Qualitative Field Research

Watch this video… The young lady is engaging in a breaching experiment – a kind of qualitative method that studies norms of society by breaking those norms.

Take a moment and go to Youtube.com. Type in the search box the term ‘ethnomethodology,’ ‘norm violation’ or ‘breaching experiment.’ You will find a lot of videos of students challenging the rules of society and provoking public sanctions (anything from being ignored to dirty looks and stares to an occasional verbal reprimand). I find qualitative research a lot of fun, but most is not quite so daring as ethnomethodology.

In more than a decade of qualitative studies, I have found myself observing, interviewing, interacting with and participating in the activities of truckers, drug dealers, homeless people, prostitutes, families of children with special needs, teachers, social workers, children, health care professionals, and immigrants from around the world. I especially like ethnographic field research that gets me out from behind the computer and into the ‘natural setting’ of people where I can observe their everyday life. Take for example, a project I conducted on homeless youth. I spent eight months visiting with a small band of young people living on the streets in Tempe, Arizona. While in the field, we used the qualitative method of Visual Sociology to document the lived experience, expressions of self, and lack of opportunities experienced by these young people. The documentary we produced (entitled Street Life on Mill) sought to identify the needs of homeless young people and was used as a tool for opening dialogue with residents and city officials regarding the issues of homelessness in the Tempe area.

As you can see from this example, qualitative research deals with descriptions, not with numbers or precise measures. It seeks to find patterns in the data collected in natural settings, rather than testing hypothesis in a controlled manner. Qualitative research is messy. The researcher is part of the environment, rather than a lab-coated observer. Obviously this introduces bias and influences the observations. Moreover, because of the incredible amount of time involved in qualitative work, the number of observations are limited. Thus, there is an issue with a lack of generalizability, or the ability to make predictions and probabilistic inferences from the findings. These limitations have lead to a ‘debate’ between qualitative and quantitative researchers as to which is more valid, reliable, useful, or scientific. However, most would agree today that the Qualitative versus Quantitative Debate is built upon a false dichotomy. In fact, over the course of a research programme, many researchers will move through an iterative process of collecting qualitative data, developing theories grounded in these observations (aka Grounded Theory Method), then developing hypotheses and tests of the theories, collecting data to support or refute the hypotheses, then making new observations from the data collected. You’ve read a bit about this back in Chapter 2 of the Babbie text when you learned about deductive and inductive reasoning.

Let’s talk about a just a few of the many qualitative approaches to data collection, beginning with ethnography. Ethnography is both a research method and the product of that method (usually a written report). Ethnography involve a variety of ways of collecting information about a particular social or cultural phenomenon. They may contain interviews, observations, participation all documented systematically in field notes. These notes contain extensive and detailed reflections just a small number of cases (a few individuals, a small community, or an organization). Ethnographic projects usually take months if not years to compile.

Another common, exploratory qualitative method is the group interview (aka focus groups). This methodology has been used as a means of data collection in the social sciences for at least a century. Focus groups gained popularity in the 1930s and 40s with Robert K. Merton’s use as a tool for gauging reactions to wartime propaganda materials. Since then, the methodology has been employed in a wide variety of research settings that call for a deep understanding of a groups’ perspective on a particular issue. It is through the synergistic, collaborative, and interactive atmosphere of the focus group that participants are influenced to express many ideas that may have been more difficult to express individually. Focus groups have often been used when conducting research in ethnic or immigrant communities especially when developing culturally tailored interventions or instruments. I have used this method in researching myths and misconceptions about diabetes among Arab-Americans. Other health-related focus group studies with the same population have included investigations of tobacco use among adolescents, elders’ views about health and social support, cultural considerations for mental health counseling, ways in which to enhance health services, and the importance of culturally and linguistically appropriate health interventions.

I would like for you to now read other qualitative methods, theoretical approaches and analysis techniques in the Babbie textbook (Chapters 10 and 13), then complete the quizzes for those chapters, and if you have time, complete the extra credit observational activity.

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