Qualitative Research & The Elephant

The Rider & The Elephant as the Conscious and Sub-Conscious Mind.Because I’ve been reading about qualitative research for the past week, and because I’m going to be talking about it now, I feel like I should start by disclosing my biases before going any further. My undergraduate degree is in Business Administration, and I have been working with computer systems for close to 20 years now.  I like to use numbers to guide my decision making when possible. That said, I have been convinced that at least some of the time I’m making a decision, I have already unconsciously made the decision, and am merely finding numbers to justify what I would like to do (see Jonathan Haidt’s “Rider and the Elephant” metaphor for more  on this).

Even with this awareness on my part, I would have a hard time advocating for any serious policy change based solely on qualitative research.  It seems to squishy and subjective, even when a researcher’s biases are thoroughly disclosed.  I’m reminded of the apocryphal economist when asked “what do two plus two equal? The economist gets up, locks the door, closes the shade, sits down next to the interviewer and says ‘What do you want it to equal?’” (http://faculty.ses.wsu.edu/rayb/jokes.html). It seems like a qualitative researcher is in an even better position to create the results he or she is looking for either consciously or unconsciously.

Dr. Major suggested that to make more generalized conclusions from qualitative research, one could try to triangulate a number of qualitative studies. Having never tried this before, I’m not sure how easy or difficult such a “triangulation” would be, but given all the possible types and approaches to qualitative research possible, there would have to be a lot of research conducted in a particular area to make a triangulation possible. As Dr. Major said, “qualitative researchers don’t usually strive for transferability; quality, but usually not transferability.”

A more practical approach for me would be to use a mixed methods research design.  Start with qualitative research to “get a lay of the land”, and determine what the main research questions are, and where interesting veins of inquiry are to be found.  With that information in hand, a much more focused and hopefully interesting quantitative study can be crafted.

One thing that struck a chord with me from Dr. Major’s presentation was the suggestion that quantitative researchers should try to do a better job at disclosing their backgrounds and biases.  Quantitative research does not take place in a vacuum, and the more we know about not only the research methodology, but the researchers themselves, the better off we will all be as we evaluate and use research studies.

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