Qualitative research in international settings

Author(s) David Stephens
Publisher Routledge
Published 2009
ISBN 9780415280587
Reviewed by Mr Christian Beighton
Canterbury Christ Church University-Education
Review published 21 July 2009

David Stephens’ book on qualitative research is an impressive introduction to this area of research and presents a range of informed, pertinent themes with clarity and style. There are three parts: the first section on “frameworks” reviews fundamental points about qualitative research. The second looks more closely at aspects of designing a research project. The third usefully gives an alphabetical list of sources of support, including an annotated bibliography, tips for journals and up to date software. One of the book’s key aims is to provide a focus on issues of context which Stephens draws from his wide experience of qualitative research in international settings. Many of the examples relate to practical questions arising in fieldwork and come from experience in team working, for instance in developing countries. The book shines here in using personal examples and expertise gained in significant projects with major international aid partners. The advice is skilfully presented with anecdotes and broader conclusions drawn from important questions. “Key extracts” and “case studies” are presented in boxed-off sections and provide an insight into fundamental points such as epistemology, colonization or field work. Consideration is given to concepts of “writing up”/” writing down” and “thick” description in ways which succeed in both problematising assumptions we may have about the nature and purpose of research and tools for getting round to actually doing it.

What I would like to highlight however is not so much the way in which the book fulfils its brief in relating to international settings – which it clearly does – but rather the way in which it adds a useful slant on qualitative research generally by considering precisely what we mean by “context”.

“Setting or context is not something that can be pushed to the background but is integral to the character of qualitative research, providing the process with a fabric from which meaning and interpretation can occur” (p12).

It seems to me that Stephens is making here a crucial and potentially quite bold statement about the nature and purpose of qualitative research. Few would disagree that context must pay a part and that we neglect the material aspects of the research process at our peril. But I feel Stephens goes further than this in suggesting that, having perceived context, we then conceive it by imposing from outside interpretative paradigms which may miss the point of the interactions in question. Philosopher Gilles Deleuze (2004) returns frequently to the problems which arise when our attempts to take cognizance of something, end up being instead a re-cognition as we take ownership of concepts which thereby lose any originality they may have had. As Stephens implies, meaning is not something that the researcher can graft onto or draw out of research data. On the contrary, the relationship between semantic value and material is intertwined and perhaps better described as expression than communication. Meaning and interpretation can “occur” because they have their own density and require nothing from outside beyond the imaginative connexions that are made in the research dialogue. In practice, this suggests that a form of theoretical “bouncing” takes place which optimises both the regard given to the voice of those researched “in here” and that of wider theories “out there”. A context is established which neutralises the dichotomy, and rather than seeing the relationship as a linear one of placing local views in a wider context, a form of theoretical “vibration” or “refrain” takes place. The question is less “what does it mean?”, and more on “what does it do?” Stephens’ skill in incorporating such insights from Wittgenstein and Hume (p15) is, for me, both illuminating and inspiring. Elsewhere on this site Jonathan Tummons rightly argues for caution in the face of “technical” texts and “how to” manuals, and Stephens may show away forward in re-engaging with more complex issues of perception and expression which might actually respond to the need for research techniques called for, for instance, by one of the many sources of inspiration for the text: Lincoln and Denzin’s Handbook of Qualitative Research. Not only do they provide a basis for Stephens’ advocacy of narrative approaches, but they also suggest a “seventh moment” in qualitative research looking to the future in calling for innovative and creative research techniques. Engaging with new materials and approaches can include turning to the richness of narrative techniques which, in the international context at least, according to Stephens, have been neglected. Clearly, this turn involves a reflexive approach which combines a triple form of reflexivity. On the first hand, it is essential, and perhaps obvious, that a critical regard be maintained about one’s approaches and practices in the field. But especially in interactive, qualitative settings where cultures and languages play such a powerful role, it is critical that researchers maintain a degree of reflexivity about themselves as researchers and their research subjects if we are to have a “sharpened sense of responsibility” (p9). Stephens’ point is a convincing one, I think, in trying to move beyond stale and sometimes rather facile qualitative/quantitative oppositions and to take a more sophisticated and critical stance regarding the fit of the particular project and techniques chosen. Asking such questions, as Stephens points out (p131), might bring us closer to the creation of some really useful knowledge.

Deleuze, G. (2004) Difference and Repetition. Tr. P.Patton, London: Continuum.