Qualitative Inquiry: In pursuit of meaning
By Bill Fear, ABP Conference Speaker 2013
No one disputes the value of qualitative research....
Focus groups, for example, are a mainstay of much market research in terms of consumer preference. Yet psychologists working in the positivist paradigm tend to avoid giving due consideration to research that helps us develop understanding and meaning for fear of being labelled ‘non-scientific’.
Part of the discomfort with qualitative methods is that, properly applied, they do not align with our standardised, and limited, understandings of validity, reliability and generalizability, and so on. All of which are framed by the positivist paradigm. Admittedly, these assumptions have given some aspects of psychology much of its credibility in particular areas of practice. They have also led to the assumption that we can extend the findings of technical-rational models beyond their narrow limits, and equally the refusal to recognise work outside of narrowly proscribed limits.
We see some significant progress, however. In 2012, under the guidance of Kenneth Gergen, that the American Psychological Association granted the Society for Qualitative Inquiry membership of Division 5 of the APA (The Division of Evaluation, Measurement & Statistics). The real breakthrough comes not from an acceptance of qualitative methods, or qualitative research, but the acceptance of Qualitative Inquiry.
Qualitative Inquiry allows us to reconsider the way in which we interpret our empirical work and share the lessons we learn from our practice. The paradigm helps us understand the meaning of action from the actor's point of view. To understand how we, as practitioners, and others create the world by organizing our understandings and giving them meaning. It is the nature of our engagement with the world, and the social construction of that world, that lends itself to those methods that are gathered under the banner of ‘qualitative research methods’ (of which there are many). But these methods are worthless without the deeper understanding that comes with acknowledging the alternative paradigm, one that is hermeneutic – interpretive - rather than positivistic.
A growing demand for greater understanding of the meaning of peoples' actions
While there remains a tendency in some circles to constrain Qualitative Inquiry, to limit it to a small number of methodological approaches with a narrow range of applications, the demand for the approach is growing fast. This demand is driven by the need for greater understanding of the meaning of the actions of ourselves and others. This need is increasingly recognised in business and government as evidenced by the increasing demand for qualitative research in the influential academic journals listed in the Financial Times Top 45 Journals Used in Business School Research Rankings.
The problem we face is, on the one hand, the lack of acceptance and understanding of the broad range of qualitative methods that can be applied. And on the other hand the lack of experience with interpreting the data and sharing understandings. Too often this is simply forced back into a pseudo-positivist paradigm. For example, we all know that professional judgements about how to act should take into account ‘scientific evidence’ (knowledge) where it is relevant and available, but this should not supplant professional judgement and practical knowledge in practice contexts. But how are we to understand and share the meanings constructed from our practical knowledge? The acceptance of the paradigm of Qualitative Inquiry is a step towards achieving this and provides an alternative to psychology being consigned to nothing more than a toolbox of technical-rational applications.
Bill Fear is a consulting Psychologist, a researcher, and a writer. He has worked in the public, private and voluntary sectors and is currently doing research in Healthcare.
His interests in include psychometric assessment, coaching, and societal and individual narratives and stories.
If you've enjoyed this article and would like to hear more about Qualitative Inquiry, Bill will be speaking at the 2013 Annual ABP Conference on Thursday 3rd October, Wokefield Park, Reading.
To find out more about the conference and Stefan's session click here for more information