Maria Cecília de Souza Minayo
António Pedro Costa
Text originally published in the book Techniques that Use Speech, Observation and Empathy: Qualitative Research in Action
For very practical purposes, it can be said that qualitative research of scientific nature has three stages: (1) an exploratory phase; (2) fieldwork; (3) analysis and treatment of the empirical and documentary material.
The exploratory phase consists of the production of the research project and all the procedures necessary for preparation to enter the field. This stage requires investment because it is at this moment that the object is defined and delimited, to be developed theoretically and methodologically, raise hypotheses or establish some assumptions to direct it. It is at this moment that the operational instruments of the work are chosen and described, and that the activity schedule and the exploratory procedures for choosing the space and the qualitative sample are thought out.
The fieldwork phase constitutes the primordial moment for understanding, in intersubjectivity, the empirical reality under study. And the analysis phase is the moment to unite the specificity of the primary data obtained within the research scenario with an interpretation that respects and exceeds it by way of a contextualising and reflexive process.
The raw material of qualitative research is a set of nouns whose meanings are complementary: experience, lived experience, common sense and action. And the movement that informs any approach or analysis by way of this approach, is based on three verbs: understand, interpret and dialecalize (Minayo, 2012).
The term experience, used historically by Heidegger (1988), refers to what humans apprehend from the place they occupy in the society they live in and actions carried out within it. The meaning of experience is understanding: before anything else, human beings understand themselves and their meaning in the life-world. Because it is constitutive of human existence, experience feeds reflection and expresses itself in language. In other words, people talk about what they experience.
But language, according to philosophers (Heidegger, 1988; Habermas, 1987) does not convey pure experience, since it is organised by the subject through reflection and interpretation, in a movement in which what is narrated and lived by it are entrenched in and by culture, preceding narrative and narrator (Minayo, 2012).
On the other hand, lived experience is the product of personal reflection on experience. Although experience may be the same for several individuals (siblings from the same family, a group of people who witness a fact, for example), each elaborates differently what they lived in the singular. This shall depend on their personality, existential history, social participation and perhaps even other subtler elements. However, all lived experience is supported by the ingredients of the “collective” within which the subject moves and communicates and the conditions within which it occurs.
Common sense can be defined as a body of knowledge deriving from experience and lived experience. It is valuable since it guides human beings in the various actions and situations of their life (Schütz, 1982). It is made up of opinions, values, beliefs and ways of thinking, feeling, relating and acting.Common sense is expressed in language, in attitudes and in behaviours and it is the basis of understanding between human beings. Given its character of expressing experience and lived experience, common sense forms the basis of qualitative studies.
Action (human and social) can be defined as the endeavours of individuals, groups and institutions to construct their lives and cultural artefacts, from the conditions they find within reality. The concept of action is bound to the notion of freedom to act, construct and transform the world (Weber, 1994). Which world, to Heidegger (1988), does not constitute a place but rather a complex formed by signification of that experience which makes human beings into historical ones.
The central verb in qualitative analysis is to understand. Understanding is exercising the capacity to put oneself in the place of the other, in view of the fact that, as human beings, we have conditions to practice such an understanding. To understand others it is necessary to account for their singularity, since their subjectivity is manifested in the way they interpret the world, life and relations, and marks their actions (Gadamer, 1999). Despite understanding the singularities that determine the experience and lived experience of a person, their history occurs within the context of the collective, communitarian and institutional history and is enveloped in the culture of the group to which they belong. Therefore, all understanding of human reality is at once individual and social. It is also partial and unfinished, since no one ever has complete control over what they see, hear and reflect upon (Heidegger, 1988). This observation applies to all interviewees in a qualitative research, for example, concluding that they have a contingent and incomplete understanding of their life and their world. But it also applies to researchers, who will always be limited in what they observe, analyse and interpret. It is, however, possible to hone the ability of understanding, through an exercise of personal and collective discussion over the findings from the field and one’s personal openness to hear and accept divergent views and opinions.
For this reason, it is also necessary to exercise, within understanding, the comprehension of controversies (Habermas, 1987), that is, to critically analyse the social process of understanding due to the effects of power, social relations of production, social inequalities and personal or corporate interests.
To interpret is a continuous act that follows from understanding and is also present within it: all understanding contains in itself a possibility of interpretation, that is, of appropriation of that which is understood. Interpretation is based existentially on understanding and not vice-versa, since interpreting is elaborating the possibilities projected on what is understood (Heidegger, 1988). Because of this contingency, it is important to recognise the polysemic character of what is expressed and observed, even when the researcher has the best techniques of analysis at their disposal. Of course, these are important and fulfil the role of collaborating in what Bachelard (1978) has called “approximate knowledge”, in other words, that which is never “absolute truth”. In conclusion, all qualitative researchers need to equip themselves with the best possible instruments to make their research comprehensive and valid. Yet they may never lay claim to having reached the truth. Instead, only to have done their best to reach an approximation of it.