Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996


Qualitative Research Design: An Interactive Approach

Joseph A. Maxwell
Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage
0 8039 7329 2
ix + 152 pp.

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This book covers key aspects of research design, as these relate to qualitative method. The author notes that all research has a research design, but that sometimes this is left implicit, when it should be made explicit and systematic. Emphasis is placed on the importance of being as clear as possible about design issues, even before writing a research proposal. At the same time, the book is premised on the assumption that those decisions are likely to be revised throughout the process of inquiry; they are not conceived as the formulation of a plan that is then simply implemented. While there is now a considerable literature dealing with qualitative method, little of it focuses specifically on research design; and I am not familiar with any book that deals with the issue in such a practical, and at the same time principled, way.

The opening chapter outlines the author's approach, in which a range of different aspects of research design are seen as necessarily interactive: purposes, conceptual context, research questions, methods, and validity issues. Subsequent chapters deal with each of these aspects in turn. There are particularly useful discussions of the different sorts of purpose that can motivate research, and of the relationship between these and research questions; as well as of the link between research questions and the methods to be used. There is also a helpful discussion of conceptual mapping as a way of trying to get ones theoretical ideas organized. The writing is clear and interesting. I was much taken, for example, with the discussion of 'theory as a coat closet' and 'theory as a spotlight' (p. 33). There are useful activities at the end of each chapter, so that the book is in many ways a working handbook for those who are actually engaged in the process of planning research. The final chapter deals with writing research proposals, and there is an appendix that provides an example of a qualitative research proposal which illustrates what the author recommends.

I have considerable sympathy with the orientation to qualitative research adopted in this book; but, of course, there are always things to disagree about. For example, while the distinction between personal, practical, and research purposes is valuable, I prefer to think of the first two as the motives for research and the last as its goal. By making this distinction, the different roles of these purposes in research are emphasized terminologically. I also have problems with the distinction the author draws between what he calls variance and process theory. The former is characteristic of quantitative research and involves assessing the causal contribution of different explanatory variables. Process theory, he suggests, is more appropriate to qualitative research, and as the name implies is concerned with describing processes as they occur. My own view is that causal analysis requires both assessment of the relative causal power of potential explanatory factors and documentation of the processes involved, neither is sufficient on its own. This relates to more fundamental doubts I have about the very distinction between quantitative and qualitative method. For example, I am not convinced by the authors' argument that quantitative and qualitative approaches address different types of question.

This is a well-organized and clearly written book that is full of good advice. It supplies exactly what it promises. The approach is thoughtful but at the same time down-to- earth. While important philosophical issues are touched on, they are not allowed to get in the way of discussion of how to go about designing a piece of research; nor does their treatment divert the researcher into thinking that he or she ought to be a philosopher, novelist, poet or political activist. This book will be of great assistance to students setting out on qualitative research, and indeed to more experienced researchers as well.

Martyn Hammersley
School of Education
Open University, UK

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996