Qualitative Research Assessed
In summary, qualitative research is strong for :
- The attention to detail, the ability to embrace both verbal and non-verbal behaviour, to
penetrate fronts, discover meanings, and reveal the subtlety and complexity of cases or
- Portraying perspectives and conveying feelings and experiences.
- Encompassing processes and natural environments.
- Actions are contextualised within situations and time.
- Theory is generated from the empirical data, and consequently there is 'closeness of
fit' between theory and data.
- Although this kind of research is sometimes criticised for not being generalisable,
there are two ways in which it is, namely a) through the theory that is generated. Such
theory then becomes available to others to test and apply - see the example above on
differentiation-polarisation; and b) though it might be only a single case study, it might
contribute to an archive of studies on a particular issue which then become reinterpreted.
Hargreaves (1988), for example, working from a number of existing qualitative studies that
had researched the social circumstances of teaching, developed a different explanation of
teaching quality from 'official' ones which placed emphasis on the personal qualities of
teachers. Ball (1987) similarly drew on a number of qualitative studies to generate a
theory of school organisation.
- Other strengths, emerging from the Nias reading, are: a) the way her own self
(experience, disposition, interests) related to the research and gave her opportunities to
advance the work; b) how the quality of her data 'challenged' her to search for
interconnections, and how she found 'unexpected reefs' under her feet; c) the benefits of
time to think; d) the nature of qualitative data as a seed-bed for ideas, and chaos as a
prelude to creativity; e) the recognition of weaknesses in the study, but f) seeing the
main strength as the insights the research generated and how they will be used by others.
As a matter of interest, the insights of Nias' (1989) research have been extensively used
by others throughout the world.
As for difficulties and weaknesses:
- It has been argued that single qualitative studies cannot provide grounds for
generalising across cases - though see above.
- Immersion in the depths of a qualitative study can lead to either or both 'going native'
(see above) and 'macro blindness', that is to say the researcher might offer explanations
in terms of the situation under observation, oblivious to more powerful forces operating
on the situation from outside.
- Qualitative research can be a high-risk, low-yield enterprise. It can take time to
negotiate access, assemble a sample, develop trust and rapport, find out what is 'going
on' or what people are thinking. 'Hanging around' and 'muddling through' can bring
worries. Maybe one will not find 'reefs beneath one's feet' and drown in the maelstrom as
- Qualitative studies are often accused of being impressionistic, subjective, biased,
idiosyncratic and lacking in precision. Some of the bias comes through, typically, in the
rhetorical presentation of accounts (Atkinson, 1990). Researchers might use a number of
rhetorical devices, such as metaphor, jargon, 'loaded' terminology, selected and variable
use of transcript, quotations, selective use of examples, to subtly persuade the reader to
the author's line of argument. However, although this is a charge that might be made of
particular studies, it is not an essential one of the approach. As we have seen above,
there are procedures available to establish validity and rigour, and these should be
demonstrated in the presentation.