Developing a Qualitative Research Portfolio in a Discipline Dominated by Positivist Traditions and Quantitative Research

Written By: Nicholas L. Holt, Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation, University of Alberta

My aim in this post is to describe some issues I have faced in developing my academic career in the discipline of sport psychology over the past 10 years. While the details of this story are fairly specific to my own discipline, I hope the themes may have some meaning to other qualitative researchers in different disciplines.

The Lingering Challenges of Positivism

My home discipline emerged in its own right from the umbrella discipline of psychology in the 1960s. Early research in sport psychology was predominantly quantitative and rooted in a positivist paradigm. This ‘hard science’ approach was as an attempt to legitimize the discipline in its early days. Qualitative research first arrived on the scene in the 1980s, but the quantitative/positivist tradition remains at the core of the discipline.

A review of qualitative research published in sport psychology from 1990-1999 showed that the vast majority of studies basically involved fairly structured interviews followed by content analysis and frequency counts.1 Such studies could be described as positivist or post-positivist approaches to qualitative research or, more critically, ‘bean counting’ exercises.2 Editors and reviewers ‘needed’ to see the numbers of people reporting a theme in addition to (or maybe rather than) the words. I’m actually rather ashamed to say that more than once I succumbed to the pressure of editors and reviewers and published ‘bean counting’ studies – especially in the early stages of my career.

From about 2000-2010 there seemed to be a growing acceptance of different qualitative approaches as the field matured. In my own work, I’ve managed to publish studies using autoethnography, ethnography, phenomenology, case study, and interpretive methodologies. In these studies I’ve been able to focus on the words and the stories, but still sometimes finding myself reporting the number of participants whose data have been coded into a theme. The numbers are meaningless really, but many in our field expect (or demand) to see them. Reflecting the positivist and quantitative underpinnings of the field, recently a reviewer asked me to report “the descriptive statistics” from my initial coding of some interview data.

Probably around the time I got tenure (2007) I started to become known for my expertise in qualitative methods. At times I felt, perhaps mistakenly, like a crusader for qualitative methods with a mission to educate the field. At other times I felt like the ‘methods police’ – a person to whom editors, and reviewers turned in order to establish if a particular qualitative study had been rigorously designed and executed. Frequently, I felt like a fraud, viewed as someone who doesn’t really do proper research. This feeling lingers. Only a few weeks ago, in an e-mail discussion about the content of graduate courses, a colleague explained that he doesn’t teach students to evaluate qualitative studies because “anyone can interpret qualitative data.” I’d guess that many people who conduct qualitative research have been confronted with similar views that qualitative research is somehow inferior.

The Middle of the Road

At a conference a few years ago, soon after I had given a pretty terrible presentation, a sympathetic colleague tried to lift my spirits. Given he couldn’t tell me the presentation was good (it wasn’t), he focused more on my work in general. He said, with all sincerity, “What I really like about your work, Nick, is that it’s really out there. It’s something different.”

I reflect on this comment a lot. I tend to conceptualize different qualitative research approaches on a kind of continuum. I’m not aware of any published writing supporting this perspective; rather, it is just a way I organize different types of research in my mind. At one end (to me, the ‘conservative’ end) are post-positivist qualitative studies (i.e., bean counters). At the other end are the ‘extreme’ types of qualitative studies that embrace innovative forms of representation, such as performance ethnography for example. I think my work is very ‘middle of the road’ – especially since my main area of methodological expertise is grounded theory.3,4

So it is interesting to me that in the wider sphere of qualitative research in general my work is middle of the road, but in sport psychology I am ‘out there.’ I don’t know how much this analogy would apply to others, but my sense is that qualitative researchers working in disciplines that have strong positivist traditions would empathize.

Becoming More Conservative?

Reflecting on my work over the past few years, I’ve noticed that rather than moving to using more ‘extreme’ forms of qualitative approaches I have probably come more conservative. This is strange since the discipline has become a little more accommodating of a range of qualitative research approaches.

Why have I become more conservative as the discipline has become more diverse? Perhaps moving up the academic ranks (I will be a full professor as of July 1, 2012) has been a contributing factor. I get the sense that it is “OK” for students and new academics to do qualitative research, but once you become more experienced people expect you to let go of dabbling in this ‘inferior’ form of research and start doing ‘real’ (i.e., quantitative) studies. Indeed, in recent years I’ve co-authored some quantitative studies. Some colleagues think I am growing up at last.

Can a Researcher’s Philosophical Perspective Change?

The type of data (qualitative or quantitative or both) used in studies I publish is not a major concern for me. I hold to the ideal that the question drives the choice of methodology, and maybe in recent years I’ve been a little braver in terms of asking questions that require me to become acquainted with different approaches.

No, my concern is that philosophically I have changed and I am not sure what to make of this. While I was a graduate student I would have described myself as a operating from a ‘critical-interpretivist’ philosophy. About 10 years ago I dropped the ‘critical’ label and thought of myself as an interpretivist. Now, while I hold on to the ontological ideal there are multiple perspectives of social reality, I find it increasingly difficult to locate these multiple perspectives in my own publications (especially given this disciplinary expectation to see the numbers in qualitative studies). I secretly worry I am moving more toward the post positivist end of the qualitative research continuum.

So What?

Writing this post has enabled me to get a few things off my chest and reflect on some important philosophical concepts that underpin my research. Rarely does one get the chance to reflect in this manner given the continuous pressure to obtain grants and publish (a challenge I enjoy by the way). But studious reflection is an important part of a researcher’s life because it provides opportunities to ‘take stock’ and consider where you have come from and where you are going.

But by writing this blog post I have been able establish that one of my goals for the future is to (re)embrace methodological diversity. Maybe it is time to write another autoethnography? Maybe I could do that year-long ethnography I have been dreaming about? Of course, the research question drives the choice of methodology, but I think they key thing for me is not to be fearful about using different methodologies to answer the various questions I have. In fact, perhaps I should be pushing the types of questions that lead me to use different methodologies. Regardless of the specifics, I realize the importance of conducting and publishing rigorous studies that aspire to meet the highest standards of the particular methodology I am using to answer whatever research question. I’d rather be a slave to the methodology than a slave to the positivist traditions of my discipline.

References Cited

1 Culver, D., Trudel, P., & Gilbert, W. (2003). A decade of qualitative research in sport psychology journals 1990-1999. The Sport Psychologist, 17, 1-5.

2 Mayan, M. J. (2009). Essentials of qualitative inquiry. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

3 Holt, N. L., & Tamminen, K. A. (2010). Improving grounded theory research in sport and exercise psychology: Further reflections as a response to Mike Weed. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 11, 405-413.

4 Holt, N. L., & Tamminen, K. A. (2010). Moving forward with grounded theory in sport and exercise psychology. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 11, 419-422.


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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