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Book Review: Conducting Qualitative Research   |    
The Landscape of Qualitative Research: Theories and Issues • Strategies of Qualitative Inquiry • Collecting and Interpreting Qualitative Materials
Charles W. Lidz, Ph.D.
Psychiatric Services 1999; doi:
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edited by Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln; Thousand Oaks, California, Sage Publications, 1998, 470 pages, $28.95 softcover • edited by Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln; Thousand Oaks, California, Sage Publications, 1998, 346 pages, $26.95 softcover • edited by Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln; Thousand Oaks, California, Sage Publications, 1998, 462 pages, $28.95 softcover

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In some sectors of the social sciences, particularly sociology, education, and some areas of psychology, qualitative research methods have grown greatly in influence and prestige in the last three decades. Although an outsider might assume that such researchers must consist largely of math-phobic academics—and indeed some such individuals have become enthusiastic qualitative researchers—qualitative research has attracted many of the finest minds in the social sciences. Why should this be, when a qualitative physicist or geologist would be laughed out of the laboratory?

The core phenomena that the social sciences study, patterns of meaningful human behavior, are inherently similar to quantum mechanical phenomena in that the very effort to measure them seems to change them. Most qualitative inquiry has involved, in some form or another, an effort to get a more detailed and richer picture by using less intrusive kinds of "measurement." They have included naturalistic observation, unstructured and semistructured interviewing, and data collection on the subject's turf.

The initial goals were simply to get an objective description of things that were difficult to study quantitatively. It is hard to give a written questionnaire to nonliterate people. Likewise, there is considerable difficulty getting a random sample of bank robbers. However, qualitative research soon spread into areas that quantitative researchers had long inhabited. Here qualitative researchers were challenged by the traditional positivistic standards of science. How reliable are qualitative observations? How representative is the sample? In this positivist context, qualitative research inevitably looked like a weaker form of research.

The content of these books was first published as a single hardcover volume, Handbook of Qualitative Research, in 1994; the republication of the material in three paperbound editions, with bibliographies added at the end of each, was intended, according to the editors, to make the material more accessible for classroom use. The first volume, The Landscape of Qualitative Research, is mainly concerned with the theoretical grounding for qualitative research. The essays seek not only to answer the positivist objections but to provide a theoretical basis that transcends traditional scientific inquiry. Although many of these essays are impressive intellectual works, I suspect that they will be of limited interest to most mental health professionals, who will be more interested in how and when to do qualitative research than its ontological and in epistemological basis.

The second volume, entitled Strategies of Qualitative Inquiry, contains a variety of chapters that will interest the serious student of qualitative mental health research. Robert Stake's interesting review of case study methodology and Louis Smith's chapter on the biographical method both revive approaches that have long and productive histories in mental health research. Similarly, the contributions on historical methods and on participant observation are solid descriptions of the background of these useful techniques for mental health researchers. Other interesting chapters include the one on the difficult methods involved in phenomenology and a chapter on clinical research that bears directly on the issues that many of us face.

The volume also contains several more practically focused chapters. Janice Morse's review of doing funded research is helpful but, unfortunately, says rather little about how to get funded. Strauss and Corbin's review of grounded theory is useful in providing at least the appearance of a structured approach to research, which is very helpful in writing grant proposals.

However, the majority of readers will probably be most interested in the last volume of the set, Collecting and Interpreting Qualitative Materials. Although no single chapter, no matter how brilliant, can provide a complete picture of a method that, like any art, often takes years to learn, some impressive pieces are presented here. Fontana and Frey describe interviewing in the voice of experienced interviewers. Other chapters that the reader will find useful include those on observational techniques, on the interpretation of documents, and on the use of computers.

However, the reader needs to remember that the contributors are qualitative researchers. The chapter on observation does not suggest procedures for assessing interrater agreement among observers; instead, it discusses procedures for gaining entrée into settings and establishing rapport, intellectual frameworks for analyzing observational data, and the impact of different degrees of observer participation on the data collected.

For those whose research training focused entirely on quantitative methods, these three volumes will provide a surprising amount of thoughtful and useful material. Although not all chapters are equally helpful, overall the editors have done a splendid job. They have created a set of volumes that are a useful start for the novice and essential for any serious qualitative researcher.

Dr. Lidz is research professor of psychiatry and director of the Center for Mental Health Services Research in the department of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester.

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