Deciding to Do a Qualitative Study
“Any kind of research that produces findings that are
not arrived at by means of statistical procedures or
other means of quantification”
“A research paradigm which emphasizes inductive,
interpretive methods applied to the everyday world
which is seen as subjective and socially created”
“Research procedures which produce descriptive data:
people’s own written or spoken words and observable
behavior. [It] directs itself at settings and the
individuals within those settings holistically; that is,
the subject of the study, be it an organization or an
individual, is not reduced to an isolated variable
or to an hypothesis, but is viewed as part of a whole”
Using qualitative studies in an educational
environment relatively recent development
• Rich history in anthropology and sociology
Ethnographies described “primitive” cultures
Described in terms of deficiencies in relation to Western
culture and norms
Late 1800s: Franz Boas one of the first to attempt to
understand culture inductively
Object of study is to describe the knowledge that members
use to make sense within their own culture
1900-World War II
◦ Model of the “lone ethnographer”
 Spending extended periods of time doing participant
observations among natives in a distant land
 Utilized participant observation, interviewing, and artifact
 Malinowski, Margaret Mead, Radcliffe-Brown
◦ “Chicago sociology”
 University of Chicago
 Utilized their city as a social laboratory
 For three decades produced urban ethnographies that captured
human life in the city
 Slice-of-life approach
 Used ordinary language of participants (working-class and poor
 Capture their point-of-view
 Criticized as romanticizing the participant and amount of social
Post World War II-mid 1970s
Methods became more formalized, scholars
became more self-conscious about research
◦ Balance between positivist expectations for validity,
reliability, and generalizability and constructivist
models of doing research
New theories associated with using
qualitative research with education,
ethnomethodology, phenomenology, critical
theory, and feminism began to be recognized
1970s-early 1980s
Wide range of paradigms, methods, and
Boundaries between the social sciences and
humanities were becoming blurred
◦ Interpretive methods such as semiotics and
hermeneutics that were developed in the
humanities began being adapted for use in
qualitative analyses
Qualitative work became legitimate form of
educational research
1985-1994 (publication of Denzin and
Lincoln’s essay)
Critical anthropologists challenged norms of
classic ethnography
◦ Argued traditional methods and writings product
texts that do not and cannot represent lived
 Understandings of experiences processed through
language, language is inherently unstable
 Accused of “creating culture” rather than representing
 Paradigm shift: new ways of thinking about what
constitutes “Truth”
Development of new perspectives and
methods has not meant abandonment of
perspectives and methods that came before
Deconstructivist and poststructuralist
perspectives are being taken seriously
◦ Critical, feminist, and other transformative
epistemologies are having a major impact as well
◦ There are still researchers who continue to do work
classified as “traditional” or “modernist”
Natural Settings
Participant Perspectives
Researcher as Data Gathering Instrument
Extended Firsthand Engagement
Centrality of Meaning
Wholeness and Complexity
Emergent Design
Inductive Data Analysis
Seek to understand how individuals make
sense of their everyday lives
When research settings are controlled or
◦ They tell us little more than how individuals act in
narrowly defined and inherently artificial contexts
Individuals act on the world based not on
some supposed objective reality…
◦ But on perceptions of the realities that surround
Qualitative data includes:
◦ Field notes from participant observation,
◦ Notes from or transcriptions of interviews with
informants, and
◦ Unobtrusive data such as artifacts from the research site
or records related to the social phenomena under
Data take on no significance until they are
processed using the human intelligence of the
◦ Human capacities necessary to participate in social life
are the same capacities that enable qualitative
researchers to make sense of the actions, intentions,
and understandings of those being studied
Spend enough time with those participants in
those contexts to feel confident that they are
capturing what they claim
One of the hallmarks of high-quality
qualitative work
“Blitzkrieg Ethnography”
◦ Spending far too little time in research settings
◦ Serious flaw in qualitative work
Describing the meanings individuals use to
understand social circumstances rather than
trying to identify the “social facts” that comprise
a positivist social theory
◦ Max Weber: “interpretive sociology”
 Stressed the importance of verstehen (understanding)
◦ Blumer: symbolic interactionist theory
Human beings act toward things on the basis of the
meaning that the things have for them
b) The meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out
of, the social interaction that one has with one’s fellows
c) These meanings are handled in, and sometimes modified
through an interpretive process used by individuals in
dealing with the things they encounter
Assumption that social settings are unique,
dynamic, and complex
◦ Contexts can be systematically examined as whole,
without breaking them down into isolated,
incomplete, and disconnected variables
◦ Qual. data are objects, pictures, or detailed
descriptions that cannot be reduced to numbers
without distorting the essence of the social
meaning they represent
Including enough detail and actual data to
take the reader inside the social situation
under examination
Required as researchers move from
description toward interpretation
Instead of pretending to be objective…
◦ Concentrate on reflexivity by applying their own
subjectivities in ways that make possible to
understand the tacit motives and assumptions of
their participants
Studies change as they are being
◦ Research questions, methods, and other elements
of design are altered as studies unfold
Moving from specifics to generalizations
Bogdan & Biklen (1992): “You are not putting
together a puzzle, whose picture you already
know. You are constructing a picture that takes
shape as you collect and examine the parts”
Qual. researchers do not begin with a null
hypothesis to retain or reject
To keep track of one’s influence on a setting,
to bracket one’s biases, and to monitor one’s
emotional responses
Goodall (2000): “The process of personally
and academically reflecting on lived
experiences in ways that reveal deep
connections between the writer and his or her
◦ What is the nature of reality?
◦ What can be known, and what is the relationship of
the knower to the known?
◦ How is knowledge gained?
◦ Realists who believe in an objective universe that
has order independent of human perceptions
 Reality driven by universal, natural laws
◦ Claim to be objective in search for immutable truth
◦ Researchers and the objects of their study are
assumed to be mutually independent
◦ Careful measurement, manipulation, and control
 Experiments, quasiexperiments, correlational studies
and surveys
◦ Knowledge equals accumulated “facts” that have
been scientifically verified and generalizations,
theories, and laws based on those facts
 Cause-and effect-dimension
◦ Reality exists but…
 Because of the limitations of human inquiry, the
inherent order of the universe can never be known
◦ Researchers see themselves as data collection
 Use disciplined research techniques to ensure that
empirical data, and not their impressions, drive their
◦ Qualitative methods that capture participant
perspectives but in rigorously disciplined ways
 Low inference, systematic procedures dominate data
analysis processes, and frequency counts and lowlevel statistics used
◦ Analytic generalizations, descriptions, patterns and
grounded theory
 Generalizations are induced from systematic analyses
of data that take the form of searches for patterns
 Deductive processes are used to verify the strength of
those patterns
◦ Universal, absolute realities are unknowable, and
the objects of inquiry are individual perspectives or
constructions of reality
 Multiple realities exist that are inherently unique
because they are constructed by individuals
◦ Individual constructions of reality
◦ Researchers and the participants in their studies are
joined together in the process of coconstruction
 Impossible and undesirable for the researchers to be
distant and objective
◦ Naturalistic qualitative methods
 Interviewing participants and observing them in their
natural settings
◦ Case studies or rich narratives that describe the
interpretations constructed as part of the research
 Readers can place themselves in the shoes of the
◦ The material world is made up of historically situated
structures that have a real impact on the life chances of
 Structures perceived as real
 Leads to differential treatment of individuals based on race,
gender, and social class
◦ Knowledge is subjective and inherently political
◦ Guba & Lincoln (1994): “The investigator and
investigated object are assumed to be interactively
linked, with the values of the investigator inevitably
influencing the inquiry”
 Knowledge mediated through the political beliefs and
opinions of the researcher
◦ Raise consciousness for those being oppressed,
leading to social change
 Methods called “transformative”
 Require dialogue between researchers and participants
◦ Data collection and emphasis similar to
constuctivist research except
 Critical: improve life chances for individuals at the
bottom of the social hierarchy
 Feminist: making conditions better for women
◦ Critiques of the perceived material world
◦ “Antiparadigm”
 Deconstruct aforementioned paradigms
◦ Order is created in the minds of individuals in an attempt to
give meaning to events that have no “intrinsic or immanent
 Multiple realities, each with its own claim to coherence, and
none can be privileged over another
 Realities local, subjective, and in flux
◦ Deconstructing the notion of universal Truth
 Grand narratives are constructed in particular social-historical
circumstances to serve the purposes of those in power
 Alternative forms of inquiry such as: queer theory, performance
theory, postcolonial theory, critical race theory, and cultural
◦ Focus on understanding data as texts that represent one of
many stories that could be told
1. Deconstructivists
 Use deconstruction as a tool to examine representations of the
world, searching for aporia, inconsistencies, or gaps where the
internal logic of the text unravels
2. Genealogists
 Revealing “the ways in which the practice was historically
justified, the discourses that were used for justification, and the
assumptions underlying forms of representation that are part of
the practices”
3. Poststructuralists doing data-based research
Analyses that reveal the internal incongruities of
discourses and expose the consequences of actions taken
based on the assumed Truthfulness of those discourses
Participant Observation Research
Interview Studies
Focus Group Studies
Artifact Analysis
Historical Studies and Historiography
Grounded Theory Studies
Naturalistic Inquiries
Symbolic Interactionist Studies
Narrative Studies
Educational Criticism
Phenomenological Studies
Case Studies
Action Research Projects
Collaborative Studies
◦ Describe culture or parts of culture from the point of
view of cultural insiders
 Make sense of everyday experiences
◦ Developed by anthropologists
◦ Involves participant observation, informant interviewing,
and artifact collection
◦ Used within postpostivist paradigm
◦ Sociolinguists or others interested in verbal and
nonverbal communication
 Analyses of face-to-face interactions within specific social
◦ Used with postpostivist paradigm
◦ Studies the methods that people use to navigate their
everyday lives
 Interested in assessing an individual’s stock of knowledge
◦ Use observation and interview techniques
 Rigorous discourse analysis procedures to produce
generalizations and theories
◦ Used within postpositivist paradigm
Participant Observation Studies
◦ Interviewing, artifact collection, and especially direct
◦ Not ethnographies because they are much narrower in
scope and involve less time in the field
 Researchers enter with specific interests and/or specific
◦ Used within any paradigm
Interview Studies
◦ Create special kind of speech event during which they
ask open-ended questions, encourage informants to
explain their unique perspectives, and listen intently for
special language
 Enter with questions in mind but will generate questions
during the interview
◦ Used within any paradigm except positivist
Focus Group Studies
◦ Sets of individuals with similar characteristics or having
shared experiences who sit down with a moderator to
discuss a topic
◦ Used to supplement other qualitative data
◦ Used within any paradigm
Artifact Analysis
Historical Studies and Historiography
◦ Unusual for artifacts to be primary data source
◦ Advantage: does not influence the social setting being examined
◦ Disadvantage: Interpreting the meaning and significance of
objects without social context is difficult
◦ Used within postpositivist paradigm
◦ Involve the collection and analysis of data for the purpose of
reconstructing events or combinations of events that happened in
the past
◦ Primary sources: oral or written testimony, original documents,
photographs, diaries, journals, drawings, mementos, or other
original artifacts
◦ Secondary sources: elements created by others that relate to the
event (i.e. textbooks, journal articles, etc)
◦ Used within several research paradigms
Grounded Theory Studies
◦ Constant comparison
 Researchers engage in detailed analytic processes that
require repeated confirmations of potential
explanatory patterns discovered in the data
◦ Used within postpositivist paradigm
Naturalistic Inquiries
◦ The goal of capturing naturally occurring activity in
natural settings
◦ Used within constuctivist paradigm
Symbolic Interactionist Studies
◦ Comprised of “exploration” (i.e., collecting
observations, interviews, life histories, letters,
diaries, public records, and group discussions) and
“inspection” (discriminating analytic elements and
isolating relations between elements)
◦ Used within postpostivist paradigm
Narrative Studies
◦ Include life histories, life story research, biography,
personal experience methods, oral history, and
narrative inquiry
◦ Used within constructivist and critical/feminist
Educational Criticism
◦ Observe, interview, and collect artifacts and documents like other
qualitative researchers
 From this, researchers construct stories or portraits of what they experienced
and understood in the settings explored
Findings look more like the essays of art critics than the “objective” reports found in
positivist journals
◦ Used within constructivist paradigm
Phenomenological Studies
◦ Combines both interpretive/hermeneutic methods and
descriptive/phenomenological methods
 Phenomenology: how one orients to lived experience
 Hermeneutics: how one interprets the ‘texts’ of life
◦ Attempt to keep biases and preconceptions in check by exploring own
experiences and understandings
◦ Methods: Protocol writing, interviewing, observing, studying experiential
descriptions of literature and art and examining diaries, journals, and logs
◦ Used within constructivist paradigm
Case Studies
◦ A special kind of qualitative work that investigates a
contextualized contemporary (as opposed to historical)
phenomenon within specified boundaries
 Defining the boundaries, or specifying the unit of analysis is
the key point in case study design
◦ Used within several paradigms
Action Research Projects
◦ Concerned with activity and change
 Identifying a problem through careful observation, reflecting
on the dimensions of the problem, designing a change that
addresses the problem, implementing the change, and
assessing its effectiveness through careful observation
 Used within critical/feminist paradigm
Collaborative Studies
◦ Work that is distinguished from action research
because its principal aims are the generation of
knowledge and understanding
 Research participants as full partners in the research
◦ Used within constructivist paradigm
Research questions central to the inquiry
process; but they ought not be the starting
 Essential steps to qualitative research
1. Recognize and accept one’s ontological and
epistemological beliefs
2. Find a place among the qualitative
3. Ask research questions
4. Choose a method based on what you want
to find out

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