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International Journal of Social


Research Methodology
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Surviving as a qualitative researcher


in a quantitative world: a personal
reflection
a
Sungeun Yang
a
Consumer & Child Studies Major, College of Human Ecology ,
Inha University , 253 Younghyun-dong, Nam-gu, Incheon ,
402-751 , South Korea
Published online: 30 Jul 2012.

To cite this article: Sungeun Yang (2013) Surviving as a qualitative researcher in a quantitative
world: a personal reflection, International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 16:1, 81-85,
DOI: 10.1080/13645579.2012.709803

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13645579.2012.709803

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International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 2013
Vol. 16, No. 1, 8185, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13645579.2012.709803

Surviving as a qualitative researcher in a quantitative world: a


personal reection
Sungeun Yang*

Consumer & Child Studies Major, College of Human Ecology, Inha University, 253
Younghyun-dong, Nam-gu, Incheon 402-751, South Korea
(Received 19 April 2012; nal version received 4 July 2012)
Downloaded by [Universidad de los Andes] at 14:47 24 July 2014

This autoethnography describes how a Korean woman made a decision to be a


qualitative researcher, what she has confronted in a positivistic culture, and how
she has survived as a qualitative researcher. The author, using self-reection,
raises issues of professional development, academic politics, and coping strate-
gies for qualitative researchers.
Keywords: qualitative researcher; autoethnography; self-reection; positivistic
culture; South Korea

Becoming a qualitative researcher


On the rst day of a new quarter in 1998, I was hurried for the rst meeting with
Dr. Paul C, Rosenblatt to begin my research assistantship. Contrary to the stereo-
type that Asian students are good at statistics, I was assigned as a research assistant
for Dr. Rosenblatt who was a qualitative researcher. I was a new international stu-
dent from Korea where there was almost no qualitative coursework for my major of
child and family studies at that time. I had never heard of qualitative research
before starting my doctoral program in the USA. Dr. Rosenblatt told me that he
was interested in researching about Korean families with me. I asked him what vari-
ables he would like to test for a comparative study between the USA and Korea.
Smiling at me, he said, Just tell me about your family in Korea. I was puzzled as
to what my family had to do with his research.
I visited Dr. Rosenblatt once a week to answer his casual, somewhat nave ques-
tions about Korea. He asked me to teach him my culture. He was curious who
made the familys dinner, what was taught in schools, how family rituals such as
weddings or funerals were carried out, and so on. He asked me questions that were
too obvious to Koreans. In order to answer his questions thoroughly, I had to
describe things I usually missed perceiving, recall words I usually used without
thinking, and explain situations I usually took for granted. I tried to articulate what
I believed was true about Korea, and make Dr. Rosenblatt understand why I
believed these things were true. Then, he would challenge the facts that seemed
obviously true to me. His questions claried the details for me, even while simulta-

*Email: syang@inha.ac.kr

! 2013 Taylor & Francis


82 S. Yang

neously making me question all the things I was sure about. While I was experienc-
ing this confusion that Dr. Rosenblatt had created, I felt like I was becoming more
able to nd the meaning of everyday life. I felt like together he and I were slowly
reaching a point of intersubjectivity (Kincheloe & McLaren, 2005, p. 328).
While I was working with Dr. Rosenblatt I also took his qualitative research
methods class. I struggled in the class because the class discussion was lost in a
world of postmodernism. Having neither variables nor hypotheses, I had to conduct
so-called in-depth interviews for my term paper. I felt like I was walking on the ice
above the sea of abstraction and vagueness while trying to tackle an analysis of the
interviews. Although I got an A grade on my term paper, I remained insecure about
qualitative methodology.
It was when I was preparing my doctoral thesis proposal that I met Professor
Kim. She was one of the most famous scholars in Korea. I asked her cautiously
how it would help my career in Korea to write a qualitative doctoral thesis. She
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answered without hesitation, A qualitative thesis wont work! I smiled at her in


response, but with clenched teeth. I was surprised not by her answer but by my
emotional reaction to her answer. At that moment, the interviewees of my qualita-
tive term paper ashed across my mind. I remembered how much I learned from
their lived experiences. I was angry that their feelings, values, and meanings were
regarded as less signicant than statistical signicance. I asked Dr. Rosenblatt if it
would be a smart thing to write a qualitative doctoral thesis. Dr. Rosenblatt
answered just as always, Follow your heart. So, I became converted. I felt I had
found the right track at that time.

Confronting quantitative context of Korea


I returned to Korea in 2002 with my qualitative doctoral dissertation and also a
qualitative article cowritten with Dr. Rosenblatt We published our casual talk that
we had during a couple of quarters while I was his research assistant. Dr. Rosenblatt
entitled our casual talk an ethnographic research on Korean culture. The casual talk
happened to be the process of coconstructing realities, which was initiated by
Dr. Rosenblatts pretending ignorance and then progressing through his stance of
deliberate naivet and supportive skepticism.
As soon as I arrived in Korea, I began to understand what Professor Kim
had told me earlier. The Korean academia expected fresh Ph.D.s from overseas
to introduce new statistical techniques or new standardized scales. My doctoral
thesis seemed alien to Korean scholars since it was lled with strange words,
such as paradigms, epistemology, and phenomenology, and lled with quota-
tions from the participants. Korean academia highly values uniformity and con-
formity, which are based on collectivism. Although the cultural distinction
between collectivism and individualism has been criticized (Brewer & Chen,
2007; Turiel, 2004), the constructs seem to bring an explanatory power to the
analysis of Korean academia. Collectivism readily sacrices individual ideas to
the disciplines of the majority and has a low tolerance for change, diversity,
and even creativity that individuals can bring to research. There is no excep-
tion in terms of the choice of research methods. Qualitative researchers have
a high possibility of being isolated and marginalized in the collectivistic
culture where quantitative methods are the major norms that most researchers
follow.
International Journal of Social Research Methodology 83

In addition, qualitative researchers are not welcome because they could be


potentially threatening critics to quantitative researchers in Korea. Qualitative
researchers tend to criticize quantitative researchers who are not sensitive to aca-
demic colonialism. Some quantitative researchers seem so used to Western theories
and continue to test statistical hypotheses from such theories with people in non-
Western cultures. I believe it should be prioritized to develop culturally sensitive
theories with an inductive approach. Quantitative researchers, who are eager to
reach universality, might fail to value their own cultural norms, meanings, beliefs,
actions, and so on of everyday life.
Because qualitative researchers are hardly recognized in Korea, they face dif-
culties in gaining university faculty positions and opportunities to teach students
qualitative research methodology. It is inevitable that the quality of qualitative
researches will be questioned considering the lack of opportunities in the country to
learn qualitative methods. It is still difcult to nd a good qualitative research that
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convinces both qualitative and quantitative researchers of its validation (Creswell,


2007, p. 202), although the number of qualitative articles is slowly growing in
Korea. Qualitative articles from the Korean child and family eld still show a lack
of understanding of epistemology, a lack of persistence during data collection, or a
lack of rigor during data analysis. This has supported the accusations by quantita-
tive researchers of incompetence among qualitative researchers. It is a vicious cycle.
There are too few qualitative researchers to inuence the academia, thus creating a
lack of qualitative methodology education for students, who then proceed to dam-
age the quality standard of qualitative research by conducting poor research. This
leads to further criticism of qualitative research by conventional researchers who
only strengthen the methodological conservatism against qualitative research. Schol-
ars who are fearful of isolation and marginalization by collectivistic academia are
getting more and more reluctant to undertake qualitative projects.
I took a faculty position at a university a few years ago. None of the faculty
members in my department had ever taken a qualitative research methods class. I
feel lucky because I am able to teach graduate students qualitative methodology
under the name of Methods in Child and Family Research 2. There is a need for
teaching our students to incorporate methods from both the qualitative and quantita-
tive approaches to cope with the increasing demands for diversity and complexity
(Tashakkori & Teddlie, 2003, p. 74). However, politics regarding methodological
issues continue to hinder my work within my department. My advisees are reluctant
to write a qualitative dissertation. They would rather use quantitative methods as
recommended by the senior faculty in the department. A quantitative dissertation
makes it easier for these students to pass the evaluation from their dissertation com-
mittee and get a job after graduation. As an adviser, I cannot encourage them to
take the risk of writing a qualitative thesis because I have learned how these things
work in a politically charged environment. It is unacceptable that the students bear
the brunt of faculty disagreements and paradigm wars (Morse, 2008, p. 876). How-
ever, as a qualitative researcher, I ask myself the question, Am I on the right
track?

Coping with doubt as a qualitative researcher


How can a qualitative researcher survive in this quantitative world? The best
solution is to prove that qualitative methods actually work. The Korea Ministry of
84 S. Yang

Education, Science and Technology is urging universities to undergo radical reform.


To gain a high evaluation from the Ministry, most universities are enforcing the rule
of publish-or-perish on their faculties. This circumstance may be a good opportunity
for qualitative researchers. Simply, publish as many articles as possible in presti-
gious journals. It is the key to show the quantity of ones qualitative publications.
Then, universities will recognize them no matter what research methods they choose
to use. However, in order to publish more articles more quickly, I have had to cut
back on my time, energy, and efforts to build rapport with participants, immerse
myself in the qualitative data, and reect on my ndings. I sometimes wonder
whether I am a qualitative researcher or a writing machine although I agree that
publication is the best strategy to survive and hopefully succeed as a qualitative
researcher. I often ask myself the question, Should I continue on this track?
To survive as a qualitative researcher in a quantitative context, guerrilla tactics
are effective. Guerrilla warfare is unconventional warfare with which small groups
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of combatants use mobile tactics, such as ambushes or raids, to attack a larger for-
mal army. I prefer creating confusion to confrontation when dealing with quantita-
tive scholars. I often use camouage as well. For example, my tactics are to stick
to the format of a typical quantitative article when I submit my manuscript to a
Korean journal. I leave space for literature review, make a table of participants
demographic information, present a chart or a graphic to summarize the results, and
use the term the researcher rather than I. I often ask participants to ll in a short
questionnaire and show simple descriptive statistics about them. This camouage
can work for getting published or getting research funds. I try to be pragmatic
rather than political by conforming to conventions rather than challenging them
(Matthews, 2005, p. 808). At the same time, I become conscience-stricken when I
sense I have betrayed the spirit and the ethics of qualitative research. Has my crea-
tivity been locked in by following the format of a quantitative article? Isnt it
deception to use a meaningless questionnaire just for a convenient display? Are the
guerrilla tactics I have used an inevitable compromise? Am I throwing away my
qualitative soul in the name of choosing a surviving strategy?
To survive as a qualitative researcher in a quantitative context, a missionary atti-
tude is necessary. Qualitative scholars must retain their enthusiasm for their mission
to educate those members of academia who are ignorant of or prejudiced against
qualitative research. This rationale explains why I accept almost every request to
give an introductory lecture on qualitative methodology at seminars or workshops. I
am happy to do so, even for free. Every time I explain the paradigms of social sci-
ences, introduce the general stages of undertaking a qualitative research, and justify
the purposes of qualitative methodology. I emphasize to my listeners that qualitative
research can get published and funded. The problem is that I am allowed to have
only a couple of hours for my missionary work for each opportunity. If I discussed
epistemology, ontology, and axiology for a limited time, I would overwhelm my
audience or bore them. If I focused on practical how-to-do information, I would lead
my audience to underestimate the complexity of qualitative methodology and see it
only as a technique for data collection or data analysis. I am struggling to nd a way
to help the audience both enjoy and respect qualitative methods within a given time-
frame. Sometimes I doubt the effects of this qualitative methodology tasting event.
Am I offering a bargain sale of qualitative methods? Although I try to keep my faith
in what I do, my frustration can cause me to wonder if I am throwing my pearls to
pigs. I ask myself the question, Should I continue on this track?
International Journal of Social Research Methodology 85

While asking myself that ongoing question, I strive to publish as many articles
as possible, nd more effective ways to present qualitative researches, and accom-
plish my mission to advance the cause of qualitative methodology. We need to
reect on how we all construe our identities as producers of research from a meth-
ods perspective (Navarro, 2005, p. 430). While still experiencing confusion, doubt,
regret, and self-defensiveness, I write this autoethnogaphy for three reasons. First, I
would like to testify the structures of hegemonic power in academia and the com-
plexities of sociocultural context. Second, I intend to make an impact, through
becoming self-aware, on the regularities of positivism and the insistence of authori-
tative social scientic methods of inquiry. I believe that self-reexivity contains
enough energy to disrupt and thus change the deterministic framing structures of
academia and society (Rolling, 2008). In the social sciences, it is the autobiograph-
ical voice that informs major movements in scholarship (Gergen, 2001, p. 74).
Finally, I hope to connect with other qualitative researchers who have experienced
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similar frustrations and who have struggled as I have. Finding allies seems critical
in a positivistic world where it is difcult to nd someone to verstehen qualitative
researchers. By supporting qualitative researchers and being supported by them, I
try to continue on the right track.

Acknowledgements
I truly thank Dr. Paul C. Rosenblatt for his mentoring, guidance, and support.

Notes on contributor
Sungeun Yang is an associate professor in the Consumer & Child Studies Major, Inha
University, South Korea. Her research interests include family stress, family loss, and family
diversity, as well as qualitative methodology.

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