This post is part of a series of blogs offering a week-by-week account of my first year qualitative methods course. You can find them all under the tag GEO1018: Qualitative Methods
The first task in a qualitative methods module is to try and work out how to introduce the thing. This is not necessarily an easy task: a good portion of the students coming into the module will be ready to dismiss qualitative research as ‘anecdotal’ or ‘subjective’ in comparison to the ‘hard facts’ of quantitative research, or will expect it to be easy: it’s just talking, right? On GEO1018, I know that I’ve got around 120 BSc students, the majority of whom have signed up for a degree of coring for soil samples, lab work and computer modelling. And I’m about to tell them that they’ve got a semester of interpreting discourse ahead.
In the past, I’ve tried launching with arguments about constructivist social science, the value of experience as a form of data, the ethics of documenting unvoiced participants in the social world… generally, to a room of stony faces. I still do some of this, but I now put it off to the second lecture, in favour of a slightly more mechanistic introduction: what is qualitative data and what are the core techniques we use to get it. I think the focus on data as opposed to methods at the start is useful in (hopefully) helping students understand the end point of the methods we’re using.
The seminar content (PowerPoint and handout) focuses on research questions. Research questions are something that I’ve grown less and less sceptical about over time: when I was a PhD student, I was quite dismissive of them. While I still share the critique that they can hide the complexity of a research process, I now feel that the ability to express your research in the form of a few questions at any given moment is a useful sign that it has some thought and focus behind it, even if those questions might change from day to day. It’s also useful, I think, in helping students start to understand qualitative research: it gives them something substantial to get their teeth into, which looks a little like the hypotheses they’ve been taught about previously, but is subtly different.
The actual class starts by considering the wording of some of the questions from Oldekop, J.A., et. al. 2016. 100 key research questions for the post‐2015 development agenda. Development Policy Review, 34(1), pp.55-82. I think that this is useful in showing how research questions are a ‘real world’ thing, and also allows me to show problems that qualitative methods are best suited to answering (Eg “How do different countries and cultures vary in how they conceptualise, define and operationalise ‘development’, and what is the significance of this for development policies and practices?”). By focusing on development, it also means most geography students are in their comfort zone, which I think is a good place in which to introduce these methods.
The second exercise asks them to design some research questions in groups, based on a short article about the ‘Mobike’ bicycle hire scheme in Newcastle. In all honesty, I find that in this task it’s hard to get students away from questions or methods that lead them towards quantitative research, but I’m keen to get them creating their own ideas about research from the start of the module, and it can be useful to reinforce the good ideas that come out of this discussion and gently push them in that direction!