Introduction to Qualitative Research Methods

Dr. Susan O'Neill

During the 1960's, 'new paradigm' researchers emerged to challence some of the assumptions of positivism and address some of the problems inherent in traditional or 'old paradigm' research such as ecological validity ('real world' versus laboratory); ethics (use of deception and the treatment of 'subjects' as 'objects' versus active 'participants'); 'experimenter' effects (bias and attempts to be 'objective' versus respect for and acknowledgement of 'subjectivity', reflexivity and language).
Quantitative methods attempt to screen out inpterpretation or 'subjectivity', but most qualitative researchers would argue that this is impossible - given that our representation of the world are always 'subjective'. Thus, qualitative research takes as its starting piont awareness of the gap between an object of study and the way we represent it. Qualitative methods attempt to capture the sense that lies within a phenomenon, explore or elaborate the significance, and represent the meaning. Qualitative research is an interpretive study of a specified issue or problem which respects and acknowledges that the researcher is central to the sense that is made.
Qualitative research is generally based on two broad philosophical foundations: phenomenology and social constructionism. Although the term 'phenomenology' was used by philosophers in the mid-eighteenth century (such as Kant, Hegel, and Marx), it was Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) a continental European philospher who gave it new meaning and significance. Later, his assistant Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) (and others such as Sartre and Merleau-Ponty) principally influenced the strand of philosophy known as existential phenomenology. Basically, these philosophers questioned the traditional image of the self shared by academics such as Mead and Freud which assumed that there existed a phenomenological 'I', some subjective, private centre of consciousness which if only it were public, 'could explain us all'. Existential phenomenologists criticized the notion that knowledge about the self can exist in a 'pure', 'private', and 'subjective' form. Their conceptualisation of subjective experience is something which is inextricably linked to the social world. Social constructionist theory focuses on the linguistic practices used to make sense of our world, where self and identity is viewed as constructed out of the discourses which are culturally available to us and which we use when communicating with others. Thus, for social constructionists, language not only describes but creates knowledge about the world This strand of psychology was influenced by later writings of the philosopher Wittgenstein (1953) (e.g., see Harré & Gillet, 1994).