In response to my first entry about her work, Catherine (KT) Albiston said to me, “don't be too quick to frame qualitative research as just a precursor to, or adjunct of, quantitative research. Some questions you can't ask quantitatively, particularly questions about process or meaning as those tend to be assumed a priori by the way in which quantitative questions are framed (and what researchers do and do not ask).” She goes on to remind me how this is true in my very own work (and hers). Beth Mertz says something similar in her reply to Fleury-Steiner’s work.
They are, of course right. I did not mean to imply qualitative is useful ONLY when it is a precursor to or situated within a qualitative framework (though it is my preferred method for the reasons I elaborated yesterday about a sample situated within a larger random sample). Here is an example of a way that qualitative research captures a mechanism that just would not have been uncovered in a quantitative research design.
My book, License to Harass: Law, Hierarchy and Offensive Public Speech (Princeton, 2004) shows a very high level of agreement that offensive speech should not be legally regulated. Strong support for free speech cuts across social groups even regarding very offensive street speech (racist, sexually harassing, aggressive begging, homophobic). So my attitudinal measures tell a pretty compelling story about support for this important constitutional principle, right? Not quite.
There is not unanimity across social groups as to why people disfavor the legal regulation of offensive public speech. White men are more likely to disfavor legal intervention because of traditional first amendment values. African-American men disfavor legal regulation due to a distrust of authority and cynicism about law generally. Among my respondents, women were far more likely than men to argue that offensive public speech should not be legally regulated because to do so would present them as victims and further undermine their social status or because it is “impractical.”
The fact that subjects are not randomly distributed across these reasons for opposing the legal regulation of offensive public speech suggests that social experience plays an important role in shaping people’s attitudes on this topic specifically and perhaps on legal consciousness more generally. The surface consensus opposing the regulation of speech obfuscates underlying differences that tell an important story about the role of law in ordinary people’s lives.
Until I began the analysis of the qualitative data, I could never have possibly guessed these reasons for opposing the legal regulation of offensive public speech. These mechanisms that produce the ultimate attitude (against regulation of speech) could only be uncovered through qualitative research.
Just like with quantitative analysis, the patterns in the data began to emerge as I began analyzing my data. More resources – I use qualitative data analysis software to do this. It helps you gain perspective on the prevalence of themes, where they appear in the interview, and how they build on one another. I personally like NVivo, but others like Atlas Ti or hyperresearch.