My colleague Assoc Prof Stacy Carter and I have just been awarded Research into Teaching seed funding from the School of Public Health, University of Sydney to conduct a project “Identifying the attributes of a graduate ‘qualitative researcher’”. The seed funding will be matched by funds from the Qualitative Health Research program, and the project will be conducted in 2015.
Our plan is to conduct interviews with students past and present, employers and PhD supervisors so we can review how well the Master of Qualitative Health Research (MQHR) curriculum meets the learning needs of students and those who employ or supervise them. We’ll explore how University of Sydney graduate attributes (scholarship; global citizenship; lifelong learning) are expressed in the MQHR, and identify any unique attributes for the QHR graduate… that’s where we’ll identify attributes of a graduate ‘qualitative researcher’.
Why not start us off: What attributes does a qualitative researcher need?
Qualitative researchers need the generic researcher attributes of curiosity, scepticism and tenacity. Your project is about attributes that are specific to qualitative research, however. So here are my top three:
Naivety is particularly useful in the face of technicality. It is important to give technicality its due: people have usually worked out a lot of stuff before qualitative researchers arrive on the scene, and this knowledge is encoded in specialised terms they use and distinctions they make. But technicality can also act as a barrier. The researcher needs to absorb it, but a degree of naivety will prevent her becoming seduced by it.
The kinds of insights revealed by qualitative research are not always welcome in the world, and unless you cultivate a degree of stubbornness, there is a risk that they will be dismissed prematurely, by both the researcher (self-censorship) and/or her critics (groupthink).
3. An ability to see the creative aspect of language at work, even when others insist that the main game lies elsewhere.
Symbolic power is real, and human language is one of the most sophisticated ways of putting it to work. But those who use symbolic power are good at dissimulating. “It’s only semantics” they say (using only semantics). Or they dress language up as a mirror for something else (reality itself, or the contents of the mind). Qualitative researchers need to be able to keep at least one eye on language at all times.
Three overrated attributes:
Reflexivity tends to lead you to what you already know. This is a worthy philosophical pursuit, but in empirical research it often leads to confessions that are boring to read and tangential to the findings.
2. Moral virtue
Pious incantations are also boring to read. And if pathetic, narcissistic, evil bastards can write good research, moral virtue is also irrelevant.
3. An eye for complexity
Being able to see the complexity of the social world is a great start, but unless you can make the rules and meanings clear and simple to others, concluding that something is complex always looks like a cop-out.
Finally, a focus on personal attributes s potentially misplaced. Universities like to suggest that they transform people; it’s part of their sales pitch. Above all, qualitative researchers need a “strange-maker”. This is an analytic device of some kind that allows the researcher to see anew what is taken for granted. It could be a theory (e.g. a theory of language). Or it could be a set of concepts (e.g. Bordieu’s Key Concepts). Or it could be a method (like Grounded Theory). What all these things have in common is that they de-naturalise things. It doesn’t really matter which analytic device you learn to use. What matters is that you can use it to find something out about the phenomenon you are researching that no-one has explicitly articulated before. If a university course gave me the means of doing that, would be very happy—even if it left my personal attributes untouched.