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A state of the art survey of current qualitative research in practice?

 

A state of the art survey of current qualitative research in practice?

Hilde Ham

Hak, Tony & Fred Wester (red.), ‘Kwalitatief onderzoek: de praktijk. Waarneming, analyse en reflectie’. Themanummer KWALON 23, 2003, 2(8), Amsterdam: SISWO, 161 pagina’s.

The foreword mentions that this anthology with its ten contributions is far more than just a random collection of articles. Hak, Wester and other experts have selected articles which looked at recently published theses and PhD research in light of how the research was done in practice. I am curious as to their selection criteria; as to why they ultimately decided to concentrate on this particular group of researchers, but unfortunately I failed to find the reason. Why were these articles chosen in particular? What was so special about these researchers? How are they different from others?

In their introduction, Hak and Wester pay attention to the history of qualitative research. They discuss traditions and movements, basic assumptions in methods, principles, practical effects and methodological criteria. They then go on to ask two questions that form a recurring theme throughout the whole anthology: How have ‘young’ researchers worked within the research world during the last ten years or so and are there interesting theoretical and practical developments that should be known about? It is clear how the book is structured. With all this in the back of my mind, I immediately came across the article by a ‘grand old man’, Ten Have, who retired in 2002.

With his thirty years of experience, Ten Have is an old hand at research; he certainly cannot be regarded as a ‘young researcher’ any more. His advice to researchers is: ‘Be critical and, when it comes to content and methodology, do not be naive!’ I agree wholeheartedly! The content of Ten Have’s article is not linked to any specific research, either current or completed; it has more of a reflective nature. His own career and personal development in relation to performing research (analysis of conversations) figure very strongly. Over the years, he met many colleague researchers, both in the Netherlands and internationally. As far as he is concerned, Gouldner was an unpleasant but inspiring person while Goffman was impressive but not enthusiastic. I would be curious to know what sort of person and researcher Ten Have is when I read: ‘That is, in fact, one of the few occasions that I (=Ten Have) was able to work well with someone (=Harrie Mazeland).’ Yet performing research consists almost entirely of networking and collaborating! What does Ten Have mean by ‘working well with someone’?

A varied palette

The six ‘young’ researchers Zaitch, Weenink, Marks, Roordink, The and Hak are more representative of the last decade than Ten Have. They allow the readers to take a look behind the scenes of their work.

Zaitch, with his ethnographic research, immerses himself entirely in Colombian culture. He researched the involvement of Colombians in the cocaine trade in the Netherlands. In order to prevent selection bias, Zaitch did not use the two methods normally applied in research into drugs ventures, namely, life stories and sources within the police force or courts. His long-term, time-consuming fieldwork consisted of participating, holding open and in-depth interviews and of analysing documents. What strikes one is that Zaitch did not work undercover, yet never openly made notes or used recording apparatus. His ethnographic research ultimately showed that existing opinions about Colombian cartels, secretive family-run companies and violent, criminal networks need to be revised. He also indicated that two models found in the literature: the economic-bureaucratic model and the criminal network idea cannot really be applied to Colombian cocaine trade in the Netherlands. I do, however, wonder about something: Zaitch bestowed all sorts of favours on his informants including legal counselling, translation of documents, accommodation, money, books, e-mail addresses, postal addresses, jobs, salsa lessons, food, tobacco. What was for him the dividing line as regards satisfying wishes? When did he say ‘no’ to a request from an informant?

Weenink chose to hold in-depth interviews with rich children of secondary-school age who had learning problems and who had eventually ended up at private schools. As there is doubt about the reliability of such in-depth interviews with adolescents, he used the concept of construed narratives as developed by Silverman (1993). Leaving psychological concepts out of the picture, Weenink chose the sociological approach. He derived the procedure of analysing his data from the ‘Guaranteed Theory Approach’ in which comparisons cause themes to become clearer and ultimately to be linked to the core theme (self-discipline). Weenink noticed that among private schools, the more expensive ones give the impression of being elitist when compared with the less expensive which often have a more informal structure. Specific differences - what exactly makes the one school more elitist than the other – are not clear to me.

Marks’ sources for historical research into social bonding in the brick industry during the last century may just be dusty archives to some people. He complements this archives research with several in-depth interviews. However, it is arguable whether such respondents’ memories, reflections and reconstructions are reliable.

Roordink did his research – interaction between clothing, identity and the environment from the perspective of communication science - using symbolic interactionism as a basis. The and Hak, on the other hand, in their research Optimism in patients with lung cancer used such language as ‘unjustifiable optimism’ which demonstrates how difficult it is to find the right words. Words sometimes need to be weighed up very carefully before they are said, to ensure they have exactly the right connotations. The and Hak, with their carefully built-up analyses taken from longitudinal ethnographic research, demonstrated that they were prepared to revise their initial assumptions (that doctors give their patients unclear and insufficient information) to a certain extent. They had also switched from legally-based informed consent, deciding to focus instead on care.

Several important themes in these research projects are drawing the line (being distant or being close by; being willing to disclose things or not), daring to move away from the well-trodden research routes, being flexible, constantly checking assumptions, making time, reflecting permanently, being careful, attending to detail, looking at things from different perspectives and always discussing choices properly.

Developments in theory and methodology

The last three contributions – those from Hijmans, Royers and De Ree, and Wester and Peters – deal with interesting developments in theory and methodology. In Hijmans’ innovative Dynamic Identity Model, the attention is focussed on a coherent theory around the incoherent and fragmentary idea of identity. The researcher based her approach on various traditions and movements (symbolic interactionism, social psychology, sociology, pedagogy, anthropology) in order to arrive at a coordinated metaperspective and dynamic identity model.

Observation and perception play an important role in the Visual Stimulation Method. Royers and De Ree developed it into a method of investigating the perception of Care Home residents in how they live. The Visual Stimulation Method consists of phased data collection; in the first phase, these residents took photos and looked for pictures in magazines that represented their own accommodation and everyday world. The second phase consisted of individual interviews with respondents and the third phase of group interviews with respondents. Royers and De Ree also added group interviews with respondents who lived in the same place but had not taken photos or collected pictures. Could this in fact be a fourth phase in the research? I also wonder to what extent group interviews in a Care Home are suitable for revealing critical facts. Care Home residents come across each other almost all the time and ‘they usually say something, have a chat’ (p. 137). How open and critical can these people dare to be, bearing in mind that they are more or less dependent on each other? Royers and De Ree do not reveal why so many of the residents selected to take photographs were handicapped. It is also not clear to me whether the opposing statements (extremely positive or extremely negative) used in the group sessions were printed on the same or on separate cards. These questions do not alter the fact that the Visual Stimulation Method could be a worthwhile addition when carrying out research into users, their quality of life and their perception.

The final section of the book is a look at the manner in which computer programs, especially Kwalitan 5.0, can be useful for analysing data. Such a program has both advantages and disadvantages and this is confirmed by Weenink elsewhere in the anthology: ‘For the detailed analysis, text fragments were used. The danger of doing this is that you lose sight of the context: under what circumstances was this statement made?’ This risk can be minimised if the researcher him/herself collects, works up and analyses the data (p49).

Ten Have is also extremely critical about analysis-aiding computer programs like Kwalitan. He believes they are of limited use, and tries instead to study examples in detail rather than to collect large quantities of equivalent cases (p23). Ultimately, it should always be the researcher that carries out data analyses, either manually or with the aid of a computer program.

The last few contributions demonstrate that research crosses borders, has an interdisciplinary character and certainly never stands still. Researchers in the healthcare sector, for example, make use of methods that belong to the marketing sector, and existing theories are merged into new models.

A final remark :
there are a few language/textual errors here and there and these could be irritating for both purists and ‘normal’ readers. One could say this is just being fussy, but it might be an idea for the editor to be a little fussier next time.

References

Silverman, D. (1993). Interpreting qualitative data. Methods for analysing talk, text, and interaction . London: Sage.