Future of qualitative research
Recently, I had a conversation about the future of qualitative research. So, at the end of the year, at the time of summaries and predictions, I am offering my own prediction. Where is qualitative research going? What will it be like in, say, 10 years?
As a number of my posts on qualitative research have landed me in trouble, I want to stress, as usual, these comments are based on my impressions and they are meant to taken as such. I also make no reference, explicit or implied, to any individual research or researchers. Also, I focus on health-related qualitative research (at least the way I see it) and not on qualitative research in general.
So I think that qualitative is somewhat in vogue. Even though the Journal of Child & Family Studies was recently reported to reject all qualitative research, academic Twitter baulked at the news with indignation. Even hard core number crunchers (not all, obviously) think, or so they say, that academic story tellers do have something interesting to tell them. When, recently, a colleague who calculates p values in their sleep started wondering about doing some qualitative stuff, I not only thought that hell had frozen over, but also that qualitative research is in its heyday.
The problem is, however, that, in my view, qualitative research’s popularity is coming at the expense of, oh, I will be dramatic here, its soul. And here is main point I want to make in this post. I think that in 10 years’ time qualitative research will move away from what it is best at and it will take its ‘rightful place’ at the side of the King of kings, the wonder of wonders, the deliverer of ultimate truth – the quantitative research.
I think qualitative research’s advantage lies in its flexibility. Scholars writing about qualitative stuff say that it is holistic and selective. The way I see it, it means that we, the story tellers, are free to focus on what we find interesting in the data, at the same time looking at their entirety. Because the analyses it invites are also data driven, qualitative research offers the possibility of new, interesting perspectives which are outside the box. They also offer me the possibility of looking at things from the point of view of my own experience.
The problem is that the leeway qualitative research offers is also its downfall, both at the stage of data collection and analysis. Researchers take qualitative flexibility with a sort of ‘anything goes’ attitude. You can ask any question and offer any interpretation that twinkles in the far corner of your mind. Some time ago I offered comments on how not to analyse text and that post showed one of the perennial problems with qualitative analyses. The analysis is impressionistic, offering insight not so much into what’s in the data, but into what the researcher thinks is in the data. Indeed, in the post on how not to do qualitative research this was one of the charges for both thematic analysis (TA) and interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA), though particularly the former is not a homogenous approach, but a plethora of various perspectives onto text, from understanding themes in a fairly formalised way, to a very subjective take on what theme is. Needless to say, the more formalised (i.e. based on linguistic form) approach to theme, the more sympathy I have with the approach. Still, I think both approaches, when done badly, offer insights into researchers’ minds, rather into the data.
The more or less impressionistic nature of such inquiry had not been lost on those who have criticised qualitative research both from within (like me) and from outside story-telling. And so, both TA and IPA responded. But instead of a response which tackles the centre of the issue, for example, the theme in TA or the relationship between text and psychological reality in IPA, researchers have been coming up with a more procedural response. In other words, their analytic effort becomes part of a more or less rigid procedure.
This is the crucial bit in my view. Instead of theorising text which is always at the centre of qualitative research, many story tellers have been coming up with more and more elaborate analytic procedures which are aimed at giving semblance of analytic substance, while circumventing the crucial issues of what to do with text and how to analyse it. Incidentally, in order not to be accused of anti-favouritism and targeting TA and IPA, I’d say that the same criticism can be levied on Foucauldian discourse analysis which, I think, tends to be quite thin on what exactly it analyses, despite the fact that it explicitly focuses on, for example, statements. And yet, it’s hard to see much analysis of statements in FDA.
The procedures, however, have caught on and they are becoming the way to do qualitative research. Moreover, I think that soon they will become the default way in which to do it and there will be no other way. In other words, those of us who actually do analyse text rather than agree with friends and colleagues what’s in the text, will either go publish somewhere else or, alternatively, will have to adjust and create new procedures to satisfy ‘the new way’. And yes, there are already early signs of the new order for example in the form of checklists which are to be used by qualitative researchers which, again, assume a particular way of doing research, as I commented on earlier.
Now, what is the most ironic about all that is that the procedural aspect of qualitative research is, I think, a way to appease the number crunchers and show them that we are really not so different from them. We also have procedures, we also can calculate intercoder reliability if needed. After all, qualitative research is not subjective at all and we are very keen to prove it to you. In the process, I think that qualitative researchers are creating a sort of crap quantitative research, full of procedures, just without chi squared. But I’m sure it will be published.
So, yes, let me put it more bluntly. I think that the future of qualitative research is in becoming a satellite of quantitative research, emulating its ways and practices and pretending that they are really, wink, wink, ours. In the process, either fibbing about what was done in the study or, giving up on the most interesting and useful aspect of research story telling – its flexibility.
Now, I don’t want to suggest that that the proceduralisation of qualitative research is all about appeasement and unwillingness to engage with the more challenging theoretical issues. I think it is also, at least partly, about appearing transparent. In other words, by instituting procedures, we can also show that our research is not ‘anything goes’. In my view, it’s only appearances, but the goal is important.
In my view, there is a debate to be had about how we make qualitative research more accountable. But the route we should take is not in procedures, I think. It is, rather, in making our data available and, crucially, spelling out the assumptions we make. At the risk of boring you with the same point again, I am still yet to review a TA paper which explicitly defines the theme. Put differently, I’m still to review a TA paper which explicitly describes which parts of texts the researchers focused on when they did their thematic analysis. I also don’t care at all that they agreed on what the text is about, if I can’t be certain that they focused on (at least roughly) the same aspects of the text.
Is it too late? Yes, I’m afraid I think it is. I think the ‘qualitative community’ has decided that it is the procedure which is the cool thing and it is the procedure that will save us from oblivion. And as the Journal of Child & Family Studies reject us with some scorn, instead of telling them to go to hell, we are hell-bent on telling them that we are actually not so far away from them. Until finally, we’ll decide that the best qualitative tool is actually SPSS…
No, I’m afraid, the future of health-related qualitative research is not bright. It’s procedural and, shall I be so brave to say it, quantitative.
Thank you to all of you who read my writing in 2017. I appreciate it much more than is prudent to express it publicly. Your every read makes my day. I also hope you and perhaps others will come for more in 2018.
I wish you all Happy New (and ‘truly qualitative’) Year!