Post by Dr Sue Nielsen Watching the news every morning can leave you feeling confused and dispirited - so many challenges, so much conflict. The information revolution and globalisation have changed our landscape in social relations, work, and the environment, and the rate of change seems to be increasing. To cope with all these changes we need to take fresh perspectives on things we have taken for granted, to look for new ways to live, manage and prosper.
Most importantly we need to understand what these changes mean. Human beings are driven by the need to make things meaningful and this is so evident in the growing number of programmes which encourage people to express their ideas and their feelings – Big Brother, My Kitchen Rules, Facebook, Twitter and so on. Looking at the news, we can see that most of the changes now transforming our world are driven by changes in meaning. What does it mean to be young, to be a mother or father, to be Russian, Australian or Chinese? What does work mean? How is that different from the way our parents and grandparents thought about work?
Qualitative research is about understanding meaning – it is about the investigation of the meaning of social action. It does not seek to predict or explain the causes of meaning, but to understand them. It seeks to uncover what we take for granted, or what currently seems too hard to understand, so that we can think in fresh ways about new opportunities. It aims to discover what counts, what will be worth counting, rather than counting things which we already know about. It does not ignore the past, but looks back only to look forward.
Students and researchers have many pressures on them - to get unequivocal results, to tie up all the loose ends, to make strong recommendations, to ‘publish or perish’. But these are not incompatible with attaining a deep understanding of the problem under study.
Qualitative research is not an easy option. It requires persistence, acute observation and the acceptance of ambiguity and uncertainty. But the research methods are well established and the rewards are great – new insights into our current situation and new ideas to move forward into an uncertain and rapidly changing world.