Finding Meaning: 4 Reasons Why Qualitative Researchers Miss Meaning

Research of any kind that is interested in the human subject is interested in finding meaning.  It Meaningis typically not enough to know that a behavior has occurred without knowing the significance of that behavior for the individual.  Even survey research, with its reliance on mostly preconceived closed-ended questions, is designed with some hope that sense (i.e., meaning) can be derived by cross tabbing data from one question with another, factor analyzing, t-testing, z-testing, regressing, correlating, and any number of statistical techniques.

Yet, it is qualitative research that is usually in charge of finding meaning.  It is not good enough to know who does what, for how long, or in what manner.  Qualitative researchers are not so much interested in what an online participant tacked to a Pinterest board, or which treatment option a cancer patient chooses to discuss in an in-depth interview, or how much focus group participants might be willing to spend for tickets to a sold-out Mets game, or the observed reactions of 4th graders as they are bullied in recess.  All of this serves as a backdrop to what is most important – which is, what does it all mean for the people we study?  And, because life is complicated, what are the multiple meanings?  Without an effort to get at that, then why bother with qualitative research in the first place.

There are many factors that conspire to keep qualitative researchers from finding meaning.  Here are just four:

  1. Researchers rely too heavily on self-reports.  This is another way of saying that researchers are not conducting research so much as they are reporting what they see or hear from participants.  As reporters, the outcome of their research may be factual yet fail to produce the meaning – the thinking – that supports and makes useful the research effort.  Unless the researcher has diligently followed up participants’ input with individualized inquiry and sought to find meaning, the researcher must concede that the value of the research is lost.
  2. Researchers fail to consider the response medium.  If a mobile research participant elects to send a video of the in-the-moment dining scene at McDonald’s, how is the meaning associated with that video the same or different than the meaning of a photograph or a text message?  Is the participant actually conveying separate thoughts and meanings by the media chosen, or not?  How do the media – the type and format – of the response convey different intended meanings?  What is the researcher to assume when one participant responds with all visual images and another with only text?  What does that say about each participant and what does that say about the variations (or sameness) in the meanings they associate with their responses.
  3. Researchers do not take into account the ways they bias the data.  When is the last time you read a qualitative research report* that included the researcher’s reflexive journal, or at least commentary from the researcher concerning how they may have impacted research outcomes?  There are numerous ways the researcher may affect the data: weak interviewing/observation skills; unwittingly imposing personal values or beliefs; not recognizing participant bias, such as socially desirable responses; or simply being mismatched with the participants in terms of, for example, age and race.  These and other causes of researcher effects mask participants’ meanings and hence the usefulness of the research.
  4. Researchers are unwilling or unable to spend sufficient time with any one participant.  Unless the researcher has built in the requisite time needed with each participant to honestly hear and become knowledgeable about the person and the meanings of their experiences, then what is the point?  Why not conduct survey research and go back trying to read behind the numbers if qualitative researchers are not committed to the unwavering reality that qualitative research takes time.  Because, if qualitative researchers have any hope of finding meaning, they must commit the time with their participants that give meaning a chance to emerge.    

* I am excluding journal articles.

[Image captured from on 16 March 2014.]

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