Qualitative Research, Conceptual Skills, and Social Justice

By Jane Gilgun

Qualitative research requires strong conceptual skills coupled with creativity and imagination. Qualitative researchers require these skills because qualitative approaches represent ways of thinking about what it means to be human beings. As Strauss (1991) wrote about grounded theory, “This is a general way of thinking about analysis and we said so in the discovery book (p. 2).” The “discovery book is The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Bogdan (Bogdan & Biklen, 2007) said something similar about how Blanche Geer (Becker & Geer, 1957; Becker, Geer, & Hughes, 1968; Becker, Geer, Hughes, & Strauss, 1961) taught field research. We were required to do an observation and a corresponding set of notes each week. It was a lot of work. Part of the enjoyment was feeling my mind working in a way it had never worked before. I liked what the process produced. I arranged my week so I could do the work for the seminar. Blanche modeled how to think conceptually. What I got out of her seminar was not the content. She was teaching a way of thinking. I felt right at home….(Gilgun, 1992c, p. 9). Thinking conceptually means to be able understand the complex dimensions of human experiences and to identify concepts that help organize the complexity. The Significance of the Experiences of Others What happened to Bogdan has happened to many qualitative researchers: we become less self-referential and more drawn into the experiences of others. The change does not stop there. We cannot lose our analytic stances even when we participate vicariously in other people’s experiences. We make sense out of the experiences of others in their own terms and our own. We often go through a prolonged period of not knowing as we attempt to understand others.

We position ourselves to think deeply about other persons’ accounts of their experiences if we are to come up with concepts that might organize those experiences and render them communicable to others. Qualitative research is inherently theory-driven because researchers require theoretical concepts in order to understand research material, organize it, and then communicate findings. Not Knowing “Not knowing” means that we wait for evidence to come in before we draw conclusions and, more practically, before we decide upon the concepts that we believe help organize the raw materials of accounts of experience. In addition, we continually look for evidence that adds to, contradicts, and undermines our evolving thinking. This is a multi-layered process that involves shifts in perspectives that happens when try to understand the worlds of others as well as shifts in thinking as we attempt to represent and then interpret our understandings, while all the time being aware of the differences between our experiences and interpretations and those of research participants. As we conduct research in these ways, our worldviews may change. Mine did as I interviewed perpetrators of family and community violence. While committed to social justice and care before I began, I am even more deeply committed in response to what I experienced through this research (Gilgun, 2008; 2010). Other researchers, such as LePlay in the nineteenth century, Wax (1971) and Stack (1974) more than 100 years later reported similar experiences. They were concerned about social injustice before they did their research and took on roles of advocates in response to their research (Gilgun, 1999, in press). An Informed Public Some, while committed to social justice, believed an informed public would take on roles of social change agents, and researchers should not. For instance, Park, an early developer of the principles on which this present paper held this position during his years as a university professor. He railed against women reformists, but he wanted research to contribute to the social good (Bulmer, 1984; Deegan, 1990; 1996). Earlier in his life, he said he had been a muckraking journalist intent on social reform (Park, 1974). Qualitative research, therefore, appeals to researchers who have the conceptual skills that enable them to do credible representations and interpretations of other people’s experiences, and who want to contribute to the social good. Researchers who do other kinds of work may have some of these qualities, but the combination of the four characterizes persons drawn to qualitative research. Ogburn, for example, a leader in moving early social research toward what he thought was objective science, certainly had strong conceptual skills and believed in the power of research, in particular technology and mathematics, to transform society, but his commitment to what he defined as objective science contributed to his rejection of the principles of immersion, vicarious participation in the lives of others, and understanding of complex experiences from informants’ points of view (See Laslett, 1991).

Many of today’s researchers share Ogburn’s ideas about science, objectivity, and quantification, stemming back at least to the ideas Descartes explicated more than 300 years ago (Christians, 2010; Hamilton, 1994). Not For Everyone Not everyone trained in qualitative methods, however, takes to them. O’Connor (2001), in a brief written account of her experiences as a Ph.D. student of Bogdan’s and Biklen’s research methods courses (Bogdan & Biklen, 2008), reported on the six weeks of qualitative methods training in the required first-year methods sequence that Biklen taught at Syracuse University The most striking memory I have from that class was how we as students separated ourselves out. There were those students who just didn’t connect with the process. It was too unclear. Those unknowns, I began learning, was what I loved…I liked and understood the ambiguity, the inquiry, the discovery. The handful of us who went on with the qualitative process began to sit on the same side of the room talking among ourselves and feeling very engaged in the process. Other classmates were frustrated. O’Connor meant by “those of us who went on with the qualitative process” that these were the students who took the optional one-year course of study on qualitative methods that Bogdan taught the following year. O’Connor’s account of her classmates and herself fit well with Dewey’s (1958) observations of other philosophers who rejected the pragmatist emphasis on experience because of its instability and precariousness and the difficulty of understanding it. Perhaps a bit crankily, he wrote that some have abandoned the study of experience and substituted “theoretical security and certainty” (p. xi) (emphasis in original). They prefer, said Dewey, to craft universals, laws of nature, and systems that emphasize unity among entities. They back away from particulars, pluralism, and processes of change. Products of Qualitative Research Qualitative research is worth doing because of the amazing range of products that can result. These products include theories and/or typologies grounded in personal, contextualized interpretations of experience. In addition, qualitative methods yield rich descriptive material that researchers sometimes let stand on its own because of its value in fostering deeper understandings and its capacities to illuminate other similar situations. This descriptive material can also be re-crafted to become items in various types of instruments such as surveys, clinical rating scales, and practice guidelines. Qualitative methods can also be used in concert with experiments and research on direct practice, such as social work, nursing, therapy, counseling, and education, in order to understand how participants experience the interventions. Some qualitative researchers create performances and write songs and poetry that use the words of informants so that audience members can understand other people’s experiences and participate in them imaginatively.

Discussion Over the many years that I have conducted qualitative research, I have been continually taken up with the experience of listening and perhaps understanding how other people experience their own lives. I have been enlightened, delighted, awestruck, and assaulted by the meanings of the narratives they share with me. In the process, I have learned a great deal about myself, my own limitations and possibilities. Above all perhaps, the experience of participating in the lives of others has given to me the desire to share what I have learned not only through scholarly articles and books, but also in essays, poetry, children’s stories, and many other media. I began my career as a qualitative research in the late 1970s because I wanted to understand. I had no idea what I was in for. It has been  more  wonderful  than  I  could  have  imagined.  I  hope  that  the  numbers  of  qualitative   researchers  continue  to  grow.     Numbers  and  surveys  are  important  but  if  we  are  to  bring  about  the  ideals  of   democracy  that  so  many  people  want  and  have  even  died  for,  then  qualitative  approaches   that  focus  on  understanding  how  human  beings  actually  live  their  lives  have  important   contributions  to  make.     About  the  Author     Jane  F.  Gilgun,  Ph.D.,  LICSW,  is  a  professor,  School  of  Social  Work,  University  of   Minnesota,  Twin  Cities,  USA.  See  Professor  Gilgun’s  other  articles,  books,  and  children’s  stories   on  scribd.com,  Amazon  Kindle,  and  iBooks  for  a  variety  of  e-­readers  and  mobile  devices.   References   Becker, H. S., & Geer, B. (1960). Participant observation and interviewing: A comparison. Human Organization, 16, 28-32. Becker, H. S., Geer, B., & Hughes, E. (1968). Making the grade. New York: Wiley. Becker, H. S., Geer, B., Hughes, E. & Strauss, E. (1961). Boys in white: Student culture in medical school. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Bogdan,  R.  C.,  &  Biklen,  S.K.  (2007).  Qualitative  research  for  education:  An  introduction  to   theories  and  methods  (5th  ed).  Boston:  Pearson.     Bulmer,  M.  (1984).  The  Chicago  School  of  Sociology:  Institutionalization,  diversity,  and  the   rise  of  sociological  research.  Chicago:  University  of  Chicago  Press.   Christians,  C.  G.  (2010).  Theories  for  a  global  ethics.  In  Norman  K.  Denzin  &  Michael  D.   Giardina  (Eds.),  Qualitative  inquiry  and  human  rights  (pp.  45  -­‐65).  Walnut  Creek,  CA:   Left  Coast  Press.  

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