Qualitative research in the past 30 years has increasingly been viewed as making an important contribution to research and evaluation. For this discussion, you are asked to read two Research in Practice articles in the text. Evaluate and synthesize the contribution qualitative researched played with regard to Research in Practice (5.1, pp. 110) and Research in Practice (12.2, p 338). Your work should clearly identify the importance of using qualitative methods and explain in what ways these methods helped the studies. Respond to two of your classmates’ postings.
RESEARCH IN PRACTICE 5.1 Behavior and Social Environment: Controversies in Measuring Violence against Women
An extensive body of literature has accumulated regarding the topic of violence against women. In the process of building this knowledge base, considerable disagreement has arisen about which harmful behaviors to include in a definition of nonlethal violence and how best to go about measuring this violence. Consider the two following excerpts, the first from a qualitative study and the second from a summary of a national, randomized survey:
I was raped by my uncle when I was 12 and my husband has beat me for years. For my whole life, when I have gone to a doctor, to my priest, or to a friend to have my wounds patched up, or for a shoulder to cry on, they dwell on my bruises, my cuts, my broken bones. The abuse in my life has taken away my trust in people and in life.
It's taken away the laughter in my life. I don't trust myself to be able to take care of my kids, to take care of myself, to do anything to make a difference in my own life or anyone else's. That's the hurt I would like to fix. I can live with the physical scars.
It's these emotional scars that drive me near suicide sometimes.
—A respondent interviewed by DeKeseredy and MacLeod (1997, p. 5)
Women experience significantly more partner violence than men do: 25 percent of surveyed women, compared with 8 percent of surveyed men, said they were raped and/or physically assaulted by a current or former spouse, cohabiting partner, or date in their lifetime; 1.5 percent of surveyed women and 0.9 percent of surveyed men said they were raped and/or physically assaulted by such a perpetrator in the previous 12 months. According to survey estimates, approximately 1.5 million women and 834,700 men are raped and/or physically assaulted by an intimate partner annually in the United States.
—Tjaden and Thoennes (1998, p. 2)
The gut-wrenching words of a violence survivor or the decimal precision of an executive summary: Which approach is the better measure of domestic violence? The qualitative study vividly portrays one person's experience, an experience with which many victims can identify. The survey lacks the rich description, but appears to capture the immensity of the problem in terms of numbers of victims. The two approaches have fueled a debate over what focus to use when we attempt to measure violence against women.
Traditionally, many survey researchers have used operational definitions that include physical abuse indicators, such as beatings or kicks, or sexual assault features, such as forced penetration. For example, the Conflict Tactics Scale asks people to indicate how often a partner has “used a knife or gun on them” or “beat them up” (Straus et al., 1996). An argument in favor of such an approach is that it lends itself to readily quantifiable measures. One can count the number of times a victim was beaten, the number of visits to the emergency room, or the number of workdays lost because of injury. Standardized instruments such as the Conflict Tactics Scale permit researchers to make comparisons across studies and with different populations. So, in the case of the survey quoted above, the researchers can estimate the number of women who were raped or physically assaulted, and the results can be used in conjunction with those of other surveys to estimate the extent of the problem.
However, is this really what is most important? The victim who is quoted in the qualitative study makes an eloquent plea to focus on the psychological hurt that she endures forever as a consequence of living with an abusive partner rather than counting the number of assaults or physical injuries that happened. In an article discussing definition and measurement issues, Walter DeKeseredy (2000) points out that many North American surveys have followed a narrow definition, based in part on the argument that grouping physical assault with psychological, spiritual, and economic abuse muddies the water and makes causal determination impossible. Another argument is that to include “soft” abuse, such as verbal aggression and psychological damage, trivializes what most people agree is seriously abusive. In contrast, many researchers, especially those using qualitative methods, contend that violence against women is much more than just physical blows; that it is multidimensional, and actions such as harming pets, threatening children, and verbal degradation also are essential elements. The qualitative data presented above can be part of a convincing argument that the psychological damage resulting from abuse is far from trivial.
In fact, when it comes to estimating the amount of violence, DeKeseredy argues that narrow definitions generate low incidence and prevalence rates and that these constitute a significant problem. He points out that policymakers react only to large numbers; thus, underestimating the amount of abuse may have important policy implications. Furthermore, narrow definitions create a ranking of abuse based on what is defined as crime rather than on women's true feelings. Finally, narrow definitions increase the problem of underreporting, because research participants will only disclose abuse that fits the narrow definition rather than include other experiences that hurt them deeply. Although it may be problematic to include a wide array of abusive experiences, DeKeseredy points out that qualitative research, such as that quoted above, emphasizes the need to incorporate into survey research the features of violence that women find so devastating. As the debate developed, qualitative research served as the catalyst for forcing the research community to broaden its definition of abuse. Several measurement tools, created partly in response to the work of qualitative researchers, now tap nonphysical and nonsexual abuse. These include Tolman's (1989) Psychological Maltreatment of Women Inventory and the psychologically/emotionally abusive and controlling behaviors data elements developed by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Saltzman et al., 1999).
This debate over how to measure domestic violence shows the benefits of using both qualitative and quantitative research approaches and considering both positivist and nonpositivist arguments about measurement. DeKeseredy, for example, makes a case for the use of multiple measures to further enhance measurement. He argues that using open-ended, supplemental questions in addition to such quantitative measures as the Conflict Tactics Scale increases the chance that silent or forgetful participants may reveal abuse not reported in the context of the structured, closed-ended instrument. In summary, we see that careful definition of terms, inclusion of both qualitative and quantitative research, improvement of measurement instruments, and use of multiple forms of measurement all advance our understanding of the dynamics of important social issues, such as violence against women.
RESEARCH IN PRACTICE 12.2 Program Evaluation: A Nonpositivist Evaluation of a Juvenile Gang Intervention Program
Research in Practice 12.1 presented a program evaluation that was positivist in nature, using quantitative measures of variables and focusing a lot of attention on the economic efficiency of the program. Little consideration, however, was given to treating the released inmates as stakeholders in the program; their views were not solicited. A more nonpositivist approach was used in an evaluation of a juvenile gang intervention program in a rural community (Stum & Chu, 1999). The program evaluated in this study was a school partnership program that followed the philosophy of community policing. The basic idea was to build positive police-citizen partnerships based on trust and mutual respect, accomplished, in part, through daily visits to schools by the police to interact with and get to know the youths. Because there had been little prior research on such programs, especially as they operate in rural communities, the researchers decided that a more nonpositivist, exploratory, qualitative approach was appropriate.
The researchers decided that focus groups (see Chapter 7) and content analysis (see Chapter 8) would be the best methodologies. Earlier in this chapter, we discussed using focus groups as a part of formative evaluations, but this research provides an illustration of the use of focus groups in summative evaluations. The research focused on gang members and at-risk youth, and it explored their perceptions of themselves, their peers, their communities, and the gang prevention and intervention programs operating in their schools. (As discussed in Chapter 9, these qualitative approaches better enable us to understand the subjective experiences of the people being studied, and better avoid the possibility that a researcher will impose his or her own meanings in a way that misses or distorts what is really going on.)
Recall that focus groups, also called group depth interviews, involve a moderator asking questions of a group and recording people's responses. The questions asked guide the discussion, but the moderator is free to ask additional questions and even to digress into new topics that seem fruitful based on the discussion. In addition, group interaction can stimulate responses that might not have occurred with other methodologies. Overall, focus groups are exploratory and encourage people to respond in their own words and by creating their own meanings. This is based on the assumptions made by nonpositivist program evaluators: The thoughts and perspectives of all stakeholders in a program should be assessed, and powerless or disadvantaged groups should have an opportunity to be heard.
In this study, data collection occurred in three separate focus groups in which each participant was involved. One addressed the school partnership policing program by asking youth about their contacts or relationships with the police. A second focus group addressed the youths' perceptions of themselves, their activities, and the crimes that they committed, as well as their perceptions of police, probation officers, judges, and others in positions of authority. The third group had to do with how the youths felt about their peers and their communities.
All focus group discussions were tape-recorded, and a research assistant prepared notes based on his or her observation of the group discussion so that the tapes and notes could be compared as a way of assessing reliability and validity. Then the tapes and notes were reviewed repeatedly to identify major themes in the data. If researchers disagreed about themes, they went back to the raw data (tapes and notes) to identify what led to the identification of a particular theme.
One of the conclusions the study arrived at was that, based on the opinions expressed by the youths in the focus groups, the school partnership program had serious weaknesses and might not be an effective intervention program for teens at risk. Most of the youth reported that they didn't know—or, at best, hardly knew—the police officers with whom they were supposed to be developing positive relationships. In addition, they expressed concerns that contact with police authorities might bring them difficulties—the police could identify them as potential troublemakers because of their involvement in a program for at-risk teens. With no prior research on these programs, this exploratory, qualitative methodology is more likely to discover attitudes like these.
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