This blog was written by Sydney Church, a qualitative research consultant currently based in Cape Town, South Africa. She is available for remote work globally and you can contact her on firstname.lastname@example.org or through her Twitter @SlowFindings.
I recently consulted a company conducting a mixed methods evaluation on best practice for qualitative analyses. Qualitative research is a passion of mine. I love the possibility for it to look at how meanings are not within but attributed to experiences. I am drawn to how conclusions are not results but findings, and how qualitative designs do not produce hard and fast facts, but instead a way of coming to an understanding.That said, planning to communicate a way of doing this in my consulting work brought frustration. I was frustrated that methods and words used to engage researchers in situating research designs felt in-accessible. Best practice, countless research papers say, is to situate research designs within the ‘ologies’: the ontologies (the nature of being), epistemologies (the nature of how we understand being) and methodologies (why we use the methods we do). Even the explanation of these words is inaccessible. It is the same as saying best practice is to be born with privilege and complete a post-graduate degree. In this blog, I’ll explore why it’s important to situate your approach in qualitative research, and end with a practical guide for what a rigorous but accessible practice for situating qualitative research might look like.
Qualitative research can acknowledge that lived experience, values and assumptions will affect research design and outcomes. It acknowledges there are many different lenses through which we can understand the world, making it imperative to inform the audience of the lens through which you have tackled your question. Anne Marie Mol says that ‘research always has to happen ‘somewhere’. It is exploring this ‘somewhere’ that situates your practice. Reflective practices, (e.g. critical conversations with another, or writing our thoughts down), can help us uncover the assumptions, values and biases that inform our research design and figure out where we are. Reflective discussions can be more fruitful when chatting with someone different from ourselves, and avoids the echo chamber effect. It can also help inform which assumptions and values are important to include in the write up. The 1800s was an era with plenty of research producing findings lacking reflective practice. One example of this is when racism and sexism were prominent in research findings (and we are still seeing this in emerging research) with prominent scientists like Charles Darwin endorsing these kind of findings. I would argue that some reflection on the values and assumptions informing the research and consequent conclusions, may have altered these findings.
However, it is problematic when words like ontology, epistemology, and methodology are the main words we have to communicate and locate our studies. I am not saying they have no purpose or should never be used. But many researchers will not have engaged with the idea of situating a study and these words may deter them from engaging in any kind of situating at all. What’s more, I argue that rigorous reflective practice is essential to enabling multi-culturally valid findings, to emerge, which is key tenet of equitable research.
If you are interested in exploring the assumptions and values that situate your research, consider using the following framework. Engaging in these questions with individuals who work in a different sector to you, or who have a different lived experience, will provide you with the most insight. Enjoy!
Framework for situating qualitative research