Using Qualitative Research to Generalize By Dr. Awais e Siraj, Managing Director/CEO Genzee Solutions, Islamabad, Pakistan ABSTRACT: Qualitative studies are generally about what people actually do or say in specific time, place and situation for relatively smaller samples. They are not about numbers, data, and large or representative sample of the population. The history and traditions of qualitative research are now distinct in nature and have evolved through time and critics. Likewise, its mechanics of collecting empirical evidence, sampling and analysis are diverse and resilient. It is not the beauty of the outcome but the beauty of the research process that make qualitative research rigorous and robust. After describing the key concepts of qualitative research, this paper takes a detailed account of the issue of generalizability of qualitative research findings and concludes that any material which is logical, crafted by a Bricoleur, contextual, richly described and trustworthy is as ‘generlizable’ as any other. Introduction Qualitative research is a complex set of assumptions, concepts and an interconnected family of terms. (Denzin and Lincoln 2008) The results and conclusions drawn through qualitative research have proven themselves to be persuasive and full of insight. Various theoretical frameworks have been suggested for qualitative research. They are characteristically different in their theory, technique and approach yet they have a common emphasis on recording and presenting data in detail and depth. All qualitative studies are also linked with one another because of their plentiful narration and description of emotional, cultural and social life. Qualitative studies are generally about what people actually do or say in specific time, place and situation. Qualitative studies are also about social things like events, cultures, movements, organizations and relationships and how they develop in temporal and social context. (Morill and Fine 1997) Qualitative researches are thus connected through narratives and rich descriptions of research cases. History and Traditions of Qualitative Research: Denzen and Lincoln (2005b) have put forward a summary of various stages through which qualitative research has progressed over the years. The first stage is called “the traditional period” ranging from early twentieth century to the Second World War. This stage, heavily instilled with ‘positivism’ refers to the sections of life which were considered alienated from the society. The post Second World War to the 1970s is called the ‘the modernist phase’ during which the inclination still remained towards positivism but a serious attempt was made towards establishing the rigor in qualitative enquiries. From 1970 to 1986, the period of ‘blurred genre’ seriously considered incorporation of ontological and epistemological challenges into qualitative research. From mid 1980’s onwards, the written work of research received limited scientific authority because of the criticism that social locations are heavily
influencing the researchers. This period was names as ‘crises of representation’ as the field work of researchers was considered as ‘just one way of representing reality’. However ‘crises of representation’ led to ‘a triple crises’ of ‘postmodern period of experimental ethnographic writing’, ‘post-‐experimental enquiry’ and the ‘methodologically contested present’. The period of Mid 1990s or ‘postmodern period of experimental writing’ pressurized the social researchers to explore a variety of ways of representing people. From 1995 – 2000 the AltaMira press encouraged experimental and interdisciplinary writing attempting to break ‘long-‐standing boundaries’. During 2000 to 2004, much of the debate focused on ‘research quality criteria’ marked by considerable disagreements on how qualitative research ‘should’ be conducted and streamlining of its future course. From 2005, qualitative research is marked by challenges against social research on its value addition towards traditional science. For future, “Randomized field trials…….will occupy the time of one group of researchers while the pursuit of a socially and culturally responsive, communitarian, justice oriented set of studies will consume the meaningful working moments of the other.”(Lincoln and Denzin 2005: 1123) These moments and their description is not definite because what has been predicted for future is already happening. Gubrium and Holstein (1997) put forward four traditions of qualitative research. Naturalism; seeking interaction and descriptions of people in natural setting and accepting reality as reality is. Ethnomethodology; with a natural orientation, ethnomethodology seeks to understand the creation of social order through interaction and talk. Emotionalism: seeks deeper understanding and realities of humans. Postmodernism; focuses on processes that form the building blocks of social reality. What is Qualitative Research? Qualitative research can be regarded as a research strategy that puts a great deal of stress on words rather than numbers in the collection and analysis of data. (Bryman 2008) Qualitative research primarily puts emphasis on an ‘inductive’ approach as against the ‘inductive’ approach, to the relationship between research and theory. It is concerned with theory generation while rejecting the norms and practices of positivism and of natural sciences research. Encapsulating the ways in which social world is interpreted by people, qualitative research incorporates social reality as an individual’s property. While quantitative research is sometimes referred to as ‘positivism’ and ‘realism’, qualitative research is referred to ‘interpretivism’ and ‘phenomenology’. Interpetivists argue that people and institutions form the subject matter of social sciences and are characteristically different from the subject matters of natural sciences. They have feelings, emotions and behavior which cannot be characterized into atoms, molecules and electrons. (Schutz 1962: 59) “Phenomenology” as the opposite of positivism focuses on how a researcher should record perceptions of what individuals perceive of the world around them. “The phenomenologist attempts to see things from that person’s point of view” (Bogdon and Taylor 1975: 13-‐14, emphasis in original)
Qualitative research also holds on the ontological position of ‘constructionism’ (or ‘constructivism’) as against the position ‘objectivism’ occupied by quantitative research. Constructivism puts social actors at the center of their focus as they are considered to play a vital role in all social phenomena. Constructivists believe that all social phenomena are in a perpetual state of change. Lately, it has also been accepted that whatever is observed, recorded and written by a researcher through his personal observation and involvement will be regarded as constructions. Constructionism, therefore is used in two connotations: relation to the social world and relation to the nature of knowledge of the social world. (Bryman 2008) Bricoleur and Bricolage and Montage “Jack of all trades, a kind of professional do-‐it-‐yourself” is the term used by Levi-‐Strauss to describe a Bricoleur. (Levi-‐Strauss, 1966, p.17) Since qualitative researcher can be described as a naturalist, social critic, performer, filmmaker, scientist etc. he or she may also be considered as a Bricoleur or a person who converts images into a mosaic. He may also be considered as a quilt maker or because he uses contingent strategies, empirical materials and methods. (Denzin and Lincoln 2008). It the intellect of the researcher that allows him to put pieces of whatever material is at hand together through questions that are asked at a given time and in relation to research context. The concept of ‘montage’ comes in when the quilt-‐making has to go beyond practical considerations and pragmatism. (Cook 1981, Monaco 1981) Montage puts disconnected images into a systematic sequence that can lead to some creative sense-‐making and impact. By seamlessly blending images into one another, different scenes are unfolded simultaneously and not sequentially to draw interpretations. Grounded Theory Grounded theory has been defined as ‘theory was derived from data, systematically gathered and analyzed through the research process. In this method, data collection, analysis and eventual theory stand in close relationship to one another’ (Strauss and Corbin 1988: 12). The first characteristic feature of grounded theory is that it is not a theory per se but an approach to generate theory out of data. The second characteristic feature is that it is recursive or self – repeating meaning thereby that collection of data and its analysis run after one another in a cyclic fashion. As originators of the concept of Grounded Theory, Glaser and Strauss (1967) suggested that the process of research, while confirming existing theories, should not make the researcher oblivion to the fact that new theories can also emerge from the available and existing data. This makes research and inductive process rather than a deductive progression. Glaser also proposed that findings must also be compared constantly with the emerging theories in order to stay abreast with research. For the process to be effective, it is strongly suggested that the researcher must improve his ‘theoretical sensitivity’ to patterns, categories, concepts and their interrelationship so as not to miss out the emerging theories. The most central process in grounded theory is coding. The process of coding begins immediately after the collection of initial data and broken down into its constituent elements with conspicuous names. (Charmaz 2000: 515).
Distinction can easily be made in three types of coding: (Strauss and Corbin 1990) Open Coding: “The process of breaking down, examining, comparing, conceptualizing and categorizing data”(1990: 61) This coding process leads to concepts which can later be categorized into groups until theoretical saturation level is reached meaning thereby that all categories that could possibly be identified have been identified and it is now time to move to Axial Coding. Axial Coding: Axial coding is the process of finding causal connections and interactions among different categories. It is the stage when the research needs to make use of deductive as well as inductive analysis to establish causal relationships and finding reasons for further exploration and research into each category. Selective Coding: Selective coding encourages the researcher to identify a ‘core’ category that must take the center stage and ensure that all other categories are either revolving around it or at least connected to it in some way so as to make a story line which is coherent and making some sense. Denzin and Lincoln are however not very much fascinated by the ideas and concepts of grounded theory and argue that “grounded theory does not refer to some special order of theorizing per se”. Glaser himself was later of the view that fitting data into an inflexible framework will result in creating data’s irrelevance to the core study purpose. Another dilemma came to surface when Glaser stressed that open coding and theoretical sampling will lead to research problem in contrast to the argument of Strauss and Corbin that phenomenon to be studied is the research question. Grounded theory therefore has its own pluses and minuses Methods of Collecting and Analyzing Empirical Materials The first criticism that qualitative researchers face from the believers of quantitative researchers is that qualitative research is too subjective and impressionistic. However this debate cannot move forward unless we study the methods of qualitative research. Narrative Inquiry is emerging and occupying a considerable ground in qualitative research. Chase defines narrative enquiry as an “amalgam of interdisciplinary lenses, diverse disciplinary approaches and both traditional and innovative methods-‐all revolving around an interest in biographical particulars as narrated by the one who lives them”. (Chase 2003) Narrative enquiry has evolved through the first half of 2oth century from the life history method primarily used by sociologists and anthropologists to the second wave feminists who used personal narratives to invigorate it. It later moved on contemporary scholars who used interviews to understand individual performance and its stories. Sociolinguists in between feminists and contemporary scholars used narratives as kind of dialogue. Narratives make sense of the world because they describe performances, actions and ways of acting in socially constrained form. Narrative researchers frequently make use of first person to “emphasize their own narrative action”. Chase has outlined sociological, anthropological, autoethnographic, psychological and performance studies as discrete approaches to narrative
analysis. Chase has also emphasized that the challenges of ‘interpretive authority’ and ‘hearing the story that is being’ must need to be addressed seriously. Narrative enquiries can also be used to make progress in a social change agenda. Like one candle lights another, Testimonios (A Testimonio is a type of oral history, life history or life story; it is an explicitly political narrative that describes and resists oppression. Beverley, 2000; Tierney, 2000) can unite and activate a group of people, even a nation to rise up against repression, social injustice and violence. Stories of the underprivileged can move the emotionally insensitive to an emotionally sensitive space. The second form of enquiry is the Art-‐Based Inquiry is largely intertextual in nature. Crossing the border between research and art, an art-‐based inquiry used the methods, practices and aesthetics of performance, literary and visual arts not excluding drama, theater, dance, video, film, collage and photography. The history of this methodology can be traced in postcolonial postmodern context. The best use of this inquiry is political self-‐expression and political activism that can be ignited through the use of street theatre, street and children art and war-‐time photo memories. Art-‐based inquiry can also facilitate the transformation process by initially exposing the sources of resistance as well as oppression. The action approach of art-‐based work is so powerful that it can potentially change the mindset of people through their bodies, voices, cameras and paintbrushes whatever they decide to choose and use a tool for social change agenda. The history of interviewing as the most common and widely accepted form of inquiry can be traced back to ancient Egyptians and their population census. (Babbie 1992) In the recent eras, it gained popularity in clinical and psychological practices and was used initially for clinical diagnosis and counseling. With a strong inclination on measurement, it became a popular instrument during World War I for psychological testing. We are now living in an interview society where we believe that only interviews can produce meaningful data about experiences of life and their context. I a culture driven heavily by the influence of mass media, interview is now a customary feature rather than a privilege. Starting from its basic classification of structured, semi structures, unstructured and open – ended, it is now sophisticated enough to include and adapt the oral history interview, on-‐line interviewing, creative interviewing, focused interviewing, feminist interviewing, gendered interviewing and multivoiced or postmodern interviewing. Interviewing brings together the researcher and the researched through emotional engagement, openness and a trusting relationship which stands in stark contrast to the positivist or quantitative school of thought which proposes detachment between them. (Oakley 1981) The fundamental basis of all research methods in behavioral and social sciences is observation. (Adler and Adler 1994). Observation is “the mainstay of the ethnographic enterprise” (Werner and Schoepfle, 1987) Social studies that are primarily geared towards interviewing use ‘observation’ in combination to study human response through the use of body and its parts. (Gestures, eye movements, etc.) Observation can be in a natural or an experimental setting. Angrosino (2000) argues that since all observations involves participation of the researcher in the world which is being studied, the concept of ‘detached observation’ and the colonial word of ‘subject’ stand invalid. This leads to another interesting debate of ‘intrusion’ and its ethical
repercussions whereby the Institutional Review Boards of research institutions are expected to play their role in outlining boundaries of researcher engagement with the researched. Observational research is not considered as an analysis of culture or society. Instead it focuses on changing human relationships which have a profound impact of lives of people and society. Photography, World Wide Web, motion pictures, interactive CD’s, CD – Roms and virtual reality are now being increasingly used by anthropologists and sociologists to find links between visual perception and human existence. Though there are still challenges of what to record, when to record and how to record couple with ethical issues of identification and publication of images, visual sociology is still an accepted form of research in traditional ethnography as it conjoins the stories with facts to establish truth. The ever-‐changing environment of visual forms of recording data through fast changes in technology makes the process yet more complicated. Auto-‐ethnography can be used to make the personal political (Holman 2003). “Auto-‐ethnographies breathe life into life ethnographies”. It is a balancing act and works to bind the culture and self together. Auto-‐ethnography is “research, writing and method that connect the autobiographical and personal to the cultural and social. This form usually features concrete action, emotion, embodiment, self consciousness, and introspection….and claims the conventions of literary writing” (Ellis, 2004, p.xix). Or Autoethnograpy is “a self-‐narrative the critiques the situatedness of self with others in social contexts” (Spry, 2001, p. 710) or Autoethnography is “texts that democratize the representational sphere of culture by locating the particular experiences of individuals in a tension with dominant expression of discursive powers” (Neuman, 1996, p. 189) An interesting form of research methodology has developed over the years which used computer facilitated images of social structures and cultures. While in the ‘offline’ the ‘body’ is present. In a computer assisted environment, since the people are do not occupy the same physical space and the non-‐verbal communication is almost absent, the process per se requires a more deliberate exchange of information. The Analytic Perspectives are based on the presumption that social systems and their interpretation have indigenous modes of orderliness and qualitative researchers must be loyal to the indigenousness and develop analytic strategies around it. Collective actions must take priority over individual actions and more discipline needs to be brought into narrative, discourse and semiotic analysis. The Foucault’s Methodologies revolve around three phases: Archaeology, genealogy and care of the self. Among these three, genealogy has remained the focus of attention. However both archaeology and genealogy have been used as methods of qualitative research. In order to understand archaeology, it is a must to understand “savior” and “connaissance”. Formal knowledge is savior whereas connaissance refers to formal bodies of knowledge. Conversation Analysis and Discourse Analysis form the two main traditions of social science used for the analysis of transcripts. An analysis of what is ‘said’ and an analysis of the process through which it was said conjointly can educate the researcher more than either of the process.
Last but not the least is of qualitative methods is Focus Groups. Focus groups in social sciences gained popularity as early as World War II. Focus group is the key methodology where politics, pedagogy and interpretive inquiry crosscut and cross represents one another. On a pragmatic level, focus groups generate large quantities of material in a very short time from a large group of people. Another distinct advantage of focus group is that the data collected in group setting is more robust than an individual setting because the group dynamics pay a positive role in generating conflicting material which is more useful for debate and argument development. The discussion above has given a very brief overview of the methods for collection and analysis of qualitative data. It is the job of the researcher/Bricoleur to be familiar with all the processes in order to justify robustness of research through their appropriate use. Sampling in Qualitative Research Various sampling methodologies are used in qualitative research. Some may be used in both qualitative and quantitative research like probability samples but qualitative research is generally characterized by “purposive sampling”, “theoretical sampling”, and “not just people”. (Bryman 2008) In purposive sampling, the researcher uses more of a non-‐probability sampling method rather than selecting on a random basis. The objective of purposive sampling is to identify participants and research subjects that have close association with the research topic and questions. However purposive sampling must not also be confused with convenience sample because a convenience sample is related to the proximity and approach of the researcher whereas purposive sample allows the researcher to handpick the subjects according to the relevance, association, experience and knowledge of the subject under study. The researcher can have a clear cut inclusion and exclusion criteria. The closest to purposive sampling is snowball sampling whereby initially the researcher may not have the desired number of respondents but through referrals and recommendation of the initial respondents, the researcher can reach a larger group through snowball effect. “Theoretical sampling is the process of data collection for generating theory whereby the analyst jointly collects, codes and analyzes his data and decides what data to collect next and where to find them, in order to develop his theory as it emerges. The process of data collection is controlled by the emerging theory, whether substantive or formal” (Glaser and Strauss 1967: 45) This definition establishes the fact that theoretical sampling used in grounded theory is an ongoing process as against a onetime activity. “Not just people” may refer to time, context, environment and cultures. People exhibit different behaviors in different parts of the day, different days of year and different years of life. Likewise, environment and culture also play a role in ethnographic studies. Reliability and Validity in Qualitative Research In quantitative research, the quality of data collected is measured through reliability and validity. The knee-‐jerk response for a qualitative researcher to this is that it is ‘not possible’.
However Mason (1996: 21) has argued that reliability and validity as in quantitative research are measures of rigor, quality and generalizability of research and are achieved through certain disciplinary conventions, principles and methodologies. The same is true for observations, interviews and ethnographies. All we need to do is to establish what we are writing as a qualitative researcher is a true and fair representation of facts. The four characteristic terms are External Reliability, Internal Reliability, Internal Validity and External Validity. While Mason (1996) tried to establish that there is hardly much difference between the meaning of these terms in the either context of qualitative and quantitative research, Le Compte and Goetz (1982) and Kirk and Miller (1986) tried to defend the case by finding a different meaning for the same terminology. The distinguishing statement came from Lincoln and Guba (1985) and Guba and Lincoln (1994) whereby they proposed a different terminology altogether for qualitative research in order to make it more meaningful. They proposed two primary criteria of trustworthiness and authenticity for qualitative research. Trustworthiness encapsulates Credibility, a substitute for internal validity, Transferability, a substitute for external validity, Dependability, a substitute for reliability and Confirmability as a substitute for objectivity. The components of authenticity include fairness, ontological authenticity, educative authenticity, catalytic authenticity and tactical authenticity. A detailed discussion on all these terms is beyond the scope of this paper. However, one out of these, generalizability or external validity is the main topic of this paper and will be discussed in detail. Probability sampling may be used in qualitative research though its application remains somewhat limited to interview based studies instead of ethnographic studies. However, there are no clear cut guidelines for a qualitative researcher as to how and when probability sampling is to be applied. This depends on the research strategy per se. If the objective is to generalize the findings to a wider population, it is imperative to use probability sampling instead of purposive sampling. To What Extent it is Possible to Generalize on the Basis of Qualitative Research? Two types of generalizations have been proposed by Mason (2002): Empirical generalization is based on the analysis of data drawn from a representative sample of the population. Empirical generalization is normally possible if the sample is a true subset of the population. This is more common in quantitative research whereby it is possible to do a probability sample. Within probability sample are simple random sample, systematic sample, stratified random sample and cluster sample. If a census is conducted, then the idea of generalization stands invalid anyway as the researcher has included the entire population and does not need to generalize. Unfortunately, this method is the least commonly applied method in qualitative research. Empirical generalization is not a plausible option for qualitative research also because it is impossible to bring the social setting of a study to a standstill and keep the circumstances similar during a repetition. (LeCompte and Geotz 1982). Theoretical generalization is the more commonly accepted norm in qualitative research. But there is no structured formula to theoretical generalization. The researcher has to be cautious and prepared for this while deciding the logical framework before the start of research as to
what extent would it is desirable and possible to generalize on the basic of findings and this has to be incorporated into the study in advance. Theoretical generalization is based on differing logics which may or may not be ‘theoretical’ in nature. A cogent theoretical reasoning and not statistical data is the decision maker for generalization. (Mitchell 1983: 207) Despite the fact the any research sample is drawn from a non – representative population, it is still possible to argue the ability and strength for generalization. Without any support from the sampling strategy to generalize, a ‘theoretical generalization’ is still possible if strong arguments are put forward to support that the characteristics of the sample are quite similar to the wider population under inquiry. A theoretical generalization may also be about a process in a specific setting. Consider that a researcher has conducted a study on a process in a defined and specific environment and came with certain findings. The theoretic argument can take two positions: The process can be replicated with similar results provided exactly the same environmental settings are replicated or if the environment is exactly similar to the on described in the study, the process under consideration will produce similar results. Another possibility of theoretical generalization is to support political and social change. If a researcher has selected a case of a philanthropist with the objective of studying philanthropic solutions in a purely repressive society, the case can be made a basis of generalization to argue that “if ten percent of the members of this community start leading a life like Mr. XYZ, ninety percent of the problems of poverty and social evils will be solved”. However the greater goal should be to investigate systems, processes and issues which are central to a larger body of explanation and knowledge. Generalization in a qualitative study also depends a lot on the thoroughness and meticulousness of the study process. If the researcher has demonstrated the accuracy of the research process and the validity of method as well as its interpretation, any meaningful generalization would be valid and acceptable. Though any researcher is free to choose sampling units for a study, a prudent explanation and documentation of the process and its strategic intentions will add credibility to the research. In terms of qualitative research, credibility, as subset of trustworthiness as defined by Guba and Lincoln (1994) can be established in two ways: Firstly by making sure that the research process has been undertaken meticulously using all principles of good practices and secondly, by securing a respondent validation meaning thereby that the research findings were submitted to the people who were studied and a confirmation from them that the researcher has understood and recorded their point of view in the same fashion as they wanted it. One of the strategic debates that hinders generalization is the issue of context. The strongest support for generalization will become convenient if the researcher can take into account a range of contexts and compare them to draw cross-‐contextual generalities from the process itself. This way, the researcher will be able to demonstrate a very close relationship between context and explanation making generalization robust.
Another term coined by Williams (2000: 215) is moderatum generalizations. He describes moderatum generalizations as the “ones in which aspects of the focus of inquiry can be seen to be instances of a broader set of recognizable features”. He also argues that generalizations put forward by qualitative researchers are a rule rather than an exception. A researcher, while describing findings of one group can draw comparisons with research finding for comparable groups which could have been done by other researchers. Nevertheless, moderatum generalization will stay different and cautious in comparison to statistical generalizations drawn from probability samples. It would very relevant to briefly mention the use of CAQDAS, NUD*IST and NVivo in this context. All of them are supposedly statistical softwares to identify the key concepts and analyze the qualitative data but they do not come anyway near SPSS in terms of their usage and universality. The reason is not a shortcoming in the software as such but it is the diverging methodology of qualitative and qualitative research that makes them vulnerable. However the limits of generalizability of qualitative data can be defeated through an intelligent and limited use of these softwares by showing numbers, aggregation and counting in a useful manner. Moreover, the software leads to a ‘detachment’ of researcher from the findings with all risks of missing out obvious themes due to engagement in the overwhelming nature of the software use. Generalization is also impacted by the manner in which a data is organized. One way to support analytic logic is to use cross-‐sectional indexing and categorical analysis. Another strategy for analytic logic is contextual, case study and holistic approach. Researchers have used either or both strategies with mixed responses. Cross sectional analysis focuses on specified themes instead of drawing comparisons. Contextual, case study or holistic approach helps in categorical analysis. Again the question here in not about what each category carries with it. The question is about the strategic choice that a researcher makes. Summary and Conclusion Qualitative Research is a research methodology focusing on words instead of numbers in data collection and analysis. Qualitative researchers are inductivists, interpretivists and constuctivists. Qualitaitve research has evolved through nine moments in history and four traditions as described above. The methods of collecting and analyzing materials which are considered empirical in terms of qualitative inquiry are also characteristically different from one another as well as from those of quantitative research with more emphasis on seeing the world through the eyes of the respondent rather than through the eyes of researcher. All methods of qualitative research put the researcher in close proximity to the researched, sometimes making him part of the world which is being studied. Likewise, the sampling strategies have changed from probability and non-‐probability sample in quantitative research to purposive sampling in qualitative research. The concept of ‘grounded’ theory in qualitative research makes the process all the more exigent. The challenges of validity and reliability have also been reduced to insignificance by introduction of a different terminology like trustworthiness and authenticity with some subsets. Computer assisted data analysis applications, though used with caution add
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