MB 870 Spring 2006
Qualitative Research Methods

Prof. Steve Borgatti

Wed. 2:30-5pm; Fulton 240;  http://www.analytictech.com/mb870

Overview Assignments Textbooks Schedule Contact Home


The objective of this course is to teach students how to use qualitative research methods. The focus is on practice rather than reading about methods or reading how methods have been used in the literature (I wish we could do both). The course is intended to provide students with the skills needed to complete their 2nd year projects and their dissertations.

The course is divided into three main sections: Content analysis, ethnographic methods, and cultural domain analysis. Content analysis refers to systematic, often quantitative analysis of textual data that has been transformed by coding into variables. The section on ethnographic methods include more subjective and informal ways of analyzing textual data, as well as interviewing techniques and ways of approaching participant observation. Cultural domain analysis refers methods of eliciting and representing perceptions of items in a cognitive domain (e.g., a set of competitive firms in an industry, or a set of processes in a factory). 

The course is time-consuming. One of the biggest weaknesses of certain qualitative methods is the enormous amount of time required to do a good job. It is very important that you budget your time carefully and plan ahead for all homework assignments. You will be doing several "small" assignments in which you have to collect and analyze data, as well as a term project which will be presented in class as well as written up in a term paper.

Assignments and Grading

Grading is based on the following:

Assignment Weight
Interview 20%
Final Paper 55%
CDA exercise 10%
& Homeworks

Class participation is graded on preparedness, willingness to contribute, relevance, positive attitude, and grasp of the material. Reports are evaluated with respect to clarity, grasp of the material, insight, completeness and professionalism, in that order. 

Please submit all written reports by e-mail or other electronic means -- no hard copy!

The due dates for assignments are given in the online schedule. Please note that the schedule and assignments may change as the semester proceeds, so please check the schedule every 3 or 4 days and certainly the day before class.

Textbooks, Software & Articles

All of the required and recommended texts have been ordered via the BC bookstore in McElroy. However, they often make mistakes or underestimate the number of enrollees (especially since they don't take into account students from outside BC). If that happens, you can ask them to order more, or try to buy the books yourself via Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble.

At several points in the semester we will use ANTHROPAC and UCINET software. These programs are installed on the computers in Fulton 214. In addition, you can download them from the web. Let me know when you have done so and I will give you a free registration code. Manuals are provided electronically.  

We will also be using HYPER-RESEARCH, a qualitative data analysis program developed under the direction of Sharlene Hesse-Biber in the Sociology Dept here at BC. (In the past we used Atlas/Ti but it was expensive for students. Hyper-Research is just $75 for students in our class.)

These are the required texts:

These are recommended/optional texts:


The current schedule is online at www.analytictech.com/mb870/schedule.htm. Please note that the schedule may change throughout the semester to reflect the needs and interests of the class. That's one of the key benefits of having it online. It is therefore your responsibility to check the online schedule 3 or 4 times a week and certainly the day before class. Do not print it out once and assume it is valid for the rest of the semester. You have been warned.


You should always feel free to email me (borgatts@bc.edu) and to call me at home (978-456-7356, after 9am and before 10pm). I often work at home so it is not an imposition to call me at home. Please do not leave messages on my office phone.


Incendiary Remarks on Political Correctness

People interested in qualitative research are often concerned with being culturally sensitive. This is laudable and in a certain way critical to successful research. But it is also easy to mistake the trappings of cultural sensitivity for true appreciation of the ways of others. I will refer to this kind of sensitivity as political correctness, and explain the danger it holds for qualitative researchers.

One aspect of political correctness is an unthinking fear of generalization and assumptions. It is hard to make forward progress if one too zealously avoids making assumptions and generalizations about groups. If, in making a point, a class member says "The Hindus believe X", it is not always necessary to stop them and explain as though to a child that not every Hindu is an exact duplicate of every other and that they don't all believe the same things. Everybody knows that! In general, when people say things like "Women are shorter than men" they don't mean that every woman is shorter than every man. So please don't paralyze yourself and the group by avoiding generalizations. (However, it is very reasonable to object if conclusions based on generalizations are drawn that depend crucially on an unwarranted assumption of high cultural homogeneity.).

More difficult are generalizations that are more clearly pejorative, as in "Americans are stupid." If said with a sneer at a social gathering in a bar in Berlin, I wouldn't like that very much and am likely to respond in kind. But, in the classroom, used as an explanation of something, I'm inclined to accept it. Yes, there are less distracting ways to say it. Yes, it is a coarse generalization that will clearly not be true of specific individuals. And yes, it could be more precise (does it refer to lack of education, such as math training, or to lack of critical thinking, etc.). But I'm not going to dismiss it simply because it is pejorative. To do that would again be paralyzing. For example, we would be unable to look into why the HIV is more prevalent among African-Americans than Hispanics, because to do so would be to imply that there was something "wrong" with the African-American community.

Another aspect of political correctness is being easily offended by the remarks and beliefs of others (whether colleagues or informants). Rather than be offended, it is more useful to simply disagree. Being offended adds a moral dimension in which you don't just disagree with someone has said, but imply that what they have said is morally wrong. Note that by being offended, you leave no room for being persuaded to someone else's point of view, no room for being wrong, no room for discussion. Being offended is not free speech -- it kills free speech. Also, if you are offended, it probably means that you have an absolutist view of what is right and wrong. This is antithetical to the cultural relativism and sensitivity that is needed to do qualitative research. If you cannot accept that others have a right to beliefs that are different from your own, I do not think you can study them effectively (you will spend your time trying to prove how bad they are).

Finally, a closely related aspect of political correctness is the implicit belief that seeing the world through one's values is a good thing for research. It is not. Science succeeds as a method of building knowledge to the extent that it controls for researcher biases and expectations and generates findings that are understandable and replicable by diverse researchers with different points of view. If you doubt this, read up on Lysenkoism and its destructive consequences for Soviet agriculture. At this point, some readers will leap to "You are saying science should be value free? You want scientists to build better ways to torture people?". I would like to answer, "No, not people in general -- just you.". But instead let me explain that I am not letting off the hook those who apply their powerful knowledge of reality to harm others. Consider the medical knowledge that doctors have. More than most people, they know how to murder others. Shall we ban medical knowledge? No. Just as it is legal to stand in front of a storefront with a baseball bat but illegal to use the bat to smash it in, it is ok to understand how the body works even while torture and murder are not ok.

Addendum. I see political correctness as insecurity. A politically correct person is one who adopts points of view not because they are supported by evidence but because it speaks well of them that they believe it. If it is charming to believe in angels, they will convince themselves that they believe in angels. If the view that men are competitive while women are cooperative is indicative of concern for the discriminated against and therefore of being a good person, they will believe it. 

Remarks on Learning

Active learning is the same process as qualitative research. Which suggests that you can optimize learning by thinking of the professor as a respondent or informant -- a member of an academic culture that you wish to learn. Some of what this informant (i.e., me) knows is in the form of explicit knowledge which the informant is capable of organizing and presenting to you. But other knowledge is tacit, and must be elicited through persistent questioning by the researcher (you) or absorbed through a combination of constant interaction and practice. So, ask questions. Try things (pilot projects). Once you are a professor, it will be much more difficult to ask "dumb" questions, so do it while you can. It is my job to discuss research methods with students, both in and out of class. It's like having a therapist -- a person paid to talk to you. So take advantage of the opportunity as much as my schedule allows!

Copyright 1997-2005 Stephen P. Borgatti Revised: February 15, 2006 Home Page