Written By: Christina Grant
Editor’s note: Throughout the TQ Workshop June 16-20, U of A writing studies instructor, longtime journalist, and Education PhD student Christina Grant blogged about her experiences in “The Lived Experience: A PhD student’s journey through the TQ Workshop.” See: https://iiqm.wordpress.com/
The following is a final feature story on the 13th Annual Advances in Qualitative Methods (AQM) Conference June 23-25 in which she incorporates information and observations from several conference events and speakers—including keynote presenter Dr. Rosaline Barbour.
Keynote Address by Dr. Rosaline Barbour: Blurring Boundaries
Gesturing towards the digital clock on the wall which read 8:30 am on June 23, keynote speaker Dr. Rosaline (Rose) Barbour gained the audience’s sympathy—and their laughter— with her opening remark: “I’m impressed with the early start—you wouldn’t get away with it in the UK!” She then proceeded to walk conference participants through a set of light-hearted yet salient slides as part of her talk entitled, “Applied Qualitative Research: A Force for Ensuring Impact or Emphasizing Old Fault lines?”
Drawing from her long experience and range of research experiences in her work with the Open University of the UK, Rose critiqued the claim that applied and theoretical research are two distinct camps. Using the words of Maxwell (2102), she urged qualitative researchers—who now enjoy increasing prestige in the research world— not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” and question typifications of those ‘on the other side’ of the applied/qualitative divide as either failing to “focus enough on practical concerns” or “failing to produce results in timely fashion.”
Rather, qualitative researchers of all stripes should, she said, ”take a reflective approach to their own practice” and question their assumptions across a range of precepts including “pragmatism.”
This pause for reflection, Rose said, is especially important given the proliferations of “multi-disciplinary teams” which can create “uncomfortable bedfellows” doing all manner of research. As we all learn to work together, she pointed it, it will become increasingly important that the strengths of each approach are fully appreciated and mobilized toward the joint ends. “Theoretical terminology can be difficult to understand,” she noted, and the ideas of applied researchers may sometimes puzzle theorists or be seem like “oversimplification” of complex issues. “I think that both camps can really quite easily get into situations where they are mutually incomprehensible,” Rose warned, adding that everyone should work hard to build bridges and keep that from happening.
She stressed that “theory is present from the outset” in any research project, and in the end and under the right conditions, both lines “produce research that can be seamlessly translate into practice” with qualitative applied inquiry “contributing to the understanding of process.”
She added that there are “Many approaches to combining qualitative and quantitative research, but it’s not always made very clear by what mechanisms those insights can be produced.” She urged qualitative researchers to steadily insist on a more consistent place at the table and to push back against lingering “added-on” views that position their contributions as mere enhancements to the more important quantitative data.
Rather, qualitative researchers can advance flexible ideas about “sequencing of methods.” She noted that “a lot of the work that’s been published has run qualitative studies at the outset, but very often not throughout. It’s very unusual to use qualitative methods to interrogate the outcomes of a survey,” she said, adding that such broader roles for qualitative approaches, using methods such as focus groups, case studies, and interviews represent the growth area for the field.
Because of the historical “poor relation” attitude that some quantitative researchers take towards qualitative researchers, Rose noted that often “statistical insights trump qualitative ones”. “A better idea,” she emphasized, is to “see the same material through different lenses,” and, rather than limiting discussion to ‘triangulation’ to explore the potential of ‘crystallization’ in order to aspire to ‘integration’.”
Rose also challenged qualitative researchers to reflect on their own practices to enhance the quality of their approach. “We need to think about how things are being said versus what is being said.” She said researchers stay alert and “seize the opportunity” to communicate their findings as effectively as possible to all the groups that could benefit. “Are we collecting data or are we generating data?” she asked. “There’s a world of a difference.” She warned against the potential for “data grabbing” or “drive by interviewing” that seeks “fixed meanings” rather than embracing the complexity that is involved. “Do we take the data and run,” or do we see it, rather, as a resource with which we can interrogate our data and refine our analyses?”
Rose’s own work has often been interdisciplinary, and she sees great potential from such cross-pollination. “There’s real possibility from learning from approaches and techniques in other fields” such as “sociology, education, psychology, social work. We really need to think about stepping out of our own disciplinary boundaries if we really want to bridge the gap.”
In an interview following her keynote address, Rose noted a “huge sea change” in the legitimacy of qualitative methods over the past decade. When she got her PhD in the 1970s she was “issued with a white coat” because it was assumed that researchers would be in clinical settings, and “some of those clinicians were very disparaging” towards her as a newly minted PhD researcher. The climate of ethics—which is so ardently concerned with every detail of qualitative research today—was also strikingly different. Rosaline recalls her proposal to observe midwives in “potentially quite sensitive” situations, which elicited the review committee’s response to “just go do it.” Her qualitative methods were not seen has having the power to harm anyone,” she noted, nor indeed “any power at all.”
“If someone had told me 25 or 30 years ago that I would one day be publishing in medical journals I would have just laughed,” she said with a wide smile. Yet today, a qualitative component is indeed a required component of many research projects.
Asked about reasons for that sea-change in attitude and practice, Rose alluded to “myriad influences.” She mused that “medicine itself has changed a lot. There’s a lot more emphasis on interaction with patients, the importance of the social context, and patient priorities, so we’re producing better rounded doctors.” Public health, primary care physicians, and those working in child and adolescent psychiatry seem particularly sympathetic to qualitative methods. “Because of the nature of their work,” she said, “they intuitively realize that numerical data is only part of the picture,” since they tap into the complex life worlds of their patients on a daily basis.”
Rose said that she hoped that, at the least, conference participants would take away this key message from her address: “We all must not be too precious about our own disciplines.” She urged us to see traditional hierarchies as potential constraints and to embrace “cross-boundary work. We should question some of our assumptions and keep having more meaningful dialogues,” and part of that involves engaging with the end users of our research, whether they be our research participants, practitioners, or policy makers. “It’s important to try to publish in a number of different sorts of journals.”
What has motivated her through all her decades of qualitative work? “It’s because, even with the best will in the world, no one can design an intervention in the health care system without taking into account the perspectives of the people involved. Well, it’s possible—but it will not have the desired effects.”
Also, she has seen her work have direct effects on both people and policy makers. She once carried out research into the decisions Scottish people made between the doctor’s office and the pharmacy, looking at why they sometimes did not fill their prescriptions and get the treatment they needed. Her study found that a faulty cost coverage system was partially to blame, and “now, eventually, prescriptions are free in Scotland. It was really nice to see that.”