John Creswell on the Value of the Qualitative Approach

John W. Creswell
John W. Creswell

Say the name John Creswell in the presence of social and behavioral scientists and almost immediately you’ll start hearing fond remembrances of one or more of his books on qualitative methodology, quite likely on the mixed methods approach for which he’s been an apostle. And what an apostle – he’s written 28 books on mixed methods research, qualitative research and research design.

That loving response by students past and present, and the track record it represents, has been validated anew by the Textbook and Academic Authors Association (TAA), which this year is honoring one of Creswell’s most popular texts with its McGuffey Longevity Award, which honors well-written, well-research,, well-designed – and most importantly, well-received –books that have been in print for at least 15 years.

The fourth edition of Creswell’s Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing Among Five Approaches will receive the honor at the TAA’s annual conference on June 15. Creswell had been the sole author of the three previous editions, but the latest version was co-written with Cheryl N. Poth, a renowned methodologist with the Centre for Research and Applied Measurement and Evaluation at the University of Alberta.

In honoring the book, the TAA judges cited two of the attributes that have long marked Creswell’s work, robust research design and absolute accessibility. “Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design,” the judges wrote,dependably reveals the research design path and provides navigational aids. No doubt it will continue to encourage more generations of researchers to embrace excellent qualitative research because of these attributes.” Taking advantage of the honor, we asked both Creswell and Poth about their work on the book, about trends in methods, and about their own academic journeys. John Creswell’s answers are below; read Cheryl Poth’s reflections on methodology and being asked to join up with a giant whose workshop “changed the course” of her career by clicking here..

Creswell is a professor of family medicine and co-director of the Michigan Mixed Methods Research and Scholarship Program at the University of Michigan. While at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he held the Clifton Endowed Professor Chair, served as director of a mixed methods research office, founded the SAGE journal, the Journal of Mixed Methods Research, and was an adjunct professor of family medicine at the University of Michigan and a consultant to the Veterans Administration.

The market has spoken as to whether your books — not just this one!– are successes. But from your vantage point, why are your books, and this one in particular, a success?

Over the years I have learned from readers that my books are successful because I simplify and clarify the basic research ideas so that a reader can easily learn how to conduct research. I have also been described as a clear, concise writer, and in my books, I share what has actually worked for me in research and talk about my own studies. This lends a personal touch to the writing. One of the best compliments I received for my writing came from a reader who asked me if I still practiced water aerobics because I had brought in as an example something from my water aerobics class in one of my books. What resonated with this person was my personal experience that helped the reader understand and remember my point about doing research.

What have you learned in between each edition?

I have learned how important ethics is in doing qualitative research and continue to expand my ethics discussion with each new edition. I have also learned that 5 approaches might be expanded to include more approaches, such as participatory action research and discourse analysis. But five approaches seems to be enough for the present moment, and I do not want to keep expanding the content of the book.

What was the original reason you wrote this particular book on the five approaches, as opposed to a different way to explain qualitative inquiry and research design?

I felt that qualitative research was not simply one type of design but many possibilities for the researcher. This was especially true after the early 1990s when specific books were being published on types of qualitative designs, such as grounded theory, phenomenology, and case studies. I felt that the researcher needed to select from among the different types of designs, and that my book could present the possibilities so that the researcher could make an informed decision as to what type of qualitative design would be best for their project. Thus, the Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design book put five approaches side-by-side so that a researcher might decide which approach was best for their project.

What was, or is, your own biggest stumbling block in deploying qualitative research methodology?

For many years I needed to convince researchers of the value of qualitative research. The approach to research had been primarily quantitative, statistically oriented research. So my challenge was to create the best argument possible for the value of qualitative research and why it was useful as an approach to research. This involved talking about how hearing the voices of participants was important, how specific words used by participants were important, and how the setting or context of the research situation was valuable to know. Today, I find that I have less to justify the use of qualitative research and focus more on how to actually employ the approach in an actual study.

While you’re certainly best-known in these parts for your advocacy and support of qualitative inquiry and mixed methods, your ‘day job’ is as a professor of family medicine. [He was a Senior Fulbright Scholar to South Africa in 2008 and to Thailand in 2012. In 2011, he co-led a national working group on mixed methods practices at the National Institutes of Health, served as a visiting professor at Harvard’s School of Public Health, and received an honorary doctorate from the University of Pretoria, South Africa.] Would you outline the overlap between those two spheres?

In family medicine at Michigan, I am a full-time researcher helping faculty and students prepare their research applications for funding sources. I also provide workshops on qualitative and mixed methods research. So in my day job at Michigan, I am continually employing my ideas about how to conduct good research. At Michigan I do not teach formal graduate courses, but my workshops do provide a teaching opportunity for me

While I know all the tips and approaches are valuable, if you were told to write a book with only one tip for research design, what would it be?

The one tip I would provide is to think about the parts of conducting research – the problem, the data collection, the data analysis, the interpretation – and consider how these parts interact. All of my books take the position that the “process of research” is fundamental to conducting and writing about research, and that a good research study portrays the interaction among all of the parts of research

While receiving an excellence award is certainly an honor in itself, what sort of actionable information does being recognized for having a text that has stood the test of time provide for your own writing/textbook creation?

With all of my new editions to my research books, I think that I am up to 28 books now, the question is, “Do I write another book?” I cannot answer this question right now, although I would like to write (and am writing my memoir) a literary book. Recognition gives me the incentive to continue writing more books, whether academic or literary in form. The habit of writing has certainly set in for me, and I am such that I will continue. The award just encourages me onward.

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Michael Todd

Social Science Space editor Michael Todd is a long-time newspaper editor and reporter whose beats included the U.S. military, primary and secondary education, government, and business. He entered the magazine world in 2006 as the managing editor of Hispanic Business. He joined the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy and its magazine Miller-McCune (renamed Pacific Standard in 2012), where he served as web editor and later as senior staff writer focusing on covering the environmental and social sciences. During his time with the Miller-McCune Center, he regularly participated in media training courses for scientists in collaboration with the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS), Stanford’s Aldo Leopold Leadership Institute, and individual research institutions.

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