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Technology and the interstices of qualitative research and policy

Randall F. Clemens

This post was originally published February 22, 2011

Now is an exciting time to be a researcher. Technology and digital media allow quantitative and qualitative researchers to explore new territories. The internet allows qualitative researchers to interact with research subjects in new spaces as well as collect and present data in new ways. With new methods comes new data. But, is new always better? The answer is yes and no.

At one point, technology was going to save education. Millions of dollars spent on computers later, most acknowledge that technology is not a replacement for teachers; it’s a tool to help. The same point applies to research. Technology is another way to increase the rigor of research. It is also a way to persuade audiences and convey immediacy. I, for instance, can spend 15 minutes at an AERA symposium discussing a paper about a high school student living in poverty. Depending on my presentation, I may convince some people of something. Alternatively, I can show a 60 second clip  of that student’s neighborhood that was captured and narrated by him with a Flip cam. It’s not a stretch to believe that the video would be far more compelling and moving than my talk. That’s an application of qualitative research and technology that can also inform policy.

Qualitative researchers, for good reason, have not always pursued a life in public policy. Certainly, exceptions exist. But, if we take a wide view of the qualitative landscape we see a lot of activity in a lot of different directions. Much of it is creative, inspired, and progressive. It also has little currency in policy design. The reasons for this are legion, but since my space is limited, I will leave the explanation for another day. Needless to say, quasi-experimental methods have been the favored child of funders and other highly influential people; qualitative methods have been the ignored step-child. And, like most ignored children, qualitative methodologists have gotten used to doing things on their own.

What’s my point? First, I believe qualitative research has a central role in policy design. Qualitative and quantitative research are complimentary, not incompatible. Second, to qualitative researchers, use technology to fill the spaces between research and policy and to create joint spaces for quantitative and qualitative researchers. There are at least two directions qualitative researchers using technology will go. First, methodologists will disappear down a rabbit hole, exploring the limits of and deconstructing research and knowledge. This direction conforms with much of the avant-garde work that has already been done, which is interesting to some qualitative researchers and irrelevant to most policy-makers. Second, methodologists will use technology to make research more significant to policy design. This direction creates a new path for research and policy design; one that I hope becomes a reality sooner rather than later.