Qualitative Research in Geography: An Overview


23 Nov 2017

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Geography seems to be one of those disciplines that shifts its interest from one perspective to another without necessarily changing its central research questions. Qualitative methods have long been used within the discipline of human geography. However, it was not until recently that they have become sufficiently established that some consider them to have gone too far (Marshall, 2001), as the last decade has undoubtedly seen an expansion in qualitative work in both terms of the types of work and the topics addressed. This essay will address the fact that we have moved from a period when papers were prefaced with legitimisations of qualitative work to a time when we are seeing debates within qualitative methods over establishing orthodox approaches and standards. This will be done thorough a reflection on current re-evaluations of the most common methods – mainly interviewing and ethnography –and where they are developing.

Qualitative approaches have long had a strong association with cultural, social and radical geographies, in part as a reaction to quantified social geography. For example, in terms of the geographies of gender, feminist critiques of masculinist approaches were picked up and an argument about empathy amplified the concern with qualitative methods. This also could be reversed, labelling qualitative work with a feminist `softness' as opposed to hard science. This debate though, has matured, from quick over-assumptions that qualitative work was generally `soft', to considering its weaknesses and strengths in a more balanced fashion (Raju et al., 2000). Qualitative research has also had to wrestle with the argument that simply listening to, giving voice to and representing the silenced is not enough.

There is now a maturity about qualitative methods in geography, but also that there comes with this a certain conventionality of approaches. In delving deeper into this discussion it is important to consider the continued debates about the framing of qualitative, and especially ethnographic, work, after the so-called ‘crisis of representation’ and work in the performative vein, as qualitative research is often torn between a constructivist approach and a longing to convey a ‘real’ sense of the field.

Geography has followed anthropology through these debates on ethnography and representation, responding to the question ‘how is unruly experience transformed into an authoritive written account?’ (Besio and Butz, 2004: 433). There has been a backlash against what are described as ‘excesses’ of reflexivity in some responses to this question. For instance, Bourdieu (2003) called for a renewed ‘objectivity’ via structural reflexivity in a participant observation. He argues for a personal understanding of reflexivity, to address the academic and social structures that drive research agendas, which for geography in non-western settings would show how ‘academic research practices … have relied extensively on remnant colonial discourses and structures of domination for access to research subjects, efficacy of data collection and legitmation’ (Bourdieu, 2003: 288).

Katz points out that ‘in the field and in their private readings, ethnographers share a culture of evaluation which is masked by the fractious, even righteously indignant commentary that characterises rhetoric about ethnographic writing’ (2002: 64). Katz argues that ‘as ethnographers, we must do more than claim: we need to show’ (2002: 68). However, Besio and Butz (2004) offer an alternate reflexivity, taking Marie Louse Pratt’s definition of autoethnography. Where rather than being about reflecting on one’s own practice it refers to the subject or dominated people’s self-representation to colonisers’ terms while remaining faithful to their own self-understandings. This tradition is not just framing local knowledges; Gold (2002) looks to a globalised religious movement that is using its self-representations and indeed academic work in its self-constitution. This makes the important point of not separating ethnography from writing – not privileging oral research over written material but rather seeing productions of various representations as moments for situated reading and interpretations by all actors. If we thus move to models of representation as intervention rather than corresponding to prior reality, we might look for new ways of producing and judging truth.

Besio and Butz (2004) provide their own critique of transcultural representation. They point out that this is not an automatic process but something that has to be worked at and may only be achieved in specific circumstances. The apocalyptic tones of this debate seem particular to anthropology with its habitual [re-] definition of fieldwork as residential participant observation – as opposed to the more plural practices of qualitative methods in geography.

These reflexive studies raise questions about how the usual methods fit these new topics. Meth (2003) suggests that reflective, discursive diaries first offer a ‘discontinuous writing’, allowing people to change their minds and priorities, meaning that they are not dominated by what happened in the morning before an interview. Moreover, they offer different and possibly easier routes for respondents to express themselves, especially their emotions, and reflect upon their own world-views. Alternately, Harper (2002) provides a history of the ‘photo-elicitation’ interview where pictures push people’s normal frames of reference to form the basis for deep discussions of values.

The use of pictures in presenting material raises the issue of how visual and verbal relate to each other, whether they could speak to different ways of knowing rather than just being treated as different kinds of evidence (Rose, 2003). As Basio and Butz (2004: 444) note, the ‘visual in ethnographic has generally not been used intrinsically for interpreting and representing ethnographic data and culture’ but either as just more data or subordinated to a textualising metaphor. Whatmore (2003: 89) notes ‘the spoken and written word constitute the primary form of ‘data’’, whereas the world speaks in many voices through many different types of things that ‘refuse to be reinvented as univocal witnesses’. This comes back to the heart of a new kind of programmatic writing which is ‘suggestive of nothing less than a drive towards a new methodological avant garde that will radically refigure what it is to do research’ (Latham, 2003: 2000).

It is normally at this point, as we engage artistic approaches, that policy-orientated researchers voice concerns about a turn away from commitments to engaging ordinary people and offering them a voice. This seems to me to be a false opposition of committed, ‘real world’ versus ‘inaccessible’, theoretical research.

It might be a good idea to end this report by returning our attention to the rich yet ambiguous and messy world of doing qualitative research. As Thrift notes: ‘Through fieldwork is often portrayed as a classical colonial encounter in which the fieldworker lords it over her/his respondents, the fact of the matter is that it usually does not feel much like that at all. More often it is a curious mixture of humiliations and intimidations mixed with moments of insight and even enjoyment’ Thrift, 2003: 106), where knowledge is coproduced ‘by building fragile and temporary commonplaces’ (2003: 108, see also Tillman-Healy, 2003).

This seems to be a good summary of the qualitative work currently being done in human geography. It remains inspired by ethical and political concerns, and practitioners are deeply concerned by the moral and political implications of their work. Some of the old taken-for-granteds about fieldwork have been replaced, but it is instructive to wonder what questions have not been asked. While researchers have struggled to populate their work with real subjects rather than research objects, there have never been fewer attempts to talk about materialities in practice if not in topic. However, it does not seem that this entails a rejection of work that has been, is being and will be done, nor a turn from engaged and practical work; but that it does raise issues about the investment in specific notions of what ‘research’ is, what evidence is and how the two relate to each other.


Basio, K. & Butz, D. (2004) Autoethnography: a limited endorsement. Professional Geographer, 56, 432 – 438.

Bourdieu, P. (2003) Participant observation. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, NS9, 281 – 294.

Gold, L. (2002) Positionality, worldview and geographical research: a personal account of a research journey. Ethics, Place and Environment, 5, 223 – 237.

Harper, D. (2002) Talking about pictures: a case for photo-elicitation. Visual Studies, 17, 13 – 26.

Katz, J. (2001) From how to why: on luminous description and casual reference in ethnography (part 2). Ethnography, 3, 63 – 90.

Latham, A. (2003) Research, performance, and doing human geography: some reflections on the diary-photograph, diary-interview method. Environment and Planning A, 35, 1993 – 2018.

Marshall, G. (2001) Addressing a problem of capacity. Social Sciences, 47, 1 - 2.

Meth, P. (2003) Entries and omissions: using solicited diaries in geographical research. Area, 35, 195 – 205.

Raju, S., Atkins, P., Townsend, J. & Kumar, N. (2000) Atlas of women and men in India, London, International Books.

Rose, G. (2003) On the need to ask how, exactly, is geography visual? Antipode, 35, 212 – 221.

Thrift, N. (2003) Practising ethics, in Whatmore, S. Using social theory, London, Sage, 105 – 121.

Tillman-Healy, L. (2003) Friendship as method. Qualitative Inquiry, 9, 729 – 749.


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