> Opinion

WANG YULEI: Qualitative research requires stepping out of mindset, stereotypes

| 2018-02-08
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The fundamental difference between human society and the physical world lies in the human ability to construct and interact with their experience. Qualitative research is about how to deal with human experience as a whole. In particular, qualitative research not only aims to explore the unknown experiential system but also examine the already-known experiential structure.

The primary purpose of qualitative research is to identify those experiential structures that we do not know, so that a foundation for understanding research objects is laid. One can observe a social fact, but without an observation of its underlying features, we cannot say that we really understand the fact.

Our system of belief can sometimes solidify into a type of mental map, which can form the basis and starting point of life orders and social orders. The merit of a mental map is that it saves the time we spend thinking, which makes it easier for us to explore our life experience and formalize our lives. However, such a mental map has its disadvantage. It could lead to a rigid mindset and stereotypes, such as “people from Shandong Province are surly heavy drinkers,” “women who get doctorates are otherworldly” or “liberal arts students are bad at math.”

The ultimate goal of qualitative research is to grasp the essence of things. Qualitative research, by definition, aims to determine the nature of things, which is an inherent, stable, persistent tendency intrinsic in things. To determine the nature of things is to distinguish those internal, stable and lasting tendencies from those that are external, variable and temporary. It is often emphasized that to conduct research, there must be certain “necessary investigation time.” Because only enough time makes it possible for us to distinguish between the intrinsic and the extrinsic; the stable and the instable; the persistent and the nondurable.

The difficulty of qualitative research is that if the experience of researchers is insufficient, they may lack the basis for understanding the research objects. But if researchers overindulge and trust their own experience, their judgment may replace the interpretation based on the due relevant evidence about the research objects. Therefore, to conduct qualitative research, one’s mindset and value presupposition must be set aside, and the experience of social life must be faced with authentic, sober minds. Qualitative research requires researchers to place themselves in the position of research objects and to observe, understand and comprehend the research objects from the perspectives of the latter’s structure, environment and situation. Qualitative research should not fall into the conceptual and imaginative trap, nor be misled by those wrongly informed, erroneous labels.

In addition, the most dangerous thing about conducting qualitative research is that before they begin studying, researchers may have already formed a set of presupposed ideas and then continue to search for those research materials that are in line with their presupposed ideas, and then assemble the materials into a set of plausible arguments which are used to verify those presupposed ideas, finally forming a closed, restricted loop of thinking.

Therefore, each researcher should step out of one’s knowledge reserve and theoretical framework, and maintain moderate doubts about one’s own experience and even pose challenges to it. The researchers should respect the living world and the experiential system of the research objects, which is perhaps exactly one of their blind spots, and the original appearance of the research objects needs to be restored as much as possible. This requires researchers to maintain an acute sensitivity and curiosity about the objects that they study while simultaneously preserving their capacity for empathy: both to put themselves in the position of the research objects’ living background and further be able to perceive it, and to observe and extract those life or social processes that they themselves have not directly experienced.



Wang Yulei is an associate professor from the School of Public Administration at South China University of Technology.

(edited by BAI LE)