Stake – Qualitative Research: Studying How Things Work

Stake, Robert E. Qualitative Research: Studying How Things Work. The Guilford Press, 2010. Print.

In Robert Stake’s Qualitative research: Studying How Things Work, one could say that Stake’s “research question” is “what can qualitative research tell us about how things work, particularly as it relates to how the actions of people make them work? And how does qualitative research provide this information? A sub-question would then be “how can researchers best utilize these qualitative tool in their own studies?”

Early on Stake makes the distinction between quantitative and qualitative research, although he admits there are elements of each in the other, by stating that quantitative thinking relies heavily on outside knowledge, linear attributes, measurements, and statistical analysis as opposed to qualitative thinking based on human perception and understanding (11).

Two of the most important methodological differences between qualitative and quantitative research respectively is the difference between (1) aiming for explanation and (2) aiming for understanding, and the difference between (1) a personal role and (2) an impersonal role for the researcher (20). In addition, to qualitative research being personalistic, Stake identifies three other characteristics: interpretive, experiential, and situational (15). He gives a standard list of the most common methods of qualitative research – observation, interviewing, and examination of artifacts.

Overall, there were four significant features of qualitative research that I took away from Stake’s primer:

1-     Qualitative research is all about the microresearch and microanalysis

Most qualitative studies prefer to take a close-up view on individuals, or neighborhood groups, for example, as opposed to world cultures. These close ups allow for “rich” and “thick” Geertz (1993) descriptions. Stake cites anthropologist Clifford Geertz for his concept of thick description, which has become a staple in qualitative research, as descriptions that offer “direct connection to cultural theory and scientific knowledge” (49). Another methodological advantage of qualitative research and microanalysis can be found in comparative study designs. While, Stake asserts that macroanalyses run the risk of “reducing complex [cultural] differences to stereotypes” (28) qualitative inquiries have the potential to combat stereotypes by “emphasizing a particular experience, dialogue, context, and multiple realities” (28).

2-     Qualitative research is not concerned with “causes,” but comparisons and correlations.

Stake cautions qualitative researchers to refrain from using “because” and simply state what is:

“The qualitative researcher uses some of the words of causal connection, verbs such as influences, inhibits, facilitates, and even causes, but (if done properly) makes reference to the limited, local, and particular place and time of the activity. Even then, the qualitative researcher usually tries to assure the reader that the purpose has not been to attain generalization but to add situational examples to the readers’ experience.” (23)

3-     Qualitative research positions the researcher as an instrument that produces interpretation and data

 “For qualitative research, as indicated earlier, the researcher him- or herself is an instrument, observing action and contexts, often intentionally playing a subjective role in the study, using his or her own personal experience in making interpretations. The quantitative researcher makes methodological and other choices based partly on personal preference but usually tries to gather data objectively rather than subjectively.” (20)

Stake admits that the subjective nature of qualitative research is seen by critics as a weakness. However, Stake not only rejects the claim that subjectivity is necessarily sign of failure, but esteems it as essential to the process of gaining a better understanding of the human experience (29).

It is only through this subjectivity, that researchers can enact “empathetic inquiry” or Candib’s (1995) “connected knowing” whereby they can empathize “look at things closely, becoming sensitive to, even vicariously experiencing, the feelings, thoughts, and happenings” (46) as a part of their research process.

4-     A qualitative research project (design, methods, analysis) must be driven by and circulate back to one or more clearly articulated research questions

Stake argues that research questions should be a top priority for qualitative researchers. Not only does he claim they are more important than (and should be formulated prior to) research methods, but that choosing a research question (or two or three) may be among the most important choices we will make in our academic lifetimes (77). After research questions are chosen that are in need of microresearch and microanalysis, methods and lit reviews can be constructed, data can be gathered, and analysis and synthesis can commence, all the while circling back to the research question(s) to stay on point. Whew!

Stake’s approach to qualitative research in-and-of-itself does not seem particularly radical or earth-shattering. With that said, the style of the book with so many different examples was a bit overwhelming. I did appreciate his attempt to make the subject more interesting and the reading more like a journey. The rhetorical questions did remind me a bit of Blues Clues and Dora the Explorer : ). This may also because I am loopy with the flu. With that said I imagine some of Stake’s charts will come in handy during my future research, but some are a bit too rigid and formulaic for my taste. I am curious to know how and to what extent others see themselves using Stake’s approach to qualitative research in the future. Do tell…

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4 thoughts on “Stake – Qualitative Research: Studying How Things Work

  1. Sorry to hear you got bit by the flu, LaToya! Lemme know if you need chicken soup. T & I just made a batch today! Thanks for breaking Stake down into these themes. Like you, I appreciated how he positioned the qualitative researcher as an “instrument” and how he helps us to think about the micro-scale as the proper scope for a qualitative project. It makes me excited to see such research in action, as I know that Cintron’s book is supposed to bring it!

    I appreciated how he tried to make reading methods “fun” with his tone, as I’ve definitely read some that put my head on a pillow within pages. So, I appreciated how he took it out of the clouds and into a story. I can’t wait to hear how you apply it to Blues Clues and Dora, though…

    I’m not sure what I’d “use” from the book, though it seems like a great reference text for designing a qualitative study. I think I liked how formulaic he was with some parts, because I have such a hard time organizing myself. These gave me some really rigid parameters (like that chart he gives in 8 to plot out the written report…too much!) that gave me a picture of systematic inquiry that I can then relax to my needs.

    The thing that most helped me, though, was his discussion of “patches” as a way to continue organizing data in Ch. 8 (I think it’s 8, at least). Despite reading a lot about the theory of methods, this patch idea gave me one of the most concrete views of how analysis works in practice. It fleshed out a bit of what Bazerman was saying about organizing piles on his office floor, but did so in a way that both helped me to picture myself doing it as well as helping me understand some simple language to describe my process to others.

    Like you, I’m interested to hear how others are thinking about using his insights. Feel better!

  2. Thanks, Tim. I also appreciated Stake’s “patches” as a way to cluster and organize data. Overall, I like the way he outlines the research process and even his suggestions for charts. “Specific” is a more accurate description of the charts than “rigid,” because they are more appropriate for certain types of data. The template in chapter 8 wouldn’t be ideal for how I’d like to organize my online transcripts, for example. Then again, a chart similar to that one may be necessary when dealing with larger data sets. It’ll be interesting to compare uses and limits for the different types of qualitative research seminar members are interested in.

  3. Thanks again, LaToya, for such a thorough summary of the text. You should open up your own CliffsNotes company for our field . . .

    Anyway, I think you’re right that Stake’s charts and such are probably quite helpful for lots of data, or for a project of large scope. They probably wouldn’t work for the kind of close, single-participant discourse analysis that I think you’re wanting to do.

    However, like Tim, I find the “patches” thing fairly helpful. At some point, we each have to decide between what is important and what’s not, between what fulfills our research desires and what doesn’t. Creating patches is also probably the first opportunity for real self-reflexivity: why am I viewing these patches, rather than others, as important?

    Finally, I agree that the whole book had a Nickelodeon Jr. kind of feel to it. “I want to show you a long patch. I do not have a good example from Lee’s study. I will show you a complex story patch . . .” A nice reprieve from theoretical jargon . . .

  4. Hey LaToya!

    Sorry to hear you caught the flu! I hope you are feeling better–and, I will double up on Tim’s offer–if you need anything, just let me know!

    And double-thanks for the great break down of Stake! I agree that while there was useful information, it’s the kind of thing that’s most useful to pick at sections as you find you need them for your own research. I really enjoyed his style, too–the quirky examples and easy conversational tone. I think I really appreciated the attempts to make things complicated even though the writing seemed geared at a beginner researcher audience.

    And, thanks to both you and Tim for pointing to the use of chapter 8 with “patches.” I might have skimmed that last bit, so now I’ll remember to check that out again.

    For me, I found chapter 4 the most interesting–and again, this is most likely because that’s the stage I’m at with my own research-thinking. While there were certainly rigid guidelines, I found the chart of questions really useful to think about the different levels of research questions–and the relationship between the question and what a research study actually studies. I thought that it’s useful to remember that even though we have a great question, the complexity of the issues may lead us to be studying a different aspect of the question than we had originally hoped to–due to the construction of the study design.

    I also really liked the crazy charts that mapped out how to begin designing a study to suit a research question. I see that they are rigid, but I guess that’s where my thinking has been at lately–now that I have a research question, what do I do with it!?!?

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