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Qualitative research in geography: A lecture prepared for the Graduate Geography class at NTU, Taipei December 2003


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Title: Qualitative research in geography: A lecture prepared for the Graduate Geography class at NTU, Taipei December 2003

Qualitative research in geography A lecture
prepared for the Graduate Geography class at NTU,
Taipei December 2003
  • John Lidstone,
  • Faculty of Education
  • Queensland University of Technology
  • Brisbane, Australia

What does it mean?
Research is elitist knowledge and very complex
Ecce eduardus ursus scalis nunc tump-tump-tump
occipite gradus pulsante post chistorphorum
robinum descendens. Est quod sciat unus et solus
modus gradibus descendendi, nonnumquam autem
sentit, etiam alterum modum exstare, dummodo
pulsationibus desinere et de eo modo meditari
possit. Deinde censet alios modos non esse. En,
nunc ipse in imo est, vobis ostentari paratus.
Winnie ille Pu
Research is elitist knowledge and very complex
Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now,
bump-bump-bump, on the back of his head, behind
Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the
only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he
feels that there really is another way, if only
he could stop bumping for a moment and think of
it. And then he feels that perhaps there isnt.
Anyhow, here he is at the bottom, and ready to be
introduced to you, Winnie-the-Pooh.
Most of our knowledge is based on assumptions
We may interpret evidence in various ways do the
tower cranes indicate economic progress,
exploitation or urban degradation?
Chartres is made of stone and glass. But it is
not just stone and glass it is a cathedral, and
not just a cathedral, but a particular cathedral
built at a particular time by certain members of
a particular society. To understand what it
means, to perceive it for what it is , you need
to know rather more than the generic properties
of stone and glass and rather more than what is
common to all cathedrals. You need to understand
also and in my opinion most critically the
specific concepts of the relations between God,
man, and architecture that, having governed its
creation, it consequently embodies . It is no
different with men they too, every last one of
them, are cultural artifacts. (Geertz, 1973 p.
50 cited in Crotty on page 178)
Chartres Cathedral What does it mean?
Why are discussions about methodology important?
  • If there were no problem with methodology, then
    we could accept any findings of research that was
    conducted according to the rules as being
    gospel - ie it would be very good news, and
    also totally reliable.
  • In fact we have to interpret findings in the
    light of various views on methodology (and
    theologians argue over the meaning of the

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Paradigms, methodologies and methods
  • A paradigm is a set of propositions that explain
    how the world is perceived. It contains a world
    view, a way of breaking down the complexity of
    the real world to determine what is important,
    what is legitimate and what is reasonable.
    (Patton, 1990 37). Paradigms in social sciences
    include positivism, interpretive, critical and
    perhaps, postmodern.

  • A methodology is a model which entails
    theoretical principles as well as a framework
    that provides guidance about how research is done
    in the context of a particular paradigm. A
    methodology translates the principles of a
    paradigm into a research language and shows how
    the world can be explained, handled, approached
    or studied.

  • Methods refer to the tools or instruments that
    are used by researchers to gather evidence or
    data for their research. Methods may include
    observation, interviews, the collection of
    written records and diaries

Discourses (Paradigms) of research in the social
Each discourse (paradigm)
  • regards some issues as significant and ignores
  • allows some questions and excludes others
  • provides techniques and protocols for evaluating
  • has its own language so that relevant concepts
    are given particular meanings
  • constructs reality in a particular way

Where do the paradigms come from?
  • Our view of the world - what is the world? This
    may be considered as
  • Ontology does the world exist only in our heads
    or separate from us? What is the nature of
  • Epistemology what counts as knowledge? How do we
    gain/create knowledge?
  • Axiology how should our knowledge of the world
    influence what we do in the world?

Levels of understanding in evaluating research
Ontology and Epistemology
Research methodology (Specific design)
Techniques in specific contexts
Some origins of qualitative research ?
The nature of geography and its epistemologies
Geography is a discrete discipline because it has
a well developed set of perspectives through
which the world is analysed
  • Geographys way of looking at the world through
    the lenses of place, space and scale
  • 2. Geographys domains of synthesis
    environmental-societal dynamics relating human
    action to the physical environment, environmental
    dynamics linking physical systems and
    human-societal dynamics linking economic, social
    and political systems
  • 3. Spatial representation using visual, verbal,
    mathematical, digital and cognitive approaches

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My competence in the matrix of geographical
Visual Verbal
After Rediscovering Geography, National Academy
Press, 1997
central tenet of geography is that location
matters for understanding a wide variety of
processes and phenomena. Indeed, geography's
focus on location provides a cross-cutting way of
looking at processes and phenomena that other
disciplines tend to treat in isolation.
Geographers focus on -real-world- relationships
and dependencies among the phenomena and
processes that give character to any location or
place. Geographers also seek to understand
relationships among places for example, flows of
peoples, goods, and ideas that reinforce
differentiation or enhance similarities.
Geographers study the vertical integration of
characteristics that define place as well as the
horizontal connections between places.
Geographers also focus on the importance of scale
(in both space and time) in these relationships.
The study of these relationships has enabled
geographers to pay attention to complexities of
places and processes that are frequently treated
in the abstract by other disciplines.
Rediscovering Geography, p. 30
Just as the variety of topics pursued by
geography as a scientific discipline is broadly
constructed, so the methods and approaches that
geographers have used to generate knowledge and
understanding of the world around them that is,
its epistemologies are similarly broad. The
post-World War II surge in theoretical and
conceptual geography that helped the discipline
take its place alongside other social,
environmental, and natural sciences at that time,
was triggered by adoption of what has been termed
a positivist epistemology during the
quantitative revolution of the 1960s (Harvey,
1969). Extensive use is still made of this
approach, especially in studying environmental
dynamics but also in spatial analysis and
representation. It is now recognized, however,
that the practice of such research frequently
diverges from the ideals of positivism. Many of
these ideals-particularly those of value
neutrality and of the objectivity of validating
theories by hypothesis testing-are in fact
unattainable (Cloke et al., 1991 Taaffe, 1993).
Rediscovering Geography, p. 45
Recognition of such limitations has opened up an
intense debate among geographers about the
relative merits of a range of epistemologies that
continue to enliven the field (Gregory, 1994). Of
particular interest, at various points in this
debate, have been the following Marxist
geographies Realist geographies Interpretivist
geographies Feminist geographies Postmodern
1. Approaches stressing the role of political and
economic structures in constraining the actions
of human agents, drawing on structural, Marxist,
and structurationist traditions of thought that
emphasize the influence of frequently
unobservable structures and mechanisms on
individual actions and thereby on societal and
human-environmental dynamics - carrying the
implication that empirical tests cannot determine
the validity of a theory (Harvey, 1982).
2. Realist approaches, which recognize the
importance of higher-level conceptual structures
but insist that theories be able to account for
the very different observed outcomes that a
process may engender in different places (Sayer,
3. Interpretive approaches, a traditional concern
of cultural geography, which recognize that
similar events can be given very different but
equally valid interpretations, that these
differences stem from the varying societal and
geographical experiences and perspectives of
analysts, and that it is necessary to take
account of the values of the investigator rather
than attempting to establish his or her
objectivity (Buttimer, 1974 Tuan, 1976 Jackson,
4. Feminist approaches, which argue that much
mainstream geography fails to acknowledge both a
white masculine bias to its questions and
perspectives and also a marginalization of
womens' lives in its analysis (McDowell, 1993b
Rose, 1993).
5. Postmodernist or countermodernist
approaches, which argue that all geographic
phenomena are social constructions, that
understandings of these are a consequence of
societal values and norms and the particular
experiences of individual investigators, and that
any grand theory is suspect because it fails to
recognize the contingent nature of all
interpretation. It is argued that this has
resulted in a crisis of representation,- that
is, a situation in which the relative accuracy
of any representation of the world becomes
difficult to adjudicate (Keith and Pile, 1993).
Feminist and postmodern scholars argue that it is
necessary to incorporate a diverse group of
subjects, researchers, and ways of knowing if the
subject matter of geography is to embrace
Having solved the problems of epistemological
stance, Approaches to data collection in the
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Much research data has been collected by sheer
observation. However, what we see may be what we
expect to see. An excellent observational study
is that of Douglas, Rasmussen and Flanigan who
analysed the behaviours on a nude beach in
California in the late 1960s.
Much research data has been collected by sheer
observation. However, what we see may be what we
expect to see. An excellent observational study
is that of Douglas, Rasmussen and Flanigan who
analysed the behaviours on a nude beach in
California in the late 1960s.
La vielle femme or La jeune femme? Is she
all in the eye of the (male) beholder?
What do you see? What is drawn here?
Watch the .. ummmmm!!
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The problems of observation can be solved by .
  • Asking people what they think or what their
    actions mean
  • Researchers such as Piaget, Freud and Margaret
    Mead were excellent observers but realised that
    there were aspects of what they saw that they
    could not understand

However ..
  • sometimes people dont know why they act, think
    or feel the way they do
  • sometimes they dont want to tell
  • sometimes they are unwilling to acknowledge their
    real motivations even to themselves

Variations on the observation/interview theme
  • unobtrusive measures (watching)
  • participant observation
  • interview
  • questionnaire
  • documentary evidence
  • life history

The basic purposes of qualitative research 1
  • To provide pure description - to give readers a
    vicarious experience of some kind

The basic purposes of qualitative research 2
  • to provide an interpretive description whereby
    the responses of subjects are interpreted in the
    light of some general theory.

The basic purposes of qualitative research 3
  • to identify a range of conceptions
  • to identify commonly agreed conceptions or
    essences Phenomenology
  • to generate theory from the data grounded theory
  • to confirm theory derived from the literature
    Miles Hubberman approach

Linking methods to intentions
  • Almost all the methods of data collection can be
    used for almost all the research intentions in
    almost any combination
  • Often more than one method is adopted in order to
    triangulate their findings and increase
    validity (however, this presupposes that there is
    some truth to get closer too rather than a
    variety of perspectives!)

Observation of event
Examination of documentary evidence
Participation and Observation Various roles
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Teschs metaphor of the artists palette
An artists palette contains certain basic
colours which can then be mixed to form an
infinite number of shades. Qualitative research
similarly can be perceived as having certain
basic approaches which can then be mixed and
matched to achieve the desired result.
  • The field researcher is a methodological
    pragmatist who sees any method of enquiry as a
    system of strategies and operations designed at
    any time for getting answers to certain questions
    about events which interest him (Schatzman and
    Strauss 19737)

Teschs metaphor of the artists palette
An artists palette contains certain basic
colours which can then be mixed to form an
infinite number of shades. Qualitative research
similarly can be perceived as having certain
basic approaches which can then be mixed and
matched to achieve the desired result.
  • People who write about methodology often forget
    that it is a matter of strategy, not of morals.
    There are neither good nor bad methods, but only
    methods that are more or less effective under
    particular circumstances in reaching objectives
    on the way to a distant goal (Homans 1962 257).

Teschs metaphor of the artists palette
An artists palette contains certain basic
colours which can then be mixed to form an
infinite number of shades. Qualitative research
similarly can be perceived as having certain
basic approaches which can then be mixed and
matched to achieve the desired result.
  • The choice of research tactics follows not from
    research doctrine but from decisions in each case
    as to the best available techniques the problem
    defines the methods used, not vice versa
    (Parlett and Hamilton 1976 92).

Four key approaches to Qualitative Research
the basic palette (plus a couple of others!)
Action research
Ethnography originated in the social anthropology
of the last century. Anthropologists such as
Margaret Mead moved into cultures different to
her own and tried to understand the significance
of the interactions she observed. This approach
became known as symbolic interactionism. We may
expect that any group of people (market stall
holders, farmers, betel nut girls, students) will
develop its own culture and while each of the
participating groups in a team will have its own
culture, these cultures must meld together if the
organisation is to be effective. In any
organisation or group, there is great potential
in trying to understand the development and
operation of these cultures and each culture will
also be reflected in its use of space and
therefore have a geographical manifestation. (In
the campus, where do different groups of students
go for their lunch? )
Phenomenography emerged from Sweden in the 1970s
as a term to describe research focussing on
peoples common sense conceptions with which they
explain the physical and social world. Marton
(1981 181) suggests that there exists only a
relatively limited number of qualitatively
different ways in which any phenomenon is
conceptualised, and therefore we may describe and
categorise these conceptions. In education, we
may investigate peoples conceptions of
teaching or even the different conceptions of
success in education - passing or learning?
Conceptions of quality also will certainly not be
unitary. What are the Taiwanese conceptions of a
beautiful landscape? Or a difficult journey? Or
a good holiday destination?
Phenomenology attempts to look beyond the various
layers constructed by actors in the real world so
that the essential structure of their
consciousness and its basic properties becomes
clear. Phenomenology differs from ethnography in
that the former focusses on the individual and on
subjective experience. The approach may be either
interpretive or critical and research in this
paradigm might include a study of the essence of
individuals experiences of working in a new
context. What is the essence of a successful
street market or industrial estate? What is the
essence of natural environments for the
aboriginal groups of Taiwan? What does safety in
a city mean for young men? Young women? In
The concept of connoisseurship and criticism was
introduced by Eisner (1979). It is rooted in the
arts, where a connoisseur is a person with
refined perceptual apparatus, knowledge of what
to look for and a backlog of previous relevant
experience. Such connoisseurship requires an
ability to participate empathetically in the life
of another. It has much in common with
phenomenology in that the interpretive aspect
represents an effort to understand the meaning
and significance that various forms of action
have for those in a social setting. Here again, a
critical approach can be taken as well as an
interpretive one. Have Taiwanese geographers
tried to understand the concept of geomancy held
by its various native groups?
Case study
We all know organisations or projects that are
very successful and others that are disasters.
Detailed case studies from a variety of
perspectives (the various stakeholders in the
project) can lead to models to guide others in
the future. Cases are created or defined by the
researcher who may also decide whether to adopt
an interpretive or a critical viewpoint.
Geographical case studies could be conducted of
successful developments on campus, new shopping
centres, night markets, betel nut stands, or
attempts to reduce traffic congestion!
Action research
Action Research Included here due to its buzz
status at present. It is undoubtedly important as
professional development, and almost essentially
a group process. However, there are problems in
reporting the results of action research in an
academic paper or thesis. Perhaps any report of
an action research process should be read as an
interpretive participant observation study of an
action research process? However, action research
projects to encourage environmental
responsibility, educational attempts to mitigate
earthquakes or re-claim areas currently
off-limits to women in the city could be
Description, Interpretation, and Critical
Much early qualitative work was basically
description of strange people in strange places.
Its contribution relied on giving readers a
vicarious experience of other cultures
Description, Interpretation, and Critical
Interpretation of both behaviour and words
developed both from the wish to understand the
deep meaning of holy scripture (hermeneutics) and
the ways in which other cultures operated. In
each, the attempt was made to understand the
meanings of words and behaviour for those who
were being studied.
Interpretive perspectives (1)
Interpretive social science grew out of the work
of Dilthey (1833-1911) and Weber (1864 - 1920).
Those who subscribe to the interpretive ontology
believe that reality exists in the minds of
people. It is socially constructed as people
interact with one another and therefore is not
objective but subjective. Weber emphasised the
importance of verstehen or empathetic
understanding of human behaviour. Thus, human
beings and their interpretations of the meanings
of events are the focus of study, not some
external reality that people may or may not
understand. The meaning that individuals assign
to phenomena represents reality for those
individuals, and group agreements on meanings
emerge as a result of social conventions. (See
for example, the interpretations placed on the
smiles of early Vietnamese boat people who
reached Australia.)
Interpretive perspectives (2)
In the light of this emphasis on the personal
construction of reality, the purpose of research
within an interpretivist paradigm may only be
seen as helping us to interpret and understand
peoples reasons for their behaviour and
attitudes. The emphasis is not on observable
behaviour but on the subjective meaning of that
behaviour. The outcome is understanding or
knowledge gained not just through the senses
(which would mean that it could be measured) but
through investigations of meanings and
Critical perspectives (1)
Critical social science grew from the work of
Karl Marx (1818-1883) and came to prominence
especially after World War Two. For critical
theorists, reality is not a natural creation,
but neither does it lie in the minds of
individual people. They interpret the social
world in terms of the result of some powerful
people and interests manipulating others to
perceive and interpret the world in the interests
of a minority. They distinguish between
appearance and reality since what appears to be
is not reality since it often does not reflect
the conflicts, tensions and contradictions that
exist in society, and appearance is based on
illusion and distortion. Critical theorists stand
midway between the neopositivist tradition and
that of the interpretivists. They believe that
while individual meanings are important there is
an objective reality that cannot be denied.
Critical perspectives (2)
The purpose of critical theorists is to uncover
the myths and illusions that control peoples
lives, to expose real structures and to present
reality as it really is. Thus, radical
feminists define reality in terms of the
conflicts and tensions created by gender
divisions and patriarchal attitudes. For them,
reality is the dominance of male views and
interests which work against the interests of
women. Similar views underlie much research based
on ethnic, sexual preference and age-related
topics. According to Fay (1987 27, a critical
social science explains social order so that it
becomes the catalyst that leads to the
transformation of the social order. Elsewhere
she suggests (p. 23) that it explains social
reality, criticises it, and empowers people to
overthrow it. Sarantakos (1993 37) says that
critical social science research sees humans as
creative and compassionate beings, critical of
the power systems and unequal structures that
dominate and oppress people and has the goal of
removing false beliefs and ideas about society
and social reality.
Description, Interpretation, and Critical
Critical research attempts to analyse situations
(words and behaviour) from a particular
standpoint and acknowledges that all comment is
made from specific political or social
viewpoints. There is no concept of telling it
how it is but rather, telling is how it looks
from a particular viewpoint.
Researchers may play different roles The
analogy of a court room with the researcher as
The researcher as describer of situations A
witness may report on a situation which s/he has
either observed or participated in, as accurately
as s/he can, trying to be impartial and to
include all relevant details. These details may
include counts of various phenomena but the
witness is limited to stating what he or she
knows through his or her personal senses. Such a
witness is not permitted to venture a personal
opinion. This researcher is required to be a
positivist as the assumption is that the reality
can be identified.
Researchers may play different roles The
analogy of a court room with the researcher as
The researcher as provider of expert opinion A
witness may offer an expert opinion, based on the
application of prior knowledge and understanding
to a specific situation, for the consideration of
others. Before being permitted to be an expert
witness, the level of expertise must be tested by
the court, and the value placed on the evidence
of such a witness depends on the witness being
perceived by the court as maintaining
credibility. This researcher may be seen as being
an interpretivist.
Researchers may play different roles The
analogy of a court room with the researcher as
The researcher as partisan witness A witness
may argue a particular case from a partisan
stand-point, quoting experience and particular
knowledge, but acknowledging a particular
interest in the outcome of the case. Such a
witness will try to convince the court of the
validity of his or her fundamental viewpoint.
Particularly in industrial tribunals and wage
cases, such witnesses testify from well
established viewpoints and offer their
interpretations on the basis of declared
fundamentals. Such a researcher is a critical
Warning The next idea may make some viewers feel
uncomfortable!! ?
How can we compare the cultural and geographical
potential of these pictures?
UN World Survey
  • In preparation for the Earth Summit recently
    hosted by South Africa, the UN conducted a
    world-wide survey.
  • The only question was - "Would you please give
    your honest opinion about solutions to the food
    shortage in the rest of the world?" The survey
    was a huge failure....

World Survey
  • In Africa, they didn't know what "food" meant.
  • In Eastern Europe, they didn't know what "honest"
  • In Western Europe, they didn't know what
    "shortage" meant.
  • In (Mainland) China, they didn't know what
    "opinion" meant.
  • In the Middle East, they didn't know what
    "solutions" meant.
  • In South America, they didn't know what "please"
  • And in the USA, they didn't know what "the rest
    of the world" meant.

In Australia, should we see Uluru (Ayers Rock) as
an awe inspiring sight, site and national icon?
or as a symbol of cultural dissent, environmental
conflict and ecosystem destruction? Can you use
your geography research to help you decide?
Thank you
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