In qualitative research, the researcher – including the in-depth interviewer, focus group moderator, coder in content analysis, and observer – is the instrument, meaning that the qualitative researcher wields substantial control in the design content, the gathering of data, the outcomes, and interpretation of the research. Ethnography is no different in that the observer – albeit not controlling participants’ natural environment – plays a central role in creating the data for the study by way of recording observations. In this respect, the credibility of an ethnographic study essentially rests on the observer’s ability to identify and record the relevant observations.
The necessary observer skills have been discussed elsewhere in Research Design Review – for example, “The Importance of Analytical Sensibilities to Observation in Ethnography.” Without these skills, an observer has the potential for biasing the data which in turn will negatively impact the analysis, interpretation, transferability, and ultimate usefulness of an ethnographic study. The potential for bias exists regardless of observer role. An offsite, non-participant observer may knowingly or not impose subjective values on an observed event – e.g., ignoring certain comments the observer finds personally offensive in a study of an online forum discussing alcohol use – while an onsite observer, operating either overtly or covertly, may bias results by way of Read Full Text
In March 2018, Mario Luis Small gave a public lecture at Columbia University on “Rhetoric and Evidence in a Polarized Society.” In this terrific must-read speech, Small asserts that today’s public discourse concerning society’s most deserving issues – poverty, inequality, and economic opportunity – has been seriously weakened by the absence of “qualitative literacy.” Qualitative literacy has to do with “the ability to understand, handle, and properly interpret qualitative evidence” such as ethnographic and in-depth interview (IDI) data. Small contrasts the general lack of qualitative literacy with the “remarkable improvement” in “quantitative literacy” particularly among those in the media where data-driven journalism is on the rise, published stories are written with a greater knowledge of quantitative data and use of terminology (e.g., the inclusion of means and medians), and more care is given to the quantitative evidence cited in media commentary (i.e., op-eds).
Small explains that the extent to which a researcher (or journalist or anyone involved in the use of research) possesses qualitative literacy can be determined by looking at the person’s ability to “assess whether the ethnographer has collected and evaluated fieldnote data properly, or the interviewer has conducted interviews effectively and analyzed the transcripts properly.” This determination serves as the backbone of “basic qualitative literacy” which enables the research user to identify the difference between a rigorous qualitative study and Read Full Text
Research Design Review currently includes 180 articles concerning quantitative and qualitative research design issues. As in recent years, the articles published in 2017 generally revolved around qualitative research, addressing the many concerns in qualitative research design and ways to help the researcher achieve quality outcomes throughout the research process.