Qualitative research methodologies draw much of their approach from the social sciences, particularly the fields of Anthropology, Sociology, and Social-Psychology. If you’ve ever wished you could truly capture and describe the essence of an experience you have had, you understand the goal of qualitative research methods. Rather than statistically analyzing data, or evaluating and critiquing messages, qualitative researchers are interested in understanding the subjective lived-experience of those they study. In other words, how can we come to a more rich understanding of how people communicate?
Steps for Doing Qualitative Research
Qualitative approaches break from traditional research ideals developed in the physical sciences. As a result, the steps for conducting qualitative research vary from the seven basic steps outlined above.
- Planning is the first step for qualitative research. (Lindlof 176). You might want to study the communication of registered nurses. Obviously, the topic “the communication of registered nurses” is too large so careful planning in regards to who should be the focus of study, in what context, what research questions should be asked, etc. are all part of the initial planning of research.
- Getting in is the second step of qualitative research (Lindlof). Because qualitative research usually focuses on human communication in real-world settings, researchers must gain access to the people and contexts they wish to study. For example, would you want an audio or video recording of your interaction with a physician as you tell him/her your medical problems (DiMatteo, Robinson, Heritage, Tabbarah, & Fox; Barry)?
- Observing and learning make up the third step of qualitative research. For example, researchers must decide whether or not to reveal themselves to those they are studying. A researcher may choose to conduct interviews, look at communication artifacts, observe communication as it occurs, write field-notes, and/or audio or video record communication. Each of these choices has an impact on the outcomes of the research.
- Analyze what you have observed. There are exhaustive methods for examining and analyzing qualitative data. Issues of right versus wrong ways of analysis can be addressed by recognizing that the goal of qualitative research is not to generalize findings to everyone, but to share the lived experiences of those who are researched.
- Share conclusions of the research. Again, research should be shared with others so they can gain a greater understanding of the lived-experience of those researched.
In an attempt to define qualitative methods Thomas Lindlof states that qualitative research examines the “form and content of human behavior…to analyze its qualities, rather than subject it to mathematical or other formal transformations” (21). Anderson and Meyer state that qualitative methods, “do not rest their evidence on the logic of mathematics, the principle of numbers, or the methods of statistical analysis” (247). Dabbs says that qualitative research looks at the quality of phenomena while quantitative methods measure quantities and/or amounts. In qualitative research researchers are interested in the, “what, how, when, and where of a thing….[looking for] the meanings, concepts, definitions, characteristics, metaphors, symbols, and descriptions of things” (Berg 2-3). Data collection comes in the form of words or pictures (Neuman 28). As Kaplan provides a very simple way of defining qualitative research when he says, “if you can measure it, that ain’t it” (206).
Types of Qualitative Methods
While qualitative research sounds simple, it can be a “messy” process because things do not always go as planned. One way to make qualitative research “cleaner” is to be familiar with, and follow, the various established qualitative methods available for studying human communication.
- Ethnography. Ethnography is arguably the most recognized and common method of qualitative research in Communication. Ethnography “places researchers in the midst of whatever it is they study. From this vantage, researchers can examine various phenomena as perceived by participants and represent these observations” to others (Berg 148). Ethnographers try to understand the communicative acts of people as they occur in their actual communicative environments. One way to think of this is the idea of learning about a new culture by immersing oneself in that culture. While there are many strategies for conducting ethnography, the idea is that a researcher must enter the environment of those under study to observe and understand their communication.
- Focus Group Interviewing. Researchers who use focus group interviewing meet with groups of people to understand their communication characteristics. (Berg). These interviews foster an environment for participants to discuss particular topics of interest to the group and/or researcher. While we are all familiar with the numbers that we encounter in political polls, every so often television news organizations will conduct focus group interviews to find out how particular groups actually feel about, and experience, the political process as a citizen. This is an applied version of focus group research techniques and provides insight into the ways various groups understand and enact their realities.
- Action Research. A qualitative method whose intended outcome is social change is action research. Action research seeks to create positive social change through “a highly reflective, experiential, and participatory mode of research in which all individuals involved in the study, researcher and subject alike, are deliberate and contributing actors in the research enterprise” (Berg 196; Wadsworth). The goal of action research is to provide information that is useful to a particular group of people that will empower the members of that group to create change as a result of the research (Berg). An example of action research might be when researchers study the teaching strategies of teachers in the classroom. Typically, teachers involve themselves in the research and then use the findings to improve their teaching methods. If you’ve ever had a professor who had unique styles of teaching, it is likely that he/she may have been involved in research that examined new approaches to teaching students.
- Unobtrusive Research. Another method for conducting qualitative research is unobtrusive research. As Berg points out, “to some extent, all the unobtrusive strategies amount to examining and assessing human traces” (209). We can learn a great deal about the behavior of others by examining the traces humans leave behind as they live their lives. In a research class offered at our university, for instance, students investigated the content of graffiti written in university bathrooms. Because our campus has an environmentally conscious culture, much of the graffiti in bathrooms reflects this culture with slogans written on paper towel dispensers that read, “Paper towels=trees.” The students who conducted this research were using unobtrusive strategies to determine dimensions of student culture in the graffiti that was left behind in bathrooms.
- Historiography. Historiography is a method of qualitative research “for discovering, from records and accounts, what happened during some past period” (Berg 233). Rather than simply putting together a series of facts, research from this perspective seeks to gain an understanding of the communication in a past social group or context. For example, the timelines in the history chapter of this text are an attempt to chronologically put together the story of the discipline of Communication. While there is no “true” story, your authors have tried to piece together, from their own research, the important pieces that make up what we believe is the story of the formation of Communication study.
- Case Studies. Case studies involve gathering significant information about particular people, contexts, or phenomena to understand a particular case under investigation. This approach uses many methods for data collection but focuses on a particular case to gain “holistic description and explanation” (Berg 251). Those who use case study approaches may look at organizations, groups within those organizations, specific people, etc. The idea is to gain a broad understanding of the phenomena and draw conclusions from them. For example, a case study may examine a specific teaching method as a possible solution to increase graduation rates while improving student information retention (Foss et al.). Examining specific cases may help some teachers rethink their current teaching method and offer some alternatives to the standardized teaching paradigms.
While there are other qualitative research methodologies, the methods one chooses to examine communication are most often decided by the researcher’s intended outcomes, resources available, and the research question(s) of focus. There are no hard rules for qualitative research. Instead, researchers must make many choices as they engage in this process.
Outcomes of Qualitative Methodologies
What can we learn by using qualitative research methods for studying communication? Qualitative Communication researchers often believe that quantitative methods do not capture the essence of our lived experience. In other words, it is difficult to quantify everything about our lives and therefore, we need different strategies for understanding our world. Think of the various ways you experience and communicate in your relationships? It’s highly unlikely that you spend the bulk of your communication quantifying your daily experiences. However, through methods like observation, interviewing, journaling, etc., we might be able to get a better understanding of the ways people experience and communicate their feelings.
Communication Research and You
Qualitative Methods In Actions
Developing the ability to perform research is becoming a necessary skill in both the world of academia as well as in today’s competitive workforce. With the move from the industrial age to the information age, many jobs center around the creation and dissemination of information. With so many online options for retrieving information, it is more important to have skills in gathering information rather than memorizing facts and data. As it is vital to be able to access proper information when needed, many universities require a specific amount of research hours for both undergraduate and masters degree programs. A variety of career opportunities require research experience such as marketing agencies or health industries.
Another value of qualitative research is that it resonates with readers who are able to identify with the lived-experiences represented in the research (Neuman). Statistical studies often seem detached from how we experience life. However, qualitative studies contain “rich description, colorful detail, and unusual characters; they give the reader a feel for social settings (Neuman 317). This rich description allows us to identify with the communication experiences of others, and learn through this identification.
Over the years, female scholars have demonstrated a greater frequency in the use of qualitative approaches (Grant, Ward & Rong; Ward & Grant), producing significant contributions to our understanding of human communication using these methods. From understanding to social change, feminist scholars demonstrate the importance of qualitative inquiry for strengthening the body of scholarship in our discipline. While researchers who use quantitative approaches tend to value prediction and control as potential outcomes of their research, those who use qualitative approaches seek greater understanding of human communication phenomena, or evaluate current pragmatic uses of human communication to help identify and change oppressive power structures.