Reflecting on Qualitative Research

By Aimee Snyder, MPH, DrPH Student Maternal and Child Health ’15

44,476: That is the number of words I collected, transcribed, and now analyze, again and again. This time, my analysis is to identify the challenges 25 school nurses expressed in regards to caring for children in their majority low-income, minority school district in south Tucson. This is qualitative analysis. It is broad umbrella questions and loaded, long-winded responses. It is faces and feelings not captured with statistics and assumptions.  It is complex and challenging to sum up.

Qualitative research and evaluation is often considered soft science and small in sample compared to large quantitative data. Quantitative work is quicker and easier to collect and analyze, and it minimizes errors in analysis based on larger numbers and standardized computer methods and tools. It is used to remove subjectivity to proclaim a form of “truth” generalized across a large group of people.

Though it is variable, not easily comparable, and inherently subjective, there is a robust value to qualitative research and evaluation. Where we lack in range, qualitative flourishes in depth and meaning – once data are extracted from the complex masses of text (or audio/visuals/records/what-have-yous).

My data set is 44,476 words.  Many of those words are irrelevant. Many are powerful. The value of a word isn’t discrete as are the values of numerals. The values of each word varies by the combination of the words surrounding it, even pages before or after it. The value of the words change by the way the words are shared and how they are interpreted by others based on the consumer’s personal knowledge, experiences, and attitudes. These relationships, meanings, and values between words may be additive, multiplicative, or the opposites.

There is no command I can give a system to judge the significance of the words. I can only command myself….over and over….and hear the voices for their individual truths and see what patterns and themes emerge as a collective “truths” specific to those who live in it. We aim not to generalize, but to listen with an open mind and hear about the personal whys and hows underlying the large-scale whats captured with quantitative methods.

As I watch coverages of the Baltimore riots and hear the statistics about poverty, crimes, and police actions and the assumptions and generalizations being shared as truths via mass media and social media, I wish I could hear more voice from those unheard. We see the negative extremes often in media and then interpret all else with that extremity as a reference point. What about what’s in the heart of the subjects? What do they feel and why do they feel it? I want to listen instead of applying my middle class, graduate-educated assumptions to others.

Qualitative is about the quality of life and what that means to those who live that life. It is the art and the science” of public health.

This is my public health: finding channels for voices unheard. It is one piece of the puzzle, but it is a load-bearing unit for a functional system of change. Of course, though, these are not facts, but my own personal truths.

For more about qualitative research and evaluation, Michael Quinn Patton’s Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methods is a comprehensive source and a pleasurable read. Warning: your notions of objectivity and “truths” may be changed forever, in turn building your cultural humility.

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