Using Qualitative Methods in Psychology


Edited by: Mary Kopala & Lisa A. Suzuki

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  • Chapters
  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
    • Section 1: Foundational Issues in Qualitative Methods

    Part I: The Philosophical Foundations of Qualitative Methods in Psychology

    Part II: Practical Foundations for Conducting Qualitative Research

    Part III: Qualitative Research in a Cultural Context

    Part IV: Qualitative Research in a Therapeutic Context

    Part V: Qualitative Methods in Action Research and Evaluation

  • Dedication

    The editors dedicate this text to their partners, without whose support and understanding this project would not have been possible.


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    Early observations of behavior formed the foundation of the field of psychology. Freud and Piaget made major contributions to the discipline by using observational qualitative methods. Their theories continue to be major cornerstones of psychological thinking. Historically, promotion of the scientific method in psychology and the emphasis on experimental methodology was an attempt to give the discipline legitimacy and an identity as a “hard science.” Despite the contributions of early observational research, some members of the academic community thought it was important to pattern the field after the hard sciences. This phenomenon had such an impact that the emphasis on quantitative methodology continues even though much psychological research may be irrelevant to actual practice.

    Neglect of qualitative methods in psychological research has limited the kinds of questions that can be studied. The field of psychology has broadened to include areas that may not be appropriate for study with traditional methods—for example, questions about the meaning of experiences for specific populations. When researchers select measures to represent the variables under study, the flexibility needed in understanding the experiences of the participants is sacrificed. Consequently, important questions go unanswered.

    The field of applied psychology encompasses diverse areas, such as multicultural counseling, diversity, health psychology, family systems theory, feminism, development of new theory, career, and developmental issues. The authors of this text promote the need to return to qualitative methods to study relevant questions in these areas. Most psychology research methods books, however, focus solely on quantitative methods or include a token chapter that introduces the reader to qualitative methodology. The use of qualitative methods is complex, and one does not develop understanding, nor can one become a competent qualitative researcher, by reading one chapter. Consequently, individuals are poorly equipped to answer questions that require a qualitative method.

    The editors of this text have served as cochairs of the Special Interest Group on Qualitative Methods in Teaching and Research in the Division of Counseling Psychology for the American Psychological Association. During annual meetings, discussions were held repeatedly regarding the need for a comprehensive text focusing on qualitative methods and their specific application to questions in psychology. This text represents an answer to this call.

    This book is divided into five parts. Part I provides a philosophical foundation for the conduct of qualitative research. The authors reflect on issues that can help researchers form a qualitative identity and understanding of their roles in the research process. Part II provides basic information and illustrations that make much of the discussion in Part I concrete. Parts III, IV, and V provide examples of how qualitative methods have been successfully applied to questions appropriate for psychology. In these parts, the authors share their experiences in engaging in the qualitative process.


    We thank all of the chapter authors for their dedication to this text. Without their expertise and knowledge regarding qualitative research, the field of psychology would not be moving forward to embrace a different methodology. From the inception of this project, their enthusiasm to create a book representing the foundations of qualitative research and its application have been unwavering. Many authors displayed honestly the struggles and challenges in conducting qualitative research and the evolution of various projects from start to finish. In addition, the book highlights changes in research identity as particular researchers moved from a more quantitative orientation to a qualitative focus. For their commitment and desire to communicate the importance of qualitative methods, we are grateful.

    We thank Peter Labella at Sage for his support of this project. His confidence in the project enabled us to complete the book in a timely manner.

    We also acknowledge the assistance of Ellen Short, a doctoral student in the Counseling Psychology Program at New York University, for her assistance in the preparation of this manuscript. Her honest opinions regarding various chapters provided important input regarding the perceptions of students in training.

    About This Text

    Part I of this text provides discussions of issues that emanate from the philosophy of science and provides a foundation for the use of qualitative methods in psychology. In Chapter 1, David Rennie discusses the nature of inquiry and the observation of philosophers that “all inquiry is interpretive.” Building on thoughts of philosophers of science, he suggests ways that qualitative researchers can be more objective and perhaps satisfy the criticism of positivists.

    In Chapter 2, Lisa Hoshmand discusses how knowledge is generated and applied. She asserts that individuals identify problems and are motivated to pursue research questions on the basis of their values and personal agendas. In an effort to develop a qualitative research praxis, she makes an argument for locating research genres in the larger social and cultural context.

    Elizabeth Merrick explores issues of “reliability” and “validity” in qualitative research in Chapter 3. She reformulates the definitions of these constructs to make them relevant to qualitative research. Merrick asserts that “reliability and validity depend on the relationship between the researcher and the research process, as well as between the research and the interpretive community.” She urges the researcher to be personally reflexive and self-disclosing.

    Chapters 4 and 5 focus on the role and identity of the qualitative researcher. Dan Sciarra, in Chapter 4, asserts that the choice of a quantitative or qualitative approach is determined by how one “knows” and that this understanding determines the researcher's relationship to those he or she seeks to understand. The quantitative researcher approaches his or her subject with a belief that truth exists “out there” independent of the researcher. In contrast, the qualitative researcher enters the world of those he or she attempts to understand; the researcher and the participant contract meaning together. This philosophical difference determines one's approach to doing research and one's role as a researcher.

    In Chapter 5, the last chapter of this section, drawing on their expertise in multicultural counseling, Joseph Ponterotto and Ingrid Grieger suggest an alternative to Sciarra's position and suggest that researchers can maintain both a qualitative and a quantitative identity simultaneously. Like individuals who are bicultural, they maintain that researchers can “incorporate multiple ways of understanding reality and of solving problems.”

    Part II of this text discusses practical foundations for the conduct of qualitative research. This begins with Chapter 6, in which Cori Cieurzo and Merle Keitel focus on ethical issues relevant to qualitative research in the field of psychology. They discuss ethical dilemmas that may emerge when psychologists conduct qualitative research. These authors discuss the impact of values and personal agendas that motivate researchers to study particular communities and to interpret others' realities, yet they stress that this must be done ethically.

    Patricia Libutti, in Chapter 7,. briefly examines the history of the use of computer technology in the conduct of qualitative research and identifies ways that individuals have studied computer cultures. She expands the discussion of ethics by examining the unique research situations presented by computer technology—specifically, several components of the Internet (e.g., Web sites, chat rooms). She reminds the qualitative researcher that these are cultures that can be examined anonymously by researchers and identifies the ethical dilemmas that can arise when using this as a source of qualitative data.

    In Chapter 8, Sally Stabb relates her own experiences and “personal view on teaching qualitative research in psychology.” In addition, she shares feedback that she has received from students regarding her course and includes a syllabus. Stabb's chapter provides information regarding the importance of incorporating qualitative methods in research training.

    Constance Fischer, in Chapter 9, concludes this part of the text by sharing her insight about publishing qualitative research. She explains that many mainstream editors are uninformed about qualitative methods and suggests that how the information is presented is crucial to the editor and to fellow researchers. Using her own experiences as a qualitative researcher, she illustrates a way to present information that informs the reader about the researcher's process as well as the findings of the study.

    The chapters in Part III of this text illustrate qualitative research with a focus on examining communities within a particular cultural and/or developmental context. In Chapter 10, Lisa Suzuki, Maria Prendes-Lintel, Lauren Wertlieb, and Amena Stallings describe the process of conducting collaborative qualitative research with diverse racial/ethnic populations. Their retrospective qualitative study of Cuban refugees illustrates the importance of understanding one's own motivations and interests in particular communities (especially if one is an outsider), entering and establishing relationships with community members, integrating multiple sources of information, and identifying representative themes.

    Nancy Salkin Asher and Kenneth Chavinson Asher discuss similar issues in conducting a qualitative study of lesbian women and body image in Chapter 11. They identify the importance of the qualitative method in examining an area in which research has not been conducted. Benefits of the qualitative process are highlighted in exploring the complexities of the construct of body image, which may include identity, esteem, sexuality, cultural mores, and health issues.

    In Chapter 12, Niobe Way and Kerstin Pahl examine the process of conducting a large-scale qualitative study of friendships among urban, ethnically diverse adolescent boys from low-income families. The diversity of relational themes that could only be discovered through a qualitative method are highlighted. In addition, the authors identify particular issues that arose in condensing interview material into relevant themes for interpretation.

    Part IV of this text includes chapters that focus on issues relevant to conducting research in a therapeutic context. The studies used to illustrate the points in each chapter reflect not only the importance of qualitative methods but also the study of relationships within the psychotherapeutic domain. In Chapter 13, Joy Tanji addresses how researchers and practitioners can move toward a more integrated understanding of the family therapy process through use of qualitative methods. In her study, she incorporated therapists, a reflecting team, and families engaged in Milan systemic therapy. Issues of understanding qualitative epistemology, debriefing, enhancing entry and immersion skills, triangulation of data, peer examination, and member checks with participants of multiple stakeholder groups are noted.

    Virginia O'Brien and Mary Kopala examine the use of a qualitative method in exploring clinical supervisory relationships in Chapter 14. They discuss the evolution of their qualitative project, which includes dilemmas that arose in examining a relationship in which the participants were not co-equal (supervision occurs between a junior and a senior member of the helping profession). In addition, the authors discuss issues of power in the research process, given that they were also in positions of authority. Addressing dilemmas and resulting modifications in procedure are highlighted as part of the overall process of conducting qualitative research.

    In Chapter 15, Michelle Maher discusses her role as a feminist researcher in the context of a qualitative project designed to understand lesbians' supportive and unsupportive experiences of therapy. Aspects of the qualities of feminist research are provided and then integrated into the study of therapy. Issues of relationship between the researcher and the participant are noted. In addition, the importance of moving toward social change is described.

    Part V of this text contains chapters that illustrate the diversity of methods that can be incorporated in qualitative research. Unlike the preceding chapters in this section, which use primarily an individual interview, authors in this part selected methods that incorporate other formats. In Chapter 16, John O'Neill, Barbara Small, and John Strachan describe the use of focus groups within a participatory action research environment. Specifically, their study addresses issues surrounding employment for persons with HIV/AIDS. The authors discuss the organizational principles of action research and illustrate the integration of new information (changes in HIV/AIDS realities) as the study progresses. Focus group methodology is also discussed in the context of the study.

    In Chapter 17, Leo Goldman highlights the use of qualitative research methods in program evaluation. Various kinds of evaluations are identified with regard to the author's experiences in evaluating counseling programs in educational settings. A project involving a review of the guidance and counseling activities of an inner-city high school is used to illustrate the various components of evaluation research using qualitative methods.

  • Afterword

    MaryKopalaLisa A.Suzuki

    The chapters in this text address the current state of the use of qualitative methods in the field of psychology. In the first section of this book, the authors discussed foundational topics relevant to the use of qualitative methods. In the second section, the authors discussed their struggles and triumphs as they sought to gain understanding of the meaning of participants' experiences through application of qualitative methods.

    The complexities of the qualitative process are clearly illustrated through the challenges the authors identified. For example, in an attempt to be an ethical qualitative researcher, one cannot rely on traditional solutions. Informed consent is no longer a one-shot deal, but rather an ongoing process. In addition, new technologies enable researchers to access new sources of data, and with this comes new ethical questions that must be resolved. Qualitative researchers reported their struggles to enter the scientific community characterized by a quantitative culture.

    Evident is a need to develop further a community of qualitative researchers whose members support and encourage each other in the usage of these methods and to continue the dialogue regarding these dilemmas. As training in qualitative methods increases in psychology programs, the potential network of qualitative researchers will also increase. It is our hope that the unique strengths of qualitative methodologies have become clear as a result of reading this volume and that other researchers will become a part of this movement.

    The historical roots of psychology are more closely affiliated with qualitative observational methodologies in the understanding of human development. Over time, an emphasis on making psychology a hard science led us in the direction of quantifying variables and using statistical probabilities. Those of us who received our training a decade or more ago are likely to have been trained solely in quantitative methods. Thus, we use this framework to formulate questions and to design studies. We are comfortable at thinking about research from an experimental perspective or using sophisticated statistical analyses.

    The authors of this text have posed numerous objections to the quantitative paradigm. These concerns seem to lead us back to our qualitative roots. Yet the qualitative-quantitative debate continues. To some, the foundation and philosophical premises underlying each methodology appear incompatible. For others, however, the movement toward a bimethodological identity appears imminent.

    It is not likely that we will abandon our quantitative understanding in favor of qualitative methods; however, we can learn to understand and appreciate the contributions of both the qualitative and the quantitative approach to understanding psychological phenomena more clearly.

    About the Editors

    Mary Kopala, Ph.D., is Associate Professor at Hunter College, City University of New York, in the Department of Educational Foundations and Counseling, where she teaches research methods. Many of her presentations at national and regional conferences have focused on the use of qualitative methods. She is actively involved in research, both quantitative and qualitative. She has also written numerous book chapters and articles.

    Lisa A. Suzuki, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor in the Department of Applied Psychology at New York University. She is a coeditor of Handbook of Multicultural Counseling (with Ponterotto, Casas, & Alexander) and of Handbook of Multicultural Assessment. She has given presentations about qualitative methods at national conferences and is actively engaged in projects using qualitative methods.

    About the Contributors

    Kenneth Chavinson Asher, M.Arch., received his master's degree from the University of Oregon. He is a writer who has collaborated on several qualitative research projects, including a study (and its pilot study) presented in this volume.

    Nancy Salkin Asher, Ph.D., is a counseling psychologist who lives and works in Portland, Oregon. Her research interests include body image, social support, and performance enhancement. She has worked for the past 7 years in a wide variety of clinical settings with a focus on adult women.

    Cori Cieurzo, M.A., is a doctoral student in counseling psychology in the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University. She received her master's degree in general psychology at Wake Forest University, her master's thesis focusing on the link between external health locus of control and children's optimism and fears in a healthy and chronically ill sample. She has counseled college students and children and has presented at national professional conferences on the following topics: eating disorders and body image in adolescents, children's conceptions of illness and trauma, and neuropsychological functioning in children with brain tumors.

    Constance T. Fischer, Ph.D., ABPP, is Professor of Psychology at Duquesne University, where she has participated in the department's development of empirical phenomenological research methods for more than 20 years. She is editing Qualitative Research Methods for Psychology and is a Consulting Editor for Methods: A Journal for Human Science, The Humanistic Psychologist, and Journal of Humanistic Psychology. She coedited Volume II of Duquesne Studies in Phenomenological Psychology and is author of Individualizing Psychological Assessment.

    Leo Goldman, Ph.D., ABBP, Counseling Psychology, twice-retired Professor of counseling and counseling psychology (from the City University of New York [CUNY] and later from Fordham University), now teaches program evaluation in the Graduate Counseling Program at New York University as an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Applied Psychology. He also continues a 20-year relationship as Senior Research Associate at the Center for Advanced Study in Education of the CUNY Graduate Center. He has held national office in both counseling and psychological organizations and has been Editor of the journal of the organization now called the American Counseling Association. He is the author of Using Tests in Counseling and Research Methods for Counselors.

    Ingrid Grieger, Ed.D., has been Director of the Counseling Center at Iona College since 1989 and the Coordinator of the Women's Studies Program from 1994 through 1996. She is also an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Iona College and in the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University. In the past, she has worked in college and university counseling centers, in community mental health clinics, and in private clinical practice. A frequent presenter at professional conferences, she is a published writer in the area of women's issues in psychotherapy and multicultural concerns.

    Lisa Tsoi Hoshmand, Ph.D., is Professor and the Director of the Division of Counseling and Psychology at Lesley College. She is the Editor and principal author of Creativity and Moral Vision in Psychology: Narratives on Identity and Commitment in a Postmodern Age. Her other published works include Orientation to Inquiry in a Reflective Professional Psychology and Research as Praxis: Lessons From Programmatic Research in Therapeutic Psychology. She has been the Associate Editor of the Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology and has served on several editorial boards, including Contemporary Psychology, Journal of Constructivist Psychology, Journal of Community Psychology, Journal of Counseling Psychology, and The Counseling Psychologist.

    Merle A. Keitel, Ph.D., is Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University and has served as Coordinator of the Master's and Professional Diploma Programs in Counseling and Personnel Services, as well as the APA-accredited Doctoral Program in Counseling Psychology since 1994. She has published and presented at national professional conferences primarily in the areas of health psychology, stress and coping, and grief and loss.

    Patricia O'Brien Libutti, Ph.D., earned a master's degree in library science in addition to her doctorate in educational psychology. She has worked with the National Library of Education as Chair of the Working Group on Web Design for the National Education Network and is associated with The Libraries for the Future as a Research Fellow. She is editing a book entitled Librarians as Learners, Librarians as Teachers: The Diffusion of Internet Expertise in Academic Libraries. Using qualitative research methods, she has studied how individuals develop Internet expertise.

    Michelle Maher, M.S., received master's degrees from Syracuse University in cultural foundations and from the University of Oregon in counseling psychology. A doctoral candidate in cultural foundations of education at Syracuse University, she focuses her research interests in feminist and multicultural studies, children and trauma, and qualitative research methods. She is a Child and Family Therapist at the Child Center in Springfield, Oregon. She has published and presented extensively on using qualitative methods and addressing multicultural issues from a feminist perspective.

    Elizabeth Merrick, Ph.D., is a qualitative researcher, educator, and psychologist. Her qualitative study of childbearing among lower socioeconomic, black American adolescents led to an interest in research methods and epistemology. In addition to seeing clients and teaching, she is a Postdoctoral Fellow at New York University's Department of Applied Psychology, where she is involved in a qualitative study with middle school students in a lower-income, urban community.

    Virginia O'Brien, Ph.D., received her doctorate in counseling psychology from Fordham University in 1996. A licensed psychologist, she works in private practice and for Kenwood Psychological Services in New York City and is a consultant at the Notre Dame School in Manhattan. In addition, she is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Hunter College, City University of New York. She has presented at national conferences on her research interest of mathematics self-efficacy in adolescents.

    John O'Neill, Ph.D., is Professor and Coordinator of the Counselor Education Programs at Hunter College, City University of New York. He is actively involved in research in community integration and quality of life for people with traumatic brain injury. He has received numerous grants focused on rehabilitation counseling and is conducting collaborative qualitative research in the area of HIV/AIDS.

    Kerstin Pahl, is a doctoral student in the Human Development Program in the Department of Applied Psychology at New York University. Her research interests focus on adolescent development and adolescents' relationships and the experiences of adolescent immigrants to the United States.

    Joseph G. Ponterotto, Ph.D., is Professor in the Counseling and Counseling Psychology Programs at Fordham University, where he teaches regularly the qualitative research course and the multicultural counseling course. He is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association (Divisions 17 and 45) and of the American Association of Applied and Preventive Psychology. In 1994, he was co-winner of the APA Division 17 Early Career Scientist/Practitioner Award. His research specialty is in multicultural counseling, a field in which he is coauthor or coeditor of several books and author of numerous journal articles. His current book project is the second edition of Handbook of Racial/Ethnic Minority Counseling Research (with J. M. Casas), which has a heavy qualitative research component.

    Maria Prendes-Lintel, Ph.D., is Coordinator of Psychological Assessment and Multicultural Services at the Lincoln (Nebraska) Medical Education Foundation Behavioral Health Center. She specializes in post-traumatic stress disorders and lectures on the bio-psychosocial model and multidisciplinary collaborative treatment. Her research with the refugee population addresses mental health intervention and the vicarious traumatization of service providers.

    David L. Rennie, Ph.D., is Professor in the Department of Psychology at York University, Toronto. After a period of quasi-experimental research on counselor training, in recent years he has applied the grounded theory method to the study of the client's reported experience of psychotherapy. This transition has stimulated an interest in the philosophy of human science. Among his recent publications are Psychotherapy Process Research: Paradigmatic and Narrative Approaches (edited with S. Toukmanian) and Person-Centred Counselling: An Experiential Approach.

    Daniel Sciarra, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor at Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York, in counselor education. The author of a forthcoming book on multicultural counseling, he has research interests in racial identity development and multicultural family counseling. He has made numerous presentations at national conferences and published extensively in the area of multicultural issues in counseling, specifically with Latino families.

    Barbara B. Small, B.A., is Executive Director of Multitasking Systems of New York/Mobilizing Talents and Skills (MTS), a nonprofit organization servicing the employment and training needs of men and women with HIV/AIDS. She is also President of Small and Associates, Inc., a consulting firm specialized in developing vocational programs for persons with barriers to employment. She received her B.A. in psychology from Duke University.

    Sally D. Stabb, Ph.D., is Associate Professor in the Counseling Psychology Program in the Department of Psychology and Philosophy at Texas Woman's University. Her research interests are in the areas of couples' relationships (infidelity, attachment, therapy), women's issues (development, emotion, cross-culturalism), ethics, and needs assessment. She serves as an ad hoc reviewer for qualitative research manuscripts for Psychology of Women Quarterly, and within APA Division 17 she is a member of the Qualitative Research Special Interest Group and a member of the Program Committee.

    Amena Stallings, M.A., is a doctoral candidate in school psychology at Michigan State University. Her master's degree, also in school psychology, was earned at New York University. She has copresented with Lisa Suzuki at the National Convention of the American Psychological Association on the topic of Cuban refugees.

    John Strachan, B.A., is a Research Associate with Multitasking Systems of New York/Mobilizing Talents and Skills (MTS), a nonprofit organization servicing the employment and training needs of men and women with HIV/AIDS. Research projects focus on quality of life and employment issues for persons with HIV/AIDS. He is enrolled in the Graduate Program in Rehabilitation Counseling at Hunter College, City University of New York.

    Joy M. Tanji, Ph.D., is an adjunct faculty member in the Clinical Psychology Program of the American School of Professional Psychology/Hawaii Campus. She is a lithographer and Counseling Psychologist by training and is interested in humanistic, narrative, and systemic approaches to human change; qualitative approaches to inquiry; the application of social constructionist thinking in both academic and clinical settings, particularly with respect to diversity issues; Eastern philosophy; and fine arts.

    Niobe Way, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Applied Psychology at New York University. Her main research interests are in the development of urban poor and working-class adolescents. She is the Coeditor of Urban Girls: Resisting Stereotypes, Creating Identities. She is also the author of Everyday Courage: The Lives and Stories of Urban Teenagers.

    Lauren Wertlieb, M.S., is a doctoral student in counseling psychology in the School of Education at New York University. She received her master's degree in counseling at New York University and has done counseling with cancer patients and substance-abusing adolescents and their families. Her research interests include adolescent identity formation, trauma and resilience, and qualitative research methods.

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