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07 Seale (JG/d) 18/1/02 9:40 am Page 97
Qualitative Social Work
Vol. 1(1): 97–110 Copyright ©2002 Sage Publications London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi
1473-3250[200203]1:1;97–110;021747
ARTICLE Quality Issues in Qualitative
Inquiry
Clive Seale
University of London, UK
ABSTRACT
In this article I outline the case for methodological aware-
ness as an essential component of the craft skill that
qualitative researchers typically bring to their work. This is
opposed to the view that good quality research can be
produced by opting for the criteria promoted by one variety,
‘paradigm’, ‘moment’ or school, arguing instead that valu-
able lessons for research practice can be learned from each
one. The ‘craft skill’ conception of research suggests that
researchers should regard their activities as relatively auton-
omous from the need to resolve philosophical disputes.
Methodological awareness, involving the capacity to antici-
pate the consequences of methodological decisions while
carrying out a research project, can be acquired from ex-
posure to almost any intelligent methodological discussion,
as well as from critical reading of existing research studies.
In making this case a summary of historical moments in quali-
tative research, and of key ideas presented by selected quali-
KEY WORDS:
tative ‘criteriologists’ is provided.
methodology
qualitative
research
reliability
rigour
validity 97
07 Seale (JG/d) 18/1/02 9:40 am Page 98
98 Qualitative Social Work 1(1)
My interest in quality issues in qualitative inquiry was sharpened a few
years ago when I was asked to write a book about ‘reliability and validity in
qualitative research’. I soon realized this could not be an adequate title, as the
terms would locate the author within a modernist, scientific paradigm that was
only one of several available for framing qualitative research practice. For
example, naturalistic and interpretivist approaches, politically-driven concep-
tions of research such as those stemming from feminist and other commit-
ments, and postmodernist perspectives on social life would not easily rest
within such a title. Norman Denzin (1988) expressed a similar discomfort in
referring to:
. . . a turning point in the history of qualitative research . . . postmodern ethnog-
raphy can no longer follow the guidelines of positivist social science. Gone are
words like theory, hypothesis, concept, indicator, coding scheme, sampling, valid-
ity, and reliability. In their place comes a new language: readerly texts, modes of
discourse, cultural poetics, deconstruction, interpretation, domination, feminism,
genre, grammatology, hermeneutics, inscription, master narrative, narrative struc-
tures, otherness, postmodernism, redemptive ethnography, semiotics, subversion,
textuality, tropes. (p. 432)
Political conceptions of the researcher’s task have become particularly popular
in applied fields such as social work and educational research. Thus Kemmis
and McTaggart (2000) argue that an important aim for qualitative research is
‘to help people recover, and release themselves, from the constraints of irra-
tional, unproductive, unjust, and unsatisfying social structures that limit their
self-development and self-determination’ (p. 597).
I realized that I wanted to reflect more recent paradigm shifts, but at
the same time did not want to abandon what was valuable in what Denzin
and Lincoln (1994, 2000) have dubbed the different ‘moments’ in the quali-
tative research tradition and engage in paradigm warfare. I have found that
many people who want to do research find that much contemporary social
theory (and, to some extent, political perspectives) in so far as this appears to
relate to methodology, is at best somewhat confusing and at worst completely
paralysing. I wanted to show how practising researchers are able to draw on
conflicting methodological debates in a productive way that enhances rather
than inhibits their practice. I feel that today we face a situation rather like that
which Glaser and Strauss (1967) faced when they outlined their famous account
of the discovery of grounded theory. At that time qualitative research faced
being relegated to the margins of social inquiry by the twin dominance of
quantitative methodology that appealed to scientific criteria, and ‘theoretical
capitalists’ (p. 10) such as Talcott Parsons. Grounded theory showed how theory
could be produced by the sociological ‘proletariat’ of research workers rather
07 Seale (JG/d) 18/1/02 9:40 am Page 99
Seale Quality Issues in Qualitative Inquiry 99
than armchair professors, while at the same time asserting its distinctiveness
from quantitative procedures and criteria. The continuing popularity of
grounded theory in the qualitative research community attests to its empower-
ing effect.
As well as conveying a new approach to the relationship between con-
temporary social theory (see for example Turner, 1996) and research practice
– dealing with the rather different situation that qualitative researchers face
nowadays – I knew that I also wanted to question what, for many qualitative
researchers has become a key component of their informal ‘creation myth’, the
idea that quantitative work and quantitative standards have little to offer the
research enterprise. A dream that I had at the time showed me a research paper
in which a deconstructive textual analysis, done with appropriate potential
for emancipatory effect, stood side by side with the results of a multiple
regression. I have not yet made this a reality in my own research work, but I
am getting closer all the time (Seale, 2001a,b,c)! A spirit of postmodern play-
fulness and pastiche, as well as a concern for political and practical effective-
ness, in my view can quite usefully be merged with a craft-like approach to
the use of research skills that are themselves derived from a variety of research
traditions. Good quality social research has the character of a well-crafted
artefact.
It is often said, by those who write textbooks on methods, or felt by
researchers, that philosophical and social theoretical ideas underpin research
practice and techniques. This is a position that I have increasingly wanted to
challenge as I believe it leads to unhelpful ‘foundationalist’ habits of thought in
research practice. In my view, research is primarily a craft skill, relatively auton-
omous from philosophical and theoretical considerations but drawing on these
debates at times to feed creativity or loosen trapped thoughts. This is a prag-
matic view of research process that is rather similar to the position that we all
face in everyday life. We do not normally become anxious about whether the
philosophical problem of induction has been resolved: we are happy to believe
that the sun will rise tomorrow, because it has always done so in the past, and
this seems good enough for us. In a similar way, social researchers ought to feel
that the skills they possess are ‘good enough’ for many useful purposes, without
the need to solve philosophical or social theoretical disputes before proceeding
with research.
To explain how I reached these views it is helpful briefly to review some
historical ‘moments’ in qualitative social research and associated attempts to
derive fixed criteria for judging the quality of studies. Elsewhere (Seale, 1999a),
I have presented a large collection of examples of research skills that I believe
can help produce good quality work. Howard Becker’s (1998) Tricks of the
Trade: How to Think about your Research while you’re Doing it conveys a similar
spirit.
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100 Qualitative Social Work 1(1)
HISTORY AND CRITERIOLOGY
History
Denzin and Lincoln (1994) have helpfully summarized five historical ‘moments’
in qualitative research. It will be helpful to review these briefly in order to
convey a flavour of the diversity of frameworks available to researchers in which
to locate their work. I shall argue that the ideas promoted in all of these
‘moments’ have continuing relevance for the present day, in spite of the impli-
cation of lost or outmoded approaches conveyed by the ‘moments’ device.
The first of these moments, then, is the ‘traditional’ phase, occurring in
the early twentieth century, where qualitative research done by anthropologists
and sociologists such as Malinowski, Mead, Radcliffe Brown and early Chicago
School researchers involved a lone ethnographer entering strange territory and
reporting back to the ‘West’ or the ‘middle class’. The researcher here strove to
be objective and intellectually rigorous through extended episodes of fieldwork,
but there was considerable reliance on the personal integrity of the researcher
rather than procedural formulations in order to achieve work in which readers
could place their faith. By the 1950s, however, there was considerable pressure
on social scientists to appeal to natural scientific standards of proof, most
successfully managed by quantitative social researchers, but increasingly
incorporating qualitative workers. Thus the work of Glaser and Strauss that I
have mentioned, and the early methodological writings of Howard Becker
addressing, for example, problems of inference and proof in participant obser-
vation (Becker, 1970). A realist philosophical perspective was implied in such
work, which Denzin and Lincoln (1994) have named the modernist phase. The
Popperian idea, that scientific argument proceeds best by actively seeking to
falsify theories, led to the advocacy of such techniques as searching for nega-
tive instances in data that contradicted and improved emerging theories. The
naturalism of fieldwork or participant observation was felt to reveal a reality
hidden from the view of the social survey researcher who created artificial
settings in structured interviews. In this second moment, one sees a preoccu-
pation with justifying claims with evidence, whose ultimate foundation lay in
the sensory perceptions of the researcher – the empiricist position.
Roughly between 1970 and 1986, and in tune with changes in wider
society, there was then a proliferation of theoretical and political perspectives
which were felt to have methodological implications. Symbolic interactionism,
ethnomethodology, semiotic analysis, feminist and Marxist perspectives are a few
of the important developments. The growing dissatisfaction with a social science
that drew its rationale from natural scientific methods and assumptions meant
a blurring of boundaries between humanities and social science. For some, the
essay was an adequate replacement for the scientific article (Geertz, 1988). This
third moment of ‘blurred genres’ (Denzin and Lincoln, 1994) then came to an
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Seale Quality Issues in Qualitative Inquiry 101
abrupt end with the publication of a collection of writings edited by Clifford
and Marcus (1986): Writing Culture, in which realism and objectivity as appro-
priate standards for researchers were subjected to a sustained critique, the moti-
vation for which stemmed largely from concerns about the political role of
social research knowledge. Particularly among anthropologists, who were then
proposed to have applied the ideas of colonialists through their work, this led
to a twin crisis of ‘legitimation and representation’ (Denzin and Lincoln, 1994).
As in previous moments, the new perspective was associated with a variety
of developments at the level of method or technique. Among anthropologists,
and increasingly in other disciplines such as sociology, there was a general
perfusion of self-consciousness about the politics of writing. This led to experi-
mentation with new forms of writing, involving attempts to delete the presence
of the author, or the use of drama, poetry or fictional forms to tell research
stories. One also saw the ‘linguistic turn’ gathering pace, and discourse analysis
developed in a variety of guises and spread to disciplines where qualitative
approaches had been relatively underdeveloped, such as psychology. This
involved exposure of the role of language in constructing realities. Denzin and
Lincoln’s final or fifth ‘moment’ in 1994 was that which was represented by the
growth of cultural studies and postmodernism. The implications of these for
research practice are not always very clear, and one view of this might be to
abandon the research enterprise as a sphere that is separate from fictional
products. For a researcher drawing on this ‘moment’, all the world is a text and
if the researcher has a role it might be to deconstruct such texts. At any rate,
social research becomes a very literary rather than a scientific pursuit. At the
same time, it is possible to detect a rescue effort from researchers, concerned
about the nihilistic tendencies of postmodernism, taking the form of advocacy
of ethical and political goals as replacements for truth value: social criticism,
emancipatory or action research and political conceptions of the research process
then play a large part (see for example Lather, 1993; Smith and Deemer, 2000).
More recent writings of Denzin and Lincoln (2000) in which sixth and
seventh ‘moments’ are outlined are, in my view, aspirational rather than descrip-
tive of what is currently going on in the qualitative research community. The
writing of histories has long been recognized as possessing a rhetorical element,
and the ‘moments’ device is clearly one that can be used to place its authors in
a commanding position, occupying whatever is deemed to be the most recent
development, and pointing authoritatively towards the future. Self-placement at
the head of a rapidly accelerating progressive movement, in which each moment
is a competitive move that replaces the last, is in fact out of line with post-
modern ethical principles of allowing multiple voices to be heard. Most of the
qualitative research that I read, in fact, appears not to have ‘progressed’ much
beyond a loosely modernist and broadly realist position. Nor am I sure that this
is likely to change significantly in the future.
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102 Qualitative Social Work 1(1)
In fact, I have come to feel that most research techniques can be located
in more than one paradigm or moment and I give a number of examples of
this in Seale (1999a). To take just one example, triangulation can be thought of
within a realist philosophical perspective in which different data sources (say, an
interview combined with observation) converged on a point to reveal a single
point. Alternatively, data triangulation can be read as a technique for providing
multiple perspectives on a problem, with discrepancies between data sources
being themselves ‘findings’ (see also Seale, 1999b). The metaphor of a crystal
refracting beams of light in many directions rather than a triangle, then, perhaps
becomes more appropriate, but it is clear that such usage can be related to con-
structivist or postmodern perspectives, yet the techniques for producing the
research materials necessary for this effect remain the same. Quality is elusive,
hard to pre-specify, but we often feel we know it when we see it. In this respect
research is like art rather than science.
Criteriology
‘Criteriology’ (Schwandt, 1996) is the business of trying to specify criteria for
judging the quality of qualitative research studies. This genre of methodologi-
cal writing has undergone a number of significant shifts over the years, which
are worth charting in order to get a hold on how researchers might regard these
exercises in order to improve the quality of research practice.
Many start by outlining conceptions of validity and reliability in the
quantitative tradition, before discussing the relevance (or lack of relevance) of
these for qualitative researchers (see for example LeCompte and Goetz, 1982).
In my view, this move itself sustains the qualitative creation myth of difference
between the two traditions, which is an unhelpfully foundationalist habit of
thought. The original writings of the methodologists formulating quantitative
criteria, such as those of Campbell and Stanley (1966; Campbell, 1969) or
Rosenberg (1968), are far more complex and subtle than they are often painted
by qualitative creation mythologists, and reading them is excellent exercise for
developing the keen methodological awareness that is usually the hallmark of
good quality research work.
Internal and External Validity
Take, for example, the discussion of internal and external validity initiated by
Campbell and Stanley (1966; see also Cook and Campbell, 1979), which marked
an explicit commitment to Popperian fallibilism by quantitatively oriented social
researchers. Internal validity concerns the extent to which causal propositions
are supported in a study of a particular setting. The researcher’s task is to con-
sider and try to overcome a variety of ‘threats’ to these propositions. For example,
in trying to show that X had caused Y to vary, could the researcher be sure that
some other factor had not intervened? Campbell’s (1969) paper ‘Reforms as
07 Seale (JG/d) 18/1/02 9:40 am Page 103
Seale Quality Issues in Qualitative Inquiry 103
Experiments’ traced through some of the nine threats listed in his earlier paper
in relation to the particular example of a police crackdown on speeding drivers
in Connecticut in 1960. The governor of Connecticut had triumphantly pointed
to the accident statistics, showing a reduction in the year after the crackdown,
claiming this as a causal effect of the police initiative. Yet there are clearly a
number of threats to such a conclusion. The weather or car design could have
improved; drivers could have become more careful in response to the high acci-
dent statistics; a look at the accident statistics over a long period of time revealed
the year before the crackdown to have been an unusually high ‘blip’ anyway,
which would have been followed in all likelihood by a regression to the mean.
Each of these points illustrates a different one of the nine threats, which are
themselves of general relevance to researchers facing particular research problems,
helping them to generate objections that might be made to their conclusions.
There are various things that might be done by researchers who are con-
cerned to sustain causal arguments, such as creating a control group, or statisti-
cally controlling for confounding variables (see for example Rosenberg, 1968).
Proving causality may or may not be an objective in a qualitative research
project (see Seale, 1999a: 39–40). For present purposes, though, we can note
that Campbell’s discussion showed validity in the quantitative tradition to be a
matter that could never be finally settled by the application of some technical
procedure. The qualitative methodologist Mishler shares this perception of the
significance of Campbell and Stanley’s work:y [understood] that validity assessments are not assured by
following procedures but depend on investigators’ judgements of the relative
importance of the different ‘threats’ . . . [N]o general, abstract rules can be pro-
vided for assessing overall levels of validity . . . These evaluations [of threats]
depend, irremediably, on the whole range of linguistic practices, social norms
and contexts, assumptions and traditions that the rules had been designed to
eliminate . . . ‘rules’ for proper research are not universally applicable [and] are
modified by pragmatic considerations . . . (Mishler, 1990: 418)
In fact, the use of the ‘threats’ requires an imaginative effort by the researcher
to enter the minds of potential critics. They are devices for encouraging
methodological awareness, as well as setting up an internal dialogue that ensures
research findings are presented to their public in as good order as is possible, so
that external dialogue with real critics, from within or without some scientific
community, can begin at a higher level than might otherwise be the case.
Naturalistic Criteria
Nevertheless, qualitative criteriology has moved beyond quantitative schemes,
and much of this newer writing has something to offer the practising researcher.
Particularly helpful accounts are given by Lincoln and Guba (1985; Guba and
07 Seale (JG/d) 18/1/02 9:40 am Page 104
104 Qualitative Social Work 1(1)
Lincoln, 1989, 1994) and, from a somewhat different perspective, Hammersley
(1992). These authors do not agree on a number of points, but I do not advocate
that practising researchers should feel that they must reconcile the positions of
the different authors before imagining they can benefit from these discussions.
Rather, such writings can be regarded as good quality ‘exercise equipment’, that
provides researchers with time out in the mental gymnasium, loosening trapped
thoughts and, hopefully, feeding creativity and rigour as methodological aware-
ness grows and is incorporated in research practice.
Lincoln and Guba (1985) argue that establishing the trustworthiness of
a research report lies at the heart of issues conventionally discussed as validity
and reliability, also being central to any conception of quality in qualitative
research. They claim that four questions have, from within the conventional (in
other words, quantitative) paradigm, been asked of research reports:
1 Truth value: How can one establish confidence in the ‘truth’ of the findings of a par-
ticular inquiry for the subjects (respondents) with which and the context in which
the inquiry was carried out?
2 Applicability: How can one determine the extent to which the findings of a par-
ticular inquiry have applicability in other contexts or with other subjects (respon-
dents)?
3 Consistency: How can one determine whether the findings of an inquiry would be
repeated if the inquiry were replicated with the same (or similar) subjects (respon-
dents) in the same (or similar) context?
4 Neutrality: How can one establish the degree to which the findings of an inquiry
are determined by the subjects (respondents) and conditions of the inquiry and not
by the biases, motivations, interests, or perspectives of the inquirer? (Lincoln and
Guba, 1985: 290)
Instead, Lincoln and Guba propose their own four point criterion list for
qualitative researchers. Firstly,‘credibility’ should replace ‘truth value’. Through
prolonged engagement in the field, persistent observation and triangulation
exercises, as well as exposure of the research report to criticism by a disinterested
peer reviewer and a search for negative instances that challenge emerging
hypotheses and demand their reformulation, credibility is built up. Additionally,
Lincoln and Guba (1985) advise researchers to ‘earmark’ a portion of data to
be excluded from the main analysis, returned to later once analysis has been
done in order to check the applicability of concepts. But ‘the most crucial tech-
nique for establishing credibility’ (p. 314) is through ‘member checks’, showing
materials such as interview transcripts and research reports to the people on
whom the research has been done, so that they can indicate their agreement or
disagreement with the way in which the researcher has represented them.
Secondly ‘transferability’ should, they say, replace ‘applicability’ or exter-
nal validity as conventionally conceived. This is achieved not through random
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Seale Quality Issues in Qualitative Inquiry 105
sampling and probabilistic reasoning, but by providing a detailed, rich descrip-
tion of the setting studies, so that readers are given sufficient information to be
able to judge the applicability of findings to other settings that they know.
To replace consistency, or reliability as conventionally conceived, Lincoln
and Guba propose ‘dependability’, which can be achieved by a procedure that
they call ‘auditing’. This involves ‘auditors’ in examining an ‘audit trail’ for
adequacy. This consists of the researchers’ documentation of data, methods and
decisions made during a project, as well as its end product. Auditing is also
useful in establishing ‘confirmability’, Lincoln and Guba’s fourth criterion,
designed to replace the conventional criterion of neutrality or objectivity. Audit-
ing is an exercise in reflexivity, which involves the provision of a methodolog-
ically self-critical account of how the research was done, and can also involve
triangulation exercises. The authors conclude by pointing out that trustworthi-
ness is always negotiable and open ended, not being a matter of final proof
whereby readers are compelled to accept an account. Unfortunately they claim
that this spirit of fallibilism ‘stands in marked contrast to that of conventional
inquiry’ (by which they mean the quantitative tradition) which claims to be
‘utterly unassailable’ (Lincoln and Guba, 1985: 329) once relevant procedures
have been carried out. This is an overdrawn contrast as I hope I have shown
in the earlier discussion of Campbell and Stanley’s work.
Many of the procedures outlined by Lincoln and Guba are useful for
qualitative researchers to know about and to incorporate into their work where
relevant. But it became evident to these authors that their criteria depended on
a contradictory philosophical position, since their belief in ‘multiple constructed
realities’ (Lincoln and Guba, 1985: 294) rather than a ‘single tangible reality’ 1985: 295), which lies at the heart of the constructivist
paradigm, is not consistent with the idea that criteria for judging the trust-
worthiness of an account are possible. Relativism does not sit well with attempts
to establish truth, even if the term is placed in inverted commas.
Acknowledging this problem, then, in later work (Guba and Lincoln,
1989, 1994) they give an account of a fifth criterion,‘authenticity’, which they
believe is consistent with the relativist view that research accounts do no more
than represent a sophisticated but temporary consensus of views about what is
to be considered true. In detailing the components of authenticity Guba and
Lincoln reveal a sympathy for political conceptions of the role of research which
was already evident in their earlier commitment to the value of member check-
ing. Authenticity, they say, is demonstrated if researchers can show that they
have represented a range of different realities (‘fairness’). Research should also
help members develop ‘more sophisticated’ understandings of the phenomenon
being studied (‘ontological authenticity’); be shown to have helped members
appreciate the viewpoints of people other than themselves (‘educative authen-
ticity’); to have stimulated some form of action (‘catalytic authenticity’); and to
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106 Qualitative Social Work 1(1)
have empowered members to act (‘tactical authenticity’). Of course the view
that fairness, sophistication, mutual understanding and empowerment are gener-
ally desirable is itself a value-laden position, which a Foucauldian deconstruc-
tionist might very well enjoy taking apart. It represents a pulling back from the
relativist abyss. As they say, ‘The issue of quality criteria in constructivism is
. . . not well resolved, and further critique is needed’ (Guba and Lincoln, 1994:
114).
These authors, then, along with many others in the qualitative social
research community, have travelled on a path beginning with a rejection of
‘positivist’ criteria and the substitution of interpretivist alternatives. Dissatisfied
with the limitations of these, constructivism has been embraced, introducing an
element of relativism. Political versions of the value of research have then been
imported to save facing the logical implications of relativism, which of course
ends in a nihilistic vision and abandonment of the research enterprise. This is
a path which, roughly speaking, Denzin too has trodden. He argues that a central
commitment of qualitative researchers nevertheless remains:
This center lies in the humanistic commitment of the qualitative researcher to
study the world always from the perspective of the interacting individual. From
this simple commitment flow the liberal and radical politics of qualitative
research. Action, feminist, clinical, constructivist, ethnic, critical and cultural
studies researchers are all united on this point. They all share the belief that a
politics of liberation must always begin with the perspectives, desires, and dreams
of those individuals and groups who have been oppressed by the larger ideo-
logical, economic, and political forces of a society, or a historical moment.
(Denzin, 1994: 575)
As a criterion for judging the quality of research it is immediately obvious that
this is open to dispute. It is not difficult to imagine a well-conducted study that
enabled people in positions of power to achieve their aims. The vision of society
as no more than a system inhabited by oppressors and oppressed also seems
naive (see also Hammersley, 1995). Research can at times be more relevant to
direct political projects, at others less relevant, but its quality is an issue some-
what independent of this.
Criteriology is, at root, an impossible project if it is intended to reflect
an internally logical line of argument that simultaneously reconciles philo-
sophical and political positions with the great variety of research practices that
people may wish to pursue. The challenge taken on by criteriologists appears
to be to construct some general account of what one might hope to find in a
good study that is, on the one hand, open enough to include this variety, and
on the other hand is not so loosely specified as to be valueless in providing
guidance. In so far as these formal attempts may enhance researchers’ capacity
to perceive a variety of critical responses to the methodological decisions made