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  FORUM : QUALITATIVE Volume 6, No. 3, Art. 26 S O C IA L R ES EA RC H September 2005 S O ZIA LFO RS C HU N G Qualitative Research—Unity and Diversity Paul Atkinson Key words: Abstract: The paper argues that while qualitative research has been flourishing in many fields of the ethnog
  Qualitative Research—Unity and Diversity Paul Atkinson Abstract : The paper argues that while qualitative research has been flourishing in many fields of the social sciences, it has become unhelpfully fragmented and incoherent. Equally, there have developed a number of specialist domains of qualitative research that are too often treated in isolation. It is argued that we need to return to some fundamental principles of ethnographic inquiry that recognise the multiple modalities of social action and cultural representation, while locating them within a wider ethnographic framework. We need to recognise the intrinsic, indigenous principles of order and organisation that permeate social forms!discursive, visual, and material. uch formal ethnography provides a way of renewing classic ideas such as #grounded theory#, #triangulation# and #thick description#. Table of Contents $. Introduction%. &arratives and 'ife(istories). *iscourse and poken +ction. -isual and aterial /ulture0. 1ethinking 2eneral 3rinciples1eferences +uthor /itation 1. Introduction There is no question that qualitative research of many varieties has flourished on a global scale over the past twenty years or so. 4rom a personal perspective, I know that when artyn (+E1 'E5 and I first made the 6pen 7niversity course on ethnography that subsequently led to our coauthored book 8(+E1 'E5 9 +TI& 6& $;<)= there was a very sparse literature from which to draw. There was a series of local oral traditions, but little by way of e>plicit methodological reflection. ince then, the position has changed out of all recognition. ?y the time of our second edition 8(+E1 'E5 9 +TI& 6& $;;0= the methodological literature had e>panded e>ponentially. ince then the growth in qualitative methods has continued: methodological reflection and writing have flourished in recent years. @ualitative research, in a variety of forms, has been advocated and discussed in an everincreasing number of publications. 4rom its bases in such disciplines as anthropology and sociology, qualitative research has become prominent in many disciplinary conte>ts. Emergent disciplines such as cultural studies are thoroughly grounded in qualitative research, while it has penetrated very many substantive fields of research!such as educational research, organisational research and nursing studies. /ultural geography, discursive psychology, feminist scholarship and many other disciplinary fields have developed and contributed to distinctive strands in qualitative A %BB0 4@ http:CCwww.qualitativeresearch.netCfqsC4orum @ualitative oDialforschung C 4orum: @ualitative ocial 1esearch 8I & $)<0%F= Key words : ethnography, thick description, triangulation, grounded theory, discourse, visual ethnography, material culture-olume , &o. ), +rt. % eptember %BB0 FORUM: QUALITATIVESOCIAL RESEARCHSOZIALFORSCHUNG  FQS  8)=, +rt. %, 3aul +tkinson: @ualitative 1esearch!7nity and *iversity research. There are maGor networks and groups of qualitative research practitioners and methodologists in many national conte>ts. While the global character of academic publishing has meant that Englishlanguage research communities have dominated much of the discourse, and +merican work has been especially prominent, in fact there are strong and distinctive national as well as disciplinary traditions. The character and diversity of such work can be mapped most readily by inspecting the overall scope and details of contents of a series of maGor edited collections and handbooks 8e.g. +TI& 6&, /644E5, *E'+6&T, '64'+&* 9 '64'+&* %BB$H *E&I& 9 'I&/6'& $;;, %BBBH E+'E, 26?6, 27?1I7 9 I'-E1+& %BBH 27?1I7 9 (6' TEI& %BB%=. J$KIronically, despite classic ethnographic appeals to holism, conte>t and similar ideas, qualitative, ethnographic research seems to have become increasingly fragmented. +s the methodological literature has e>panded, it has also diversified. *ifferent authors adopt and promote specific approaches to the collection and analysis of data. Equally, particular kinds of data become celebrated in the process: personal narratives, lifehistories and other documents of lifeH film, video and photographic imagesH te>ts and documentary sourcesH material culture and technological artefactsH spoken discourse. In the process types of data and corresponding types of analysis are elevated to occupy a special status. The implication often seems to be that, say, documents of life provide especially privileged insights, or that visual materials are especially significant, or that talk is the form of social action  par excellence . /onsequently, types of data and their associated analytic strategies are promoted as the single preferred method for social inquiry, rather than strategies within a broader ethnographic approach. Indeed, the enthusiasm  shown for particular methods of data collection and analysis sometimes seems odd. There seems in principle little or no reason for social scientists to develop their research programmes on the basis of one technique or one research strategy e>clusively. It seems equally perverse implicitly to regard methods as being in competition. J%KI have no quarrel with attempts to define and practise appropriate strategies for the analysis of particular kinds of data. Indeed, I want to insist on the proper, disciplined approach to any and every type of data. Equally, I want to insist that data should be analysed, and not Gust reproduced and celebrated 8as sometimes happens with lifehistories, and some visual materials=. y main message, however, is that the forms of data and analysis should reflect the forms  of culture and of social action. In other words, we collect and analyse personal narratives and lifehistories because they are a collection of types or forms!spoken and written!through which various kinds of social activity are accomplished. They are themselves forms of social action in which identities, biographies, and various other kinds of work get done. 6ne accords importance to narratives and narrative analysis because they are important kinds of social action. In the same spirit we pay serious attention to visual data insofar as culture and action have significant visual aspects that cannot be e>pressed and analysed e>cept by reference to visual materials. This is by no means equivalent to the assumption that ethnographic film or video constitutes an especially privileged approach to sociological or anthropological understanding. The same can be said of other A %BB0 4@ http:CCwww.qualitativeresearch.netCfqsC  FQS  8)=, +rt. %, 3aul +tkinson: @ualitative 1esearch!7nity and *iversity analytic approaches: documentary analysis is significant insofar as a given social setting is selfdocumenting, and in which important social actions are performed. Te>ts deserve attention because of their socially organised and conventional properties, and because of the uses that they are put to, in their production, circulation and consumption. The same is true of other material goods, artefacts, technologies etc. The analysis of dramaturgy, likewise, is important insofar as social actors and collectivities engage in significant performative activities!but it should not be treated as a privileged way to approach all of social life. J)KI believe, therefore, that it is important to avoid the essentially reductionist view that treats one type of data or one approach to analysis as being the prime source of social and cultural interpretation. We should not, in other words, seek to render social life in terms of Gust one analytic strategy or Gust one cultural form. The forms of analysis should reflect the forms of social life: their diversity should mirror the diversity of cultural formsH their significance should be in accordance with their social and cultural functions. This may seem obvious. ?ut while few social scientists would e>plicitly claim otherwise, implicitly in much current writing and discussion, the reverse seems to be true. JKIn reviewing an array of different analytic approaches I do not merely celebrate diversityH nor do I endorse a vulgar version of triangulation  through methodological pluralism and synthesis 8cf. /644E5 9 +TI& 6& $;;=. The reverse is true: I stress the importance of rendering the different   formal properties of culture and social action and preserving their distinctive qualities. I want, therefore, to affirm that aspects of culture and the mundane organisation of social life have their intrinsic formal properties , and that the analysis of social life should respect and e>plore those forms. In doing so, I am reacting against some analytic tendencies that have undervalued anything that smacks of formal analysis. aGor commentators like *E&I& and 'I&/6'& 8%BBB=, or E''I and ?6/(&E1 8$;;= have promoted an image of contemporary qualitative research that is relentlessly innovative, allied to postmodernist views of social inquiry, and radically distant from its intellectual srcins. +s my colleagues and I have suggested elsewhere 8e.g. *E'+6&T 9 +TI& 6& %BBH +TI& 6&, /644E5 9 *E'+6&T %BB)=, appeals to postmodernism have, in many influential quarters, devalued the systematic analysis of action and representations, while privileging rather vague ideas of e>perience, evocation, and personal engagement. 5et discourse, narratives, performances, encounters, rhetoric and poetics all have their intrinsic, indigenous modes of organisation. o too do visual, te>tual, material and other cultural embodiments. It is not necessary to endorse a narrowly structuralist analytic perspective or endorse unduly restrictive formalisms in order to recognise the formal properties of talk, the codes of cultural representation, the semiotic structures of visual materials, or the common properties of narratives and documents of life. J0KThe current state of qualitative research and research methods is confused. There is a gratifying proliferation of research methods, and they have been spreading to a wide range of substantive research areas. Equally, there has been a variety of rationales, Gustifications and theoretical underpinnings for qualitative A %BB0 4@ http:CCwww.qualitativeresearch.netCfqsC  FQS  8)=, +rt. %, 3aul +tkinson: @ualitative 1esearch!7nity and *iversity research. 1esearchers have become increasingly wedded to particular methods of data collection and strategies of data analysis. o we have people who are restrictedly e>pert in, say, visual methods, or the methods of visual anthropology. 'ikewise, there are researchers who are wedded to particular ways of reporting social research!through forms of poetic writing, or through multilayered te>ts, or realist styles. There are now several conte>ts in which #alternative# forms of representation, such as #autoethnographic# reflections, poems and other genres of creative writing 8for e>amples see: E''I 9 ?6/(&E1 $;;H 266*+'' %BBBH for discussions see +TI& 6& 9 /644E5 $;;0H 3E&/E1 %BB$=. The  Gournal Qualitative Inquiry  , edited by &orman *E&I&, is one key site for the publication of such innovative materials. JKTaken overall, the field of qualitative research presents a confusing picture. The manifest variety is not always related systematically or in a principled fashion to any particular disciplinary, theoretical or substantive concern. ome of the current methodological positions seems to advocate strategies of research without reference to the indigenous modes of social organisation they are designed to address. /onsequently, it is necessary for social researchers to have an understanding of a variety of research methods, in order to do Gustice to the equivalent variety of cultural forms. The paper will therefore outline and e>plore some particularly important modes of social analysis, in order to e>amine how they construct and reflect specific cultural forms. I am not unmindful of our international, comparative theme. The tendencies I refer to are not uniformly distributed across different national and disciplinary conte>ts. It is clear that the socalled postmodern turn has been especially marked in +merican social science, where different forms of e>perimental and innovative social inquiry have developed, not least in the conte>t of communication studies and cultural studies. They have certainly had an effect in the 7nited ingdom and continental Europe, but to a much lesser e>tent. While +merican cultural anthropology has been pervasively influenced by the socalled #crisis of representation# precipitated by the literary and discursive turn in anthropology 8cf. /'I4461* 9 +1/7 $;<=, ?ritish social anthropology!while by no means immutable!has been far less deflected from its prior practices by such fundamental critiques. European scholars are to some e>tent protected from undue influence from +merican #post# enthusiasms. They have their own indigenous intellectual traditions. There are, for instance, strong traditions of 4rench discourse analysis and 2erman hermeneutics that can provide a durable matri> for the reception of +nglo +merican ideas. Indeed, I want to suggest that the disciplinary and national traditions of European research can provide a strong basis for a renewed synthesis of qualitative research. In the following sections of this paper I do not attempt to undertake a comprehensive overview of qualitative research strategies. In a selective review I highlight some of the ways in which methodological particularism can lead to weak research, and how a generic methodological attention to the indigenous organisation constitutes forms of culture. JFK A %BB0 4@ http:CCwww.qualitativeresearch.netCfqsC
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