In Defense of Qualitative Research – A PhD Researcher’s Experience

Even though qualitative research is more respected nowadays, it is still seen in some academic circles just as a starting point in research. We still live in a world where quantitative approaches are dominant and considered more robust for relying on numerical or measurable data. These methods allow us to measure variables and test hypotheses, whereas qualitative methods “only” allow us to explore beliefs, experiences, and understandings. The measurability gives them credibility, for numbers can be measured and evaluated, while interviews, focus groups or participant observation are subject to individual perceptions. As a PhD researcher, I have heard multiple times that conducting qualitative research is not as “good” as quantitative research, that it has too many “weaknesses” and it won’t be as easy to publish.

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This post from Andrea Pérez Porres originally appeared on the SAGE perspectives blog, which highlights topical and interesting research published in SAGE books and journals

Although there is a bias against qualitative research, not every type of data can be handled using quantitative, and human behavior cannot always be reduced to numbers. There is complex data surrounding beliefs, attitudes, emotions, and understandings that needs the stories behind it to really understand the “why’s” and “how’s.” These questions are not always quantifiable, and they can have an impact on important decision-making processes. People’s beliefs and experiences shape the world. They influence changes in the institutions that shape development, and they influence societies’ structures.

Thus, qualitative research is extremely important. As a qualitative doctoral researcher myself, it is sometimes easy to fall into the belief that qualitative research is not as robust as quantitative research. I am researching how social movements understand innovation and technology beyond economic growth, and therefore I am focusing on the narratives and discourses that people have. Qualitative methods are frequently used in science, technology and innovation studies, as they allow the study of socio-technical imaginaries and explore the role of science, innovation, and technology in society. In addition to this, qualitative methods are very predominant as well in social movements studies. For me, the only way to conduct my study and answer my research questions is through qualitative research methods such as in-depth interviews and participant observation.

However, we are still bombarded by beliefs and biases that qualitative research is simpler, even easier sometimes. Nonetheless, something that people tend to forget is that qualitative thinking is also mixed within all the steps in the process of scientific work and research. Even when calculations are being processed by a machine, qualitative interpretations have had to be programmed into it beforehand. Qualitative research is everywhere, and it is as important and needed as quantitative research.

One of the challenges of qualitative research is that qualitative thinking will change from researcher to researcher, everyone does it differently. In addition to this, smaller sample sizes than in quantitative research can make generalization more difficult. However, it moves away from the cause-effect explanation towards a more complex understanding of reality. The main mistake here is to judge qualitative research by quantitative standards, qualitative research needs its own criteria. The criteria for assessing and evaluating qualitative research methods will differ from method to method, qualitative research is not a cohesive discipline and not one specific set of quality criteria is feasible, as explained in the article by Drishti Yadav on “Criteria for Good Qualitative Research: A Comprehensive Review”.

No research method is perfect, and sometimes it might be better to use qualitative methods in conjunction with quantitative methods. But sometimes, it might not, and it should be just as valid.

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Andrea Pérez Porres

Andrea Pérez Porres is a second-year PhD student in the Science Policy Research Unit at Sussex University. Her research focuses on social movements in the UK and how they are re-thinking innovation beyond economic growth for sustainability transitions. She is also one of the 2022/23 Hive Scholars.

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