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REVIEW: Designing qualitative research

Marshall, C. & Rossman, G.B. (2006) Designing qualitative research (4th. Ed). London: Sage.

In this methodological textbook, Marshall and Rossman offer a strong discussion of qualitative methodology and show the broad range of its research methods. For mass communication scholars, this book is valuable for its focus on communication as one of the dominant paradigms of qualitative inquiry. In the field of visual communication, this book is less critical, but does show a turn toward recognition and incorporation of visual sensibilities into the full realm of qualitative research. The section about film and photography does show the ways qualitative research can be used in visual analysis, but does not give a full range of what the field expects. I would recommend this book as a handbook for setting up a qualitative study, and especially to place the research in the discipline at large.

Marshall and Rossman begin with a comprehensive list of typologies other scholars have defined for qualitative research: Human ethnology, ecological psychology, holistic ethnography, cognitive anthropology, ethnography of communication, and symbolic interactionism (Jacob, 1987,1988); symbolic interactionism anthropology, social linguistics, ethnomethodology, democratic evaluation, neo-Marxist ethnography, and feminism (Atkinson, Delamont, and Hammersley, 1988); biography, phenomenology, grounded theory, ethnography, and case study (Creswell, 1998); case studies, ethnography, participant observation and performance ethnography, phenomenology and ethnomethodology, grounded theory, life history and testimonial, historical method, action and applied research, and clinical research (Denzin and Lincoln, 2005).

With this, we get a more complete picture of the methods of qualitative research, including the introduction of feminist methodologies. Honestly, the long classification of methods of qualitative methods is frustrating because the lists are consistently incomplete. While Marshall and Rossman are the first in my readings to offer multiple perspectives of typologies, they still fail to include visual methodologies outright, legal inquiry, and other sociocultural methods related to subgroups and minorities.

Marshall and Rossman find harmony in the list of typologies to classify the research into three genres: Individual lived experiences, Society and Culture, and Language and Communication. While these categories are broad enough to actually encompass the many methods of qualitative inquiry, I’m not sold on their necessity. When considered as a whole, qualitative research is a process of collecting and analyzing data in a given situation through varying forms of interaction, observation, and engagement, with human and/or nonhuman subjects, for a defined period of time, to understand, explain, and compare problems and situations. Within this, researchers have a multiplicity of methods that change over time, but still answer questions through engagement of some research subject. Consider the netnography, an ethnography of online communities, and its evolution of necessity from in-person ethnography and content analysis. I believe it is more important to grasp the essence of qualitative research and its method for answering questions than it is to see the variations of qualitative inquiry models. While it is important to know these individual traditions, many books, including this one, are guilty of treating them all as separate methods.

The authors discuss a method for organizing the paper proposal, suggesting an introduction with an overview, a statement of the topic and purpose, the potential significance of the paper, the framework and general research questions, and limitations, then a literature review with theoretical traditions, essays by the experts, and related research, and then finally a design and methodology section, with an approach and rationale, population, data gathering methods, analysis procedure, trustworthiness, a personal biography, and ethics and political considerations.

I disagree with many of these statements. First, there is no need for a personal biography, but that kind of information should be disclosed in an ethics section. Further, the introduction should have a “so what” section that explains how the questions raised in this research paper can be applied to the understanding of the problem or situation. Additionally missing are the three key words anthropology uses in the introduction to situate the paper. “Setting the scene” is an essential concept in qualitative research because it places the research in a time and place and allows readers to understand the problem being addressed.

The authors then discuss the what and how of research, where they examine sampling, instrument construction, consent, IRB, theory, and other topics. In chapter 5, they approach a multitude of methods and give basic guidelines for collecting data for each of them. The ability to understand each of these is useful in planning studies, and the method descriptions are clear and thorough, but are concise.

Marshall and Rossman even broach visual inquiry through a discussion of research from photo, film, and video materials. Their discussion here is weak; it does not delve into framing, mis-en-scene, visual rhetoric, content analysis, or any of the other primary methods for visual research. Yet, the fact that the book even approached the topic shows a turn in qualitative research methods books to recognize the importance of visuals in the society and to consider them as subjects for research.

Chapters 5 and 6 focus on the process of analyzing data, and offer guidelines for time management. The chart on page 155 examines a continuum of technical to intuitive analysis. While I am generally not a fan of one-dimensional models of research,  this continuum is logical in that different methods require different types of analysis. The authors identify seven steps in data analysis: organization, immersion, creating categories and themes, coding, analyze, search for alternate understandings, and write the report. These steps follow the classic anthropological model for immersion research to find a deep understanding for the problem. While this model is available in many other texts, the explanation here gives a great level of depth.

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