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…