Qualitative Data Analysis-Using a Dialogical Approach by Paul Sullivan

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    Emma Smith

    Book review: Qualitative Data Analysis-Using a Dialogical Approach by Paul Sullivan (2012), London: SAGE.


    As a PhD student I am currently considering a range of research methods for fieldwork purposes. Having conducted research in various settings, I was curious as to what alternative methods could be employed in seeking to, successfully plan, undertake and analyse further qualitative studies. In particular I was keen to explore the options for using an approach that would suitably capture the subjective experiences of a socially marginalised group, perhaps through a focus on participants’ language. The dialogical approach presents one possibility: enabling a new and innovative way of conducting qualitative research and data analysis.

    The dialogical approach is presented as a feasible option for academics, students and practitioners engaged in qualitative research using methods including interviews and focus groups. Basing his views on the philosopher Bakhtin Sullivan argues that, the dialogical approach is ideally suited to those concerned with the notion of subjectivity within research. He argues for the development of a ‘dialogical subjectivity’. Drawing upon the theoretical and practical elements of existing qualitative methodologies particularly as they apply to the issue of dialogue, Sullivan makes a case for the introduction of a dialogical approach. The approach is deemed beneficial for its focus on the ‘conscious, feeling subject’ (Sullivan, 2012:41) and their experiences (and how such consciousness may subsequently be affected by the voices and words of others) as expressed through language. It is anticipated that the existence of such an approach would be generally positive: improving and enriching the scope of qualitative data analysis to offer further insight into individuals’ experiences and, how these may affect their view of the social world.

    Despite his appreciation for the approach however, the author does not avoid a discussion of the pitfalls of the dialogical approach. Sullivan appears honest and unbiased in his assertion that the dialogical approach may not be of use to particular types of research and/or agendas for example, within action research. He does suggest however that, with some degree of alteration a dialogical approach could be used thus, opening the possibility for the further application of the approach.

    Within this text Sullivan seeks to unravel the complexities of this relatively new approach to suggest its overall benefit to and ability to complement existing qualitative research and analysis. This is achieved through the delivery of an insightful and readable text, applicable as a resource to audiences from a range of disciplines and professions including health and psychology.

    Although a range of complex philosophical issues are introduced and related for example, ontology and epistemology Sullivan articulates these clearly and succinctly. This ensures that even readers unfamiliar with such concepts are able to gain a greater knowledge and understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of the dialogical approach.

    The chapters are designed to aid an understanding of the approach both in theory and practice. Chapter one is largely introductory in form, explaining the concept of dialogue and, how it can add to and enhance existing traditional means of qualitative analysis. Thereafter the approach begins to be examined primarily by use of examples; chapters two and three are theory-based where the theoretical background is presented and well- justified suggestive of, the potential to develop the approach within future qualitative data analysis. Chapters four to seven meanwhile concentrate primarily on the practical elements of carrying out research according to a dialogical approach (case-studies are used from chapter five onwards). The book concludes by returning to an examination of theory and, providing a rounded evaluation of dialogical analysis using examples. Some useful points for discussion are then presented including, future directions for the development of the approach for example, the extension of a dialogical approach into internet-based qualitative research.

    For readers unfamiliar with the subject matter it is particularly worthwhile to note the frequent use of illustrative tables featuring classifications of key terms and concepts. This proves beneficial in demystifying key terminology and explanations of approaches.

    Another useful feature of each chapter is evident through the provision of links to further reading. Each chapter ends with a list of key related texts which readers may refer to in following up and enhancing their knowledge and understanding of the dialogical approach.

    To further compliment the reader-friendly format of the book Sullivan provides a detailed contents section in addition to the brief contents section. This enables readers to quickly and easily locate the key sub-components of each chapter: particularly useful when there are several emergent themes/ideas and terminologies within each chapter, for example, within chapter two a number of subjectivities (‘blank’, ‘complex’ and, ‘uncomplicated’) are addressed and explored.

    Overall Sullivan delivers a compelling set of arguments in favour of the use of a dialogical approach in qualitative data collection and analysis. His work is well-argued and supported by the use of relevant literature and examples of the approach in practice through reference to case studies. Sullivan achieves his aim of making the book as accessible and user-friendly as possible through: the provision of a detailed contents section; clearly communicated chapters using little jargon; reference to examples of how to apply the approach in practice; tables summarising key information and, links to further recommended reading. Despite the complex nature of the dialogical approach the above format suggests that there is potential for successfully using the approach. This would apply to practitioners, academics and students from a range of disciplinary backgrounds engaged in differing forms of qualitative research. Based on this I would recommend Sullivan’s text as an introduction to a challenging yet accessible, innovative and rewarding way of undertaking and analysing future qualitative research studies.

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