Start Geo Dictionary | Overview | Topics | Groups | Categories | Bookmark this page.
geology dictionary - geography encyclopedia  
Full text search :        
   A   B   C   D   E   F   G   H   I   J   K   L   M   N   O   P   Q   R   S   T   U   V   W   X   Y   Z   #   



qualitative methods

  A set of tools developed to pursue the epistemological mandate of the philosophies of meaning (see epistemology). Qualitative methods have been developed through a variety of research traditions and in a range of disciplinary contexts. They became popular within geography as the quantitative revolution gave way to more humanistic concerns (see humanistic geography). They signal a recognition of what Cloke et al. (1991) call \'the peopling of human geography\'. This recognition quickly gained currency among the research community and has also been the subject of enthusiastic debate on the teaching curriculum (Lee, 1992; Gerber and Williams, 1996).

Qualitative methods are concerned with how the world is viewed, experienced and constructed by social actors. They provide access to the motives, aspirations and power relationships that account for how places, people, and events are made and represented. Such methods include: (i) in-depth open-ended interviews with groups and individuals (see also focus group); (ii) direct engagement with subjects and their lifeworld through participant observation and related ethnographic techniques (see ethnography), which may be implemented by individuals or teams of researchers; and (iii) the interpretation of a variety of \'texts\' including landscapes, archival materials (diaries, reports, minutes of meetings), maps, literature and visual images.

Qualitative interviews may be used to elicit personal life histories, community biographies and a range of information that is relevant to the understanding of human action and experience. The aim is not to collate typical responses to pre-defined questions from a random sample, or to generalize about the views of a population, but rather to record in complex detail the opinions and ideas of a relatively small number of individuals or groups who may have been selected systematically for the light they can cast on a particular area of sociological concern. Such in-depth interviews are normally taped and transcribed, prior to analysis. A debate has, however, developed over the pros and cons of using computer-assisted methods for coding and retrieving the results (Crang et al., 1997).

There are several software packages capable of formalizing, summarizing and abstracting information from machine-readable text data. These provide a way of categorizing and manipulating qualitative data without losing the texture and detail of what was actually said. They reduce dependence on researchers\' memories; facilitate the involvement of analysts who were not present at the interview or coding stage; and provide convenient access to the spread of ideas within the data set. Critics, however, question the motivation and justification for objectifying qualitative materials in this way, arguing that such procedures reproduce the problems of formalization and decontextualization which qualitative methods were designed to overcome.

Methods of engagement and encounter range from passive observation and personal reflection on a series of events or a social situation, through routine participation to active intervention in the life and work of an individual or community (see Cook and Crang, 1995). These approaches regard the social world not as something pre-existing and awaiting discovery, but as something dynamic and changeable, always in the process of becoming — of being constructed through a web of cultural, political and economic relationships (see symbolic interactionism). The emphasis is on the importance of understanding lived experience and of reflecting on the meanings associated with everyday life. Such approaches include descriptive ethnography as well as the more rigorous case study methods discussed by Mitchell (1983).

There is some debate as to whether analysts should attempt to minimize their intrusion into the activity space of their subjects (emphasizing the role of onlooker that is implicit at one extreme of the strategy of participant observation), or whether they should abandon attempts to achieve this neutrality and instead engage more fully in a form of participatory action research which allows them to translate their own, and their subjects\', normative theories into practice. There is also a question over whether the goal of ethnographic research is one of complete empathy (which involves identifying with one\'s subjects to the extent that one can effectively speak on their behalf), or whether the aim is for a dialogue, driven forward precisely because there can never be a full understanding between analysts and their subjects, because ideas and ideals differ, and because there are always more questions to ask (Folch-Serra, 1990). Additionally, and crucially, there is the growing challenge to analysts to acknowledge the power of positionality, and to recognize the moral and ontological shortcomings of approaches which \'presume to speak for or about peoples and nations as if they were outside of the contemporary world system, refusing to recognize that our ability to construct them as such is rooted in a larger system of domination\' (Katz 1992, p. 495; cf. ethics, geography and).

It has been argued that the distinction between observation and intervention is to an extent immaterial, because any changes resulting from strategies of encounter are likely to have less effect on the studied community than on the analyst\'s \'self\' (Smith, 1988). This has prompted geographers to step beyond the philosophies of meaning towards the practice of psychoanalysis in order to exploit the full potential of qualitative research (see psychoanalytic theory, geography and). Certainly, an understanding of how \'selves\' relate to \'others\' is crucial to our handling of the \'double hermeneutic\' which provides qualitative methods with their most formidable challenge (i.e. with the challenge of recognizing that the end-point of qualitative research is an analyst\'s construction of other people\'s constructions of the meaning systems within which they operate — a problem which is perhaps best, if rather unconventionally, illustrated by Mitchell, 1974).

The interpretation of texts has an important place in the lexicon of qualitative methods. Texts need to be interpreted because what we read and what we see are representations rather than realities. maps, for example, usually appear to be scientific abstractions of geographical facts. However, as Harley (1988) and others have shown, by reflecting on the content of maps and on the circumstances in which they are produced, it very quickly becomes clear that maps are ways of representing, interpreting, commenting on, and indeed exercising political geography.

\'Fictional\' texts may be equally important in the production of geographical knowledge. Said (1993) alerts us to the way in which struggles over space and resources are also struggles to control the collective imagination. Literature, therefore, may be fictional, but interpreted critically, it is exposed as a key force shaping a received wisdom or shared common sense about the ordering of society and space — a common sense which powerful groups have an interest in manipulating. Story-telling, like mapping, exerts a powerful influence on metageographical knowledge. Other cultural products can similarly be interrogated for what they reveal about the power struggles that shape knowledge and understanding about the world. The use of language, for example, has a role in making places (Tuan 1991); studies of painting, photography and film direct attention towards a growing range of visual methods (see vision and visuality); and a relatively new culturally and politically informed interest in musical texts demands an appreciation of the history, geography and social production of listening practices (see music, geography of). Ways of seeing, ways of speaking, ways of writing and ways of hearing are culturally coded and contain important clues to the political and economic circumstances of the societies that produced them. Methods for interpreting images, words, writings and sounds provide a gateway into these cultural codes and into the political economies they permeate.

Reflecting on the power of the text has impacted not only on methods of accessing the world, but also on methods of communicating the results of the encounter. Recognizing that textual representations create rather than reflect the world of experience, some analysts adopt textual strategies which are explicitly designed to get a particular message across. Allan Pred\'s (1995) use of literary montage — the juxtaposition of verbal and visual fragments to tell the story of European modernities — is one example. He calls his work \'heretical empiricism\' which he claims \'brings the past into tension-filled constellation with the present moment\' in a way which \'speaks to the here and now in strikingly unexpected but potentially meaningful and politically charged ways\' (p. 24).

The various qualitative methods outlined above have some things in common. Their common theme is a preoccupation with shared systems of meaning; their common project is subjective understanding rather than statistical description; and their primary goal is an ability to empathize, communicate and (in some cases) emancipate, rather than to generalize, predict and control. Generally, there is a dynamic relationship between theory-building and empirical inquiry wherein observable/ sense-able facts are neither wholly independent of theory nor wholly determined by it. Most qualitative approaches therefore depend on intensive empirical research, but recognize that there is no \'real\' world that exists independently of the relationships between researchers and their subjects. These relationships are a prerequisite for achieving the intersubjectivity which leads to an appreciation of the constitution of social life. They also provide a basis for the clarification and interpretation of meaning, thus linking qualitative methods to the project of hermeneutics.

Despite these similarities, the means and ends of the various qualitative approaches to human geography do vary. This is one consequence of the diverse philosophies that the field embraces (see existentialism; idealism; Marxist geography; phenomenology; postcolonialism; post-structuralism; pragmatism). However, although purists might argue that any one philosophy has its own ontological presumptions, its distinctive epistemological mandate and its particular methodological toolbox, the majority of qualitative research in human geography has always mixed its methods. In recent years this \'mixed methods\' approach has received renewed and explicit attention (Rocheleau, 1995). Research which combines different qualitative methods and exploits the complementarity of qualitative and quantitative findings looks poised to gain a new respectability within the discipline. This respectability, however, is tempered by a well-established, if rapidly growing, concern about the standards by which qualitative research should be executed and judged (Smith, 1984). A new preoccupation with standards for evaluating qualitative research has been particularly notable in health services research (Popay et al., 1998; cf. health and health care, geography of), and is likely to become of increasing importance for qualitative human geography (Baxter and Eyles, 1997). (SJS)

References Baxter, J. and Eyles, J. 1997: Evaluating qualitative research in social geography: establishing \'rigour\' in interview analysis. Transactions, Institute of British Geographers NS 22: 505-25. Cloke, P., Philo, C. and Sadler, D. 1991: Approaching human geography. London: Paul Chapman. Cook, I. and Crang, M. 1995: Doing ethnographies. Concepts and Techniques in Modern Geography no. 58. Norwich: Geo Books. Crang, M.A., Hudson, A.C. and Reimer, S.M. 1997: Software for qualitative research: 1. Prospectus and overview. Environment and Planning A 29: 771-87. Folch-Serra, M. 1990: Place, voice, space: Mikhail Bakhtin\'s dialogical landscape. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 8: 255-74. Gerber, R. and Williams, M. 1996: Qualitative research in geographical education. Armidale: University of New England Press for the IGU Commission on Geographical Education. Harley, J.B. 1988: Maps, knowledge and power. In D. Cosgrove and S. Daniels, The iconography of landscape. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 277-312. Katz, C. 1992: All the world is staged: intellectuals and the projects of ethnography. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 10: 495-510. Lee, R., ed., 1992: Teaching qualitative geography: a JGHE written symposium. Journal of Geography in Higher Education 16 (2) Special issue: 123-84. Mitchell, J.C. 1974: Perceptions of ethnicity and ethnic behaviour: an empirical exploration. In A. Cohen, ed., Urban ethnicity. London: Tavistock, 1-35. Mitchell, J.C. 1983: The logic of the analysis of social situations and cases. Sociological Review 31: 187-211. Popay, J., Rogers, A. and Williams, G. 1998: Rationale and standards for the systematic review of qualitative literature in health services research. Qualitative Health Service Research 8: 341-51. Pred, A. 1995: Recognising European modernities. A montage of the present. London and New York: Routledge. Rocheleau, D.E. 1995: Maps, numbers, text and context: mixing methods in feminist political ecology. The Professional Geographer 47: 458-66. Said, E. 1993: Culture and imperialism. London: Chatto and Windus. Smith, S.J. 1984: Practising humanistic geography. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 74: 353-74. Smith, S.J. 1988: Constructing local knowledge: the analysis of self in everyday life. In J. Eyles and D.M. Smith, eds, Qualitative methods in human geography. Cambridge: Polity Press, 17-38. Tuan, Y.-F. 1991: Language and the making of place: a narrative-descriptive approach. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 81: 684-96.

Suggested Reading Baxter and Eyles (1997). Cook and Crang (1995). Lee (1992).



Bookmark this page:



<< former term
next term >>
quality of life


Other Terms : sustainable development | geographical imagination | memory, popular
Home |  Add new article  |  Your List |  Tools |  Become an Editor |  Tell a Friend |  Links |  Awards |  Testimonials |  Press |  News |  About
Copyright ©2009 GeoDZ. All rights reserved.  Terms of Use  |  Privacy Policy  |  Contact Us