Using Qualitative Inquiry to Contribute to Social Justice

Social scientists are trained to illuminate social problems, but rarely are we trained to identify potential policy prescriptions for the problems that we highlight. This situation is beginning to change as social scientists increasingly aim to contribute to social justice by helping to shape interventions useful to local, state, and federal stakeholders. We can use qualitative research via stories, first-person accounts, in-depth interviews, content analysis, and observations to draw attention to underlying mechanisms that define social problems. Once uncovered, deeper understanding of these mechanisms can guide large-scale surveys, direct responses to requests for proposals by private foundations and government agencies, inform policy briefs, and even influence new legislation. In this regard, it is important for qualitative researchers to think beyond simply highlighting problems in order to also develop skills that leverage our work in ways that more directly impact people’s everyday lives. We will discuss qualitative processes to better position course participants in their efforts to design and collect data specifically aimed at contributing directly to social justice. Three timely issues—obesity, racial disparities in policing, and men’s treatment of women—will be paralleled throughout the course as examples of how decision-making across the methodological life of a qualitative project can be leveraged to address social problems. The course will cover the following topics:

  • Topic decision making: What part(s) of the social problem can and should be studied?
  • Choosing participants: Who should the participants be? How will you gain access?
  • Designing data collection strategies: For research on sensitive topics, how do you shape data collection guides? How do you obtain IRB approval? Which research methods and procedures are most ethical, efficient, and effective?
  • Developing an analysis plan: How can you capture the holistic stories of participants’ experiences?
  • Disseminating results: How can you develop convincing arguments regarding policy and practice?
  • Planning and implementing interventions: How can findings be used to inform interventions and policy prescriptions?