Some people find it hard to believe that qualitative research is a relatively recent invention. Given how ubiquitous it is in healthcare research today, it’s hard to imagine that it only really came into existence in the 1980s. Prior to that, most research that was broadly humanistic came under the umbrella of sociology or philosophy. But these approaches tended to be either densely theoretical or quantitative, as in the case of classical sociology.
The domain that came to be known as qualitative research emerged largely from critical theory and came into existence as an attempt to codify a set of methodological approaches that could capture the kinds of phenomena that gave it a rapid and popular reception in the health sciences. Some of the early guides to qualitative research were really experimental and playful, as researchers explored the full range of possibilities that these new modalities offered.
But before long, the early success of qualitative health research drew the attention of quantitative researchers who disputed the truth claims being made by ethnographers, grounded theorists, phenomenologists and poststructuralist, and qualitative researchers went somewhat onto the back foot. Eager to prove that their new methodologies stood up to rigourous scrutiny and could be of used with confidence by health practitioners, a decade’s worth of scholarship went into the production of reliable and valid measures of the utility of qualitative research methods. Unfortunately, something was lost of the original vibrancy of qualitative research, and the early playfulness of its founders was replaced by measures and procedure.
So over the last two or three years, it’s been interesting to see the emergence of a post-qualitative move, by researchers like Elizabeth Adams St Pierre and Mary MacLure who have argued that qualitative research has lost its way and needs to be radically reformed. Writers have begun to ask questions about the formulaic way in which qualitative research is now being taught and prescribed, arguing that the most important criteria for the quality of qualitative research is not its rigour but its coherence with an underlying philosophy.
Because qualitative research is an expression of one of many different kinds of possible philosophical framework, the most important question is how well the methods of data collection and analysis correspond to the philosophy that guides the researcher is a whole. In this way, no to qualitative research approaches can be the same, and so no single model of validity and reliability will ever be able to reflect the diversity and possibilities offered by truly philosophically informed research.
For much of its recent history, qualitative research has battled with quantitative research for a place at the table, and the result has been the reductive sterilisation of the real power of qualitative research to bring about social change. But perhaps now we are seeing the emergence of a new approach – a post-qualitative approach – that will return us to a set of research practices that can once again radically transform healthcare.
MacLure, M. (2011). Qualitative inquiry: Where are the ruins? Qualitative Inquiry, 17(10), 997-1005.
St.Pierre, E.A. (2011) Post qualitative research: The critique and the coming after. In N.K. Denzin & Y.S. Lincoln (Eds.). Sage handbook of qualitative inquiry (4th ed.) (pp. 611- 635). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
St.Pierre, E.A. (2013). The posts continue: Becoming. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 26(6), 646-657.
St.Pierre, E.A. (2014). A Brief and Personal History of Post: Qualitative Research Toward “Post Inquiry”. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 30(2), 2-19.