‘Lies, damn lies and statistics’

 

I value both quantitative and qualitative methods of research. In my own practice I will place my research participants at the centre of my work, empowering them in the research process and in faithfully representing them. Instinctively I feel that this is best achieved by a qualitative feminist methodology.

 

The ‘paradigm wars’ between proponents of qualitative and quantitative research methodologies will continue to rage (Bryman, 2009), despite the clear advantages and utility of both, but quantitative research has the distinct advantage of being received by a society which holds in superior regard the numeric output of the scientific method with its taken for granted ability to provide evidence with proven statistical significance (but see Trafimow, 2014 p.15 for a critique) and crucially, generalisability (Bryman, 2012). Performed with assumed neutrality and objectivity, this positivist, objectivist methodology lays claim to a reliable if ‘thin’ truth; replicable by others as further evidence of the neutrality and objectivity of the work. All of this despite the potential for methodological error and bias inherent in all social research.

 

Feminist qualitative research can make no worthwhile claims to be representative of a wider population or prove causation among phenomena but, when done well, it offers rich, deep, contextualised knowledge, an authentic product of the symbiotic researcher/participant relationship. It is concerned with the vital why and how questions, the explanatory mechanisms behind the phenomena or problem being studied.

 

Qualitative research using an inductive method such as grounded theory allows for ideas to emerge from the data that the human participants generate. As opposed to a narrow hypothesis testing exercise. This represents a shift in the traditional researcher/participant power dynamic in that the participant is placed at the centre of the work helping to avoid the ‘hierarchical- pitfall’ in research relationships (Oakley, 2005; Punch 2014). Feminist standpoint theory too argues for a targeted more nuanced approach to research, derived from Marxist ideals of viewing the social world from ‘below’ standpoint theory asserts that accessing the experiences of oppressed or marginalised groups provides a more accurate account of the social world and particularly oppressive social relationships (Ali et al, 2004).

Communicating effectively with these groups and indeed groups who require a more sensitive approach is supported by the researcher being an invested, sharing and open participant too. Drawing on our own experiences, emotions and identity as a tool for all stages of the work with ‘conscious partiality’(Parr, 1998) is not an uncontentious practice. Empathy in conducting research has been described as running the risk of ‘colonization of the other’ (Watson, 2009, p.107), which serves the researcher rather than the interviewee and can be unintentionally silencing, while often unrecognised and unrewarded emotional labour can have negative consequences for the researcher such as burnout (Carroll, 2012). But transparency in the work along with respondent validation where possible will help to maintain authenticity.

Feminist research is usually informed by a belief that it isn’t enough to investigate the social world, we should be working to change it. The researcher makes no overt claim to be unbiased. Herein lies an important response to the superior objectivity claims of quantitative research, qualitative work which is honest in it’s philosophical, underpinnings can claim ‘strong’ objectivity at least as strong as quantitative work because of its situated and contextual truth.

 

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