During the past few decades the use of qualitative research methods has become increasingly widespread throughout the social sciences. As the range and variety of these methods has expanded we have also seen a proliferation of methodological literature, vigorously marketed by commercial publishers, and dominated by Anglo-American authors and their intellectual traditions.
These trends suggest that qualitative research is flourishing within the social sciences and may appear to need little further support. However, there is good evidence to suggest that while qualitative research is highly visible, it exists within many sub-specialisms, and reflects national as well as disciplinary boundaries. There is a clear need for scholars throughout Europe to share, develop and promote high-level methodological expertise. There is an equally pressing need for capacity building within the European social sciences. Moreover, there are particularly good reasons why a distinctively European perspective is needed.
Despite the widespread use of qualitative research in the social sciences, there is an urgent need for capacity-building throughout the social science disciplines. There is evidence to suggest that a good deal of ‘qualitative’ research is methodologically limited. Leading researchers repeatedly report difficulty in recruiting research associates and research fellows who have sufficiently well-developed skills to carry out funded research. This remains a problem even when – as in the United Kingdom – there are well-established requirements and programmes for postgraduate research training. The need for capacity-building is by no means restricted to the promotion of skills at relatively junior levels. There is an equally pressing need to improve the quality of skills, the range of training competences, and technical expertise at more senior levels.
The methodological literature on qualitative research in the social sciences is globally, dominated by commercial publications from UK and American publishing houses, and English-language academic journals. The proliferation of such literature has promoted qualitative research but it has tended to overlook and marginalize the actual and potential contributions from other national and intellectual disciplines, especially from key European states outside the UK. There are important, but mutually isolated, traditions that relate to qualitative research that ought to be brought together. They can and should inform and enhance the existing research literature and the collective skills of European social scientists. Synergy between European perspectives and Anglophone traditions would enhance research capacity throughout the research networks, most notably the European Research Area (ERA).
A distinctively European programme is required in order to link the pockets of expertise to be found throughout the European states and European disciplines in the social sciences. The current North American/Anglophone domination of the research and methodological literature means that important insights and strategies of research are being under-utilised, to the detriment of the overall scientific effort. Furthermore, there are major methodological innovations in this general area that need to be shared across the national and regional research communities.