Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Qualitative Research, Part 4

In this last entry on qualitative research, I’d like to turn my attention to the concept of rigor. Here, we are referring to issues raised by the terms validity and reliability. And we are more familiar, and more comfortable, with what these terms mean when contextualized in a quantitative setting, where we look at questions about whether an instrument we are using actually measures what we claim it measures (such as a pain scale measuring pain) or whether we would get the same outcome in the same patient using the same instrument. But it is much harder to apply these terms to qualitative research. They have to be conceptualized differently in this setting. As Liamputtong notes, “At the heart of the problem with the concepts of validity and reliability in qualitative research is the relationship between the observer and observed ‘reality’.” (1) This is a significant issue when one considers postmodern concepts of reality, where the claim is made that there is no such thing as an observed reality, we are all observers.

In qualitative research, there are 4 approaches to rigor: naïve realism, interpretive realism, postmodernism and hermeneutic realism.

Naïve realism: In this approach, to be rigorous is to ensure that the research describes what is really there in the real world and that this is something one can do repeatedly. You will see this immediately captures standard definitions of validity and reliability. The general idea here, as embodied in positivism, is that there is a reality that exists external to the observer. This reality is fixed and is not influenced by its being observed (so, this is not necessarily the case at the level of quantum physics, for example). It is felt that this particular approach to rigor contains flaws; for example, what do we mean by a fixed reality when we are discussing someone’s culture? Is “culture” objective and unchangeable? When we study people, it is much harder to support a positivist approach, as we are studying people’s lived experiences- which mean something different to each person.

Interpretative realism: In this approach, rigor revolves around the study of social relations, taking subjectivity into account but trying to minimize its effects. This form of rigor is an outgrowth of phenomenological sociology, where the idea is for researchers to try to be “value free” in their studies. This is often seen as the most common approach to the problem if rigor in qualitative research, in that it is closest to trying to use the methods of quantitative research as its goal. It is also often called “postpositivism.”

Postmodernism: In this approach, the entire idea of rigor is rejected; or, it is entirely recontextualized as demonstrating the absence of a relationship between reality and a study’s findings. Postmodernists posit that there is no independently knowable reality; knowledge is based on assumptions and our interpretations and is constructed by us. Now, the extreme edge of this approach is known as radical relativism, which argues that that all beliefs and interpretations are equal since there is no objective reality to which we might make comparisons, but I note that this is the radical edge, and most postmodernists are not willing to take issues this far. For example, we can ask what “gender” means. How do we answer? Is it as simple as “male or female?” What does it mean to be masculine? In the United States, it might mean one thing; in Sub-Saharan Africa another. In many ways, we construct the answers to these questions, based on our own assumptions. But with regard to qualitative research, if we accept multiple interpretations of reality, how does that then affect validity? The questions asked here are important, are now part of our “culture wars” but need to be seriously considered in qualitative research settings.

Hermeneutic realism: This approach notes that research does give us information about events in the real world, but also notes that we must consider the political and socially constructed nature of the findings. It rejects the notion from naïve realism that knowledge is something whose validity can be known with certainty; it is comfortable in living with uncertainty. It does attend closely to the political implications and import of research, because our knowledge of the findings is always colored by our culture and is therefore socially constructed.

All the above are just short introductions to detailed discussions about the philosophical basis for rigor in qualitative research. They help demonstrate that conducting qualitative research requires different considerations in developing rigor; given that most of us are more familiar and more comfortable with quantitative research, should we wish to use qualitative methods it will help us understand the context in which our research should proceed. With this short few entries, I hope I have piqued your interest and you will consider conducting such a study.

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

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