Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Why Philosophy and not Problem: A Key Qualitative Research Dilemma.

(This is another piece I wrote in January 2016.  Looking back at it I am not sure I agree with everything here.  Also I have since found Patricia Leavy's book on transdisciplinary research, which does put the heart at the center...and as part of another project I have been looking at a lot of mixed-methods pieces, which also talk about the problem as central.  However, my basic concerns remain.)

Why has philosophy, and not the problem, come to dominate qualitative research discussions?  By philosophy, I mean all of the kinds of qualitative research from ethnography and case study to phenomenology and narrative analysis.  The discussion of “kinds of research”, as I call it dominates the qualitative research textbook, taking up the majority of space in today’s examples.  It also dominates in the dissertation process, where students are asked to declare allegiance to a kind of research and demonstrate adherence to its principles. 

While in the larger debate these different kinds of research are all considered to be equal players, meaning they all bring the same range of issues to the fore, but in truth, they are a really motley group and look very different up close than they do far away.  Case study focuses on particular incidents, but doesn’t say much about methods.  Ethnography, traditionally, focuses on observation of small geographically located communities, while phenomenology favors interviews and attention to a subject’s internal perspectives.  Grounded theory seems to pay most attention to analytic issues, such as coding and thematic development.  These are not comparable, nor are they mutually exclusive. 

The emphasis on declaring a kind of research developed as qualitative research expanded its scope and audience.  Initially a way to describe differences between quantitative and qualitative research, it has become a litmus test for legitimacy.  This is a reactive stance. 

In turning toward philosophy, qualitative researchers have turned away from the problem itself.  Ironically, the problem is now coming to the fore with the need for using qualitative data to solve complex problems using complex teams that span disciplines and geographic areas and perhaps even dip into social media and big data.  When qualitative researchers are dropped into these new situations they need to talk problem, not philosophy, if they are to make sense to their diverse colleagues. 

Diehard qualitative researchers schooled in the logic of qualitative research kinds are going to object, after all if we were to leave behind the glory of the paradigm wars it could mean the end of their bread and butter.  And how do we know that they aren’t right?  Is there any other model out there that could help us to make sense of this problem?

I think there are ways to do this.  What if, we prioritized the problem and conceptualized kinds of research as forms of narrative.  This would mean our starting point would be a problem, sitting in the middle of a wide river composed of many molecules and currents combined from the water in tributaries above the place where our problem sits in the river.  As we start to examine the problem-- to observe it, understand it, distill its characteristics—we would simultaneously begin to pay attention to the context in which it is embedded.  This approach would lead to the development of an appropriate set of methods and methodological perspectives that would help us to understand the problem and to describe the context.  Thus, in this scenario, the problem comes first and speaks to the possibilities of the kind of research that will be employed to explore its qualities.  It also suggests that philosophical strands, as narratives, are more connected than disconnected, more intertwined than not. 

Literature offers a good comparison for understanding this perspective.  There are many kinds of literary styles and approaches to the novel that have emerged in different epochs, bearing different names like “realist” or “postmodern”.  While authors will be deeply aware of the discussions of these kinds around them, and they may employ approaches that fit within one or another such style, they don’t start off by declaring to their reader that this is a such-and-such-kind of novel.  Instead, they have to engage the reader in a problem and a narrative about that problem—they have to find ways that will allow the reader to see different angles of the problem, develop views of the problem.  The understanding of the problem must be full and contradictory.  No good story is too one-sided.  Reader wants complexity.  Novelists use techniques that will build the story—and these can come from many different eras and examples.  They leave it to the critiques to work out the way the novel  is positioned among other novels in the history of literature. 

What I am proposing is a very Deweyian response to the problem of “kinds of research”.  I have even proposed at an earlier time (a presentation at the International Congress on Qualitative Inquiry) that this kind of qualitative research should be called “transactional”.  In a textbook I was looking at recently, this form of approach was called “pragmatic” (although the mixed methods people are trying to grab this label). 

In an earlier blog post, I also described an assignment I had been doing over several years with my doctoral students in the qualitative research class, where they had to present an article describing a qualitative research study on a topic related to their dissertation interest.  Time and again, they could see no discoverable kind of research described, or it was only described without much connection to the research actually presented.  This suggests to me that the problem leads and the method twines around the problem, not the other way around. 

Philosophy or Problem?  I vote for problem as the heart and starting point of good qualitative research. 

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