research is desirable, and what conclusions should be drawn from this. What is qualitative research? ‘Qualitative research’ is one of many labels which we can employ in trying to make sense of the diverse range of methods and methodological ideas to be found in the social sciences today. In the most basic sense, the phrase is used to refer to the collection and analysis of data that are not structured at the point of data collection – for example through experimental procedures or the use of questionnaires involving ‘closed questions’, where respondents are required to select from a set of possible answers. Such structuring of data is designed to generate numbers: counts and measurements of various kinds. By contrast, qualitative researchers work with data that are not structured in this fashion, these taking a variety of forms: already available documents (paper-based or electronic) that contain text and/or images (still or moving); fieldnotes produced by a researcher on the basis of observation and/or interviewing; audio- or video-recordings made by the researcher in natural settings or of 1 Chapter published in Danish in Svend Brinkmann and Lene Tanggaard (eds) Kvalitative metoder: En grundbog , Second edition, København: Hans Reitzel, 2015. 1
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interviews, along with transcripts; etc. Moreover, qualitative researchers do not seek to process this unstructured data in ways that are aimed at producing numerical measures, in the manner of some content analysis or corpus linguistics work. Instead, they interpret them using theoretical ideas expressed in natural language.
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