Qualitative Methods

ptrMethods in Social Sciences: Qualitative Research

What is a good piece of research? The hallmark of a good piece of research, for me, is one that demonstrates theoretically informed design, thoughtful practice in the field, critically engaged analysis, and appropriate representation style. Methods form a crucial aspect of research as they are the tools for social inquiry.

What is my approach? The kinds of methods we choose produce certain ways of seeing, which in turn produce particular kinds of knowledges. This we call ‘partial knowledge’ or ‘situated knowledge’ (ala. Donna Haraway). Methodology is the study of why and how we select certain method. Learning about methodology, rather than methods alone, enable us to be critical about our own research design and practice, as well as understanding how certain knowledges come to be produced. Therefore, my approach to teaching qualitative research methods emphasizes theoretical foundations, reflexivity, and process of doing.

LEARNING OBJECTIVES: This part of the course focuses on qualitative research theory, practice, and ethics. It is designed to provide students with a basic working knowledge of qualitative research, from a consideration of philosophical assumptions and epistemological groundings underpinning qualitative inquiry, to practical techniques in developing a research agenda and capturing data from the field.

At the end of this part of the course, students should be able to:

  • Identify, explain, and apply general theoretical principles related to qualitative social research including the major types of methods, ethical concerns, and general research design.
  • Identify the functions and techniques for the major components of qualitative research: literature survey, ethnographic fieldwork, and representation
  • Identify and respond to ethical dilemmas or challenges pertaining to the research process, including research design, fieldwork interactions, and communication of research.
  • Construct a research proposal, a qualitative interview schedule, a synthesis of field notes, and a critical written analysis of fieldwork data

Key text

  • Bryman, Alan. 2016. Social Research Methods 5th Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Chapters 4, 6, 17, 19, 20, 21, 22, 24)

Syllabus by Week

Week 1.1 – Combined Introduction

Week 1.2 – Basis of Qualitative Research: Theory, Practice, and Ethics

This session introduces students to the basis of qualitative research, paying attention to the three key notions of theory, practice, and ethics, and how it is distinguished from the quantitative tradition. We learn why some scholars choose to design/conduct qualitative research and what it means to engage with qualitative ‘ways of seeing’.

·      Bryman, Alan. 2016. Social Research Methods. 5th Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Chapter 17: The nature of qualitative research

·      Bryman, Alan. 2016. Social Research Methods. 5th Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Chapter 6: Ethics and politics in social research

Week 2.1 – Basis of Qualitative Research: Literature Review, Methods, Rigour/Validity

This session introduces students to the foundational practice in (qualitative research) – literature review – and its connection to methodology/methods. We learn what is a literature review, the purpose it serves, and techniques to crafting one.

Reviewing scholarship also requires us to think about as well as to evaluate research validity and reliability. What exactly do these positivism-rooted terms mean in qualitative research?

·      Hart, Chris. 1998. Releasing the Social Science Research Imagination. Sage. Chapter 2: Reviewing and the research imagination

·      Lewis, John. 2009. Redefining qualitative methods: believeability in the fifth moment. International Journal of Qualitative Research, 8(2): 1-14.

Week 2.2 – Basis of Qualitative Research: Case Study and Research Proposal

This session closes the topic on basis of qualitative research through discussing (i) the case study approach and (ii) the fundamentals of a research proposal. We learn about the potential and limit of focusing on a small-scale qualitative case study as well as how to formulate a defensible case study.

We also learn about the framework of a research proposal and how to craft one, with reference to handout guidelines.

·      Walford, Geoffrey. 2001. Site selection within comparative case study and ethnographic research, Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 31(2): 151-164.

·      Flyvbjerg, Bent. 2006. Five misunderstandings about case-study research. Qualitative Inquiry, 12(2): 219-245. 

Week 3.1 – Entering the ‘field’: In-class discussion on individual research proposal

In this session we discuss students’ draft research proposal on the theme of ‘campus inequality’. Through group discussion and in-class critic, we learn to (i) assess whether research question is appropriate to literature and well-scoped, (ii) determine whether sampling of case study and research subjects are suitable for proposed research, and (iii) reflect on the limit and potential of selected methods.

Week 3.2 – Entering the ‘field’: What is the field? + Access, observation, and participation

This session introduces issues that researchers encounter – and will continue to face throughout – as they transition into their fieldwork locations across the ‘outsider’/’insider’ boundary. We discuss techniques for negotiating access, considerations around observation and participation, as well as reflexivity as method to navigate the research field.

At the end of the class, students should be familiar with techniques and concerns around access, observation and participation.

·      Participant observation:

Kawulich, Barbara B. 2005. Participant Observation as a Data Collection Method. Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 6(2), Art 43. http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/466/996 (except section 10)

·      What is the field?

Hannerz, Ulf. 2006. Studying down, up, sideways, through, backwards, forwards, away and at home: reflections on the field worries of an expansive discipline. In Coleman, Simon and Collins, Peter (eds) Locating the Field: Space, Place and Context in Anthropology. Oxford: Berg, pp. 23-42.

·      Outsider/Insider, Researcher/Researched:

–       Taylor, Jodie. 2011. The intimate insider: negotiating the ethics of friendship when doing insider research. Qualitative Research, 11(1): 3-22.

–       Harrison, Jane et al. 2001. Regimes of trustworthiness in qualitative research: the rigors of reciprocity. Qualitative Inquiry, 7(3): 323-345. 

Week 4.1 – From jottings to field notes: In-class discussion + Ways of documenting

In this session, we spend the first 30 minutes forming small groups, select 1 research proposal – as the focus of today’s exercise, and discuss strategy for carrying out fieldwork observation and note-taking. Each group will then go into selected field sites (within campus) to make field notes on the theme of ‘campus inequality’ in relation to research question (hereafter known as RQ).

Week 4.2 – From jottings to field notes: In-class discussion + Ways of documenting

We reconvene to discuss and compare field notes. We learn about the techniques each team has employed, the challenges faced, and strategies to overcome dilemmas encountered.

We also use this opportunity to reflect more deeply on the nature and purpose of field notes as a particular genre, way of seeing the world, and research method. As such, we learn about the opportunities and limits of observation and making field notes in contemporary social science research, as well as what alternatives or complementary techniques can be used to document the ‘field’.

·      Emerson, Robert et al. 2011. Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes. University of Chicago Press. Chapter 2: In the field: participating, observing, and jotting notes

·      Emerson, Robert et al. 2011. Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes. University of Chicago Press. Chapter 3: Writing fieldnotes l: at the desk, creating scenes on a page

·      Clifford, James. 1990. Notes on (Field)notes. In Roger Sanjek (ed) Fieldnotes: the Makings of Anthropology. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 

Week 5.1 – Techniques and Issues in Interviewing

This session introduces students to the theoretical underpinnings of qualitative interviewing, the various interview formats, the kinds of questions typically asked by researchers, and the professional code of conduct related to interviewing.

·      Bryman, Alan. 2016. Social Research Methods. 5th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Chapter 20: Interviewing in qualitative research, pp. 465-475 & 492-498

·      Bryman, Alan. 2016. Social Research Methods. 5th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Chapter 21: Focus groups

·      Weiss, Robert S. 1994. Learning from Strangers: The Art and Method of Qualitative Interview Studies. Chapter 5: Issues in interviewing

Week 5.2Techniques and Issues in Interviewing: developing interview schedule

In this session, we get hands-on with developing an interview schedule to help inform the group’s research question (RQ) on the theme of ‘campus inequality’. In your small group, select an interview format, brainstorm a set of interview prompts, preparatory notes, and ethical considerations for in-class critic. This interview schedule will then be used for your homework assignment this week.

Week 6.1 – Techniques and Issues in Interviewing: in-class discussion

This one-hour session closes the topic on techniques and issues in interviewing through an in-class discussion of the interview process and materials. Students convene in their small groups to share their independently conducted interview experience and striking themes, followed by an in-class sharing on salient interview findings about ‘campus inequality’.

Week 6.2 – Qualitative Analysis

In the remaining 2-hour session, students will be introduced to two commonly used methods for analysis, namely (i) grounded theory and (ii) discourse analysis. The mini lecture will highlight the core tenet and limitation of each approach, followed by key procedures in qualitative data analysis: (i) coding, (ii) connecting themes, (iii) critical moments/absences, (iv) speaking to literature.

We then transition into in-class workshop on qualitative analysis. In the small groups, students combine their ‘coded’ field notes and interview materials, connect themes across materials, identify significant discourses, and discuss how they speak to the group’s RQ and wider literature.

·      Bryman, Alan. 2016. Social Research Methods. 5th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Chapter 24: Qualitative data analysis

·      Fairclough, Norman. 2006. Critical discourse analysis as a method in social scientific research. In Wodak, Ruth and Meyer, Michael (eds) Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis. London: Sage, pp. 121-138.

·      Berg, Lawrence. 2009. Discourse analysis. In Encyclopaedia of Human Geography. London: Sage.