Qualitative Research, Part III

What are some strengths and weaknesses of qualitative research?

The primary strength and weakness of qualitative research is its unbounded nature.  From a positive point of view, this allows quantitative research much great flexibility to investigate and illuminate areas, subjects, and situations impenetrable to other research methods.  Qualitative research can tell the reader how people feel, really feel. Quantitative research can record which feeling they checked off in a box on a survey.  However, qualitative research can tell us in their own words, with their own pauses and hesitations, what is passing through their minds at a particular time. It can use these single observations to weave an experiential tapestry, capturing the collective experiences of a time, a group, or an event.  It is modern in the sense that it values the individual and includes our collective humanity, even that of the authors, into the process and results.  It is more sensitive, both in the colloquial meaning and in the sense that it can follow the authors’ instincts to a conclusion or portrayal of life that might elude the more rigorous and arbitrary limits of conventional research.  Done correctly, it borders on great literature, capturing the unique human experiences and holding them still full of life and energy for the reader to see and appreciate.

That all sounds terribly good, and it is in the same way that the best form of government is a benevolent dictatorship.  The problem with all this open-endedness and flexibility is that there are few rules to constrain how they are used, to what purpose, or even where the borders of legitimate science lie.  Worse still, the recent trend is to polarize, politicize, and to turn to deliberate advocacy under the guise of research, “research” which still travels under the concept of science.  I am not prepared to make that leap.  It is one thing for me when a human follows his or her heart to a story of an event supported by the gathered words of the participants.  The Pearl may not be the only way to view La Paz, Mexico but it changes each of us in important ways by evoking facets our shared humanity and human experiences in the lives of the people it portrays.  However, Steinbeck was a writer of fiction and even as such, he cared more for the story than the advocacy.  My main problem with qualitative research is that not only does it have little by way of structures to make sure it follows the scientific demand of impartiality, it is increasingly denying any need or expectation of impartiality.

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