Monday, August 15, 2011

Qualitative Research: What is a project? What are mixed methods?

Illustration depicting thought.Image via WikipediaI began to ponder these questions recently as I was comparing my two current projects in my head:
1.  The Journal Project:  A study of 18 months of my personal journals using qualitative data analysis software (QDAS) and arts-based approaches; and,
2.  Sexting and Teens:  A 3-state multi-disciplinary, mixed method study of teen...and adult view of teens views of sexting.

I was thinking about the characteristics of the two.  The Journal project is very internal--individual--inside of me. It's insular, no doubt about it.  No teamwork, no communal nothing.  It's very QR, meaning that it doesn't use cases and attributes in focuses on written texts and coding. 

The Sexting project is extroverted, communal and interactive.  A team project that uses mixed methods--meaning it uses cases and attributes in QDAS, AND written texts and coding. Quantitative data is organized in SPSS.  

Comparing the two got me thinking first about:  What is a project?  And this led me to think about:  What is mixed methods--and how is QDAS re-defining that term?

In re: project:  I asked myself--How do we live a project?  Where do we find projects?  How is a project like a family, relationship, book?  How near or far do we place ourselves? 

Then, the inevitable comparison to computer methods came up:  What is a project vs an e-project?  Are they different?  How does QDAS circumsribe the project?  Is a project a question?  a case? a place? a people? a culture?

One of the things that irritates me about working with people who know a little about qualitative research, enough to get themselves into trouble, is the inordinate amount of concern they expend on trying to define what kind of qualitative research a project is:  Is it case study?  Is it ethnography?   Is it grounded study?  These concerns never seem to make sense to me, and I realized that one problem is that I am more focused on "the project" or "the e-project" in my case.  My focus leads me to ask, how am I going to best organize within this tool?  What is the best granularity in terms of analysis--should this be broadly or finely coded?  And, most importantly--is this a study that will need cases and attributes or am I going to stick in the texts and codes area?

This morning I woke up and realized that, in part, what I am thinking about regarding the e-project is actually a discussion of the continuum of mixed methods as it is shaped by QDAS.   Discussions of mixed methods have to date been pretty much siloed, in that you can't actually connect the two because the quantitative piece is done with software and the qualitative piece is done with manual methods.  So the notion of the two "informing" each other can only be very loosely applied.  This is pseudo-integration. 

Only with full computerization for both quant and qual do you get mixed methods.  Without QDAS you cannot leverage variables against text(s), which is the real hallmark of what 'mix' could mean.  You do this in QDAS with cases, attributes, and searches.

Here is a simple continuum of the three methods (it runs top to bottom not left to right because of the funkyness of Blogger--sorry)

Quan/SPSS or other computer tool
-numerical texts
-fixed information/

QDAS/Mixed Methods
written, visual, and audio texts
codes (pre-assigned and/or emergent)

Qual/QDAS or Manual Methods
-written, visual, and audio texts
-preassigned codes....evaluation
-emergent codes...ethnography, phenomenology, etc. 

In looking at the continuum, it seems to me that the sorting approach is the critical piece and the form of text one uses.  With the quantitative perspective, you are using numerical texts and sorting by case and attributes; With the mixed methods approach you are using both numerical and non-numerical data and sorting by cases and attributes AND coding.  In a truly mixed method approach, you are importing the cases and attributes from the numerical data into the non-numerical data base and using those as a means of sorting the non-numerical data (or using a QDAS package in which numerical data can also be handled).  In a more strictly qualitative approach, you are sorting without reference to cases and attributes but focusing primarily on coding (which can be pre-assigned or emergent). 

My two studies represent two aspects of the continuum.  The Journal project is deep into the qualitative research end of things--code and retrieve, baby, forget cases and attributes.  The Sexting project, on the other hand, is shaping up to be an excellent example (if I do say so myself) of the truly mixed method approach in which computer technology is leveraged on both sides of the divide--quantitative and qualitative.  We are using SPSS and NVivo 9...and the SPSS numerical data is being imported in Excel to serve as the cases and attributes for the non-numerical data--connect it to the coding, and you have a data base that has real search capacity.  You can ask questions of many sorts.

This brings me to my final point, which is that, efficiency increases (and you significantly extend your reach) when you stop doing it all in your head and transfer some of the heavy lifting to a reliable tool.  This is a warning to both quantitative and qualitative researchers.  It's a well known fact that qualitative researchers have been ducking the use of QDAS, but it is less well understood that mixed methods researchers are doing the same.  In marketing and other forms of evaluation, quantitative data is being organized in Excel or SPSS, but qualitative data related to the study are processed entirely by manual methods.  This leaves no technical pathway by which to connect the two and do meaningful comparisons.  The comparisons can only be gross, intuitive, and guesswork.  What I am saying is that QDAS is the elephant on the table for both mixed methods and pure qualitative researches.

Hmm...I think this bears more consideration.  

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