Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Reading :: Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design

Originally posted: Wed, 13 Oct 2004 06:54:11

Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design : Choosing among Five Traditions

by John W. Creswell

Well, it turns out I'm not crazy. I've been trying to nail down exactly what people mean by qualitative research for a while now, particularly because most of the time people simply call it "ethnography." But, I wondered, is grounded theory simply a kind of ethnography? How about case studies --- can they be considered ethnography when Yin emphatically says that they're not? How does action research relate to these two? Much of what I read about "qualitative research," especially in my home discipline of rhetoric, seems theoretically and methodologically mushed up. It turns out that other fields have this problem as well, and that is what motivated Creswell to write this book.

To the extent possible, Creswell separates, compares, and contrasts five different traditions of qualitative research: biography, phenomenology, ethnography, grounded theory, and case studies. (He also notes omissions such as action research.) Like me, Creswell loves taxonomies and comparisons and tables, and he provides plenty here. Using thoughtfully considered examples of each kind of research, he traces through design, traditions of inquiry, philosophical and theoretical frameworks, research questions, data collection, data analysis and representation, report writing, and issues of quality and verification. By the end of the book, I could articulate the differences among the traditions, see how they had grown out of different disciplines, and determine which one would be most useful for answering a given question. And Creswell's direct language, clear illustrations, and focused organization allowed me to quickly understand, apply, and navigate through the material.

I also appreciated Creswell's discussion of software for supporting qualitative research. He focuses on NUD*IST, a qualitative theory-building program designed for aiding grounded theory (and not coincidentally published by SAGE, the company that Creswell's book). Through text and diagrams, he describes how NUD*IST could be used to support each of the five qualitative approaches. He also discusses other types of software in an evenhanded manner.

Finally, the book includes a thick glossary that includes definitions by approach -- especially useful since different traditions sometimes use similar words for different phenomena, different words for similar phenomena, etc. It also includes article-length examples of each approach, something that Creswell uses to great advantage when he provides illustrations throughout the book. The one thing that bothered me about the examples was that in their subject matter -- indigence, sexual assault, violent assault -- they tended to emphasize the heartrending pathos of victimhood, and I worry that this will lead readers (especially students) to seek out those sorts of projects over the less exciting, more quotidian, but still valuable aspects of life.

Creswell's text is not going to provide the detailed information that one might get from reading more narrowly defined texts (e.g., Yin's book on case study research or Strauss and Corbin's book on grounded theory). But it provides good strong overviews. I've been looking for a good solid text to anchor my grad-level qualitative research course this spring, and I think this one is it.

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