Qualitative Research LASS seminar “Barriers to Environmental Sustainability – Barriers to Interdisciplinary Research” – 1 February 2010 Dr Milena Büchs
Overview • Ontological and epistemological aspects • Characteristics of qualitative research • Relationship between data and theory • Methods of data collection • Qualitative research questions in relation to the Energy and Communities Call • Relationship between qualitative and quantitative research
Ontological and epistemological aspects of social research • Objectivism vs. constructivism (of what nature is the (social) “reality”?) • “Positivism” vs. interpretivism (how can we acquire knowledge of the “social”?) • Alternative approaches like “critical realism”, synthesising constructivism and realism
Positivism • Application of natural scientific methods to the social world • Related to objectivism: Social phenomena exist as “external facts”, independent from social interaction or perception • Social facts can be collected in a “neutral” way, not influenced by theories and norms • Theory development through hypothesis testing – uncovering “social laws”
Interpretivism quote • “The world of nature as explored by the natural scientist does not ‘mean’ anything to molecules, atoms and electrons. But the observational field of the social scientist – social reality – has a specific meaning and relevance structure of the beings living, acting, and thinking within it”. Schutz, A (1962) Collected Papers I: The problem of social reality, The Hague: Martinus Nijhof, p. 69
Interpretivism • Is critical of the application of natural science methods to the social world. Social phenomena have a different character than “natural” objects • Based on constructivism – assumption that the social reality is generated through social interaction • Social actors attach meanings to and generate interpretations of the social reality They act on the basis of those meanings social reality is therefore “co-generated” by social actors • Researchers seek to understand the “social reality” by investigating subjective accounts of social action • Examples: authority, status, institutions, norms, culture, etc.
Characteristics of qualitative research • Interested in the properties of phenomena, not quantities • “Seeing through the eyes of those being studied” (Bryman) • “Thick” description, context/holism • Reflexivity (re the researcher’s position) • Theory generation rather than theory testing • Case-based (and/or comparative) reasoning rather
Relationship between data and theory • Generalisability of qualitative research results? • Grounded Theory • Abduction – combination of induction and deduction • Constant back and forth between theory development and data collection/analysis • Aim is to develop a range of “concepts, categories, properties and hypotheses” different levels of abstraction. Categories can be causes, effects, dimensions, etc. • Qualitative methods can identify causal factors, particularly in early stages of a research process • Important role of context
Generalisation • “Qualitative research should produce explanations or arguments which are generalizable in some way, or have some demonstrable wider resonance. (…) Qualitative researchers should [not] be satisfied with producing explanations which are idiosyncratic or particular only to the limited empirical parameters of their study, not least because this is to underplay the great capacity of qualitative methods to facilitate cross-contextual generalities” (Mason 2002: 8).
Methods of data collection and analysis • Qualitative interviews and focus groups • Ethnography / participant observation • Qualitative document analysis and visual methods • Approaches to sampling • Convenience vs. theoretical sampling • Coding – different stages of abstraction/interpretation development of “arguments”
What is qualitative research “good” at? • Identify context-specific features, factors, mechanisms, etc. interested in exploring the variation that is “hidden” behind “averages” • Develop a “holistic” understanding of complex settings • Contribution to the identification of relevant “independent variables” and their “operationalisation” • Conversely, one can explore relationships found in quantitative data in more depth to “understand” them • Examining developments (e.g. historical studies, policy studies, case studies, biographies, etc.) • Theory generation (but not theory testing)
Energy and Communities Call • Energy literacy • How do different groups in society perceive energy related issues? • What are the main reasons for local opposition against new renewable energy infrastructure? • Transforming lifestyles and practices • Qualitative examination of social patterns of lifestyle networks and the meanings that individuals in those networks attach to those lifestyles from a sustainability point of view • Qualitative investigation into the lifestyle changes people would or would not make and why, what are the barriers?
Energy and Communities Call • Community and social movements • What role can TSOs play in diffusing alternative views on wellbeing / innovate practices? • How are innovative solutions generated in community settings? • Qualitative comparison of the factors for success or failure of community renewable projects? • Policy and governance • How do citizens and TSOs interact with the government at different levels (and what consequences does this have for spreading innovative practices)? • In-depth interviews with policy makers about the barriers to the adoption of more enabling policy frameworks? • Deliberative opinion polling re attitudes and acceptance of alternative policy frameworks
Literature • Benton T; Craib I (2001) Philosophy of Social Science, Basingstoke: Palgrave • Bryman A (2008) Social Research Methods 3rd ed, Oxford: OUP • Flick, U (2009) Introduction to Qualitative Research 4th ed, London: Sage • Glaser B; Strauss A (1967) The Discovery of Grounded Theory, Hawthorne: Aldine Publishing • Mason, J (2002) Qualitative Researching, London: Sage • May, T (1998) Knowing the Social World, Buckingham: OUP • Moses J, Knutsen T (2007) Ways of Knowing, Basingstoke: Palgrave