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REVIEW: Qualitative evaluation and research methods

Patton, M.Q. (1990) Qualitative evaluation and research methods (2nd ed.). London: Sage.

Patton begins his book by identifying three kinds of data collection in qualitative inquiry: In-depth interviews, direct observations, and written documents. Because this edition of the book was published in 1990, I wanted to see if these three methods had changed in future editions. Patton published a revised edition in 2002, and still contained these three methods. I believe this is short sighted. While these categories can encompass other tested qualitative methods, such as focus groups, content analysis, online communications, and most important to the topic at hand, visual methods, they are not listed as their own categories. Patton addresses their absence on page 12, but dictates the book will feature applied research and program evaluation. He does not dismiss them, but says the book will consider them for applied purposes.

Patton explains that qualitative methods allow a researcher to go in depth in study a problem or phenomenon. This depth allows researchers go into a situation free of preconceived notions and permits openness and detail in qualitative study. The researcher acts as the instrument of analysis. This style allows for the creation of theory and ability to synthesize similar works to find commonalities and develop a great understanding of the problem.

Patton views qualitative inquiry as variations of ethnography, as the researcher must physically engage the research subjects as a participant observer. Interviews engage a person. Observation engages a society. Document research engages a collection or an archive.

In Chapter 2, Patton outlines 10 themes of qualitative inquiry. Again, this format is a bit outdated for modern humanistic inquiry, especially visual inquiry, where the progress of technology paces the ability to gather information. However, Patton makes an enduring point that regardless of the field of research, the researcher should be aware of all these traditions as possible ways to answer the research question. The research question should drive the methodology. This seems like a common sense remark, but it actually is a sound reminder for why we as a discipline use multiple methods for solving problems, and no single method can answer every research question.

A particularly intriguing passage beginning on p. 169 discusses the rationale for purposeful sampling, as well as other kinds of sampling. The rationale for purposeful sampling is that the subjects represent characteristics of variables, and the depth of information gained from each case serves to explain the variation among the cases as a whole. This logic is important to the defense of qualitative methodologies. Simple random samples are rare in journalism research as a whole, but are impossible in qualitative study. Selecting a sample in qualitative research is as important as selecting a method. And the rationale here again is simple: What sampling strategy best suits the research question I am asking?

Patton discusses field observation in very detailed terms. He draws on the ideas set forth in anthropology, which is the leading field in ethnographic research. He discusses setting the scene, choosing the scene, field notes, and interpretation. The ethnographic methods are very useful and underused in the field of journalism and mass communication and visual communication. With the rise of the Internet, ethnography is more important than ever as a method for studying exchange and behavior online. This method, called netnography, would be particularly useful to study social media and to examine the use of citizen journalism in traditional media. For visuals, one could study the change over time of the visual elements of the web presence for corporations and public entities to examine the organization’s framing of itself.

Patton addresses interviewing as a research strategy. Because interviewing is so ingrained in the practice of journalism and mass communication, researchers often return to their industry days in this method. However, a good read of this chapter will remind the researcher the finer points of qualitative interviewing. Patton argues that the best interviews are a brief, one-person ethnography. I agree with his claims here, and add that it is important to take field notes as well as make a recording of an interview, particularly if the sample size is very small.

In the final chapters, Patton turns to data analysis and reiterates the point that qualitative data explains a problem and builds a theory, while quantitative data finds an answer to a question. I know this is an important point, but Patton seems to be fighting a battle that has been decided. Qualitative data is incredibly important in JMC scholarship, as is quantitative. Qualitative theory seeks to build theory through induction and interpretation, while quantitative theory expands on existing theory.

Overall, this book served as a clear guide to the varying methods of inquiry in qualitative study. It does a great job at getting into the deep details of gathering and collecting data. I wish the book was organized by the methods employed for collecting data. The text is a bit outdated, and I am curious to the difference in the 2002 edition, and if a new edition is being planned.

As it relates to visual communication, I think this book offers a variety of methods that can be used in visual inquiry, but he does not address it directly. The reader will have to make the jump from general qualitative to visual qualitative. I found my background in anthropology really helped to bridge the gap to visual scholarship, and I have seen how anthropologists have used them to record culture, and how some cultural artifacts are visual elements. All in all, this book is a good read, but needs to be updated to remain relevant as a methods book.

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