Qualitative Methods In Geography Research Paper

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Contemporary human geography is characterized by a diversity of topic areas, theoretical questions, and methodological plurality. A central concern with spatiality is constant, but a diversity of geographical imaginations (Gregory 1994) suggests a growing number of approaches appropriate to investigating how ‘geography matters’ in how social, economic, and political life unfolds. Among these, qualitative methodology provides an alternative paradigm of knowledge creation to that of quantitative techniques. With its admission of subjective experience and focus on meaning, qualitative methodology provides a variety of ways through which to analyze and interpret landscape, region, location, space, place, and the complex intersections of social and spatial relations. It has been critical to the re-imagining of the discipline as contemporary philosophical and theoretical debates have been integrated into empirical inquiry.

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1. A Paradigm Of Inquiry And Collection Of Methods

Rather than accepting the possibility of a unitary, objective explanation of observed phenomena, qualitative research approaches acknowledge and seek the multiple and partial versions of reality that are constituted in the course of social life. Embracing a variety of approaches and field methods, a common interest in qualitative research is to enhance understanding through description and concepts grounded in the perspective of those studied. The meanings brought to bear by individuals and groups in ordering and making sense of their everyday social life and its spatiality are privileged in analysis. Methods of inquiry include various ethnographic approaches, including participation in and observation of the worlds of those studied and nonstandardized forms of interviewing with individuals or groups; text and visual analysis; and a growing repertoire of other nonnumerical ways of observing, describing, and interpreting the world.

The shifting understandings of relationships between people and places and society and space are important in circumscribing how specific qualitative research strategies are employed. Interest in epistemological issues, particularly through the critical arm of the discipline, has fostered debate about the production of geographical knowledge and further shaped the choice of methods. There is a close association between theoretical developments, philosophies underlying inquiry, societal change, and the increasing use of qualitative methods in geography. As geographers seek to understand complex socio–spatial relations from different subdisciplinary and theoretical perspectives, such methods are used in various ways according to the questions and purpose of research. They can provide descriptive data in mixed strategy designs to enhance findings from quantitative data, but more commonly are associated with postpositivist analyses that center the interpretation of meanings in explanation of narrative and visual data. Inductive analyses of narrative data, informed by concepts of theory, focus on generating concepts grounded in categories emerging from the data. Interpretation of various types of visual data, such as paintings, film, photographs, maps, and historical documents, similarly are sensitized by the theoretical and philosophical lenses of the ‘reader.’

2. Qualitative Methodology In A Context Of Philosophical And Theoretical Turns

Since the challenge of interpretative understanding to the dominance of quantitative methods in the 1960s, intellectual turns have brought new questions and new topics to the agenda of geographical inquiry, which have required a rethinking of appropriate methods. Geographers from a number of subdisciplines have explored qualitative approaches in their research as the influences of, first, humanism and then postmodernism, feminist scholarship, and cultural studies have problematized conventional methods of inquiry and categories of analysis.

Humanistic geography, with its philosophical inspirations from idealism, phenomenology, and existentialism, first challenged the strong quantitative turn of the 1960s (Ley and Samuels 1978). Interest in human agency, the inclusion of people’s intentionality, a focus on lived experience, and the quest of understanding how meanings were produced in the context of interacting social and geographical worlds, marked the value of qualitative research strategies. Participant observation studies produced ethnographic accounts that permitted a linking of the social with the geographical in ways that opened up inquiry to numerous topic areas that privileged the perspective of the human subject. Interpretation of landscapes included concerns with sense of place, while case study approaches informed by a theoretical framework of social constructionism explored the embeddedness of human action and perceptions in place and provided models of inquiry for the 1980s. The qualitative methods text of Eyles and Smith (1988) signaled the establishment of qualitative research as an appropriate and useful paradigm of knowledge production within the discipline of geography.

Paralleling these developments, the influence of feminist scholarship resulted in further embracing of qualitative strategies in research. Noting the absence of women in geographical representations of the world, feminist geographers set out to include the neglected ‘half’ of the population in the mappings and narratives of the discipline. In making the lives and geographies of women visible, qualitative methods, as in other disciplines, were privileged in their ability to uncover the everyday lives of women and the spatialities of their domestic and paid work (McDowell 1992). Bringing subjective realities of women into geographical explanation exposed the masculinist partiality of geographical inquiry and permitted the construction of concepts reflecting the geographies of women’s lives. Linked with principles of research with an emancipatory aim, qualitative approaches remain important in feminist methodology as a vehicle, together with the contribution of quantitative methods, in exploring the spatiality of gendered social relations (Jones et al. 1997).

Postmodernism, the ongoing development of feminist theorizing and the later influence of cultural studies brought a ‘cultural turn’ to human geography (Massey et al. 1999). The importance of discourse in constructing human subjectivity and representing difference, whether reflected in the organization of space, social life, or in visual representations, was an important aspect of a complex literature on culture that influenced methodological approaches. Throughout human geography qualitative methods enabled inquiry to reveal the lifeworlds of marginalized ‘others,’ to engage critically with various media as cultural representations, to expose the multiple, partial meanings of landscapes and texts, and to disrupt many taken-for-granted categories of analysis. Immigrants, the ill, the disabled, the colonized, and other marginalized groups emerge as others whose subjectivities and geographies are being included in a broadening geographical knowledge. Ethnographies of workplaces and interviews with elites, analysis of contemporary visual representations of social diversity, and the inclusion of historical texts that include women’s experiential accounts are examples that further reflect a concern with competing knowledges and representations of the world. These journeys into the lives of others has led to expansion and innovation in field techniques, including the use of life stories, focus groups, autobiographical writing, photography, film, and the adaptation of interviewing techniques and formats to meet the needs of particular research projects.

3. Constructing Knowledge Through Qualitative Research: Methodological Issues

With the increased use of qualitative research strategies, geographers have engaged with a methodological literature in the social sciences discussing the difficulties that emerge when conducting research with the ‘other’ of studies. Reflection centers on the complexity of constructing knowledge through reliance on the intersubjective relationship between researcher and researched and the interpretation of data through the self as a socially positioned researcher who is part of the world they study. Issues of rigor in research design and practice have been addressed with attempts made to translate the concepts of quantitative research into those more amenable to qualitative methodology, but most discussion has focused on the close association between practical and theoretical dilemmas in research, and their location in epistemological concerns.

The particular attentiveness of feminist scholars to the micropolitics of research encounters, together with the acknowledgment of the situatedness and partiality of all experience and knowledge, have become the concerns of many qualitative researchers in the discipline. Gaining access to previously subjugated knowledges is shown to be a process located within a layering of power-laden social relations that situate the face-to-face research encounter within the wider politics and processes of ‘the field,’ theoretical and philosophical tensions, and the institutional values and processes of universities and funding bodies. Specificity of place is shown to mediate how this intricate layering plays-out in the microdynamics of particular fieldwork situations.

Particular issues vary in different types of inquiry, but the exercise of reflexivity by researchers has problematized the whole enterprise of knowledge production. Whether in the context of reading landscape as text, rewriting colonial geographies, the demedicalization of medical geography, the shifting concerns of feminist inquiry, interviewing elites in economic geography, or exposing processes of exclusion of marginalized groups in society, researchers consider the different ways their own identities and contextuality influence their analyses.

That the findings of research are theory laden and interpreted through the researcher’s subjectivity has brought attention to the presentation and writing up of research. The representation of the multiple voices of the researched is seen as a politically charged and theoretically tricky enterprise. Both in relation to narrative and visual data interpretation, the text produced and its claims to knowledge are problematized. The authority of the author is challenged, in that a particular representation is one of several possibilities. Following from this, the reading and consumption of research writing are viewed as crucial dimensions of the research process and the development of knowledge, rather than separate activity.

Attempts to disrupt hierarchical research relations, including issues concerning the politics and ethics of qualitative research have moved increasingly to center stage in methodological debate. For whom research is conducted, how findings are used and related to theory production, and concern over the possible exploitative nature of the relationship with research participants have become important considerations in research conduct. Participatory and emancipatory models of research are being explored, accompanied by thinking through how academia and activism are and may be connected. The ethical issues involved in such attempts to ‘empower,’ whether research is conducted at home, or in developing countries, have become an important focus of discussion.

4. Continuing Contributions

Expansion of the use of qualitative methods in geography is reflected in special issues of geographical journals and new texts on research methods that focus on qualitative methods or include qualitative approaches as important, rather than subordinate research strategies. Their value is recognized as theoretical developments have signaled the need to find new ways to discover and analyze data appropriate to current topics and questions. The various methods of qualitative research have opened up different ways of ‘reading’ and ‘seeing’ landscape, space, place, and the relationships between people and environments, so continually reshaping the nature and scope of geographical inquiry. The ongoing theorization of space, that has emphasized its relational, social, and recursive dimensions, has been accompanied by qualitative studies that are inclusive of human experience, perceptions, and meaning. Such studies have brought into view the diversity of local, everyday geographies, while at the same time locating individual and group experience within complexly linked local, national, and global relations.

The use of qualitative and quantitative methods is sometimes presented in terms of competing paradigms, sitting uncomfortably with each other. Theoretical turns and epistemological concerns may suggest that one be privileged over the other in the quest for valid knowledge in geographical inquiry, but different questions require different approaches. Both quantitative and qualitative work can and do contribute to furthering the understanding of spaces, places, locations, and how variously positioned individuals and groups live within and experience them. Qualitative geographical inquiry, however, has exposed the complexity of gaining access to and representing the situated knowledges of research participants, that precludes the development of rigid protocols or ‘ways of doing’ qualitative research. Different ways of telling, listening and knowing require flexibility in research design and approaches. Ways of doing qualitative research need to be situated within and be sensitive to the many situations that comprise the academic geographer’s field. It may be anticipated that further innovation of methods and flexible models will remain the hallmark of research concerned with the interconnections of people, place, and space.


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