In this post I’d like to discuss the importance of qualitative analysis for facilitating sustainable futures. I don’t want to go into any great depth, just introduce the contours of the argument as a way of highlighting benefits and complexities.
First off, what is qualitative analysis? There are different definitions but they all tend to include the following:
- it is the in-depth understanding of human behaviour. Qualitative analysis concerns itself with the breadth of human behaviour and is not just focused on one or two ‘sectors’ or ‘issues’ and the key here is ‘in-depth’. The qualitative approach aims for richer and deeper understandings of that which is being studied.
- the participation of both researcher and subjects occurs in the research approach
- it is interpretative – qualitative analysis interprets observations, interviews etc using both ‘lived realities and understandings’ of participants as well as the highly developed conceptual frameworks of the researcher
- it assumes that the way we as humans interact is dependent on our social contexts.What this means is that we continually interpret what is going on and so have a series of subjective understandings. Qualitative researchers therefore look at this, rather than try and take a surface snapshot of a ‘point in time’ which quantitative research can do.
Qualitative research aims to develop a deep understanding of an organisation, an event, a process, a challenge or a solution. Here it differs from quantitative approaches which can focus on surface analysis of a bigger sample. The aim of the qualitative researcher is to dig deep and be specific, contextual, holistic and deal in understanding the complexities of a situation.
So what is it that makes qualitative research and analysis so important? To my mind there are a few things.
First off, life is complex. We know ourselves that we act and react to circumstances based not on a series of ‘variables’ but how we are feeling, how we understand what is going on, how we are going to be affected by something and how much power/influence we think we have to engage with it. It doesn’t necessarily matter if someone will be affected. If someone thinks they are going to be affected, even if they obviously aren’t, it will impact on what happens and how they interpret things. There’s an old saying that goes along the lines of ‘if something is thought to be real, it will be real in its consequences’. Qualitative analysis gives an opportunity to look at these contexts and interpretations.
Secondly, qualitative research is conducted in face-to-face settings between the researcher and the subject. This is not necessarily the artificial settings of focus groups (don’t get me started on them!) but face-to-face interviews and discussions, usually held at times and places which suit the subjects rather than the researchers. Group interviews are used as well, but they use ideas and techniques and methodologies that are very different to what are commonly known as focus group techniques.
Truthfully, how do you respond to telemarketing, questionnaires or surveys? How many times have you thought you understood the question, or thought there are two or more ways of answering a question? How many times have you rushed through answers because you needed to get away to cook, to clean, to drop kids off somewhere, to relax and unwind – to live your life? Because of the relationship established between researcher and subject, qualitative techniques overcome these shortcomings, but is very dependent on the skills/knowledge and approach of the researcher.
Thirdly, and related to the point above, qualitative research isn’t defined by pre-ordained variables. We researchers follow up things that the subjects see as important, and this often takes analysis into relevant places that we could not have foreseen. So qualitative research gets away from this kind of researcher bias and embeds the research into the issues, ideas and thoughts/suggestions of the subjects themselves. This on its own leads to a very rich set of understandings.
Fourthly, qualitative social analysis looks at relationships between the different parts of the jigsaw puzzle which is being understood. We look at the complexity of the situation, look at the ways the parts interact with one another (or don’t), make some judgements about what the implications of this are, and also assess what can be done about it. We move beyond patterns of outcomes that variables pick up through quantitative research, and say ‘This is why this is happening and this is what can be done about it’. This is probably one of the real strengths of the qualitative approaches used.
So there is a very quick introduction to qualitative analysis and why it’s important. I use it because I think it provides a much deeper understanding of what is going on. Rather than see people as passive or whose behaviour needs to be put into some pre-defined sets of variables, the qualitative approach sees people as actively engaged in things, for better or worse. The idea that people are active is an important one, but it’s also an important ethical position I as a qualitative researcher takes – we believe that the subjects of the research (who we often call ‘social actors’ to highlight their action) have capacities to do and to understand all kinds of things in very complex ways (once again, for better or worse).
Our approach and our qualitative understanding gives us insights into this, and makes the use of social sciences for sustainable solutions a dynamic process rather than a matter of developing a ‘blueprint’ where the people who it will affect have been treated as statistics whose behaviour is a set of variables, rather than as active social actors.