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?  Continue reading

Descriptive Participant Observations on the Culture of the Park Slope Food Coop

Writing assignment for Approaches to Qualitative Inquiry with Colleen Larson

The Park Slope Coop (PSFC) is a nonprofit organization founded in 1973. It offers sustainably and ethically produced food and grocery items. Because it needs only to cover costs rather than turn a profit, the PSFC’s prices are substantially lower than a typical Brooklyn grocery store. Since its founding, it has grown from a small ad-hoc organization into a substantial neighborhood institution with over 17,000 members. Only Coop members are allowed to shop, and members are required to work a monthly two hour and forty-five minute volunteer shift. This is unusual—most food coops give members the option of paying a membership fee rather than working. The PSFC is managed by a core staff of paid employees, but members perform much of the day-to-day labor, which helps keep costs low.

Park Slope Food Coop exterior

The aisles are narrow, stacked floor to ceiling with inventory. Per the web site, the store carries “local, organic and conventionally grown produce; pasture-raised and grass-fed meat; free-range, organic and kosher poultry; fair-traded chocolate and coffee; wild and sustainably farmed fish; supplements and vitamins; imported and artisan cheese; freshly baked bread, bagels and pastries; bulk grains and spices; environmentally safe cleaning supplies, and much more.” The PSFC generates over fifty million dollars in sales revenue per year, with a “shrink rate” (merchandise lost, damaged or stolen) of about half the industry average. The environment feels markedly different from a typical grocery store. There is a conspicuous absence of candy, magazines, soda, marketing aimed at kids, and branding and marketing generally. The only periodical available is the PSFC’s own Linewaiter’s Gazette, which resembles a high school newspaper.

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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 Continue reading