Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Reading :: Discovering Qualitative Methods, Second Edition

Discovering Qualitative Methods: Field Research, Interviews, and Analysis
By Carol A.B. Warren and Tracy Xavier Karner

I really enjoy reading texts on qualitative methodology, even those that, like this one, are pitched to upper-level undergrads and incoming graduate students. They're easy to read through and compare, and sometimes they highlight differences in fields, disciplines, and research programs more clearly than looking at the literature itself. That's especially true for Discovering Qualitative Methods, which is aimed at sociologists in training. Reading it, I was intrigued by the clues about sociology that it conveyed through its assertions.

The book follows a basic approach of introducing qualitative methods and giving background on law, politics, and ethics before diving into the practical issues of gaining entrance to a site, collecting various data (observations, interviews, artifacts), and analyzing the data. The first two chapters would seem familiar to anyone performing or reading about workplace writing in my field - although the examples tend to come from settings that are unfamiliar to most college students and academics, such as nursing homes, biker gangs, cults, and the radical environmental movement. (Other examples, such as a lesbian community, would perhaps have seemed more exotic to students in the past. Still others, such as drug dealers, represent activities that we hope are exotic to them.) Indeed, as the book unfolds, the authors pull out still more examples along these lines, and ask students to use caution when investigating them. For me, these example sites seemed quite odd - almost like sightseeing for academics - compared to the workplace and organization sites to which I send my students.

As I read further, other differences emerge. For instance, in the chapter on fieldnotes, readers are cautioned not to take observational notes while observing, because "it is virtually impossible to continue to observe closely while looking downward taking notes" (p.112). Instead, readers are told to observe for a half hour or more, then find a quiet place to write a thick description (p.118) - one that includes sights, sounds, smells, textures, and anything else they can record. The examples are heavy with adjectives and adverbs: they read like the work of nonfiction creative writers. A finished field note "resembles an essay or narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end" (p.120). The authors advocate using quotation marks to identify quotes, even when the exact quotation is not available and the researcher is conveying only the gist (p.120). This strategy of writing field notes, presumably, works well over the long period of time that it takes to write an ethnography - but it would be difficult to execute faithfully when examining microlevel details in shorter case study research.

Again, these different methodological choices represent different research objectives and orientations. I'm just startled at how different these turn out to be. And the theme continues when we get to analysis. The first page of the analysis chapter actually made me laugh out loud: the authors grimly tell us that analysis will involve physical and emotional exhaustion (p.215). But I can see why: analysis involves open coding, which leads to themes, which are then linked into analytical descriptions (p.237). Other than that, the authors provide examples but not much guidance. This sort of analysis is quite inductive, involving multiple passes over thick field notes and interviews, and the authors assume that these documents will all be separate rather than in a database or analysis software. How to organize all of these data? "Some sociologists use visual diagrams, process flow charts, or organizational structure charts. Others have drawn maps of their settings .... we find ourselves using the tried-and-true format of an outline" (p.238). For an example, the authors provide a half-page outline. I can understand why, since the authors are expecting longer ethnographies in which researchers seek to generate coherencies from the data rather than examine it with a preexisting framework. But still, the analytical tools - and their process - are much less specified than I expected.

As you may have picked up, I spent a lot of time comparing this book to how I teach my qualitative methods classes. Based on my field's assumptions and goals, I don't think I would use this book - but at the same time, I can see how it would be a better fit for sociology than the methods I use. It's an intriguing read, and I recommend a look for anyone who is teaching qualitative research methods.

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