Commentary on Ethnography, Observational Research, and Narrative Inquiry
Advantages of Qualitative Observational Research
Qualitative observational research, especially ethnographies, can:
- Account for the complexity of group behaviors
- Reveal interrelationships among multifaceted dimensions of group interactions
- Provide context for behaviors
Narrative inquiry,especially ethnographic, can:
- Reveal qualities of group experience in a way that other forms of research cannot
- Help determine questions and types of follow-up research
Observational study can:
- Reveal descriptions of behaviors in context by stepping outside the group
- Allow qualitative researchers to identify recurring patterns of behavior that participants may be unable to recognize
Qualitative research expands the range of knowledge and understanding of the world beyond the researchers themselves. It often helps us see why something is the way it is, rather than just presenting a phenomenon. For instance, a quantitative study may find that students who are taught composition using a process method receive higher grades on papers than students taught using a product method. However, a qualitative study of composition instructors could reveal why many of them still use the product method even though they are aware of the benefits of the process method.
Disadvantages of Qualitative Observational Research
- Researcher bias can bias the design of a study.
- Researcher bias can enter into data collection.
- Sources or subjects may not all be equally credible.
- Some subjects may be previously influenced and affect the outcome of the study.
- Background information may be missing.
- Study group may not be representative of the larger population.
- Analysis of observations can be biased.
- Any group that is studied is altered to some degree by the very presence of the researcher. Therefore, any data collected is somewhat skewed. (Heisenburg Uncertainty Principle)
- It takes time to build trust with participants that facilitates full and honest self-representation. Short term observational studies are at a particular disadvantage where trust building is concerned.
- The quality of the data alone is problematic. (Lauer and Asher) (1988): Ethnographic research is time consuming, potentially expensive, and requires a well trained researcher
- Too little data can lead to false assumptions about behavior patterns. Conversely, a large quantity of data may not be effectively be processed
- Data Collector's first impressions can bias collection
- Narrative inquiries do not lend themselves well to replicability and are not generalizable.
- Narrative Inquiries are considered unreliable by experimentalists. However, ethnographies can be assessed and compared for certain variables to yield testable explanations; this is as close as ethnographic research gets to being empirical in nature.
- Qualitative research is neither prescriptive nor definite. While it provides significant data about groups or cultures and prompts new research questions, narrative studies do not attempt to answer questions, nor are they predictive of future behaviors.
The Qualitative/Quantitative Debate
In Miles and Huberman's 1994 book Qualitative Data Analysis, quantitative researcher Fred Kerlinger is quoted as saying, "There's no such thing as qualitative data. Everything is either 1 or 0" (p. 40). To this another researcher, D. T. Campbell, asserts, "All research ultimately has a qualitative grounding" (p. 40). This back and forth banter among qualitative and quantitative researchers is "essentially unproductive," according to Miles and Huberman. They and many other researchers agree that these two research methods need each other more often than not. But, because qualitative data typically involves words and quantitative data involves numbers, there are some researchers who feel that one is better (or more scientific) than the other. Another major difference between the two is that qualitative research is inductive and quantitative research is deductive. In qualitative research, a hypothesis is not needed to begin research. However, all quantitative research requires a hypothesis before research can begin.
Another major difference between qualitative and quantitative research deals with the underlying assumptions about the role of the researcher. In quantitative research, the researcher is ideally an objective observer who neither participates in nor influences what is being studied. In qualitative research, however, it is thought that the researcher can learn the most by participating and/or being immersed in a research situation. These basic underlying assumptions of both methodologies guide and sequence the types of data collection methods employed.
Although there are clear differences between qualitative and quantitative approaches, some researchers maintain that the choice between using qualitative or quantitative approaches actually has less to do with methodologies than it does with positioning oneself within a particular discipline or research tradition. The difficulty in choosing a method is compounded by the fact that research is often affiliated with universities and other institutions. The findings of research projects often guide important decisions about specific practices and policies. Choices about which approach to use may reflect the interests of those conducting or benefiting from the research and the purposes for which the findings will be applied. Decisions about which kind of research method to use may also be based on the researcher's own experience and preference, the population being researched, the proposed audience for findings, time, money and other resources available (Hathaway, 1995).
Some researchers believe that qualitative and quantitative methodologies cannot be combined because the assumptions underlying each tradition are so vastly different. Other researchers think they can be used in combination only by alternating between methods; qualitative research is appropriate to answer certain kinds of questions in certain conditions and quantitative is right for others. And some researchers think that both qualitative and quantitative methods can be used simultaneously to answer a research question.
To a certain extent, researchers on all sides of the debate are correct; each approach has its drawbacks. Quantitative research often "forces" responses or people into categories that might not "fit" in order to make meaning. Qualitative research, on the other hand, sometimes focuses too closely on individual results and fails to make connections to larger situations or possible causes of the results. Rather than discounting either approach for its drawbacks, researchers should find the most effective ways to incorporate elements of both to ensure that their studies are as accurate and thorough as possible.
It is important for researchers to realize that qualitative and quantitative methods can be used in conjunction with each other. In a study of computer-assisted writing classrooms, Snyder (1995) employed both qualitative and quantitative approaches. The study was constructed according to guidelines for quantitative studies; the computer classroom was the "treatment" group and the traditional pen and paper classroom was the "control" group. Both classes contained subjects with the same characteristics from the population sampled. Both classes followed the same lesson plan and were taught by the same teacher in the same semester. The only variable used was the absence or presence of the computers. Although Snyder set this study up as an "experiment," she used many qualitative approaches to supplement her findings. She observed both classrooms on a regular basis as a participant-observer and conducted several interviews with the teacher both during and after the semester. However, there were problems in using this approach. The strict adherence to the same syllabus and lesson plans for both classes and the restricted access of the control group to the computers may have put some students at a disadvantage. Snyder also notes that in retrospect she should have used case studies of the students to further develop her findings. Although her study had certain flaws, Snyder insists that researchers can simultaneously employ qualitative and quantitative methods if studies are planned carefully and carried out conscientiously.
Newkirk (1991) argues for qualitative research in English education from a political point of view. He says that not only can teachers more readily identify with and accept such particularized studies, but also the work of observing-participants, who report classroom "lore," gives practitioners a voice in the conversations informing their discipline. In addition, he asserts that experimental research tends to support the hierarchical structure of education policy, which discounts the experience of practitioners by privileging the alleged objectivity and generalizability of experimental designs and removing research from context. Additionally, Newkirk points out that "ethnographic...research works from fundamentally different assumptions about knowledge." Essentially, ethnography's epistemological orientation is phenomenological (observation based) while experimental research's is ontological (investigates the metaphysical or essential nature of something).
Ethical Considerations in Ethnography, Observational Research, and Narrative Inquiry
Ethical issues should always be considered when undertaking data analysis. Because the nature of qualitative observational research requires observation and interaction with groups, it is understandable why certain ethical issues may arise. Miles and Huberman (1994) list several issues that researchers should consider when analyzing data. They caution researchers to be aware of these and other issues before, during, and after the research had been conducted. Some of the issues involve the following:
- Informed consent (Do participants have full knowledge of what is involved?)
- Harm and risk (Can the study hurt participants?)
- Honesty and trust (Is the researcher being truthful in presenting data?)
- Privacy, confidentiality, and anonymity (Will the study intrude too much into group behaviors?)
- Intervention and advocacy (What should researchers do if participants display harmful or illegal behavior?)