Teaching and Learning Qualitative Methods

How do students in the social sciences learn (about) qualitative research methods and methodology—and how can such methods be taught? Under what conditions, in what ways, and by what means? How do students experience classes on this topic, and what do instructors think? What is the role of textbooks in this process, and how and where does a more personalized form of instruction enter the picture? What role does context play? ... It is questions of this kind that we intend to be addressed in the Debate on Teaching and Learning Qualitative Research Methods in the Social Sciences.

Of course there is no such thing as a or the qualitative method. Instead, we are faced with a wide range of rather heterogeneous methods and approaches that have been summarized under the heading of "qualitative." Quite plausibly there is also some heterogeneity concerning the ease with which these methods and approaches can be taught or learnt. Some methods have been standardized to a greater extent, and there exist rules for how and when they are to be applied—while others demand a greater degree of intuition and personal "artistry." And there may be variation in the extent to which the person of the researcher shapes methodical procedure and process. Taking this variation into account may in turn require specific methods of instruction, socialization procedures, and the like.

These considerations may be of special importance when it comes to teaching and learning (about) qualitative compared to quantitative methods. Do qualitative methods require a more personalized kind of instruction, a closer relationship between student and instructor (or should we say "mentor")? Is this an area where qualitative and quantitative methods differ? At least this has frequently been assumed to be the case and has in fact (from an outside perspective) been held against qualitative methods and methodology—in the sense of reproaching qualitative methods with a lack of objectivity, reliability, and of questioning their scientific credibility and reputation.

On the other hand, empirical studies of the processes and steps involved in scientific research (in recent traditions of the sociology and ethnology of science) have shown that the practice of quantitative, natural science types of method and methodology also varies considerably with locale and lab group. Even elementary research methods may be applied in very different ways across labs. Here, too, learning about methods is clearly not achieved by reading a textbook, but (in addition) by watching an instructor and by participating in the practice of lab work. Under special circumstances, even mature researchers have shown to visit labs in other countries to learn about how to make an experiment work.

In other words, is the difference in teaching and learning (about) qualitative and quantitative research methods a difference in prejudice more than in practice? Is the difference between qualitative and quantitative "schools" in the humanities and social sciences a question not of the role and importance of personal characteristics of the researcher, but of the attention that is accorded to these personal elements in the research process and the extent to which they are reflected upon?

Learning (about) qualitative methods should not be a rite performed in secret in the close community between mentor and student! In this debate, we are concerned with laying open, bringing to attention, and discussing such procedures, concepts, and personal experience, relating them back to the various methods and approaches (qualitative "schools"), academic disciplines, institutional and curricular environments and conditions, and the like. What are the conditions under which qualitative methods are taught and studied—both inside universities and outside, in lectures, seminars, or lab projects, in mandatory or in optional classes? What are the disciplines and programs where the demand for instruction in qualitative methods can be met? How is this achieved? And where is this not the case? What do students do if no guided instruction is available in their own institutional context? How do the conditions compare across academic disciplines and internationally? Does the so-called Bologna process (i.e. the attempt to streamline institutional structures by creating comparable BA and MA programs across Europe) have an effect on the conditions under which qualitative methods are taught in the social sciences? In this, we are naming only a few of the pertinent issues ...

The idea for initiating this debate arose in the context of the Second Berlin Summer School for Qualitative Research Methods that took place on July 14 and 15, 2006. There, a symposium on the topic of "Teaching and Learning (about) Qualitative Methods" was held where several experts presented their experience and points of view on this topic and subsequently discussed these with the audience. The discussion showed that the topic is clearly an important one and that both students and instructors from a variety of contexts are experiencing a number of problems and considerable pressure in dealing with them.

Thus, we would herewith like to present and moderate a forum that is open to perspectives, reports, and suggestions from a variety of areas and actors—for all questions related to the area of teaching and learning (about) qualitative research methods.

Contributions to this debate can come in different shapes and sizes, namely the following:

  • Short contributions where one's own experience in teaching or learning (about) qualitative methods is presented and discussed, such as didactic concepts, activities, or stories about one's experience as a teacher or student. These shorter contributions need not have the format of a "scientific article"—references, abstract, keywords, etc. according to the usual FQS standards are not required. These shorter contributions are thus more or less informal (but they are, of course, also moderated).
  • Regular contributions in the standard format conforming to FQS style; these are evaluated and selected according to the usual peer review procedure, managed by the moderators of the debate;
  • Innovative contributions that play and experiment with conventions, genres, and other forms and formats; depending on their form, these submissions may be handled and treated (formally and by the editors) as either "regular" or "short" contributions.

Authors may choose between these formats. The final decision will be made in cooperation with the moderators.

Debate "Teaching and Learning Qualitative Methods": Margrit Schreier, Franz Breuer, Wolff-Michael Roth