Examining the Assumptions Underpinning Interpretive Inquiry

Note-taking for Approaches to Qualitative Inquiry with Colleen Larson

Willis, J.W., (2007) Foundations of Qualitative Research, Sage, chapters 5-6.

Jerry Willis - Foundations of Qualitative Research

Postpositivist social science research involves six steps:

  1. Find an idea to research. The idea can come from anywhere, including your experience or whatever qualitative data.
  2. Develop or select a theory. It can be a nineteenth century style all-encompassing theory, a Merton-style midlevel theory, or a minitheory like learned helplessness. Sometimes you choose a theory to test first and then look for a way to test it.
  3. Develop specific, testable hypotheses derived from your theory (the hypothetico-deductive model.)
  4. Design a study to objectively gather quantitative data under controlled conditions that allow you to draw conclusions about your hypotheses.
  5. Analyze the data using standard statistical techniques and interpret the results using the guidelines of the scientific method. A positive outcome supports your theory but doesn’t prove it beyond any doubt.
  6. Report your work in an objective scientific paper format.

When social scientists differ on the outcomes of research, it’s usually a conflict of paradigms. In the 1950s and 1960s, psychological studies of gay people found they weren’t as “well adjusted” as straight people of similar backgrounds and age. At the time the assumption was that homosexuality was a deviant pathology, so that alone explained the unhappiness of gays. When the field started thinking of homosexuality as just another sexual preference, they interpreted gay unhappiness as the result of persecution by a hostile society. The same empirical observations support different conclusions depending on your assumptions. So is postpositivism in social science really more about arguing beliefs than proving truths? 

Clifford Geertz thought social science research should reject all four of the foundations of its traditional period (objectivism, imperialism, monumentalism, and timelessness). He advocated a method of “thick” descriptions based on multiple perspectives under an interpretive rather than positivist paradigm, emphasizing the importance of contextual understanding. His preferred research product was the essay, not the scientific article.

Analytic Realism is a qualitative data analysis approach based on the view that the social world is an interpreted one. Qualitative research needs to pay attention to:

  • The relationship between what is observed and the larger context.
  • Interactions and relationships between the researcher and participants, which isn’t a bad thing, but needs to be explained in the research report.
  • Perspective or perspectives of the researcher and participants, as opposed to the search for a singular social reality.
  • Reader roles in the user experience sense. Social science should produce understanding rather than passing along truth, so we need to be conscious of the work readers are doing.
  • Style of research reports, which can take multiple formats and use multiple media.

The Interpretive Perspective: qualitative research is inherently subjective. No matter how closely we follow detailed technical standards for research, we can’t produce an objective report of the truth of the matter. We are doing interpretation, and that is an art form, not an algorithmic procedure. Like storytelling, you learn it by doing. Qualitative research gets judged using nonresearch frames: personal, interpersonal, economic, occupational, and rhetorical.

My project is going to end up using Eisner’s Connoisseurship Model of Inquiry.

Elliot Eisner, The enlightened eye: Qualitative inquiry and the enhancement of educational practice

Research and evaluation are examples of inquiry, but not all inquiry is an example of research or evaluation (Eisner 1997, 6). There are many different forms of qualitative inquiry, including writing fiction, art and music criticism, quantitative research, and teaching. Eisner’s basic premises for his model of qualitative research:

  • There are multiple ways of knowing about the world, and both artists and scientists can contribute to that knowledge.
  • Human knowledge is constructed, not discovered.
  • The forms (media) we use to communicate influence not just what we can say, but also what we as researchers see.
  • Using multiple methods makes research more complete and informative.
  • The educational research community accepts “scientific” research forms over others for political reasons as much as epistemological ones.

Inquiry consists of connoisseurship and criticism. A connoisseur in research is someone who has the experience and skills to understand the subtle and not so subtle aspects of a situation. A critic transforms the qualities of a painting, play, novel, poem, classroom or school, or act of teaching and learning into a public form that illuminates, interprets, and appraises its qualities as we experience them.

Eisner’s model of qualitative inquiry includes the researcher’s self as a major instrument of research. It uses an expressive voice, not a third person “voice of God.” We attend to particulars more than generalities. We can appraise transactive accounts by their coherence, consensus, instrumental utility, and insightfulness. We measure in terms of persuasiveness (weight, coherence, cogency, consensus) and usefulness rather than objective truth.

Semiotics is the study of signs and their meaning for humans. A sign or signifier (the thing that carries meaning) and the signified (the meaning itself) aren’t necessarily or essentially related. Language and other signs that carry meaning are therefore arbitrary. Deconstruction treats texts (books, documents, social and cultural processes) as having multiple meanings or voices. Deconstruction is the process of uncovering these different meanings. Some of the meanings may be the opposite of what the author intended, and meanings can contradict each other. Phenomenological psychology studies consciousness and perceptions, making no effort to equate perceptions with external reality. Perception of an external object is necessarily partial, subjective, incomplete. You can criticize structuralism and phenomenology as looking at structures in society or in the mind as if they are simply there. Poststructuralists and postmodernists argue instead that structures are products of a particular culture, context, and set of experiences.

Postpositivists use theory to try to explain a phenomenon in a general or universal way. Interpretivists use theory to offer a perspective that helps the reader understand a particular phenomenon. Ethnography is a good interpretivist technique because participant observation and unstructured interviews match the research paradigm precisely. The research method evolves over the course of the study, and you can really only define your procedures in retrospect, in the form of a narrative of what actually happened, rather than a detailed plan ahead of time. Research is iterative, like agile software development. It’s not a linear or sequential process like the  hypothetico-deductive model. Interpretivists point out that postpositivist research doesn’t always follow its own model either—“real” scientists iterate too, they just write as if they had a plan all along.

Grounded theory supports an emergent approach to research. You develop theory through an iterative process of data analysis and theoretical analysis, with verification of hypotheses ongoing throughout the study.

Interpretivists and critical theorists understand that data collection techniques and the selection of participants will influence the meaning and understanding developed by the research. You therefore need to use multiple sources of data representing multiple perspectives. In addition to the traditional participant observations and interviews, you can also drawn on diaries, reflective journals, official records, primary and secondary historical sources, pictures, video, and music, among other sources.

Schön, D. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Donald Schön - Educating the reflective practitioner

Schön thinks interpretivists should follow the principles of reflection in action and reflection on action in research. He also calls these approaches “artistry” to contrast them with technical approaches. Reflection on action is a recursive process in which each effort to solve a problem that has not yielded to routine solutions is a trial that presents a reflective opportunity. The reflective model of research assumes that few important problems in social science can be stated as well-formed problems with clear solutions. Professional practice, applied science and research-based technique occupy a limited territory bounded on several sides by artistry. There is an art of problem framing, an art of implementation, and an art of improvisation, and you need all of them in applied science and technique (Schön 1987, 13).

Mills, G. (2002). Action research: A guide for the teacher researcher (2nd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Geoffrey Mills - Action research: A guide for the teacher researcher

Action research in education (Mills, 2002) involves the teacher as a member of the research team. Because the research is focused on the classroom, the teacher is a participant observer, and is often both the researcher and the focus of the research. In co-operative inquiry, you do research with people, not on them or about them. It breaks down the old paradigm separation between the roles of researcher and subject.

Qualitative researchers used to conceal the real purpose of the research from their subjects, out of concern that it would influence the data too much if the subjects knew what the study was about. Research ethics aside, this ignored the fact that the mere fact of the researcher’s presence already changes the situation and affects the data. Participatory research invites the participants (you don’t call them subjects) to not only know about the research’s goals and purposes works, but also involves them in decision making about the process.