The Rise of Qualitative Research in Psychology

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Abstract

A study is presented on the rise of qualitative research in psychology over the 20th century. The incidence of qualitative research as indicated by several search terms (i.e., "qualitative research," "grounded theory," "discourse analy*," "empirical phenomenological," and "phenomenological psychology") was traced through the PsycINFO and Dissertation Abstracts International databases. It was found that, with the exception of the search terms having to do with phenomenology, records containing these search terms were basically non-existent until the 1980s, when there was a sharp rise that intensified in the 1990s. The PsycINFO records were sorted according to (1) whether they came from psychology or other social and health science disciplines; (2) region of origin; (3) the types of document to which they referred; and (4) whether they focused on the methodology or the application of qualitative research. A number of interesting differences emerged from this comparative analysis. Implications of the findings for the supposition that a paradigm shift may be underway are discussed.

The term "qualitative research" refers to a variety of approaches to enquiry in the health and social sciences that address the meaning of verbal text in verbal rather than numerical terms. More fundamentally, qualitative research is more subjective than quantitative research; more exploratory than confirmatory; more descriptive than explanatory; more interpretive than positivist (see Denzin & Lincoln, 1994). Thus, in many ways qualitative research cuts across the grain of accustomed research practice. Accordingly, there is resistance to accepting it in many quarters. Nevertheless, a path has been cleared for it in part by the postmodern critique of the modern quest for objective knowledge. More fundamentally, perhaps, the appeal of qualitative research is so great for some investigators that they are engaging in it despite the resistance to it (McMullen, 2002; Stoppard, 2002).

There seems to have been an uptake of qualitative research in psychology in recent years. It also seems that no one has examined the extent of this uptake. A number of questions are of interest: When did the turn to qualitative research in psychology begin and how has its growth developed? What kinds of publications constitute the resulting literature? Are there regional differences in the use of qualitative research? How much emphasis has been placed on qualitative research methodology as opposed to its application?

It appeared to us that the answers to questions like these would have a bearing on the most interesting question of all: What is to be made of the arrival of qualitative research on the scene in terms of the predominance of the natural science approach to enquiry? Is its presence now large enough that it can be considered a major movement - the emergence of an alternative "paradigm," as Kuhn (1970; cf. McMullen, 2002; O'Neill, 2002) might put it? Or alternatively, is it the case that, under close scrutiny, it becomes evident that qualitative research has yet to make a significant impact on the psychology research infrastructure?

In an attempt to address these questions, we decided to study the psychological literature produced in the 20th century. This decision presented a number of difficulties having to do with changes in the use of language over that period of time. This problem could have been addressed through the study of whole documents. To do that would have necessitated sampling in order to handle the volume of them, however. The alternative was to apply search terms to an electronic database. This approach had the appeal of being more comprehensive. Even here, though, such a study would be limited by the scope of the particular database and by the particular search terms used. Thus, neither approach is ideal but, on balance, given that we wished to do an exploratory study, we decided that the latter strategy is the better of the two and so turned to PsycINFO, produced by the American Psychological Association (APA). …