There are a number of factors that contribute to effectively conducting qualitative research. It is not only choosing the right field setting or well-formulated research question that counts, but also the reliability of the evidence and the skills of the interviewer make tremendous difference to the outcome of a qualitative research.
”Qualitative research involves the scrutiny of social phenomena.”(Gubrium and Holstein 1997, p.11-14). Qualitative researchers look beyond the ordinary and try to understand how participants understand themselves or their world.. Unlike in quantitative research, when conducting a qualitative study, the researcher is considered as the main instrument for data collection, data analysis, and data interpretation (Paisley & Reeves, 2001). The next few pages will critically analyse the qualitative research articles of ‘Russell, L. (2005) It’s a question of trust: balancing the relationship between students and teachers in ethnographic fieldword’ and ‘Kamenou, N. (2008) Reconsidering Work-Life balance debates Challenging Limited Understandings of the ‘Life’ Component in the Context of Ethnic Minority Women’s Experiences(British Journal of Management, Vol. 19, S99-S109).
1. RUSSELL, L. ‘IT’S A QUESTION OF TRUST: BALANCING THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN STUDENTS AND TEACHERS IN ETHNOGRAPHIC FIELDWORK.’
THE AUTHOR IS A “YOUNG ETHNOGRAPHER RESEARCHING TEENAGERS” (P.193). WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES HER AGE MAKE?
In this particular field study, the age of the ethnographer Russell, L. had both a positive as well as a negative impact on the research. This field research was conducted in a naturalism way, this means that the researcher inquires the lives and perspectives of the targeted population as accurate as possible in their natural setting (Gubrium and Holstein, 1997). The researcher Lisa Russell was a young, novice, female, white, northern English ethnographer investigating the sensitive topic of student resistance (Russell, 2005:181). Spradley (1979) refers to ethnography as “the work of describing a culture” with the aims “to understand another way of life from the native point of view”.
To get more trust and reliable data of the “studied culture”, the more similarities of characteristics between the ethnographer and the researched would be an advantage because this could decrease the differences between them. With this as well, the researcher could prepare herself to adapt to the situation that she would be researching. Lisa Russell has the great advantage of her gender, nationality, use of language, size and age to naturally blend in as a member of the studied group, because ethnography relies heavily on observations of interactions and interviews with participants in naturally occurring situation.
“My age helped me engage in and indeed understand discussions” (p.194). Making use of her “naivety and young age”, her own personal “reserved” disposition and her figure of being “smallness in height and build” (p.195), which is not much difference with the teenagers (Lisa mentioned her age is between 23-24 at time of researched), these personal characteristics of the ethnographer has resulted in interaction and a matter of trust that she has experienced with the students. Lisa Russell adapted the role transaction of moving into least adult role in a different way (p.193).
As she recaptures her secondary years were not far behind her current phase of life, Lisa was not frightened with certain things she perceived as she was able to relate to her own schooling ‘familiarity’ during those secondary years when she describe “my novice naivety acted as a benefit when trying to manage impulsive and sometimes shocking behaviour of students” (Russell, p.182). Age also contributed to the way students react to the ethnographer along with what he or she is and is not allowed to do (Hammersley and Atkinson, 1983). This characteristic has worked in Lisa favor, as the students felt unthreatened and therefore more open to express themselves. Also because shadowing and observation is more reliable and efficient if a researcher is unnoticeable and does not affect the behavior of the focus group.
Whereas in this study, Lisa’s age is at advantage to observe the researched group and efficiently gather data collection, as a young ethnographer she will face the difficulties of being Lisa being inexperienced, since a crucial characteristic of ethnography is the characteristic of “holistic” which means interpreting the data as a whole in order to get a basis for explanation about the gathered information. Assuming that this is her first research as an ethnographer carrying out a field study, subjectivity is a limitation of ethnography. The way ethnographers interpret the field study experience will vary a lot. There is not a set list of answers to choose from but rather the use of notes made by the investigator and later interpreted and categorized by the investigator.
The limitation of ethnographic research with reliability is caused by the fact that ethnographic research occurs in natural setting and focuses on processes (Wiersma 1986 and Burns 1994). The accurate replication is very difficult to achieve because an event in natural setting cannot be reproduced. While reflecting to Wiersma (1986) and Burns (1994) about the difficulties of accurate replication of findings, Lisa’s age could be a drawback, because she is a novice ethnographer with limited experience and her abilities to process and evaluate her findings and evidence (interviews, field notes and recordings) could be subjective and a challenging job for a novice.
1.2 WHEN IS A RESEARCHER NO LONGER A NOVICE? WOULD HER RESEARCH HAVE BEEN BETTER DONE BY SOMEONE WITH MORE EXPERIENCE?
A novice ethnographer is a beginner researcher who just started in the field of ethnography. Like in any other career function, practice is required to become an expert in the field of choice. To make errors and mistakes will contribute to further understanding and deeper knowledge. To my understanding, a researcher is no longer a novice when the ethnographer is able to observe and participate objectively and subjectively in a field research. Additionally the ethnographer should be able to analyze and interpret the gathered data effectively.
It is difficult to conclude whether an ethnographer with more experience would have done the research better. When considering the fact that Lisa took the role as a ‘participant as observer’ (Gold, 1958), she had an advantage of her characteristics: ”my quiet, reserved disposition and smallness in height and build influenced the way students and teachers related to me. I faded into the background. Students would often forget my presence; sometimes teachers and other students mistook me for a student.” (Russell, p.195). This shows that despite that at the time of research, Lisa was a novice researcher she was able to transform herself into the ‘participant as observer’ role, which gave her access to more insights and reliable information. The researched group and the ethnographer established a matter of trust and even build intense relationships (Russell, p.196). Hence, Lisa was able to collect observation and vision of the researched group.
“Being a qualitative researcher, one should note the important linkages between theories and methods, reviews key qualitative methodologies, and highlights challenges and the opportunities” (Gephart, 2004). Referring to Gephart (2004), one might argue that the research data evaluation would have been analyzed and linked better by an ethnographer with more experience. Though in my opinion, a more experienced ethnographer might not have been able to collect as much insight as Lisa, because the researched group might have behave differently, so if a more experienced researcher would conduct the field work, I suggest it would be best to do it covertly.
1.3 IN THIS RESEARCH PAPER WHAT DO YOU LEARN ABOUT: A) THE RESEARCH SUBJECTS AND B) THE RESEARCHER?
By critically analyzing the research paper, it informs us that the research subjects were studying at three different sites, namely: two in Birmingham and one in Sydney. As the research topic was to investigate the complex and sometimes contradictory culture(s) of student resistance to schooling (p. 181), students aged between 14-16 were selected carefully chosen by the schools.
What is significant about the researched group is that they were skeptical in the beginning when Lisa arrived; it had to be made clear that Lisa would not ”telltale”, nor report their behavior to teachers. Names like the “follower” and “leech” suggest that during the initial stages the students did not accept Russell as she shadowed them all around. But gradually she managed to gain one of the most vital aspects of the study – ‘trust’.
The researched group proved trust in Lisa because she witnessed inappropriate and illegal activities, such as damage of school property, theft and taking drugs. The fact that students did change their behavior means also that Lisa became invisible to the researched group.
What we have learned about the novice researcher is that Lisa used an adaptive approach towards the research and considered how various aspects of her personal disposition affected her entire study. “Researchers’ reflections on their actions and observations in the field, their impressions, irritations, feelings and so on, become data in their own right, forming part of the interpretation,” (Flick, 2005:6) The researcher’s ability to build relationships and develop rapport with subjects is crucial.” (Thorpe & Holt, 2008:151)
In her article, Lisa repeatedly puts an emphasis on her age and naivety, this shows that these facets of her personal characteristics contributed her to engage in discussions and activities with the students, which if she was older wouldn’t have been able to do. Her proximity to their age made it easier for both herself and the students to be able to relate and confide to each other. At the same time it was challenging for Lisa to establish the same bond with the teachers and she felt exceptionally uncomfortable in staffroom conversations. In my opinion, she put a lot of dedication and time into cognizing the narratives and behaviors of the students and failed to do the same with the teachers. Nevertheless when she progressed to the third school her “heightened confidence and greater experience’ (Russell, 2005:188) made it easier for her to relate to and interact with the teachers.
2. KAMENOU, N. (2008) RECONSIDERING WORK-LIFE BALANCE DEBATES …. BRITISH JOURNAL OF MANAGEMENT, 19 S99-S109.
2.1 THE AUTHOR APPEARS TO HAVE HAD DIFFICULTIES RECRUITING INTERVIEWEES (SEE ESPECIALLY P.S102). WHY, FOR EXAMPLE, MIGHT AN ORGANIZATION WITHDRAW “FROM THE STUDY CLAIMING “RESTRUCTURING WAS IN PROGRESS”? (P.102).
“Qualitative research interview seeks to cover both a factual and a meaning level, though it is usually more difficult to interview on a meaning level” (Kvale 1996, p.32). “Work-life balance means that individuals have ‘successfully’ segmented or integrated ‘life’ and work so as to achieve a satisfying quality of life, overall satisfaction and less strain or stress around juggling conflicting role demands.” (Blyton et al., 2006:2). “The work-life balance equation” (Kamenou, 2008:S99) is finding harmony between of a number of aspects ranging from career, obligations, family, pleasure and culture.
In this article, the researcher argues about the topic: “on ethnic minority women’s experiences of managing their work and personal lives.” (Kamenou, 2008:S99). Nicolina Kamenou, gathered data via semi structured, in depth interviews primarily with ethnic minority females. Information of ethnic minority men, white women and white men was also collected as comparability.
The researcher faced challenging difficulties in obtaining interviewees; only three out of the twenty organizations that were invited “responded positively to the invitation” (Kamenou, 2008:S102). Ensuing, one of the three organizations disengaged from the research claiming ‘restructuring was in progress’. A research by Spencer (1982) suggests that organizations may restrict access to the organization because they perceive it as a risk, which might endanger their reputation. A possible reason of withdrawal of the company is that the research topic is delicate and related to company’s policies and perspectives concerning ethnicity, culture, religion and class. By granting insights to these sensitive matters, organizations endanger themselves to harmful publicity to the organization’s reputation. A noticeable fact is that the organization that withdrew from the research ”published and considered themselves leaders in diversity” (Kamenou, p.102).
Hence, this research subject should be of high interest to the organization. Also cooperation to the research could have been positive publicity assuming that the company indeed was a ”leader in diversity”. Hence, disengagement of the organization could be a result of hidden narratives of the company, which are not supposed to be revealed. For example, Kamenou’s article reveals John’s opinions (black Caribbean, Application Manager, Heath Trust, age 34): ‘he did not dress in more traditional clothes because he is afraid that his colleagues might be threatened or have issues’ (Kamenou, p.106).
This statement made by John could be interpreted as racism within the company, which consequently could lead to a huge scandal or even a lawsuit. Thorpe & Holt (2008) argue about the importance of informed consent. Participants in a study should be informed about the research objective, participant’s rights to confidentiality and anonymity and what will happen to the data and what parties will have access to it. I believe that when people or organizations are informed about their rights of informed consent, the number of participants in a study will increase significantly. The large finance company that withdrew from the research might have participated in the research if they could get anonymity and total secureness that the companies name would not be published.
2.2 WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE PEOPLE IN ORGANIZATIONS WHERE FORMAL ACCESS HAD BEEN GRANTED AND THE “INDEPENDENT‟ GROUP?
Kamenou (2008) invited 20 organizations, of which 2 organizations accepted to participate. Additionally she invited ‘independent groups’ from personal networks so that involvement of subjects from different sectors, qualifications and occupations could enrich the data. Each group would have their own various inputs to the research, and data could be more valid. Personal networking is seen as one of the best ways to get granted access to an organization Carr and Worth (2001). The main obstacle about formal access to an organization is that there might be a matter where companies ask the employees not to unveil certain information about the company or the narratives in the organization. Subsequently there is a high possibility of fear, where the employees do not want to disclose information that could threaten their jobs.
However, if the case were that the employee was an acquaintance of the researcher, there would have been confidentiality between the researcher and the interviewee, which would make the interviewee more open and honest during the inquiries. According to Spradley (1979), people who feel comfortable, safe, and valued are more forthcoming than those who are only considered as sources of information. There is definitely a difference between the interviewed groups, in particular the data richness and disclosure of information between the “people in organization where formal access had been granted” and the “‘independent’ group…identified through personal networking” (Kamenou, 2008, p.s102).
Qualitative research interviews partly consist of open-ended questions, this allows the interviewer to question and inquire further on the answers and likewise, interviewee can share thoughts and experiences. Kamenou (2008, p.s103) argues that “the semi structured, in depth nature of interview conducted with all participants allowed them the time and space to reflect and discuss their experiences in their own words” (Harvey, 1990; O’Dwyer, 2005) and helped to reduce possible biases in the research process.
2.3 WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE AUTHOR? HOW MIGHT THE IDENTITY OF THE AUTHOR HAVE MADE A DIFFERENCE TO THE RESEARCH?
In the article the author doesn’t describe herself, neither does she mention on how she could have influenced the research. The article is different from Russell’s ethnography paper, which accentuates strongly on personal observation and self-reflexivity but less on the statistical information. Analyzing her own processes during the fieldwork, Lisa claimed; “the researcher should employ a reflexive attitude to understand how the interaction between the researcher and the researched, and the researcher’s autobiography, influence the data collected” (Russell, p. 197). The identity and background of the author does have an effect on the research outcome, involving in what is called observers’ bias. Observers’ bias is referred to as the aspect to where the researchers know the objectives or the hypotheses and consequently their knowledge affects the observations and gathered data.
Based on the understanding of the researcher about the issue, they will absorb the observations and interviews in which they are interested. It is also likely that researchers unintentionally adjust what they observe from the participants, and mold it to their own perspectives. Therefore, the potential risk is the possibility of misunderstanding or failure to present the accurate perceptions and opinion of participants about the research subject. A way to decrease observers’ bias and to overcome the risk of revealing misinterpreted data is to use additional observation methods such as blind experiments, tape records, and multi-observers. Using these ‘extra’ tools during the field study could be used as evidence of validity or reused as secondary data for another study.
After critically analyzing both articles of Russel (2005) and Kamenou (2008), I have learned that qualitative research adopts different and various knowledge claims, research strategies, and methods of data collection and analysis. If the research processes are handled carefully it could provide a deeper understanding of the research topics. Qualitative analysis compiles the study of perception, meanings, emotions and behavior, which aim to present original, truthful insights about various human and cultural phenomena. By studying the papers and participating in the seminars, I gained insight and knowledge about the difficulties and challenges faced when carrying out a field study. The various external and internal influences have a crucial impact on qualitative studies and should not be underestimated.
The article by Russel (2005) shows us a research conducted by a novice ethnographer, with emphasize on the uncertainties and challenges of her research. Contrast to Russell’s article, Kamenou’s article provides readers with her observations, interviewee’s view and personal life experience, the various responses and the causes of such behavior. I can conclude that both articles are both very interesting and significant. Despite the fact that there were some errors made during both studies, there is no fixed guideline of how to conduct a ”successful’ qualitative study. In a way we will always try to understand the unknown, even though it is obvious that every individual has its own unique behavior and perspectives.
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