One of the main topics and questions in our cohort is: What kind of researcher do I want to become? It is a tough question, I have to say. Our backgrounds vary and most of us have not only different interests but also different perceptions of what research entails. My own attempt to answer this question has been enlightened by the qualitative approach. A qualitative approach poses a big challenge to the researcher to know when and what direction to take. In this post, I'll explain what the basics of qualitative research are.
Years ago when I was a research assistant to a faculty member at LaGuardia Community College, I began working on a new project which involved working with two other faculty members, a developmental psychologist and an anthropologist. The latter brought to our group a different perspective, given her background, and one that really helped me understand how research goes beyond p values, large sample sizes, and straightforward numbers. We were investigating what were the factors involved in college students with 45+ credits who appeared to drop out of school, and what reasons were behind their struggle given the retention numbers reported at that particular moment. For this research, we had a sample size not bigger than 10 participants. Of course, a quantitative approach would have helped understand a bit about why this was the case. But certainly, a qualitative approach allowed us to see what emotions, reasons, implications (or anything else that we had not considered, this is how qualitative research usually entails) were involved and what these students were experiencing while in college. Thus we began documenting their daily experiences while in college, attending different courses along with them, performing observations on their activities, and even conducting at-home interviews with their families (researchers did this part). The data collected would shed light to better understanding the participants' experiences in order to assess what better implementations needed to be done in order to increase retention rates.
But let's focus on the research approach. In qualitative research, as in the example given, the researcher lets the data talk and that is what drives the investigation, something called Grounded Theory. Suter (2012) describes two key characteristics that the researcher and the qualitative model should possess in order to yield meaningful results: becoming skilled in coding and seeking patterns using analytic induction. In our research project, collecting observation reports combined with at-home interviews were sources of data that would elicit patterns that would allow the researchers to form a logical chain of reasoning. Then, using the kaleidoscope metaphor, as described by Suter, during the data analysis enabled the researchers to organize and dissect raw data via category formation and refinement.
Qualitative research emphasizes the value of the participant's experience, their emotions and is particularly useful to investigate more complex issues such as human connection. This type of research achieves validity through triangulation and confirming patterns from multiple sources, and reliability through documenting the researcher's approach in a specific stage of the experiment. Creswell (2009) says that reliability is achieved when the researcher's approach is consistent across different projects. How does this compare or differ from quantitative research? Suter also offers a good example that speaks to the connection between the two (rather than how different they are). In analyzing the experiences of a population who recently immigrated to the U.S. and how they adapt to a new education system, GPA can give some perspective to the researchers (a quantitative approach), but it can serve as a starting point to further investigate what's going on beyond that (Suter argues that a qualitative approach starts with this question) and dig deeper in their experiences and other factors that can play a key role in their performance at school (a qualitative approach).
I mentioned previously that qualitative research is appropriate for more complex issues. Yes, as Brené Brown explains in her TedTalk The Power of Vulnerability about her research on human connection. She dives into a story that involves both her background and personal reaction to her findings exemplifying the role of the researcher's bias in qualitative research. Enjoy!
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Creswell, J. W. (2009). Qualitative Procedures. Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches (pp. 190-193). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
Suter, W. N. (2012). Qualitative Data, Analysis, and Design. Introduction to Educational Research: A critical Thinking Approach (pp. 342-386). Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.
I am an ePortfolio instructor working in New York City. I am also a student in the MA program in educational psychology at Hunter College. In my current position, I instruct students how to develop and build their ePortfolio to showcase their academic skills. I also collaborate in professional development seminars with faculty members from various departments on building the curriculum to teach the first year seminar experience. Read more about me.