With an assignment coming up, we've been fielding lots of questions on the process of qualitative research. "Is this the right way to do X?" "Is it OK to combine X and Y?" "Is this the right number of codes?" "Is this the right approach?" "Am I allowed to do X?"
These questions follow a certain logic as if there is a right way to do qualitative research. The answers I give to these questions are probably unsatisfactory and frustrating to those asking them because the answer I give is something within the realm of "it depends" and/or "it's up to you". I come from a different logic where qualitative research is really about sense making and not rule following.
Sense making is more an intuitive process of working out, often iteratively, with lots of mistakes and stages of refinement, what works best for you as a researcher working with a certain set of data to answer a certain research question.
There are no rules for making sense of the data. There are no rules for thinking about how we make sense of data. Rather, it is often about empowering students to think what is striking and intriguing about their data, where the patterns are and where the disagreements or contradictions lie.
So, more important than working out if something is the right way is working out, for yourself, what is making sense; what is helping you. The job of the researcher is then to be able to explain and justify this process of messiness so that others can make sense of the process through which the data was transformed into analytical writing.
Taking coding, for example. There is a tendency sometimes to talk about coding as if it comes from a logic of rule following rather than sense making. This makes coding appear as if there is a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it; as if there might be a right number of codes, or hierarchies linking these codes together.
For me, coding is not an inherently given procedure but a sense-making process which we use as a way to interpret the data (i.e. beginning to dissect and recognise patterns within the data). Codes are not something that exist outside of the researcher but are the tools we use to label data in a way that makes sense to us.
In trying to tease out why I consider qualitative research to be about sense making not rule following my intention is not to lay blame students. With the growing concern in methods and methodology in social science, may be we have given the impression as teachers and researchers that there is a right way. Maybe we have not given enough space to recognising, and legitimising, the role of intuition (and reflexivity) in the process of qualitative research.
The challenge as we continue to formalise methods and raise expectations, in terms of methodological conversations and sophistication, is not to lose sight of this underlying logic of sense making that is fundamental to qualitative approaches. In other words, we need tools, ways of thinking and ways of communicating this logic of sense making and the role of intuition in the process of qualitative research and in training future generations of qualitative scholars.