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Qualitative Research - Qualitative Research Methods

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Qualitative research on the aging experience draws upon a variety of techniques and procedures (see Gubrium and Sankar). One of these is observational fieldwork. This may range from the unobtrusive observation of persons interacting in informal settings such as friendship groups, to participant observation in which the researcher is actively involved in the setting which he or she is studying, such as a retirement community. Hochschild, for example, conducted her study of what she eventually called ‘‘a community of grandmothers’’ while serving as an assistant recreation director of the senior citizen housing project. Similarly, Jaber F. Gubrium conducted participant observation in an American nursing home, focusing on the everyday ‘‘bed-and-body’’ work of the frontline staff as it related to other worlds of meaning in the home, including the administrative staff’s idealized perspective and the residents’ daily routines of passing time.

In-depth interviewing is another commonly employed qualitative technique (see Gubrium and Holstein, 2002). In contrast to survey research or other forms of ‘‘forced choice’’ questioning, qualitative interviewing is more ‘‘openended,’’ allowing the interviewer and the interviewee to participate in the development of responses (see Holstein and Gubrium). Such interviews encourage participants to explore the complexity of the lives and experiences under consideration. For example, Kathy Charmaz’s in-depth study of the experience of chronic illness among older adults documented the surprising daily alterations of the meaning of being ill. Frequently, researchers combine interviewing with observation in what might be called ‘‘ethnographic interviewing.’’ Hochschild’s fieldwork, for example, also called upon both open-ended interviewing and careful observation to reveal highly variegated relationships and statuses in the community being studied.

Interviewing may elicit many forms of data. Ethnographic interviews typically supply native accounts and understandings of what is going on in a particular setting. In-depth interviews strive for detailed, richly textured accounts and descriptions of the experiences of individuals. Sometimes interview responses come in the form of life stories (see Gubrium, 1993). Life story interviews themselves may be treated as different sorts of data. They may be viewed as a means of discovering the objective facts of an individual’s life, but increasingly they have been utilized to document how the course of life is socially constructed (Holstein and Gubrium, 2000). Life story interviews reveal the perceptions, values, goals, and understandings of persons through time.

Lately, narrative analysis (see Riessman) is being applied to life stories in order to understand how narratives of the past, present, and future are assembled to provide a sense of meaningful coherence to the lives under discussion. For example, Gubrium’s (1993) life story interview study of nursing home residents used narrative analysis to show how the ways in which the quality of life and of care in the home, as understood by the residents, related to lives as a whole.

Narrative analysis is but one aspect of the recent ‘‘linguistic turn’’ in qualitative research. Talk and interaction have long been the stock-in-trade of qualitative researchers, and the attention has been amplified in rapidly developing methods of discourse analysis and other approaches to studying the fine-grained detail of conversation. All of these approaches focus on what people ‘‘do with words’’ as they construct the meaningful parameters of their everyday lives. Audio and video taped recordings and highly detailed transcripts of interactions are analyzed to discern how participants conduct their lives through conversation and communication. James Holstein, for example, in a careful analysis of court proceedings, illustrated how age is negotiated and altered in meaning in practice, rather than being a fixed category of time.

Finally, modes of literary analysis and other forms of representation from the humanities are being imported to the study of aging-in-progress. Anne Wyatt-Brown and Janice Rossen’s important collection of studies of creativity in the later years shows how individual writing careers, among others, change with the passing years. Ruth E. Ray’s research on life-story writing among older adults directs us to the ways that writing one’s life story, as Ray puts it, ‘‘initiates change and personal growth among older people.’’ These are but two instances from the growing body of research in which qualitative research is being fertilized by the humanities.




CHARMAZ, K. Good Days, Bad Days: The Self in Chronic Illness and Time. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1991.

DENZIN, N. K., and LINCOLN, Y. S., eds. Handbook of Qualitative Research, 1st ed. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1994. 2d ed., 2000.

GUBRIUM, J. F. Living and Dying at Murray Manor. Charlottsville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1975. Reprint, 1997.

GUBRIUM, J. F. Speaking of Life. Hawthorne, N.Y.: Aldine de Gruyter, 1993.

GUBRIUM, J. F., and HOLSTEIN, J. A. Handbook of Interviewing. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2002.

GUBRIUM, J. F., and HOLSTEIN, J. A. The New Language of Qualitative Method. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

GUBRIUM, J. F., and SANKAR, A., eds. Qualitative Methods in Aging Research. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1994.

HOCHSCHILD, A. R. The Unexpected Community. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.

HOLSTEIN, J. A. ‘‘The Discourse of Age in Involuntary Commitment Proceedings.’’ Journal of Aging Studies 4 (1990): 111–130.

HOLSTEIN, J. A., and GUBRIUM, J. F. The Active Interview. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1995.

HOLSTEIN, J. A., and GUBRIUM, J. F. Constructing the Life Course. Dix Hills, N.Y.: General Hall, 2000.

KIRK, J., and MILLER, M. L. Reliability and Validity in Qualitative Research. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1986.

RAY, R. E. Beyond Nostalgia: Aging and Life-Story Writing. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 2000.

RIESSMAN, C. K. Narrative Analysis. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1993.

SILVERMAN, D. Doing Qualitative Research. London: Sage, 2000.

SILVERMAN, D. Interpreting Qualitative Data. London: Sage, 1993.

UNRUH, D. R. Invisible Lives: Social Worlds of the Aged. Beverly Hills: Sage, 1983.

WYATT-BROWN, A. M., and ROSSEN, J., eds. Aging and Gender in Literature: Studies in Creativity. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1993.

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