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The defining nature and characteristics of qualitative research are surveyed in this article, which identifies key distinctions between method and methodology. The authors note that qualitative research is primarily concerned understanding human beings' experiences in a humanistic, interpretive approach. Issues of research design differences between quantitative and qualitative research are traced with an emphasis on identifying diverse methodologies, including those focusing on analysis of text, and diverse forms of data collection along with criteria for evaluating qualitative research.
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Qualitative Research Reports in Communication
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What Is Qualitative Research?
Ronald L. Jackson II; Darlene K. Drummond; Sakile Camara
To cite this Article Jackson II, Ronald L., Drummond, Darlene K. and Camara, Sakile(2007) 'What Is Qualitative
Research?', Qualitative Research Reports in Communication, 8: 1, 21 — 28
To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/17459430701617879
URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17459430701617879
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What Is Qualitative Research?
Ronald L. Jackson II, Darlene K. Drummond,
& Sakile Camara
The defining nature and characteristics of qualitative research are surveyed in this arti-
cle, which identifies key distinctions between method and methodology. The authors note
that qualitative research is primarily concerned understanding human beings’ experi-
ences in a humanistic, interpretive approach. Issues of research design differences between
quantitative and qualitative research are traced with an emphasis on identifying diverse
methodologies, including those focusing on analysis of text, and diverse forms of data
collection along with criteria for evaluating qualitative research.
Keywords: Data Collection; Ethnography; Methodologies; Methods; Phenomenology
The function of all science is to investigate answers to questions about the evolution
of an experience or phenomenon via observation. Social science specifically attempts
to discover new or different ways of understanding the changing nature of lived social
realities. In trying to grapple with what life means to human beings, social scientists
presume there is a systematic way of apprehending critical dimensions to problems
that confront our social world. In this pursuit, even the most optimistic scholar
knows that he or she can only uncover what is available or accessible at the time
of the investigation or the period(s) leading up to the point of inquiry. It is impos-
sible to grasp every aspect of a social phenomenon, investigation, or question.
Nonetheless, it is the responsibility of every researcher to approach each study with
as much objectivity, ethical diligence, and rigor as possible.
Ronald L. Jackson II (Ph.D., Howard University, 1996) is an associate professor of communication and culture
in the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences at Pennsylvania State University, 234 Sparks Bldg, State
College, PA 16801, USA. E-mail: rlj6@obradom.psu.edu. Darlene K. Drummond (Ph.D., Ohio State University,
2000) is an assistant professor of communication in the School of Communication at University of Miami.
Sakile Camara (Ph.D., Ohio State University, 2001) is an assistant professor of Communication Studies at Cali-
fornia State University at Northridge. The authors wish to thank the Africana Research Collaborative for their
support of this project.
Qualitative Research Reports in Communication
Vol. 8, No. 1, 2007, pp. 21–28
ISSN 1745-9435 (print)/ISSN 1745-9443 (online) #2007 Eastern Communication Association
DOI: 10.1080/17459430701617879
Downloaded By: [University of Illinois] At: 15:32 31 January 2010
The approach to ensuring objectivity, ethical diligence,andrigor depends on whether
the study is qualitative or quantitative. For years, scholars have argued that the principal
distinction between qualitative and quantitative research is that they do not share the
same epistemology. Rather than elaborate on this line of thinking, it is far better to
understand that key distinctions between the two can be found within both method
and methodology. Method refers to how data is collected, and methodology refers to
the identification and utilization of the best approach for addressing a theoretical or
practical problem (Kaplan, 1964). In short, as has been said elsewhere, method is about
‘‘how to’’ and methodology is about ‘‘why to’’ collect data a certain way. Both are
pertinentto researchdesign. Indesigning a study, all social science researchers begin with
a set of questions about a social problem. Subsequently, they simultaneously consider
constructs and theories that can adequately facilitate how the problem is conceptually
understood while also thinking about the practical dimensions of collecting data. Some
basic questions a researcher will ask, for example, are as follows:
.How will I gain access to and recruit participants?
.How will participants respond to my questions?
.What will their responses help me to understand about the selected phenomenon
under investigation?
.Do my research questions reflect what I am seeking to conceptually understand?
Each of these questions is very important to beginning an investigation.
If you are a quantitative researcher, you will want to statistically assess some aspect
of a research problem through the use of experimental or survey design procedures.
The purpose of an experiment is to test the impact of an intervention on an outcome
while controlling for various factors that might influence that outcome. When a
researcher wants to know about certain attitudes, trends, or opinions of a population
by studying a sample of that population, a survey design is employed. Both experi-
mental and survey designs result in the report of generalizations made by a sample
in representation of a particular population (Cresswell, 2003).
Stake (1995) maintains that there are three major differences between quantitative
and qualitative research:
(1) the distinction between explanation and understanding as the purpose of
inquiry; (2) the distinction between a personal and impersonal role for the
researcher; and (3) a distinction between knowledge discovered and knowledge
constructed. (p. 37)
So, as we discuss our concern in this essay with respect to defining the nature,
function, and types of qualitative inquiry, we will also be pointing out the significance
of understanding as a purpose of qualitative research as well as the significance of
both a personal role and social construction of reality within this paradigm. If you
are a qualitative researcher, you will be primarily concerned with what Lincoln
and Guba (1985) call ‘‘the human as instrument’’ approach. In other words, the focus
turns to understanding human beings’ richly textured experiences and reflections
about those experiences. Rather than relying on a set of finite questions to elicit
22 R. L. Jackson et al.
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categorized, forced-choice responses with little room for open-ended replies to ques-
tions as quantitative research does, the qualitative researcher relies on the participants
to offer in-depth responses to questions about how they have constructed or under-
stood their experience. This humanistic, interpretive approach is also called ‘‘thick-
descriptive’’ because of the richness and detail to the discussion. By design, the
qualitative researcher will get much more information about a phenomenon, realiz-
ing that the major drawback will be that the results will not be generalizable to a
population because very few participants participate in studies offering so much
depth of detail. Moreover, the researcher tends to be more cognizant of his or her
personal rather than impersonal role in the research. This recognition of subjectivity
also leads to enhanced safeguards for trustworthiness such as member-checking. By
doing this, the researcher notes that his or her study of others’ experiences borders
the investigator’s experience as well, and this has implications for social scientific
interpretation of the data collected.
Synonymous with non-experimental and ethnographic inquiry, qualitative inquiry
or research has its intellectual roots in hermeneutics, the Verstehen tradition, and
phenomenology. It encompasses all forms of social inquiry that rely primarily on
non-numeric data in the form of words, including all types of textual analyses such
as content, conversation, discourse, and narrative analyses. The aim and function of
qualitative inquiry is to understand the meaning of human action by describing the
inherent or essential characteristics of social objects or human experience (Denzin &
Lincoln, 2000). There are several types of qualitative inquiry and modes of qualitative
data collection that are aligned with the humanistic tradition.
Before exploring these types, it is important to note that some scholars think of
phenomenology as a methodology, and as methodology it nicely frames what most
interpretive researchers see as their concerns. Phenomenology is a multifaceted
philosophy that defies simple characterization. Generally, phenomenologists reject
the idea that the only legitimate knowledge is that which social scientists discover
by ignoring the perceived world of everyday human experience. In fact, phenomen-
ologists privilege the subjective description of conscious every-day mundane experi-
ences from the perspective of those living them (Crotty, 1998). For this reason, this
philosophy is at the foundation of much of the qualitative research conducted within
the social sciences, including communication.
Qualitative Methodologies
Methodologies suggest how inquiries should proceed by indicating what problems
are worth investigating, how to frame a problem so it can be explored, how to
develop appropriate data generation, and how to make the logical link between the
problem, data generated, analysis, and conclusions=inferences drawn. Methodologies
have a synergetic relationship with methods and are often defined differently based
on the philosophical stance advocated by the researcher (Kaplan, 1964). Nevertheless,
in exploring types of qualitative inquiry, it is evident that most qualitative researchers
first identify a text or social object that is suitable for analysis, even if it is a visual text
Qualitative Research Reports in Communication 23
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such as a movie or photograph. Even visual images representing social life and=or
social actions can be read as written text (Ricoeur, 1981). Methodologies that privi-
lege the exploration of texts vary along a continuum from content analysis, discourse
analysis, and narrative analysis to conversation analysis. On one end, the focus is on
what was said (content; e.g., content analysis), and at the other end, how something
was said (form; e.g., conversation analysis). In the middle is the concern for both
form and content (e.g., narrative analysis; Coffey & Atkinson, 1996).
Content analysis is a generic name for a variety of ways for conducting systematic,
objective, quantitative, and=or qualitative textual analysis that involves comparing,
contrasting, and categorizing a set of data primarily to test hypotheses. This type of
analysis usually relies on some statistical procedures for sampling and establishing
inter-coder reliability (Krippendorf, 1980). Essentially, qualitative content analysis
involves interpreting, theorizing, or making sense of data by first breaking it down into
segments that can be categorized and coded, and then establishing a pattern for the
entire data set by relating the categories to one another (Gubrium & Holstein, 1997).
Conversation analysis is a form of textual analysis that arose out of the sociological
approach of ethnomethodology based in part on the philosophical tradition of
phenomenology. Ethnomethodology is interested in how people accomplish every-
day, taken-for-granted interactions like making promises and negotiating (Garfinkel,
1967). One method for exploring these interactions is through conversation analysis,
as it is concerned with examining the linguistic organization of talk to show how
speakers produce orderly social interaction (Silverman, 1998). Similarly, discourse
analysis is a way for examining language as it is used in specific contexts; however,
it is more strictly focused on the content of talk, highlighting the practices that
comprise the ideologies, attitudes, ideas, and courses of action that systematically
constitute the subjects and objects of which people speak (Foucault, 1972).
Content analysis, conversation analysis, and discourse analysis are not the only
forms of textual analyses popular in communication. A broad term used to refer
to a variety of procedures for interpreting stories generated in research, narrative
analysis encompasses structural and functional forms of analyses. The researcher
examines how a story is developed, organized, begins and ends, as well as, its
goals or aims (Riessman, 1993). Stories analyzed are of lived experiences often
chronicled in life histories, interviews, journals, diaries, autobiographies, memoirs,
or biographies (Josselson & Liebech, 1995).
Unlike the aforementioned methodologies, which seek to deconstruct a text to
help us understand the social realities of human beings, one increasingly popular
methodology seeks to produce a written text through which we can vicariously
experience various social realities. Ethnography is the art and science of describing
and interpreting cultural behavior from a close textual-analytic standpoint. The typi-
cal ethnography is presented in monograph form and describes the historical events
and geographic, economic, political, educational, linguistic, and kinship systems that
define a particular group (Wolcott, 1987).
Embedded within conventional ethnography are critical ethnography and autoeth-
nography. They share fundamental characteristics but are distinguishable. Generally,
24 R. L. Jackson et al.
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conventional ethnographers speak for their subjects to an audience of academics,
while critical ethnographers speak to a wider audience on behalf of their subjects seek-
ing empowerment for them while simultaneously invoking social consciousness and
political change (Thomas, 1993). Increasingly, communication scholars are engaging
in the study of their own communities or cultures by using themselves as the object
of study, portending ‘‘self as instrument.’’ Known as autoethnography, this form of
writing attempts to unite ethnographic (looking beyond one’s world) and auto-
biographical (looking inward for a personal story) intentions. The purpose of this
qualitative inquiry is not to make any claims through interpretations and analyses,
but to simply invite readers to share in a lived experience (Ellis & Bochner, 2000).
Methods of Data Collection
‘‘Method’’ refers to the tools, techniques, or procedures used to generate data
(Kaplan, 1964). In conducting qualitative research, interviewing is a set of techniques
for generating data from individuals and=or groups utilizing structured, semi-
structured, or unstructured questioning formats. Generally, semi- or unstructured,
open-ended, informal interviewing is preferred to allow for more flexibility and
responsiveness to emerging themes for both the interviewer and respondent. The
analysis of transcribed interviews is dependent on the specific methodological
approach employed (e.g., the meticulous word-to-word transcription of conversation
analysis to the more broad-based thematic analysis of ethnographic interviews;
see Holstein & Gubrium, 1995). Often, interviewing is used in conjunction with
other modes of data collection like focus groups, case studies, ethnography, and=or
or participant observation.
As one way of collecting data in qualitative research, focus groups are group inter-
views (typically involving 5–12 people) that rely on the interaction within the group
and the questions asked of the moderator to provide insight into specific topics.
Focus group interviews can serve as the principal source of data, as a supplementary
source of data, or as one component of a multimethod approach to data collection.
The primary advantage for the researcher in conducting focus groups is the ability to
observe a large amount of interaction among multiple participants on one or more
topics in a limited amount of time. However, this is also the primary disadvantage,
because focus groups are viewed as unnatural social settings (Morgan, 1997), and
there is a possibility that groupthink may threaten the dependability of the data,
especially in situations where actual or perceived experts and non-experts are both
included.
Another approach that can be quite intensive is the case study approach to data
collection, which is preferred in the following circumstances:
1. the researcher wants to answer ‘‘how’’ or ‘‘why’’ questions;
2. the researcher has little control over the contemporary real-life context to be
studied; and
3. when the boundaries between the context and phenomenon are not clear.
Qualitative Research Reports in Communication 25
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It can be used for analytic generalization (Yin, 1989). Analytic generalization, also
referred to as theoretical elaboration, is a type of generalization in which the
researcher uses a particular set of circumstances, like a case, as evidence to refine, dis-
pute, support or detail a concept, model, or theory. However, the case is never
regarded or portrayed as a definitive test of the theory (Vaughan, 1992). Also, in a
case study, the researcher is often at a distance from the context under examination
and is studying the phenomenon by collecting multiple artifacts or kinds of data.
These data can include interviews, focus groups, printed materials, media, and other
sources of data.
Distinguishable from the aforementioned methods of data collection, fieldwork
is accomplished through participant observation and is the means by which the
ethnographer comes to know a culture. Participant observation requires one to spend
time engaged in a setting, taking part in the daily activities of the people under study
and recording, as soon as possible, observed activities in the form of fieldnotes
(Stocking, 1983). The term fieldwork refers to all of the activities one does when
at the physical site of a cultural group, such as listening, observing, conversing,
recording, interpreting, and dealing with logistical, ethical, and political issues.
Participant observation is the traditional methodology employed in fieldwork,
although life-histories, oral histories, action research, and other forms of case studies
and co-participative inquires also entail aspects of fieldwork (Wolcott, 1995).
Criteria for Evaluating Qualitative Research
Rather than conventional measures of trustworthiness, such as internal=external
validity, reliability, and objectivity, that are at the core of quantitative research, the
qualitative research design tests trustworthiness via credibility, transferability,
dependability, and confirmability, respectively. Good qualitative research applies
standards of trustworthiness such as member-checking, stepwise replication, and
audit trails, each of which seeks to verify the substance of what participants said so
that interpretations are not subjective iterations of the researcher’s own belief system.
Specifically, member-checking assists in validating qualitative research findings, as
themes and descriptions are taken back to participants to determine whether or
not participants feel they are accurate. Peer briefing and the use of external auditors
serve to enhance the credibility of a study by assessing whether the findings resonate
with others not connected with the study (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Collectively, these
facilitate objectivity,ethical diligence, and rigor. Obviously, when doing an autoethno-
graphy, these verification checks are very personal, yet phenomenology has outlined
ways in which the researcher can parse out streams of consciousness that are intri-
cately entangled in experiences related to the research study (Ellis & Bochner, 2000).
Because experience is key to qualitative inquiry, observations of interpretive data
must be able to account for varying kinds of experiences in a way that is particular-
ized or idiographic rather than generalized and law-bound or nomothetic. In
grappling with what qualitative research is, we must be ever-conscious that social
26 R. L. Jackson et al.
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experience is always happening, unending, and fluid. Perspectives on experience can
change from person to person, yet it is perspective that influences social cognition
and social behavior. Perspective influences relationships and interaction patterns.
So, even as scholars understand the significance of perspective, there are constantly
evolving ways of understanding perspective in varying contexts from very naturalistic
to lab-oriented contexts. Of course, observing a phenomenon in its natural setting is
often the optimal way to examine what is happening; yet there are compelling reasons
to place people in unnatural settings and manipulate the situation to see how people
will respond to a stimulus. This sounds like quantitative, experimental research, but
qualitative researchers may also do something similar by showing interviewees an
object, image, or some other stimulus in order to prompt further reflection. In social
scientists’ quest for truth and understanding, text and context have value for all,
regardless of methodology.
As scholars become even more curious and think of expanding ways to collect data
using new technologies and approaches, it is important to bear in mind that it is the
responsibility of every researcher to approach each study with as much objectivity,
ethical diligence, and rigor as possible.
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Once again, editors Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S Lincoln have put together a volume that represents the state of the art for the theory and practice of qualitative inquiry. Built on the foundation of the landmark first edition, published in 1994, the second edition is both the bridge and the roadmap to the territory that lies ahead for researchers across the disciplines. The Second Edition is a significant revision; in fact, it is virtually a new work. It features six new chapter topics, including, among others, auto-ethnography, critical race theory, applied ethnography, queer theory, and testimonies. Another fifteen chapters are written by new contributors. And every chapter in the book has been thoroughly revised and updated. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is necessary to re-engage the promise of qualitative research as a generative form of inquiry. The Second Edition of the Handbook reveals how the discourses of qualitative research can be used to imagine and create a free and democratic society. Ground-breaking, thought-provoking, comprehensive and featuring the contributions of a virtual "Who’s Who" in the human sciences, Handbook of Qualitative Research, Second Edition is absolutely an essential text for the library of any scholar interested in the art and science of research.
Chapter
The aim of this chapter is to lay the foundation for the discussions in all the other chapters. In Section 2 definitions of ?social indicator? and ?social report? are proposed, and their structural features are explained. This is followed by an examination of the phrase ?quality of life? and several views of the nature of values. A number of possible uses and abuses of social indicators and reports are introduced in Section 4. With preliminaries now out of the way, the last two sections are devoted to descriptions of the scope of this work (Section 5) and the measuring instrument employed (Section 6).