qualitative methodologies & other random musings
October 23, 2013 § 2 Comments
I found myself lost in a social science seminar this afternoon. It was about Methodologies on Doing Qualitative Research, and admittedly the only things that had sunk in to me from the invitation previous to going there were the words “methodologies” and “research”. Naturally, I signed up for it. After a few minutes into the seminar, I could have stood up and gotten out already since I could be reading all my relevant journal lists instead at that time. But aside from having secured 2 packs of hello panda, 2 packs of M&Ms, and a wintermelon juice carton (which I found out was actually “kundol”) already from the seminar’s accompanying refreshments table, something about sitting it out in a social science seminar beckoned me. The topic was actually interesting, even if it was barely related to my research. I unfortunately have never taken any Socsci or Socio subjects during my college years. All the social theories I know are from Sir Isidro’s & Mrs. Isidro’s vibrant lectures back in high school. Having grown up in a largely mathematical & scientific world, I have always associated relevant research to quantitative research. I also thought that quantitative research is almost the norm in social sciences (like psychology, economics, etc.) too, which is why I never realized that the term “qualitative research” was something strictly related to social science. As can be deduced from the terms themselves, quantitative research relies heavily on statistics to be able to make valid conclusions. On the other hand, qualitative research is seen as a minority because it relies on purely qualitative data that is most likely not collected in a random sampling manner thus rendering it probably invalid in a statistical point of view. It is research that involves going into prisons and learning why there are gangs, talking to families and drawing insights about how they value dinner time, going into a pub and figuring out why a guy drinks, and all those other interesting social activities that deserve analysis, communities that require a voice, and phenomenons that await discovery. It is something you cannot properly draw from 2-page questionnaires and have student routinely collect in exchange for some lunch money. As the speaker explained, “in qualitative research, the researcher is both the method and the methodology”. The researcher calls the shots during the actual data collection, and the researcher is also the instrument of data collection. And because of this, the biography (or background) of a researcher is directly connected to how he/she approaches his/her research. As social scientists, although objectivity is definitely required, there is substantial empathy that is demanded of qualitative researchers in order to appreciate the context in which an observation is drawn. And just like how successful quantitative research largely depends on maintaining constant conditions in your experiment, qualitative research largely depends on maintaining social relations with your informants. Issues like the proper rapport arise, wherein a certain degree of rapport is required to be able to make the informant comfortable in his disclosures but not exceeding as to result to an over-rapport that may affect the data being given by the informant. There are issues arising from how people tend to skew their responses to make it appear smarter, more politically correct, or in line with their cultural/political/social groups. There is also the danger wherein a researcher, being too immersed in his research, becomes a “native”, or as the speaker has aptly explained “become one of the informants, where his/her being a social scientist is completely abandoned”. In the end, which I think is something that is applicable to both branches of research, the speaker emphasized that there is no fool-proof, perfect methodology. This was relevant to me as I am currently in the phase of trying to design a methodology and thinking if I should consider 20 or 30 research papers to be able to design the best methodology possible. How will I start designing it? What sample size is appropriate? What book should I start reading to get the basics? And all these questions that have been twisting the guts in me in a seemingly impossible attempt to get the method perfect. The seminar also reminded me of why I was undertaking a PhD in the first place. While listening to the seminar, I realized time and again that I am doing this not to become rich and famous (and because taking this perspective will definitely cause me many sleepless nights asking questions like “will I change the world?”, “does my research matter?”, “do I matter?”, and all those crucial questions that can make a hell out of life in the academia). I am here studying simply because I want to learn. And I want to encourage other people to be curious too and be excited to learn as well. As simple as that sounds, I realize that it’s an enormous task, yet something I can actually make a difference in. It wouldn’t matter much if I don’t emerge the best biomedical engineer, but it would matter if my prospective students will leave ready to seek more knowledge after my lectures. Before leaving the Philippines, I had cut my ties with the university in order to be free to go wherever I decide to after. But as I continue to learn new things day in and day out, the passion I have for teaching surfaces each time. I get excited taking down notes, not so much as to ace exams, but to be able to make a good lecture in the future. I adapt new technologies and practices not because my coursework demands it, but because my pursuit of more knowledge demands these tools. This is a feeling I hadn’t planned on. God knows how much I still want to get that big house and big car for my parents. Of how much I’ll give to spend days of leisure and adventure in the Great Barrier, in South America, in Europe, and all those wonderful places I want to see and breathtaking things I want to do before I die. But I have to remember that simply to live for those things is selfish on my part, for what can seeing and experiencing all that do in making my existence count to other people? They say that real wealth in this life is not the riches we acquire, but the relationships we have. Making relationships is one thing, but maintaining them is an entirely different thing. As of late, I find myself constantly dealing with the struggles of trying to be a good friend to people who aren’t. I have to constantly ask myself if it’s worth the pain I feel or should I just walk away and let go of the people that bring me down anyway? But God always finds ways of telling me the answers I need to hear. Just the other day, I read somewhere that when we help, we should ask not what will happen to us if we do, but ask what will happen to them if we don’t. I am not saying I’m a perfect friend either. I’ve had so many lapses, and a lot of times I am tempted to make my introversion an excuse to disengage and cut off ties. But I cannot control everything, only myself. And though I cannot be the best, I should do my best. Abraham Lincoln said, “whatever you are, be a good one”. I guess in the academe or the industry, the same feeling goes of wanting to reach the top of your game. However, while industry does its best to compensate, the academe mostly offers appreciation and housing. Moments where I ask myself if this entire ordeal is worth it are becoming more frequent. Sometimes, for fun, I go as far as imagining what I’ll have to process to quit the entire thing. But fear is natural when we tread the unknown and the uncertain. Comfort and leisure aren’t things that successful people enjoy on a daily basis. At least not the “successful people” I strive to be. I have to work my ass off and get my hands dirty. I cannot expect too much in exchange, but I have to live for my purpose anyway.
And so before i close this article that is largely a reminder for myself really, I’d like to note how the speaker reminded us that research cannot remain at the descriptive level. You need to reconstruct the data and draw an analysis. As aptly put by his last few words, “as much as we are all expected to draw as much information from the trees we have selected, we are also expected to be able to say a few things about the forest”. The ultimate satisfaction of a researcher should not be confined to getting that Nobel Prize, but be broken down to little successful contributions to the body of knowledge out there. And let me add that although we may never fully understand life in our lifetime, it is the attempt to understand it and respond in an appropriate manner that gives meaning to it.