What’s The Soft Stuff?

What’s the soft stuff?

And no, I am not talking about the softest animal fur in the world which happens to be a chinchilla.  I have touched them and they are soft.  Everybody else has touched them too and I’m pretty sure they are tired of being pet.  But, let’s not digress.

I’m talking about qualitative research.  I studied physics.  The hard stuff.  The math stuff.

But, when I think about the most amazing thing I learned in physics – it was quantum mechanics.

And, quantum mechanics is cool because it is the first time the researcher was actually in the equation. In the double slit experiment, it all mattered if you looked.  Is the cat dead or alive?

So, coming from a hard science background – jumping into research and development in the computer sciences – I thought I would be doing hard research all the time.

But, this field of qualitative research is interesting.

I thought for all my tech geeks out there, I would spend a second on some of basic concepts of phenomenology, grounded theory design, and ethnographic design.

Phenomenology helps the researcher discover previously unnoticed issues which can foster new insights into the meaning of phenomena.  The beauty of this design is that it allows for research to better understand the possibilities that are already embedded in the experience of phenomena.  This design values the experience as a whole as is evident in the way the research is approached.

Grounded theory design, which was founded in 1967, can include research where individuals share culturally oriented understandings of the world, where understandings are shaped by similar values and beliefs and these determine how individuals behave according to how they interpret their existence.  Much of the focus in grounded theory is around symbolic meanings that can become uncovered by observing people’s interactions, actions and consequences.

Grounded theory appears to be a design often used in qualitative research.  While the data can come from a variety of sources, it often uses interviews and observations to shed light on questions.

Ethnographic design incorporates deep personal experience, not just observation, where people’s behavior is studied in everyday contexts.  This design uses things like quotations, descriptions and charts and diagrams to help tell a story.  This design method can result in new constructs or paradigms.

In the field of information security governance for example, a grounded theory could be applied with interview conducted at the executive level in organizations based in Colorado.  These interviews could be coded and analyzed to develop a new theory on the board of director’s perception of risk and how that informs the creation and implementation of information security strategy.  By design, the research would investigate how the board of directors perceive information security and how that perception influences the development of information security strategy in Colorado-based companies.

This approach would meet the criteria for the grounded theory design as it is not testing a hypothesis but would be attempting to discover the research situation as it is.  The design would be to discover the theory implicit in the data.

The success of the project would be measured by its products of being published, etc.  The specific procedures and canons used in the research study would provide attention measures of evaluation.  Ultimately, the readers of the dissertation will provide an understanding of the value that is contributed.  The adequacy of the research process and empirical findings should further support work.  Also, it will be important to identify the limitations in using this design model so other researchers both know what is possible and any limitations on the findings.

Even though this stuff felt a little soft at first, thinking back to my quantum mechanic days, the researcher is in the equation, so to me, it’s just a shift in thinking along the same lines as research design techniques evolve.

What has been your experience with qualitative research?  Thumbs up?  Thumbs down?


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