Qualitative Research Methods (PUBPOL 633)
Qualitative research is enormously important for public policy. It helps analysts comprehend the implications of public policy in the “real world”, including the benefits and drawbacks of different policymaking options. And it offers a deep understanding of the complexities of social systems and processes, which can help generate nuanced understandings of policy problems and solutions.
In this course, students learn how to evaluate and conduct qualitative research, including interviews, ethnography, historical and document analysis, comparative work, and community-based participatory research. They read examples of good qualitative work—both articles and books—as well as prescriptive texts that teach research methods. Classes are a mix of lectures, discussions, and hands-on activities. The major assignment in this course, which students develop throughout the term, is a qualitative research project on a topic of their choice. As part of this project, students design and conduct preliminary research, analyze their research findings and write up their conclusions in the context of appropriate scholarly and policy literatures, and write a grant proposal (with the instructor’s guidance.)
You can view a recent version of the syllabus here.
A Student’s Perspective:
“In Qualitative Methods, my brain, the main tool of analysis, thought until it hurt. We navigated complex systems, where thousands of variables interconnect and policies can take infinite paths depending on social, political, economic, and historical contexts. We asked not whether X causes Y, but how and why variables relate. And as we answered these questions, we learned about how to meet the rigorous standards of qualitative research. This included listening closely to people, and using the knowledge and perspectives of our research subjects to define our research concepts. Because our focus was people, while I thought, I also felt. My class explored deep questions of power and humanity. This included difficult and consequential conversations regarding research ethics. In our research projects, we resisted universal truths of whether people do Y in response to X; instead we considered people as complex agents who interpret environments to make decisions. Discussing difficult subjects together and learning from my classmates was valuable practice. Among the thinking and feeling, I also gained practical skills: managing a project timeline, coding and analyzing massive data collections, and writing persuasively for qualitative research. I certainly walk away with even more practical skills, from crafting interview questions to using historical archives. But most important, I now challenge ideas of people as uniform members of a society responding predictably to stimuli. When serving others in government, my worked-out mind is ready to zoom in and see faces among the masses.” --MPP Student, 2015