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Qualitative Research - Common Threads Of Qualitative Inquiry

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Qualitative research is methodological and theoretically diverse (see Denzin and Lincoln; Silverman, 1993, 2000), so any portrait done in broad strokes will blur crucial differences. At the same time, there are common threads that run throughout qualitative inquiry (see Gubrium and Holstein, 1997). The first is a working skepticism with respect to what everyone ostensibly ‘‘knows.’’ This derives from a distrust of surface descriptions and facile explanations. Commonsense wisdom and even fixed-variable analysis in the social sciences often fail to appreciate the often hidden nuances of social life. Qualitative research explores the complexities. This results in the development of strategies of critical inquiry, from debunking what is commonly thought to be true and thereby exposing the shortcomings of everyday understandings, to empathizing as completely as possible with those being studied and appreciating the surprising richness of their lives. Across the board, the researcher implicitly challenges what is conventionally known. Arlie Hochschild’s book The Unexpected Community (1973) is exemplary in this regard; as the title suggests, this qualitative study found ‘‘community’’ to thrive in a residential setting for older people where commonsense (and some academic theories of aging) predicted just the opposite. David Unruh’s Invisible Lives brings similar sensibilities to the study of the social worlds of the aged.

The skepticism that galvanizes qualitative inquiry prompts qualitative researchers to scrutinize social life at close range, to place themselves in direct contact with, or in the immediate proximity of, the lived world of those being studied. A second common thread is an abiding commitment to close scrutiny. Qualitative researchers study things ‘‘up close’’ in order to understand and document the organization of social life as it is practiced. The goal has been to look carefully at social phenomena to view in detail what other forms of observation may have ‘‘missed.’’ The tendency is also to begin ‘‘where people are’’ and work upwards toward generalizations from there rather than to start with large-scale structures and work down to the level of everyday life.

While methods of close scrutiny vary, the goals are basically the same: to see the commonplace as important in its own right, to represent the previously unknown in fine detail and rich texture. Qualitative researchers typically emphasize the subtle aspects of experience, deferring if not eschewing broad generalizations in favor of describing the particulars. Sweeping claims about the influence of social forces that often characterize nonqualitative research are likely to be softened, qualified, set aside, or replaced by more painstaking accounts of the complex ins and outs of experience. The detail is far from trivial, as qualitative researchers point out, because only close scrutiny can give voice to the significance and eloquence of the ordinary.

A third commonality is that qualitative research is committed to investigating social life in process, as it unfolds in practice. Qualitative researchers typically conceive of the social world as fluid, contingent, and always-emerging. Correspondingly, they see people as active agents of their affairs, engaged in constructing the worlds they live in. There is an enduring appreciation for the working subject who actively injects life into, and shapes, his or her experience.

Fourth, because the active subject and his or her point of view are central to qualitative research, it has an abiding appreciation for subjectivity. For qualitative researchers, the conception of the subject and the realm of subjective experience are integral features of social life. Qualitative researchers acknowledge that the researcher is a subject in his or her own right; he or she is present in the same world as those studied, and actively participates in the formulation of what comes to be regarded as data.

Qualitative researchers have long resisted the view that the investigation of the subjective side of experience is imprecise or unsystematic, and have now assembled a massive technical literature attesting to this (see Denzin and Lincoln). The growing technical sophistication and rigor does not, however, necessitate an estrangement from subjectivity, inasmuch as rigorous and careful analysis must be applied to the subjective world as much as to any domain of inquiry. Reluctance to standardize data collection and an unwillingness to sacrifice depth for generality are matters of analytic necessity, not technical inadequacies. A world comprised of meanings, interpretations, feelings, talk, and interaction must be scrutinized on its own terms.

Fifth, qualitative research honors perspective. This often means documenting diverse, even competing, versions of experience, such as describing how something looks or feels from various subjects’ viewpoints. Indeed, portraying the world from alternate viewpoints has been a goal of qualitative research from its inception, and continues to this day in the work of contemporary, even postmodern, researchers. As different as qualitative researchers’ descriptions might be, the common thread here is the recognition that subjectivity is perspectival.

Finally, a sixth commonality is that qualitative researchers maintain a steadfast tolerance for complexity. While this is sometimes mistaken for analytic fuzziness or a reluctance to generalize, it more accurately reflects the researcher’s orientation to the lived intricacies of everyday interaction. A skeptical orientation to the commonplace, a commitment to the close scrutiny of social action, the recognition of variety and detail, the focus on process, and the appreciation of subjectivity all, in one form or another, suggest that everyday life is not readily described in a simple, straightforward manner. This can hardly be captured by the operational designation of variables, social forces, and the like, which is typical of quantitative inquiry. A tolerance for complexity militates against the impulse to gloss over troublesome uncertainties, anomalies, irregularities, and inconsistencies in the interest of comprehensive, totalizing explanation. As a matter of principle, qualitative inquiry accommodates and pursues the problematic finding or the unanticipated occurrence.

These common threads intertwine into an abiding concern for meaning. Qualitative research typically regards social life as a vast interpretive process in which people guide themselves by defining the objects, events, and situations which they encounter. With respect to the aging experience, qualitative research focuses on the ordinary ways persons experience time in relation to their age. This comprises a field of meanings centered on how people themselves interpret and discern what it is like to grow older, face the challenges of aging, deal with those who are aging, and simply experience aging in today’s world. A leading distinction is the difference between subjective aging or how old one feels, and chronological age or how many years one has lived.

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