ERIC Identifier: ED347487
Publication Date: 1992-12-00
Author: Bloland, Paul A.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Counseling and Personnel Services Ann Arbor MI.
Qualitative Research in Student Affairs. ERIC Digest.
While most graduate preparation programs in college student affairs and
counseling tend to provide research training that emphasizes statistical
comparisons (i.e., experimental designs) or numerical description (i.e.,
surveys), an approach based upon the traditional positivistic scientific method
of solving problems, it is becoming more and more clear that our understanding
of college students and their culture is unnecessarily circumscribed if we rely
only on the information provided by quantitative research. Fortunately there
appears to be an increased acceptance of qualitative research methods at the
same time that we are becoming more cognizant of the complexity of college
student development and its environmental setting (Caple, 1991). (The September,
1991 Special Edition of the Journal of College Student Development was devoted
to qualitative research methods in student affairs). Student affairs
professionals, most of whose graduate training has been limited to the
traditional quantitative research methodologies favored by the field of
psychology, need to be aware of the qualitative alternative and the types of
data that it may yield for our greater understanding of college students and the
cultural ecology of the campus.
WHAT IS QUALITATIVE RESEARCH?
Although the dichotomy is too
simplistic, we tend to think of research as being categorized as quantitative,
using numbers as data to describe events or establish relationships between
events (positivism), or qualitative, using words as data to describe human
experience or behavior (phenomenological). Qualitative research had its origins
in the types of field research conducted by anthropologists as they observed the
day-to-day lives of their subjects. The qualitative approach became standard for
sociologists in the 1920s and 1930s but never became popular among educators and
psychologists who relied primarily on their adaptation of the empirical methods
utilized by physical scientists engaged in a search for relationships and causes
(Bogdan & Biklen, 1992). What these qualitative approaches have in common is
a reliance on the written or spoken word or the observable behavior of the
person being studied as the principal source of data for analysis. The purpose
of such research is a greater understanding of the world as seen from the unique
viewpoint of the people being studied.
QUALITATIVE VS. QUANTITATIVE RESEARCH
research is often defined by how it differs from quantitative research, it may
be helpful to compare the two approaches. A major difference lies in their
fundamentally different assumptions about the goals of research. Babbie (1983),
for example, has defined qualitative analysis as "the nonnumerical examination
and interpretation of observation for the purpose of discovering underlying
meanings and patterns of relationships" (p. 537) as opposed to quantitative
research, "the numerical representation and manipulation of observations for the
purpose of describing and explaining the phenomena that those observations
reflect" (p. 537).
The differences between the two approaches, then, result because each is
defining problems differently and each is looking for different solutions or
answers. As defined above, qualitative methods lend themselves to discovering
meanings and patterns while quantitative methods seek causes and relationships
demonstrated statistically, a theoretical perspective, positivism, that is
concerned with facts, prediction, and causation and not the subjective nature of
the groups or individuals of interest. Researchers in the qualitative mode seek
understanding through inductive analysis, moving from specific observation to
the general. Quantitative analysis, on the other hand, employs deductive logic,
moving from the general to the specific, i.e., from theory to experience.
In a sense, qualitative research
is also defined by the research methodologies or procedures employed to obtain
the subjective data that form the basis for analysis and further understanding.
While social scientists differ widely among themselves about the categorization
of qualitative research and the terminology used to describe it, there are three
approaches that appear to be the principal methods currently employed:
observation, both participant and direct; qualitative interviewing, from
unstructured to structured; and unobtrusive research, including the study of
Participant observation refers to the
collection of data by observers who become involved for a relatively long period
of time in a field setting such as a student organization, long enough to
observe group and individual interactions as the participants repeat and evolve
behaviors. Participant observers, while involved in the setting, have no
personal stake in what occurs but are sufficiently detached to find the time to
observe and record routine and unusual activities and interactions as they occur
naturally and spontaneously in the field setting. Direct observation or
nonparticipant observation, in contrast, sets the researcher aside as an
uninvolved reporter, as a member of an audience, so to speak.
We use interviewing to gain access
to ideas, thoughts, emotions, etc., that we can't readily identify through
observation alone. There are several types of interviews that are particularly
useful in qualitative research. In the unstructured approach the interviewer has
no theory or presupposition about what to expect from the encounter and,
consequently, does not formulate questions in advance but, after introducing the
topic, allows the interview conversation to follow the interviewee's lead. The
interviews are later analyzed to determine recurrent themes or patterns. For an
example of phenomenological interviewing see Attinasi's (1991) qualitative study
of the meaning of going to college for a group of Mexican-American students.
Interviews may also be more structured with a set of predetermined topics
used, or even with a standardized interview consisting of questions to be
answered by each respondent. While interviewer flexibility and responsiveness is
more limited when structured interviews are employed, structuring reduces
variability and makes more efficient use of time than does the unstructured
Practitioners of unobtrusive or
nonreactive research take the position that the researcher must not become a
part of what is being studied and must not have any effect upon it.
Consequently, the researcher examines already available evidence, usually after
the fact, and attempts to draw generalizations and conclusions. A form of
unobtrusive research, content analysis, involves the examination of written
documents such as personal diaries, course essays, or student newspapers.
Historical research which uses existing sources, primary and secondary, to
reconstruct the past is clearly unobtrusive.
WHEN ARE QUALITATIVE METHODS INDICATED?
The research method
chosen to study a problem should be compatible with the questions being asked.
The method should service the kind of knowledge being sought rather than the
other way around. One should not approach an investigation by looking for an
excuse to use one's qualitative research skills but should, instead, ask, "What
kind of an approach is most likely to give me the best answers to my research
For example, the qualitatively-oriented researcher is less likely to be
interested in questions that seek to identify cause and effect, that answer the
question, "Why?", than in questions that ask, "What?", "How?", or "Who?" An
answer to the latter questions requires that the researcher access the internal
experiences of the person being studied. They can't be answered by identifying
the variables in advance because we don't know the dimensions of the phenomenon
being studied before we talk to the participants. Qualitative research
approaches thus appear to be most appropriate for the study of complex
organizations such as student affairs programs, and for the study of complex
processes such as roommate selection and adaptation.
As might be expected, the typical
study results in a mass of information in the form of field notes, interview
transcripts, documents, tape recordings, in short, in a plethora of words. The
researcher must somehow recast this information in a form that makes it more
readily usable so that meaning can be teased out of it. Miles and Huberman
(1984) consider data analysis as consisting of "three concurrent flows of
activity: data reduction, data display, and conclusion drawing/verification" (p.
Data reduction refers to the process of taking that mass of words and
selecting some of it for summarizing or paraphrasing so that the result is a
more succinct and easier to handle representation of the whole. While it may be
necessary at times to use numbers they should always be accompanied by the words
behind the numbers. By data display, Miles and Huberman mean the organization of
the information in the form of graphs, charts, matrices, and networks so that it
is in a readily accessible and compact form.
Finally, the researcher must decide what the data mean. At the same time the
investigator is attempting to verify the conclusions, testing them for sources
of error. Do they hold up as rational, plausible inferences based upon the data
analysis? Verification performs for qualitative research what reliability and
validity perform for quantitative research.
For student affairs, a professional field
heretofore dominated by the positivistic design structure imposed by
quantitative research methodology and traditional graduate research courses, an
increased utilization of an alternative methodology, the qualitative, would lead
to a greatly expanded range of researchable questions. Much of student affairs
and counseling research has been characterized by carefully circumscribed and
narrowly focused questions designed to illuminate causality and relationship.
However, the environment of a college campus and its student culture represents
a very rich and complex social structure that cannot readily be studied
holistically by statistical means alone. Certainly it is clear that the interior
life of the college student is largely inaccessible to objective instruments and
quantitative approaches. The use of qualitative research approaches, alone or in
combination with quantitative methods in the same study (for example, see Luzzo,
1991), can greatly expand the breadth and depth of our understanding of the
student in higher education as a developing participant in his or her own
Attinasi, L. C., Jr. (1991). Phenomenological
interviewing in the context of institutional research: An argument and an
illustration (No. 38). Tallahassee, FL: Florida State University, Association
for Institutional Research. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 329 157)
Babbie, E. (1983). The practice of social research (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA:
Bogdan, R. C., & Biklen, S. K. (1992). Qualitative research for education
(2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Caple, R. B. (1991). Expanding the horizons. Journal of College Student
Development, 32, 387-388.
Luzzo, D. A. (1991). Social class and ethnic differences in college students'
career maturity: A quantitative and qualitative analysis. Paper presented at a
meeting of the American Educational Research Association. Chicago, IL. (ERIC
Document Reproduction Service No. ED 333 152)
Miles, M. B., & Huberman, A. M. (1984). Qualitative data analysis.
Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE Publications.