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A Pragmatic, Step-by-Step Guide for Qualitative Methods: Capturing the Disaster and Long-Term Recovery Stories of Katrina and Rita


This paper commences with candid warnings about the difficulties of publishing and funding qualitative research along with a brief discussion regarding why these difficulties persist. The paper then provides a methodological tour of the qualitative portion of the Louisiana Healthy Aging Study (LHAS), a mixed-method study of psychological health, coping, and adjustment during the immediate and longer term aftermath of the 2005 Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Next, I provide a proven, pragmatic guide to navigate through a qualitative research project from development to completion. A guide for doing solo qualitative (“monk/nun in a cell”) work is provided (Table 1) but the article focuses on the Four-Phase, Team-Based (or “Quad-Squad”) Method. This method, originally designed for solo researchers, has been adapted for team-based application (including the extensive utilization of undergraduate and graduate students). The method is presented as a pragmatic and productive approach to publishing more valid, reliable, and rigorous qualitative research.

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  1. For example, a dated but systematic study of one leading journal indicated that less than 2 % of all published articles over a five-year span were qualitative (Ambert et al. 1995).

  2. Submitting to a journal with this record is not wise if publication is your goal. Young bulls sometimes take a headlong run at a fencepost to test for firmness. I found this particular post to be quite solid.

  3. If a lack of respect from many Reviewer B types within the field is one reason that qualitative researchers are often unrepresented in leading journals and on grantors’ A-lists, a second prevalent factor may be that much extant qualitative research does not command respect. In short, I believe that while some increased respectability has and will come through philosophical discussion and reconsideration (i.e., Slife and Williams 1995), the proof is ultimately in the research-based pudding. Increased respect for the method will come when the caliber of published qualitative work increases.

  4. This figure includes successful, pending, and unsuccessful experiences. As noted, the latter classification of “unsuccessful” submissions is the most typical.

  5. After Katrina hit, my wife met a displaced couple whose vehicle was almost out of gas (indeed, most area gas stations were out of supply for several days). All Baton Rouge hotels were filled, so they lived with us for a while. Such experiences were not uncommon during the weeks following Katrina/Rita.

  6. The solo-produced “monk/nun in a cell” design is perhaps necessary for dissertation purposes because multi-authored dissertations are not permitted, but after earning a terminal degree there are alternative and far more efficient, effective, and rigorous qualitative courses to pursue.

  7. Examples of LHAS research project choices included:

    1. 1.

      Should the sensitive subject of religion be addressed? (Response: We chose to ask questions regarding spiritual beliefs, religious practices, and faith communities.)

    2. 2.

      Should we focus on positive or negative coping? (Response: We chose to address both, but focused on positive coping.)

    3. 3.

      Whom should we interview? Where should we interview them? How should we interview them? (Responses: We chose to interview women and men from across the adult lifespan. We chose to interview them in their homes, whenever possible. We constructed a semi-structured interview protocol that was followed but allowed for participants’ narratives to emerge as well.)

  8. Our research teams have been built largely through “skimming the cream” (recruiting outstanding undergraduate students, particularly those who are considering graduate school). This facilitates a win-win where the primary investigator receives valuable assistance, and the undergraduates receive course credit and co-authorship on conference presentations and perhaps even publications.

  9. For example, in team-based qualitative studies on marriage, project-relevant diversity may incline the primary investigator to include team members from a variety of families of origin (e.g., marital, nonmarital, divorced, step-families, etc.), as well as members from a variety of present relational contexts (e.g., single, married, divorced). This type of sensitivity to project-relevant diversity can strengthen research.

  10. This sensitivity to insider/outsider status is often called the emic/etic consideration (Daly 2008). Another relevant marker of team-based diversity for many studies, including the LHAS project, is a researcher’s geographic origin. Our team included the following relevant variations and contrasts, moving from localized to global: (a) New Orleans natives…contrasted with others; (b) Louisiana natives and Southerners…contrasted with Northern transplants (e.g., Illinois, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah); and (c) U.S. natives…contrasted with immigrants or internationals (e.g., China, Germany). Each of these important distinctions in origin colored researchers’ sensitivity and their interpretation of data. Additionally, although our team primarily hailed from psychology, we also included team members from communication disorders, family studies, social work, history, and law to promote an inter-disciplinary approach.

  11. Again, this may be particularly true with experiences that relate directly to the project, such as (in our LHAS project) including team members who were New Orleans natives that experienced Katrina.

  12. Boss applied a prototypical sampling approach in developing her widely used concept of ambiguous loss by purposively sampling individuals and families who had experienced dramatic episodes of ambiguous loss, including families with POW/MIA fathers/sons, families with abducted children, and families caring for a member with Alzheimer’s Disease. In each of these cases, powerful manifestations were intentionally selected and sampled.

  13. As one might assume, we have had a wide variation of data quality with the LHAS. Some questions and participants have yielded much in the way of gems, others have yielded very little.

  14. The reader may ask, “But isn’t ‘truth’ often subjective?” Yes, but whether we are pursuing more concrete, objective truths and facts such as “How many times did you attend church last month?” (a question that U.S. participants often overreport/lie about; see Hadaway et al. 1998)—or whether we are asking a more subjective question such as “How have you coped with Hurricane Katrina?” our study’s validity depends in large degree on the objective truthfulness and accuracy of participants’ reports.

  15. As briefly mentioned in Phase 1, experienced qualitative researchers estimate 6–8 h of transcription time for every hour of participant responses. In the LHAS, after transcriptions are completed by one team member, a second team member conducts an audio-visual data audit/double-check by listening to the audio interview while carefully following the typed transcription to check for errors. (Please see Phase 2: Step 5 for an additional note of importance relating to transcription in solo projects.)

  16. For example, a narrative where a participant discussed how Hurricane Katrina irretrievably changed some aspects of life is labeled by a team member with the open code “old ‘normal’ is gone forever.”

  17. In the most recent work on the LHAS, eight coders were employed (i.e., four coding partnerships). By attacking the coding in roughly 32 interview clusters, this meant that each team would be coding and jointly reviewing eight interviews per semester.

  18. We have typically used eight coders, divided into two teams of four, where each team is coding one group in a comparative study (e.g., one team codes the “under 65 years” group and the other team codes the “65 and over” group). However, if there is no age-graded (or other) comparison in your study, four coders will suffice.

  19. Salience is also considered. Sometimes a concept is mentioned only once in an interview, but is of profound importance. However, the concept must recur across several interviews to warrant consideration as a core, emergent theme.

  20. In the LHAS, we literally use highlighter pens to make sure that the gems are noticed and filed.

  21. There are qualitative software packages that can be efficient and helpful in performing the type of work outlined in Phases 1, 2, and 3. Such software can also be helpful in managing larger qualitative data sets. However, even the best available software cannot perform in-depth and nuanced coding.

  22. Like great literature, rigorous and valid qualitative research should capture complexities and tensions inherent in the human condition (Coles 1990). Accordingly, the data cache should include some “counterexamples” of core themes as well. For example, in our recent work we have discussed not only how faith communities reportedly served as a profound support (in many instances) but also that when a faith community or congregation to which an individual or family is closely tied lets them down or fails them “it [is] both disappointing and hurtful in ways that … elicit deeper frustration and pain than failures by secular agencies and institutions” (cf. Marks et al. 2015; Marks and Dollahite 2001, p. 636).

  23. Daly (2008) has noted that “In both art and science, representation is the symbolic means by which we portray aspects of reality” (p. 16).

  24. Another gems-related issue during Phase 4 is that qualitative gems vary widely in size but tend to come in clusters. Some participants’ interviews seem almost void of gems, while others provide a mother lode. As a result, there may be a temptation to rely inordinately on a handful of particularly gem-laden interviews. This temptation should be resisted or the team may fall guilty of Reviewer B’s charge that we are doing warmed-over “journalism,” not science.

  25. In the LHAS, about 70 total participants were interviewed. At an average of 25 double-spaced pages of transcript per participant interview, we were facing the challenge of coding/analyzing an estimated 1,750 pages of qualitative data. The larger “rocks and gems” files for the core themes were often 10 pages or longer per theme (multiplied by four to six themes). In a final article or chapter, a maximum of about four single-spaced pages of gems (total, for all themes) will be presented.

  26. A related challenge is: Do we include (for example) three or four longer narratives or a dozen shorter excerpts? Our choices in the LHAS have varied—a combination of longer and shorter gems may be ideal.

  27. After the painful winnowing process, it has proven helpful for us to print hard copies of the remaining gems (like individual puzzle pieces) and to test various orderings of the gems for flow and cohesiveness. There are often stories within the story of each theme that can be told more effectively and fluidly through carefully ordering of the selected gems.

  28. In the LHAS, several different graduate students and a few undergraduate students have served as the “point person”/first author for presentations and manuscripts.

  29. I note that the foundation for this approach was established in a previous decade of largely solo (i.e., “monk in a cell”) work under the guidance of three qualitative scholars to whom I owe debts that cannot be repaid; Dave Dollahite, Rob Palkovitz, and the late Tamara Hareven. Many of the better ideas in the Quad-Squad Method are borrowed or adapted from them.

  30. Our LHAS team has produced ten qualitative manuscripts, counting “in press” work.


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Marks, L.D. A Pragmatic, Step-by-Step Guide for Qualitative Methods: Capturing the Disaster and Long-Term Recovery Stories of Katrina and Rita. Curr Psychol 34, 494–505 (2015).

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  • Qualitative
  • Method
  • Disasters
  • Katrina
  • Coding
  • Team