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What? I'm doing research?

I bet most of you out there are probably doing research every day and you don't even know it. As a research fellow at the Humphrey Institute, I know I do research every day in my job, but my work is not limited to the halls of academia and destined just for articles in journals. My research takes me places where I get to talk to people and learn from their experiences in order to inform decision makers. Therefore, research doesn't (and shouldn't) end at the doors of academic institutions.

That's where you come in.

You're employing research methods everyday when you're reading and interpreting news media content; when you're listening to individuals and groups to find common themes around needs; when you're translating the importance of your work to unfamiliar audiences...the list can go on and on.

Some of you may be asking right now, "But I thought research was all about crunching numbers using fancy software?" Not so! Crunching numbers definitely has its place and importance, but it's not the be all and end all. As Einstein said, "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." This is where something called qualitative research methods can bring in the story and context that numbers alone just cannot tell.

Qualitative research methods aren't fluff; it should be taken seriously for its rigor and its importance to furthering knowledge and understanding. This can be accomplished through discipline, knowledge, training, practice, creativity, and really hard work! But isn't that how you work every day, anyway?

So here are a few things to consider to get you started thinking more systematically about the qualitative research you're already doing:(*)

    What's the purpose of your inquiry? (e.g. program improvement and decision making)
    Who is your audience? (e.g. funders, staff, program participants)
    What questions guide your inquiry? (e.g. practical, action-oriented questions and issues)
    What data will answer your questions? (e.g. interviews, observations, documents)
    What are the resources available to me? (e.g. financial, people, time, access & connections)
    What criteria will I use to judge the quality of the findings? (e.g. utility, feasibility, diversity of perspectives)

Good luck. Have fun. And remember, qualitative inquiry cultivates the most useful of all human capacities: The capacity to learn.

(*) Special thanks to Michael Quinn Patton's Qualitative Research & Evaluation Methods (2002) text book for his insight on qualitative inquiry.

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