Thursday, December 10, 2015

Reading :: Qualitative Analysis for Social Scientists

Qualitative Analysis for Social Scientists
By Anselm Strauss

Anselm Strauss, one of the founders of grounded theory, published this handbook in 1987. I picked it up recently at the used bookstore based on the author's name.

Alas, I don't think it's nearly as useful as Strauss and Corbin's handbook on grounded theory. It explains the basics of GT, including a list of the basic elements (p.23), and it does a nice job of describing what I sometimes call the believing-doubting game: "the experienced analyst learns to play the game of believing everything and believing nothing—at this point—leaving himself or herself as open as the coding itself" (p.29). It also clarifies the relationships among open, axial, selective, and in vivo coding (Ch.1 and 3), although I think these might be explained differently from Strauss and Corbin. (I'll have to check.)

Honestly, the more I read in this explanation of grounded theory, the more I remembered what I don't like about GT. GT aims to develop theory, so the approach is about sifting through codes to find the principles on which the theory will be built, and that requires more single-mindedness than qualitative research based on preexisting theory (let's call that QRPT). QRPT lets you test, complicate, and push back against someone else's theory; GT is more like searching for the key that will unlock this particular case. Perhaps I'm not convinced that such a key exists.

This book also suggests extremely close reading. In one example, the author describes a seminar in which the professor and students begin reading a transcript. They begin with the interviewee's first sentence: "Once I'm in the shower..." Then they spend an hour talking about the first two words, one word at a time (pp.57-58). This is close reading x1000, and I am deeply skeptical of the proposition that exhausting the interpretations of individual words can help us to better understand the utterance as a whole. Certainly such an approach makes it difficult to actually analyze multiple interviews.

The book has useful advice on memos, coding, and visual displays (network diagrams and matrices), all focusing on developing theory. The author also includes a flow diagram summarizing the scholar's reflective process (p.209).

On the other hand, the book could have been much shorter if the author had edited the copious (and I use that word with restraint) examples from the illustrative study and the transcripts in which the author led his graduate class in interpreting these examples.

Overall, yes, this book is useful in explaining the concepts and application of GT. But I recommend the Strauss and Corbin book over this one. It covers much the same ground, but more parsimoniously and engagingly.

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