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Why funding policy is threatening qualitative research

17 December 2018 - BY Dr Alexandra James

How do you explain the significance of your research?
The ease with which you are able to impress upon others the gravity of your work, can reveal the type of knowledge we tend to understand and, perhaps more importantly, value.

My own research interests are arguably of the ‘fluffy’ kind.
I delve into the analysis of social constructs and dabble with nebulous concepts around social perception. Those who undertake qualitative research will sympathize with the difficulties I encounter when attempting to detail vague research outcomes and accompanying theoretical perspectives.
Last week, I met with colleagues from the ‘hard’ sciences and, perhaps ambitiously, attempted to venture into theories of knowledge and unpack the very premise of the topic at hand.
Indeed, it is far from unusual for critical theorists to arrive at the somewhat indignant question: ‘How do you know what you think you know?’ It was promptly explained to me that very few people would bother to ponder the background information required to grasp the challenge I posed.
Herein lies the crux of the matter; qualitative research methods sit within distinct epistemological perspectives which are not as widely understood or taught as those pertaining to quantitative research methods.
It was only in the mid-to-late 20th century that researchers aligned with post-positivist methods, largely located in the soft sciences, fought to earn their place in an academy dominated by empiricism.
The tension between quantitative and qualitative research has been effectively reflected and reinforced within funding models. Research that produces what is considered to be hard facts, statistical evidence and practical outcomes is prioritized in university budgets and grant application processes.
We can look to medical research practice for another example here, with a key medical funding body reported to ‘marginalize if not outright reject qualitative methodologies’. Some prominent international medical journals, such as The BMJ, have been known to refuse qualitative submissions, despite calls from the academic community to end such practices.

Favorable statistics

Providing a statistic here would no doubt lend weight to my argument. And this is the very reason that funding bodies bestow favor on quantitative research.

Governments have been central in determining the national research agenda and historically, statistics have been essential to the making of the modern nation state.
Figures around population levels, demographics, and the economy have been invaluable for making policy, taxation, and military decisions.
Today, discourses around planning and development continue to cite the significance of statistics and evidence-based policy making. There can be no doubt we live in a numbers dominated world.
And as we increasingly move towards a data driven society, the seemingly endless capacity for collecting and analyzing large scale data can indeed dwarf, for instance, my proposals for research reliant on the content analysis of obscure and strange texts.

The search for deeper understanding

Practical outputs have the potential to generate profitable and marketable research outcomes; an important facet of the modern, neoliberal university. And impact factors also form a key metric in contemporary assessments of research value and quality.
Disciplinary differences affect these journal rankings and subsequent grant applications. Norman K Denzin states : “qualitative scholars struggle to obtain tenure, their research is often underfunded, the journals they publish in are given low impact scores”.
Arguably, a search for deeper understanding underpins all of our research. But when that understanding yields quantifiable numeric results, it can be easier to justify, both economically and politically.
The international reputation of Australia’s government funding model took a significant hit in October when more than $1 million of grants to humanities scholars was vetoed at the ministerial level, despite rigorous vetting throughout the process. At least one researcher has relocated from Australia to the UK because of the controversial decision.
The danger lies, in giving preference to hard facts, we restrict our capacity to ask deep questions and generate richer knowledge. Too often, people forget that quantitative evidence isn’t neutral, but generated within a social and cultural context.
Qualitative research facilitated the inclusion of marginalized voices within the academy and enabled the production of inclusive and more complex understandings.
It has been used, to varying extents, throughout all disciplines; it is essential to the building and mobilizing of critical theory and provides research participants greater agency throughout the production of knowledge.
Widely respected Argentinian sociologist Vasilachis de Gialdino describes qualitative research as a creative process which “attempts at understanding, at making the individual case significant in the context of the theory” and deepens our understanding of the world.  
In conducting qualitative research, we critique existing knowledges and question whether our underpinning assumptions and starting premises are indeed correct.
We also uncover the nuanced space colored by shades of gray in which everyday people mediate life, a facet impossible to capture by statistical data alone.
Put simply, it is just not possible to explain, analyze, and understand the world through numerical data alone.
Interdisciplinary collaboration and collegiality are essential to ensure our future education and research systems achieve full their potential.
If, as a result of the neoliberal turn, qualitative researchers are in danger of being  sidelined from academia, future societies will bear the brunt of research which is crippled in its capacity to ask the difficult questions.
For more discussions on best practice join NVivo on LinkedIn.