The Interpretive Turn: From Sociological Positivism to Constructivism

Note-taking for Approaches to Qualitative Inquiry with Colleen Larson

Willis, J.W., (2007) Foundations of Qualitative Research, Sage, chapters 1-4.

Jerry Willis - Foundations of Qualitative Research

The simplest way to define the difference between quantitative and qualitative research methods is that one uses numbers and the other uses words. But in reality, qualitative researchers use stats too, and all quantitative studies contextualize their findings with qualitative arguments. The real difference is not in the type of data being collected and studied; it’s the foundational assumptions behind each method, otherwise known as their underlying paradigms.

Paradigms of inquiry

Paradigms are theoretical assumptions, philosophies of science and knowledge (ontologies and epistemologies), and their accompanying research methods. The positivist paradigm is the one we usually associate with “hard” science and quantitative: reality exists ‘out there,’ and is driven by universal natural laws and processes. We express our knowledge of these laws and processes in the form of time-and context-free generalizations. Qualitative research is usually based on more subjective paradigms like critical theory or interpretivism.

Ontology is the branch of metaphysics that deals with the nature of reality. An ontological position is a statement about what can be real and what can’t. Materialist ontology rejects the idea of ghosts. Subjectivist ontology says that there is no reality beyond our perceptions. Epistemology is the branch of metaphysics dealing with what we can know about reality. You might have a materialist ontology (reality is out there) but a subjectivist epistemology (our only knowledge of reality comes through our sensory perceptions.)

The traditional scientific method is based on an empirical epistemology: you gain knowledge of the world through experiments. The various critical epistemologies, like feminism, say that our knowledge is situated in our experiences and social context, so men and women will have different experiences and perceptions of the same reality.

Positivism asserts that all valid theories of the world have to come from observation. That sounds appealing, but collapses under scrutiny. First of all, you have to have theories before you gather your data or you won’t know what to gather, or how to make sense of it. Secondly, data can never definitively prove a theory; it can only disprove it. This is why modern science is based on a postpositivist paradigm, in which confirming studies don’t “prove” a theory, they just add to the data supporting it.

Durkheim had a vision of the social sciences as a (post)positivist undertaking: it should be “a neutral, objective, and value free process,” and you can separate your thinking about an object in the world from the object itself.

Qualitative research grew up in response to the shortcomings and limitations quantitative research. Positivism is not just about making observations. You need to have a theory to give those observations meaning. Once you’re talking about theories, though, human subjectivity inevitably comes into play. The research itself might be objective, but selecting the topic of research or developing theory around it may well involve subjective decisions. This can lead to situations like “scientific communism,” the idea that the Soviet Union’s system of government was scientifically proven to be superior. We could also point to the scientific consensus in the nineteenth century that white people are biologically superior to black people (which we still aren’t totally rid of).

Interpretivism arose as a response to the excesses of “scientific” social science. It shares some characteristics with idealistic rationalism, the idea that you can reason your way to truths that are hidden from direct sensory experience. But interpretivists reject Platonic universal truths in favor of relativism, recognizing that our knowledge of the world is always conditioned by our experiences and our culture. There is no universal epistemology, and no “neutral” or “value-free” empirical methodology. Such methodology only seems neutral because it conforms to the world-view of the community which develops it. There is a limit to how much we can transfer scientific knowledge from one context to another. Interpretivists recognize that there is an external reality is separate and independent from our minds, but we can never come into direct contact with that reality. We construct our knowledge of the world, which is filtered and shaped by our interpretive tools like language and culture.

Interpretivism comes in several varieties. Existentialism despairs of knowing the world in any direct way, and relies instead on “leaps of faith.” Phenomenology focuses on our subjective experiences as facts of the world to be understood. Gestalt psychology points out that breaking things into discrete parts destroys some of their meaning, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And constructivism says that reality is a social construction that can be understood only in context.

Positivism goes hand-in-hand with modernism, a belief in progress driven by scientific rationality. Interpretivism is more aligned with postmodernism, which rejects totalizing coherent logical models in favor of decentralized, heterogeneous, local and contextual truths in a perpetual state of change. Postmodernism questions the inevitability of progress, challenges the idea of the scientific method as the sole legitimate source of knowledge, and keeps a focus on marginalized and oppressed people. It rejects the epistemological privilege that modernism gives to disembodied knowledge, because there is no such thing; all thinking is intrinsically embodied. We can only overcome the shortcomings of scientific knowledge by using “nonscientific” research methods.

As a practical matter, social science relies on quasiexperimental methods, because you can’t do a legitimate experiment in messy human contexts. For example, if you want to do education research in a school, you can’t randomly assign subjects to treatment and control groups, and your subjects will not represent the general population. In social science you have to  balance the values of validity and meaningfulness. Drosophila studies have high scientific validity, but are not so meaningful when you try to apply them to humans. Ethnographic studies will have less empirical validity but more meaning.

Most literature on the paradigm debate assumes that we’re talking about basic research on things like the fundamental nature of human learning or children’s cognitive development. But most social science research is applied, not basic.

Postpositivists work hard to use unambiguous language because they assume that all legitimate research questions are clear cut. There are no fuzzy or ambiguous scientific problems, only fuzzy ambiguous formulations of those problems. Before you can do research, you need a specific hypothesis to test, and a controlled environment to test it in. Your hypothesis should be a statement of a universal and general truth. And you should be suspicious of ad hoc conclusions that arise in the course of doing the research. This assumes that there’s a clear separation between objective research and necessarily subjective practice. Research generates the rules of practice that practitioners are supposed to follow.

Interpretive and critical researchers live in a world of ambiguity, of local and contingent truths, of specific and local contexts to seek those truths in, and a complete lack of separation between research and practice. Researchers are active participants in the world of their subjects, looking for interpretive understanding of their intersubjective meanings. In social sciences, social work, psychology and education, research is less an effort to support theory, and more a collaborative effort to make better and more effective practice. Critical researchers want to influence their subjects, to help them improve their conditions and to rectify power imbalances. Research is supposed to liberate the oppressed from false consciousness and thereby empower them to overcome their oppressors–think Paulo Freire. So far, of course, critical theorists have been more effective as critics than as activists, maybe because their language is so impenetrable.

While postpositivism looks for universals and critical theory looks for local instances of universals, interpretivism looks for understanding of a particular context. The context you do your research in makes a critical impact on the interpretation of the data you gather. You are not just looking for proof of a hypothesis, but understanding of people’s subjectivity. That means using qualitative methods like case studies and ethnography, with results reported in context-rich and highly detailed reports. The end results can look more like journalism or literature than scientific journal articles.

Just because interpretivists reject objectivity, that does not mean that every viewpoint is just as good as any other. You can advocate for a particular point of view; it just means recognizing some inherent uncertainty of its rightness. It also means that you have the opportunity to make discoveries in the course of research. There is no need for detailed hypotheses at the outset, because those exist in empirical research as a way to keep subjectivity out, and interpretivists cheerfully embrace subjectivity as unavoidable. Interviewing people isn’t a method for extracting information from them; it’s a collaborative and emergent process of constructing truth together.

Empirical research tries to find truths by isolating concepts, similar to the way that schools isolate academic subjects to make them supposedly more amenable to learning. This assumes that we can best understand things in isolation. Interpretivists, like constructivist educators, take a more gestalt view of truth, that truths are easier to grasp in naturalistic real-world contexts, complexities and all. Since research is a form of learning, what works in school will work in the gathering of new knowledge as well.

No one adheres purely to a single research paradigm. You can use methods from a paradigm without adopting all of its core beliefs. Critical and interpretive researchers can still learn from and conduct quantitative studies and vice versa. Postpositivists use plenty of qualitative methodology in their actual writing, even if they are ostensibly purely conducting quantitative research. Can we bridge the gaps between the paradigms? How should interpretivists respond when postpositivists ask, if you aren’t looking for generalizations or laws, why do the research in the first place? How should postpositivists respond when interpretivists point out that there’s no point in looking for universal laws of human behavior when there are none to be found?