Qualitative: research or practice?

Over the summer I was fortunate enough to receive a travel grant to attend the 11th International Conference on Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD) in Toulouse, France. Alongside my PhD, I have been running qualitative interviews with adults with DCD and I wanted to present some findings at the conference. I initially started the study as part of my MSc dissertation and carried it over out of personal interest because I really enjoyed running the interviews. Also, it has provided an opportunity to work in a great team with the Goldsmiths Action Lab (GOAL): http://research.gold.ac.uk/11559/1/Goldsmiths%20Action%20Lab%20Newsletter%202.pdf

Since the conference, I have continued to work on my data by coding and sorting the interview transcripts into themes. However, when explaining the study to others, I have occasionally noticed receiving a flickering sidelong look and then: ‘So you’re a qualitative researcher?’

I’m not sure what this really means. I am aware qualitative and quantitative approaches are often polarised in psychology with some researchers sitting firmly in one camp and others in the opposite. I have also felt the need to justify the methodology in my qualitative study far more than I would ever have expected to with a quantitative approach. Some researchers have appeared genuinely puzzled when listening to my findings and asked ‘Yes but how do you really know?’ – which is a really good question. But I think the more interesting questions are not in separating qualitative from quantitative research but in separating qualitative research from clinical practice.

Running semi-structured qualitative interviews is different from collecting participant responses on questionnaires or other quantitative measures. I’m far more aware of the need to create a safe environment (a quiet room without outside noise; with complete privacy for disclosure reasons; with tissues or cups of tea in case participants cry) for each individual in my study. I have an information sheet, a consent form, a loose set of questions covering feelings and thoughts about DCD in adulthood and a tape recorder. Other than that, I have no idea what will happen and I’m not sure participants will either.

During the interview, my role (as a researcher) is to listen without offering advice and probe or guide where appropriate. This seems to not only create a clinical setting but sometimes facilitate it. Participants have, on occasion, wanted to talk freely perhaps in the knowledge it won’t be written up as patient records or the understanding that their narrative won’t be fitted into any type of therapeutic framework. But somehow the setting offers some kind of period for reflection. I have often wondered whether this is an ethical issue or whether it needs to be defined as such. Also, it has made writing up the findings so much harder because of researcher reflexivity – something I’ve never needed to consider using a quantitative approach. Moreover, the data is rich and exhausting. There is so much information (and hundreds of pages of interview transcript) that it feels difficult, and sometimes patronising, to reduce transcripts to themes even when these themes emerge time and time again.

In this sense, trying to understand how far research and clinical practice can be separated has been a humbling experience. It’s still unclear why or whether there’s a need to define individuals as qualitative or quantitative researchers. But if you know of any colleagues working on qualitative data – make sure they have a quiet room without outside noise and they can work in complete privacy…and they might just appreciate a break and a chat over a cup of tea.

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