Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Qualitative Research: An Introduction

If you look at the rubrics which comprise part of the process of applying for promotion to associate or full professor, you will see that there are separate entries for the publication of research papers, divided into quantitative and qualitative research. While most of us are more than familiar with standard quantitative research, we may be less so with regard to qualitative studies. Yet certain information can only be gleaned using qualitative methods, and so I hope here to spend a short amount of time describing a bit about this form of research.

In quantitative studies, we gather information that is converted into numbers, so that the data can be statistically analyzed. A simple example would be to conduct a study where we look at changes in pain scores before and after a chiropractic adjustment. Using statistical methods, we would derive a mean pre-adjustment score, and then a mean adjustment score, and perhaps we would then compare these pre and post scores to a second group of individuals who received a different intervention. The appropriate statistical methods would allow us to test the strength of our hypotheses and determine whether our results reached statistical significance. This is the kind of research we are familiar with. But embedded in this research are other questions. For example: what does it mean to the patient that his or her pain score improved by 2.4 points? We learn nothing about the lived experience of the patient in this study.

What qualitative research does is “elicit the contextualized nature of experience and action, and attempts to generate analyses that are detailed, ‘thick,’ and integrative (in the sense of relating individual events and interpretations to larger meaning systems and patterns).” (1) We are focused, in qualitative research, on meaning and interpretation. It is a method to help us understand what meaning people ascribe to their behaviors and actions. This is not something that can be addressed using statistical methods. Instead, we need to use different methods, equally rigorous in comparison to quantitative research, but appropriate to the kinds of questions we ask in qualitative research. As Liamputtong notes, “ Metaphors, meanings and interpretations require the more fluid, but no less rigorous, methods employed by qualitative research.” (1)

We can conduct a study that shows that people with back pain are more depressed than people without back pain’ statistics can clearly show a link between back pain and depression. But why are people with back pain depressed? Can a survey be sufficient to answer that question? Or, can we drill deeper? Qualitative methods can provide us the means to do so.

I will follow this entry with more information on qualitative methods. Hang tight until then.

1. Liamputtong P, Ezzy D. Qualitative research methods, 2nd edition. South Melbourne, Australia; Oxford, 2006:2

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