Over the last few months I’ve been reading more and more about the demise of qualitative research.
This isn’t coming from clinical scientists and quantitative researchers, but from people who have been invested in the field since its inception in the late 1980s.
The argument they make is that qualitative research has now become too formulaic, systematized and too heavily methodological. It’s lost its critical power and forgotten what qualitative inquiry was meant to be able to do.
One of the people who explains this best is probably Elizabeth St Pierre Adams, and in this recent video from last year’s Australasian Association for Research in Education (AARE) conference, she explains the personal trajectory she has gone through as first a passionate advocate for qualitative research, and latterly as one of its fiercest critics (watch between 19 mins 30 secs and 29 minutes if you just want to hear Adams’ criticism).
There is a beautiful, easily read, and lengthier explanation of Adams’ critique in this article (pdf) that is well worth reading, particularly if you are a student or teacher of qualitative research.
The challenge that Adams poses is to engage in a kind of critical research that looks beyond the kinds of qualitative studies that are all too common now in health care. These are the studies where well meaning researchers interview a few people, code and categorise their findings, and do a ‘thematic analysis’ of the data, to reveal three or four key themes that don’t tell you anything you knew already. You know the kind of thing: pain is complex , MS causes life disruption, people yearn for hope, etc.
Adams talks about how in the early days of qualitative research they didn’t know what it’s potential could be; how it was exploratory, social, deeply critical and philosophical.
As it gained people’s attention, especially in places like health care, it started to be critiqued by clinical scientists who said it wasn’t rigorous or valid, that it lacked generalisability and did nothing to help people with clinical judgements.
As a response to this criticism, qualitative researchers focused a lot of their attention on methodology, going to real lengths to try to make qualitative researchers as rigorous, as credible and as trustworthy as the best of the clinical sciences.
But something got lost along the way and qualitative research has all but lost its critical dynamism. It is so bound in the rigorous application of methodological formulae and prescriptions, and there are now library shelves full of methodological text books and thousands of articles demonstrating qualitative research, rigorously executed.
I’ve done this myself. I’ve spent years teaching qualitative research and published papers where I set out how physiotherapists might understand it and do it better (see references). But I’ve always found it hard to teach this way and have tried never to be a slave to methodology in my own research practice.
So where does this leave physiotherapy? Qualitative research has really started to gain a foothold in physiotherapy in recent years, and it is definitely opening our eyes to the possibility of new ways of thinking about things like activity, bodies, function and movement, but there is a lot of relatively poor quality qualitative research coming out of physiotherapy. Despite Adams’ criticisms, there is too much low grade, thematic analysis being offered to journals for review.
Fortunately, there are some real pioneers in the profession and many are part of the Critical Physiotherapy Network.
At the recent In Sickness and In Health conference in Mallorca, 12 of us from the Network got together for an afternoon and used the opportunity to debate a paper on posthuman education (pdf). Many of the ideas in this paper are being embraced by researchers in the emerging field of ‘new materialism,’ of which Elizabeth St Pierre Adams is a ‘member.’
Some of the other people pioneering this work are people like Brian Massumi, Clare Colebrook, Erin Manning, and some of those mentioned at the beginning of the video above: Noel Gough, Eileen Honan, Erica McWilliam, Bronwyn Davis, Maggie MacLure.)
It may be that one area of fertile debate within the profession will be around how a post-human physiotherapy might need to emerge in the years to come.
St Pierre, E. A. (2014). A brief and personal history of post qualitative research: Toward “post inquiry”. JCT (Online), 30(2).
Nicholls, D. A. (2009a). Qualitative research: Part one – philosophy. International Journal of Therapy and Rehabilitation, 16(10), 526-534. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.12968/ijtr.2009.16.10.44562
Nicholls, D. A. (2009b). Qualitative research: Part three – methods. International Journal of Therapy and Rehabilitation, 16(12), 638-647. doi:10.12968/ijtr.2008.15.12.45420
Nicholls, D. A. (2009c). Qualitative research: Part two – methodology. International Journal of Therapy and Rehabilitation, 16(11), 586-592. doi:10.12968/ijtr.2009.16.11.44939
Snaza, N., Appelbaum, P., Bayne, S., Morris, M., Rotas, N., Sandlin, J., . . . Weaver, J. (2014). Toward a posthumanist education. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 30(2).