I have been trying to wrap my head around qualitative research for a while now, and it occurred to me that qualitative research is analogous to knitting—it’s amazing how creative your brain gets while you lie in bed recuperating from a migraine ;). The similarities between knitting and qualitative research, in my mind, stem from the fact that in both cases, you create diverse artifacts from a set of foundational techniques and tools. Here’s how they stack up against each other.
Pattern Vs. Theory: Every knitting artifact is crafted from a pattern that gives it form and structure. Thus, pattern can be likened to methodology or theory. It determines who or what you study, where you conduct the research, the tradition or approach used, and the like. Just as a sleeve would need to be knitted differently from a collar, so also, a phenomenological study would be conducted differently from a case study.
Stitches Vs. Data Collection Tools: All knitting is founded upon two stitches: Knit and Purl. Similarly, data collection in qualitative research primarily occurs in one of two ways: observations and interviews. Thus, stitches in knitting are analogous to the methods or tools of qualitative research. How these “tools” are used and to what extent are governed by the pattern in knitting, and by the research design in qualitative research. Components Vs. Theories: A knitted garment is essentially a conjoining of disparate components. A sweater for example, is made up of sleeves, the back, the front, the hem, and a collar. These are knitted up separate from each other and then stitched up together to create . Similarly, qualitative research is the “sweater” and the different approaches/methodologies/theories—grounded theory, narrative inquiry, case study, phenomenology, et al.—are it’s various parts and pieces. In a sense, qualitative research is an umbrella term that binds together these different approaches just as a sweater (or other knitted artifact) encompasses its various structural elements.
Casting On: This is the process of adding the first stitches to a knitting needle before actually starting to construct the artifact. There are many different cast-on techniques and each serves a unique purpose. Casting on can be compared to identifying and understanding your epistemological stance as a researcher and how it foregrounds or backgrounds the research project. And just as a knitter may have to learn a new cast-on technique to benefit his/her particular project, a qualitative researcher may need to broaden his/her epistemological horizons so as to align with the intended research project.
Finally, knitting typically involves mixing and matching different stitches and techniques within the same artifact. The same is true of qualitative research as well. For instance, it is possible to have an ethnographic perspective in case study research. Or, use the constant comparison method from grounded theory in a basic interpretive study.
Knitting can be challenging, frustrating, and exhilarating, especially for novice knitters who become intimately acquainted with frogging, or the process of ripping out sections and starting over, as they refine their skills. Neophyte researchers in the qualitative tradition may end up feeling the same way as they work through the process and discover that they may have started out headed one way, but now have to go in another.