Qualitative research: a precursor to science. Discuss.
Qualitative research is that form of research which seeks to ‘understand and represent other people’s experiences’ (Elliott, Fischer & Rennie, 1999) by gathering and analysing non-numeric data and includes methods such as interviews, focus groups and participant observation. In response to the question, I contend that there are three possible interpretations: a) that qualitative research is not science; b) that qualitative research precedes science; and c) that qualitative research is inferior to science. I will address the ramifications of each interpretation in turn, and then, based on this discussion, will conclude that qualitative research is not only an intrinsic part of science but that it is the most suitable approach for particular areas of investigation, namely psychological research and intervention.
a) Is qualitative research science?
If qualitative research is a precursor to science, then we must agree that it is somehow different from science. A widely accepted definition of science asserts that it is ‘the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence’, where ‘scientific methodology’ includes observation which ‘does not necessarily use mathematics as a tool’ (Science Council, 2013). Using this definition, qualitative research can be regarded as a distinct mode of scientific endeavour which, arguably, yields a more coherent understanding of the world than quantitative, or experimental, inquiry. It is worth noting that the arbitrary distinction between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ science has not only been fervently disputed (Greenhalgh & Taylor, 1997) but has also, ironically, laid bare the unique strengths of qualitative research, particularly in the behavioural sciences.
b) Does qualitative research precede science?
If we are to accept that qualitative research is part of science, then it cannot precede science. However, it is apparent that the only effective way to evaluate the essay question is to infer that ‘science’ has been used as a synonym for the experimental method. Despite its obvious limitations, this inference will be assumed from here on as it allows for a clear dismantling of the issues at hand.
It is accepted (Pope & Mays, 1995) that qualitative research methods are often employed as a preliminary line of investigation into an area of study. Researchers ask themselves broad questions not only to determine a hypotheticalframework, but also to establish a specific focus for their research. Yet qualitative research can offer rich rewards when used throughout the investigative process: for example, a researcher examining memory decline in older adults may utilise surveys to glean general trends from a population and supplement this information with semi-structured interviews with individuals, giving a deeper and more informed perspective to the study.
c) Is qualitative research inferior to science?
Despite burgeoning literature on its value, qualitative research continues to be derided or is met with scepticism. This seems to be due to the assumption that ‘scientific’ (i.e. quantitative) methods are somehow superior. Historically, qualitative research methods have been deemed to lack reliability and validity (see Barbour, 2001), yet there has been significant progress made in improving rigour, particularly in clinical settings (Malterud, 2001). However, the more important issue relates to the status that is afforded the nature of the knowledge provided by qualitative methods (Mays & Pope, 2000). While it would seem that couching results in quantitative terms renders claims more readily acceptable as ‘scientific fact’ (Black, 1994), I would argue that a process that reduces the complexity of human behaviour to purely numerical terms is not only flawed but wholly inappropriate (Silverman, 2010), and that qualitative research is the most effective scientific approach in psychology.
First, qualitative research favours a naturalistic approach and is not restricted by artificial environments. It offers an understanding of meaning and context in a way that quantitative research cannot (Green & Britten, 1998). Elaborating on the example above, a cognitive psychologist may design a recall task in order to investigate memory decline in older adults, but the findings will not illustrate what it is like to live with this condition, nor will they offer strategies for intervention.
Secondly, the rich understanding engendered by qualitative research lends itself to therapeutic intervention far more effectively than numerical explanation. It has been said that ‘personal experience often changes clinical practice more persuasively than scientific publication’ (Green & Britten, 1998). In other words, by interacting, observing and listening to a patient’s experience, a practitioner is far better equipped to offer help than would be the case if statistics were the only parameters. However, academic literature maintains an inclination towards quantitative studies, despite evidence implicating their inefficacy: in a recent study in suicidology, it was argued that quantitative methodology, which accounted for 97% of all studies published between 2005 and 2007, had taken the field into a ‘dead-end of repetitious research’ (Hjelmeland & Knizek, 2010).
Thirdly, the epistemological foundations of qualitative research are in line with the aims of behavioural science. The subjective viewpoint that qualitative research necessarily demands enriches our capacity to understand human experience and acknowledges the irrelevance of furnishing a coherent notion of absolute truth (Foucault, 1971). In practical terms, a relativist approach may offer deep insight into a patient’s experience as well as a solution to an otherwise intractable problem, such as non-adherence to medication. For instance, despite a wealth of quantitative data which pinpoints the most effective treatment for asthma, it is only when the patient’s beliefs are taken into account (‘all medication is harmful to my body’) that the real issue is identified and a therapeutic dialogue between patient and practitioner is fostered (Morgan & Watkins, 1988).
In the face of the evidence noted above, I dispute the claim that ‘qualitative research is a precursor to science’. I assert that it deserves to be recognised as a bona fide practice in science, as it seeks to comprehend the world in a systematic and evidence-based manner. Whether it is used in isolation, or alongside quantitative findings, qualitative research has the power to facilitate a deep understanding of individual experience and, importantly, to design effective intervention strategies. In the field of psychology, qualitative research represents the most valuable instrument available to us, as it constructs a framework that allows individuals to flourish; a concept that I would argue underpins the principal purpose of scientific inquiry.
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Foucault, M. (1971). L’ordre du discours. Paris: Gallimard.
Green, J., & Britten, N. (1998). Qualitative research and evidence based medicine. British Medical Journal, 316, 1230-1232.
Greenhalgh, T., & Taylor, R. (1997). How to read a paper: Papers that go beyond numbers (qualitative research). British Medical Journal, 315, 740-743.
Hjemeland, H. & Knizek, B.L. (2010). Why we need qualitative research in suicidology. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behaviour, 40, 74-79.
Malterud, K. (2001). Qualitative research: standards, challenges & guidelines. Lancet, 358, 483-88
Mays, N., & Pope, C. (2000). Assessing quality in qualitative research. British Medical Journal, 320, 50-52.
Morgan, M. & Watkins, C. (1988). Managing hypertension: beliefs and responses to medication among cultural groups. Sociology of Health and Illness, 10, 561-78
Pope, C., & Mays, N. (1995). Reaching the parts that other methods cannot reach: an introduction to qualitative methods in health and health services research. British Medical Journal, 311, 42-45
Silverman, D. (2010). Doing Qualitative Research. (3rd edition). Sage Publications: London.
What is science? (2013). Retrieved October 3, 2013, from http://www.sciencecouncil.org/definition
 In this essay, I will use the term ‘behavioural sciences’ to refer to any field which aims to investigate the mechanisms and intricacies of human behaviour, e.g. psychology