A Companion to Qualitative Research
Flick, Uwe; Ernst von Kardorff and Ines Steinke (Editors)
Sage Publications, London
The Companion to Qualitative Research provides a coherent and broad overview of qualitative research practice. The Companion deals with matters from epistemological debates through to approaches to data analysis and presentation, providing some neat summaries of complex issues and a useful reference source to both published material as well as internet-based resources. The text covers an extremely wide range of topics (too many to describe in detail here), and is organised by a large number of short chapters – typically between five to six pages.
The text is pitched as providing an international perspective on qualitative debates; while internationalism can often provide for rich and diverse perspectives, one of the unfortunate consequences for this book is that the standard of the writing is not at the level that one might expect for a product of this type. Although not severe enough to make the text unusable, in places – notably the introduction – the grammatical construction is unconventional, which leads to some ambiguity in meaning and makes some of the ideas difficult to interpret. This might prove a barrier to some of its target audience. The introduction, which forms Part One of 'The Companion', gives an account of the role of qualitative research and its various perspectives and assumptions, and provides a brief description of its historical development. This is not a particularly strong opening section, which lacked precision in some of its descriptions. For example, the authors suggest that qualitative research '…makes use of the unusual or the deviant and unexpected as a source of insight and a mirror whose reflection makes the unknown perceptible in the known, and the known perceptible in the unknown…' (p. 3). While undoubtedly some sociological research traditions have made use of this type of approach (Symbolic Interactionism's Perspective by Incongruity for example), it is certainly not the case that all qualitative approaches do so. In my view, these types of loose descriptions, of which there are a few, make this a bit of a weak introduction, which is a shame as there are other strong discussions in the following chapters.
Following the introduction the book is organised into five key sections: Part Two explores some of the distinctive paradigms within qualitative research as exemplified in the work of diverse scholars such as Erving Goffman, Harold Garfinkel, Clifford Geertz and Norman Denzin. As is often the case with these types of edited collections, the list of personnel included here is somewhat arbitrary, and the treatment of issues by the authors often extremely brief. However, given the constraints of space that they operate within, the contributors generally do a neat job of summarising complex issues.
Part Three gives an overview of theoretical positions within qualitative research – covering Phenomenology; Ethnomethodology; Symbolic Interactionism; Constructivism; and Hermeneutics – which is followed by a description of distinctive research programmes such as Biographical Research; Life-World Analysis; Cultural Studies; and Gender Studies. In the fifth and most substantial section, the book covers a range of issues in the application of qualitative research, including the collection of verbal data; observational work; and data analysis. One of the peculiarities that I found with this book is that many of the chapters adopt an extremely specific focus on their given topic, rather than providing an overview of issues in the field. For example, Chapter 5.9 deals with 'The Transcription of Conversation' but the discussion is limited to the examination of overlapping talk without illustrating the range of other representational possibilities in detailed transcription. Similarly, Chapter 5.15, which discusses the 'Analysis of Documents and Records', restricts its focus to the role of Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis as analytic strategies, rather than to, say, Discourse Analysis more broadly defined. While the discussion of the contributions of these two fields is, in my view, always welcome as they are very often understated within research literature, the focus in this instance seems a little peculiar given the nature of the text.
Section six provides commentary on future challenges for qualitative research and the brief final section (part seven) offers a guide to resources for qualitative researchers including key texts, software programmes, and classic studies. The inclusion of this section is certainly useful – the review off software options is very user friendly for example – but there are still some gaps; very little is made, for instance, of the impact of audio-visual data analysis or hypermedia authoring as radical departures from conventional qualitative approaches to analysis and presentation.
Overall then, the breadth of topics dealt with in this text is impressive and certainly makes it a useful addition to the resources available to qualitative researchers. However, the brevity of discussions and the peculiarities of focus that many of the chapters adopt may limit its appeal as an overview text.
Institute of Education, University of London