Conference Essay: Tackling Problems of Qualitative Social Research: A Conversation
This paper comprises discussions from a residential symposium, "Methods in Dialogue", that took place near Cambridge, UK, in May 2005. The symposium concluded a series of seminars organised by the London East Research Institute and the Centre for Narrative Research at the University of East London and supported by the Economic and Social Research Council. Public support for social research increasingly depends on its ability to deliver scientifically valid and reliable studies to guide policy and practice. The theoretical foundations of social research, however, seem to be in a critical state. Evidence generated by both qualitative and quantitative methods is more and more seen to be conflicting, open to many interpretations. The aim of the event was to bring together qualitative researchers in the social sciences, many working in the field of narrative but also a number working with life history and auto/biography, discourse analysis, grounded theory methodology, visual methods and ethnography, to discuss the theoretical foundations of qualitative social research. The discussions addressed narrative itself as an index case for methodological debate; methodological considerations of objectivity and evidence, interpretation and context; appropriate levels of research focus and their interactions; the role of dialogue between disciplines; and the interaction between social science and the wider environment of which it is a part. Questions such as the following were discussed throughout the symposium: Who and what is social research for, and whose voices does it represent? What are social researchers' and participants' interpretative rights over their data and each other? How does thick description and the rich social interpretation it affords relate to the need for precise methods of explanation and generalisable conclusions? What special problems of research design or delivery arise when attempts are made to "empower" informants, to enable them to interrogate, and even co-construct the research story?
qualitative research; narrative research; methodology; objectivity; interdisciplinarity; transdisciplinarity; politics; practice; intersectionality; thick description