How can qualitative research change the world?

Adapted from Dr. Max van Manen’s Keynote Address – 17th Qualitative Health Conference – Vancounver, British Columbia, Canada


A somewhat positive title: not, can it? But, how can it? Also, there is an assumption in this title: that change is what qualitative research should be dedicated to. In other words this question itself would be a perfect topic for qualitative reflection. What do we mean by change? What is this world we are speaking of? Is it the lifeworld? Or is it a vague abstraction that refers to anything that we read about and hear about in the news?

In the program description the focus is a bit different: how can qualitative research position itself and deal with a world that is changing out of control and beyond our control?

The problem is that in our capitalist economic order change tends to be seen quantitatively as growth: expanding economies, enlarged profits, increased consumer index, larger share of the market. Privatization and deregulation have created havoc.

In stead, this world needs perhaps more effort at saving, preserving, and cherishing what is sacred: the communal, the just, social and economic equity, the irreplaceable, the ecological, the intimate, the ethical of our practices.

From a phenomenological point of view these are some of my concerns:

  1. Qualitative research needs to re-humanize the world.
  2. We need to draw closer relations between ethics and inquiry.
  3. It is often underappreciated that, in fact, qualitative research is very diverse. Different research approaches can accomplish different things—but you cannot generalize change potentialities. For example some qualitative approaches aim at theory development, other approaches aim at shaking off theorizing.
  4. The young should be our main concern: how to involve young people in reflective life styles when they are less likely to read books or texts that are longer than what works on twitter and iPhones?
  5. I am interested in agogical efforts in qualitative inquiry: how to engage in expressive reflective inquiry that speaks to people not only on a cognitive and conceptual level, but that addresses them, stirs them in their emotive understanding?
  6. We have to find ways that qualitative inquiry can show how certain established practices can be humanized. For example, my son Michael, a young neonatologist, wrote two papers in my doctoral phenomenology seminar: (1) on the transfer of babies in and between hospitals, and (2) on the use of monitors in the NICU. His descriptions are so interpretively powerful and evocative, that even medical doctors seem to be willing to agree on the need for policy changes with regards to the involvement of parents and the use of monitors.

Perhaps we need to reflect on the phenomenology of greed amongst the rich and powerful of our world. Marx pointed out that the notion of greed is not a universal and natural quality in all people, but that greed is a function of money and a function of the possibility of accumulating wealth. So it is a structural economic feature that is hard to change without changing the fundamental structure of the corporate capitalist economic system that is now pretty well dominant world-wide.

However, greed can also be studied as a relational and an inner quality that drives people toward selfish ends when, for example, the structure of privatization and deregulation allows it. Research has shown that students in business faculties tend to score higher on indices of selfishness, lack of concern for ethics, and greed than students in other faculties.

Only radically reflective qualitative inquiry can orient to the vulnerable otherness of the Other, and hope to humanize those it can reach. But, significantly for qualitative inquiry, the very phenomenon of epistemology may be interpreted as a form of cognitive greed. Various philosophers, from Emmanuel Levinas, to Jacques Derrida, Michel Henry, and Jean-Luc Marion, have pointed out that epistemology is the attempt to grasp the world through cognitive possession. The desire to know the world cognitively is the desire to possess it by reducing it to our own (self-centered) cognitive schema, to the cognitive self. The desire of greed and the greed of desire. Epistemology always starts out from the subject. It has the desire for the power of the self at the centre. That is why Levinas already criticized that we cannot understand the otherness of the Other, and the ethics of alterity, if we cannot let go of an epistemological ontology. Therefore, I would argue that qualitative forms of inquiry that are strongly motivated by managerial epistemologies, too, may be accused of suffering from and practicing cognitive greed. And these are the very problems that we are encountering at a global level. We need to reflect on what our forms of inquiry mean and imply for the change that we desire to sponsor. There is a danger, that increasingly, qualitative inquiry is being compromised by adopting the terms and values of managerial and calculative social science for justifying its practice and existence.

The problem is that even the general public seems fascinated with people who carry their economic activities without any concern for the ethical issues and consequences for the welfare of others. People in Canada know the television program The Dragon’s Den — a business show that features attempts at getting successful and rich through new business ventures. The main hero of the show’s panel is Kevin O’Leary who is frequently interviewed. He bluntly and provocatively states that he is only concerned with facts of the market place and not ethics. It is facts, not ethics, that helps you to make money, he says. He gave the example of the existence of cheap real estate in some Asian country that is promising for development. So he aggressively invested in it and makes millions. (Never mind the social consequences for the people who live there and whose livelihood and homes may be adversely affected by his projects and take-overs.)

Adapted from Dr. van Manen’s keynote address at the 17th Qualitative Health Conference, held in Vancouver, Canada, October 25-27 2011.


About IIQM

The International Institute for Qualitative Methodology (IIQM) is an interdisciplinary institute based at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, but serves qualitative researchers around the world. IIQM was founded in 1998, with the primary goal of facilitating the development of qualitative research methods across a wide variety of academic disciplines. Today IIQM offers a wide variety of training and networking opportunities through our annual conferences, courses, workshops, and programs. We have provided this YouTube Channel and video clips as a resource for the qualitative research community at large in order to advance qualitative inquiry. Email: Twitter: @theIIQM Facebook: @IIQMUofA LinkedIn: International Institute of Qualitative Methodology Youtube: International Institute of Qualitative Methodology (IIQM)
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