In the past few decades qualitative research has increasingly appeared in special education journals. However, much of this work falls within the parameters of producing useful technical information that can be applied to the contexts where children and adults with disabilities learn, work, and live. Experimental qualitative studies that rely on postmodern or poststructural analyses, critical theory, and narrative research with subjective personal stories seem to be considered too radical, ideological, and theoretical to make it into many special education scholarly outlets. We argue that experimental qualitative designs have much to contribute to the fields of special education and disability studies and, hence, should reach those who receive or provide services to people with disabilities.
My rationale for hanging on to the term “validity” is to both circulate and break with the signs that code it. What I mean by the term, then, is both mobilizing all the baggage that it carries and, in a doubled movement, using it to rupture validity as a “regime of truth,” to displace its historical inscription toward policing the borders between science and not-science—(Lather, 2001, p. 241)
We recognize that readers might expect this article to begin with a clear, concise definition of qualitative research. However, when D. Smith (1987), the editor of the American Educational Research Journal, set out to define the genre, she wrote: “Seemingly straightforward, the task could hardly be more daunting. The body of work labeled qualitative is richly variegated and its theories of method diverse to the point of disorderliness” (p. 173). Adding to the difficulty of understanding qualitative work is the blurring of disciplinary and inquiry boundaries and field- or site-specific usage of terms and constructs for scholarly work. We do believe it is reasonable to claim that qualitative studies are done to understand the qualities, or essential nature of something, within particular contexts. Because we plan to expand the parameters of qualitative research, we ask readers to form their own opinions about what qualifies as research and what contributes to knowledge about people with disabilities and special education after they read this article. In the meantime we note that although certain kinds of qualitative studies have appeared with increasing frequency in mainstream special education journals, with few exceptions, the more innovative (what we refer to as “experimental”) qualitative studies have not. Although we will embellish on the characteristics of experimental qualitative designs later in this article, we briefly state here that this work tends to be framed in such theoretical perspectives as cultural studies, postmodernism, postcolonialism, poststructuralism, and critical theory.
We begin our discussion about the importance of qualitative research by announcing that we have done, and perhaps are best known for doing, qualitative work. We also feel that we truthfully can claim methodological pluralism because we realize that various research designs contribute in distinctive but similar ways to knowledge about how best to understand and meet the needs of children and adults identified as disabled. What design is used, of course, depends on what is studied. We argue here that experimental qualitative and theoretical scholarship have much to offer special education and disability studies and, hence, should be taken seriously. We make the case for these assertions by citing historical examples of empirical and experimental qualitative studies that have influenced disability-related policy and practice and by discussing ways that studies in this genre can continue to contribute. First, however, because qualitative research constitutes a broad and complex discipline, we identify and define a range of common types of studies. Next, we outline standards by which empirical qualitative studies can be assessed. Given the current debates in Washington, DC, about what constitutes valid scientific research, we start this article by insisting that empirical qualitative designs can meet the criterion of producing science- or evidence-based knowledge to inform policy and practice. Finally, we turn to the more contested experimental qualitative scholarly work and provide a rationale for recognizing the value of such work.
The Nature and Range of Qualitative Studies
Our inability to clearly and succinctly define qualitative research is indicative of the broad and varied range of studies within the genre. Qualitative research is an umbrella category that encompasses many kinds of studies (see Appendix A). The terms used to describe studies by qualitative researchers often depend on our fields or which “how to” books guide our studies. The confusion about qualitative work is partly due to the fact that qualitative approaches developed somewhat simultaneously in separate fields (e.g., symbolic interaction in psychology, phenomenology in philosophy, discourse analysis and interpretive work in cultural studies, conversation analysis in sociology and sociolinguistics, ethnography in anthropology, naturalistic inquiry in education (life story and oral history and folklore). As the boundaries between disciplines blur, we realize that distinctive terms have similar meanings. Qualitative, naturalistic, interpretive, field or case study, inductive research, and ethnography often are used interchangeably or refer to the same methods (Merriam, 1998). Study, inquiry, research, method, and design also are basically synonymous. This indefiniteness also is indicative of the evolving nature of the genre. In addition, many investigators do not take one approach but rely on various combinations of methods (see Appendix B).
It seems that the growing popularity and acceptance of qualitative research in some circles has met with resistance in others. Some remain skeptical of the whole qualitative genre, implying that its popularity may be due to a loosening of research standards and slippage in some scholars' knowledge about research. Students and faculty may be accused of falling back on qualitative research because they cannot handle becoming accomplished in sophisticated statistical designs. Countering this generalized critique, proponents argue that qualitative work may be more difficult than quantitative studies or at least more time-consuming if done well. Skills must be developed to write accurate field notes of observations and bring out the most elaborated and truthful responses from informants in interviews. Transcribing interviews, sorting through narratives for themes and patterns, and selecting relevant interview quotations or vignettes from field notes to document interpretations and conclusions are difficult, time-consuming undertakings that require particular skills. Because the audience for qualitative work expects the report to be intriguing and engaging, qualitative research necessitates especially strong writing skills. Astute analyses and interpretations are based on scholars being broadly informed across a number of literatures and disciplines. In contrast, quantitative work tends to be situated in a fairly narrow discourse in which the usual mentor or models are followed. Work that replicates or extends earlier studies is the norm. Qualitative work rarely replicates existing studies, although extending, updating, and strengthening messages of earlier research often are part of qualitative scholars' agenda. Our point here is that doing good qualitative work can hardly be considered “taking the easy way out.” This is especially true if we add in the factor that the rate of acceptance for publication of qualitative work is relatively low in special education journals. Fortunately, many journals now welcome qualitative manuscripts, and editors send them to reviewers who understand and appreciate such studies. Nevertheless, qualitative researchers still may have to work harder to get research into print.
Judging the Effectiveness of Qualitative Research
Quality indicators specific to empirical qualitative studies can guide researchers to plan their work so that it meets scholarly standards (see Appendix C). Then, too, just as quantitative studies must have validity and reliability demonstrated, certain measures can be incorporated into empirical qualitative designs to ensure that results are credible and trustworthy (see Appendix D).
After providing these lists, we confess that we do so with some reluctance. We worry that they will be used indiscriminately as prescriptions for practice in a way that falsely validates inadequate studies and/or eliminates deserving studies that do not fit standard qualitative molds. Furthermore, because the credibility measures can be done in various ways, by using them as a checklist, authors may take short cuts and simply report that they used a method without clarifying the necessity for its use or how effective it was in validating the findings. We have seen articles in which certain terms (e.g., member check, triangulation, audit trail, grounded theory) are mentioned casually—and superficially. A close reading reveals that authors are confused about a method's purpose and/or they probably did not use it in a thoughtful or careful enough way to guarantee the trustworthiness of their results. We also have read research reports in which investigators do not explicitly state that they have used these standard practices, yet the work is presented in a way that conveys its credibility. In such cases, often because of the nature of the study or report, including these items would seem to intrude or distract from the key messages of the investigators. Our greatest concern about the use of a checklist to identify standards or a template to judge the presence or absence of required elements in any particular qualitative design is that some studies are unconventional. Such work—or reports of such work—may not fit within predetermined guidelines but still have catalytic value (see Lather, 1986). In other words, the report captivates audiences, allowing them to see phenomena or practices in a new light, thus inspiring them to improve their ways of doing things.
In recent decades, there has been a rapid expansion in the use of qualitative designs, a proliferation of types of studies, and a growing sophistication in understanding research issues (Britzman, 1995; Denzin & Lincoln, 2000; Lather, 2001). Given the inherent complexity of the qualitative genre, in order not to stifle creativity and innovation, we advise against insistence that rigid conventions be followed for a study to be judged credible and sound. Pointing to common standards for quantitative and qualitative research, we maintain that investigators must articulate how the research was conducted as well as give adequate rationale for the particular method choice. Harry, Sturges, and Klingner (in press) referred to this as a standard of transparency, in which methods and procedures are clearly and truthfully laid out for reviewers' or readers' scrutiny. Like all researchers, scholars who do qualitative work must convince readers that their studies were done for worthwhile purposes and that they add to thinking and/or practice in the field. Because we believe that best practices cannot be prescribed in foundational ways for all times and all cases, we recommend that logic and reason govern research as well as research evaluation practices, just as they should inform all scholarly pursuits.
Comparing Qualitative With Quantitative Studies
Although qualitative and quantitative inquiry often are spoken of as polar opposites, it is necessary to acknowledge that they do not constitute a simple binary. There is overlap between certain kinds of quantitative and qualitative methods (as we illustrate in the next section), and both can be used in complementary ways even in the same study (Greene, 2001). Despite differences, empirical (and experimental) qualitative work and quantitative research share features. All address research questions. All generate data, or information, in some systematic and rigorous manner. All rely on careful analysis and informed interpretation. All must be reported in a coherent way that makes sense to readers, admits to limitations, specifies implications for the field, and provides clear and compelling evidence about the validity or credibility of results.
Although this differentiation seems too reductive, the term deductive (reasoning from general to specific) is associated with quantitative work whereas inductive (reasoning from specific to general) is linked with qualitative methods. Perhaps the inductive association with qualitative work stems from university communities' familiarity with the work of Glaser and Strauss (1967). These scholars broke with the quantitative tradition of the time and interviewed patients without developing a rigidly structured interview protocol or an a priori hypothesis to test. Instead, they used open-ended questions to generate narratives that they analyzed by looking for emerging themes. Their studies are widely referenced as the model for grounded theory. Hence, inductive analysis has been touted as the way to develop theory from data collected rather than formulated in advance then tested in the lab or field.
Perhaps because of widespread familiarity with Glaser and Strauss's (1967) approach as well as the sense that it constitutes the basic way to proceed in qualitative research, some scholars espouse the notion that, unlike quantitative studies, qualitative studies should not be designed to confirm researchers' hypotheses. This perception of the purpose of qualitative research seems unnecessarily narrow and restrictive. It is based on the flawed assumption that researchers can approach a study with a “blank slate” state of mind. It seems valid to speculate that in doing ethnographies in strange places, for example, anthropologists who study unfamiliar cultures can start their study without (specific to the context) preconceived ideas about what they will find. In such situations, the best work would involve sensitive observations by astute and unbiased researchers who attempt to ground their emerging explanations about social life only in what they see and hear at the site.
In contrast to the outsider position of some anthropologists described above, it seems that most special educational researchers have been long-term observers in schools or other settings where people with disabilities live and work. They are likely to have acquired rather firmly rooted ideas about the nature of social life in those settings. They become curious about, or interested in, certain phenomena that they have informally observed. Perhaps they form vague, or even fairly well-developed, hypotheses about what they have seen. These researchers may plan their studies around rigorous documentation of what they expect to find based on their informed perspective. In such cases, it would be incorrect to maintain that theories or explanations only emerged during or after data collection. It is more realistic and honest to admit that evidence from formal observations or interviews confirmed prior hunches. Although some qualitative work does provide evidence to support prior expectations, intellectual excitement may be most acute for researchers when unexpected ideas surface for the first time in a study. These emergent themes may lay the groundwork for subsequent studies. The point here is that unlike most quantitative studies in which the design is structured so as to confirm hypotheses and extend existing theory, in qualitative studies, theory may emerge or be confirmed. In either case, theory, or explanation of findings, is grounded in collected data. A modus operandi of quantitative studies is the control of extraneous factors or “noise.” In contrast, when collecting data or developing theory, qualitative researchers may report pertinent tangential or extraneous material along with issues originally central to the study.
A related misperception is that qualitative studies' primary use is to explore hypotheses and then quantitative studies later substantiate sketchy results or confirm incomplete theories identified through an initial qualitative study. This view relegates qualitative studies to pilot status. Although we do not deny that this could be a sequence for conducting studies, we believe that qualitative work can produce solid findings that can be disseminated to the field without the substantiation of quantitative work. Moreover, some qualitative researchers reverse this process. For example, they use a design that includes in-depth, personalized interviews to confirm, flesh out, or enhance evidence that was first identified through forced-choice surveys. Some also use the findings of an experimental design (e.g., that low-achieving students make reading progress when paired with more advanced readers) to launch a close observation of instructional practices or student behaviors that might account for this finding. Qualitative studies can add depth in response to questions about why or under what circumstances a practice is or is not effective (see Hasazi, Furney, & Destefano, 1999). Our point is that qualitative and quantitative designs are multifaceted and can complement each other and/or be used in tandem. We also insist that empirical qualitative work can stand alone to produce science-based evidence that informs theory and/or contributes to establishing the best practices and policies for people with disabilities.
Noting the Full Spectrum of Qualitative Designs
There are a multitude of ways to do and report qualitative work, ranging from highly qualitative to fairly quantitative (see Table 1). Furthermore, variations of qualitative methods have sprung up in different—and often opposing—philosophical camps. Something that we have seen that we suspect will remain an issue is that the qualitative studies judged as acceptable, hence publishable in mainstream special education journals, are ones that closely resemble the styles and philosophies of quantitative work. It may be assumed that a research purpose and report format similar to quantitative studies meets high standards. Such traditionally framed studies may be seen as acceptable to reviewers and editors whether or not they are done competently, address substantive issues, and/or make original contributions. These preconceptions parallel the idea that traditional quantitative designs are more rigorous and valid because they follow exacting models, whereas modified versions are dubbed “quasi” because they diverge from standard forms. Wise scholars found reasons to stray from what are seen by some as templates for valid quantitative research. We worry that manuscript reviewers or dissertation advisors may fail to see the benefits of scholarship that does not conform to their gut feelings about “real research.” Certainly, feelings of comfort with some methods rather than others has to do with familiarity and the nature of professional socialization. Special education scholars have been socialized by positivist traditions. This means that empirical qualitative studies make it into print, whereas experimental qualitative work is rejected because it is methodologically strange. We stress that the precision with which research falls within standard molds must not be equated with quality or potential contribution.
Another issue that must be acknowledged is the general sense in special education that the purpose of research is to produce and validate classification systems and effective interventions. However, this technical rational agenda tends to dismiss the voices and preferences of classified people and their concerned others. It eschews research that does not have immediate or obvious practical application, shuns such work as too “theoretical,” “subjective,” or “abstract.” Such mindset constraints limit scholarly creativity. Innovative scholarship is excluded based on narrow criteria rather than on potential to positively inform or influence the field.
Perhaps the most controversy within the ranks of qualitative researchers relates to opinions about objectivity and subjectivity. A belief that subjectivity can never be completely controlled—and objectivity never thoroughly achieved—is held by many. Some celebrate the fact that we study phenomena through a particular positional lens (e.g., postmodern, feminist, critical race theory, queer theory, disability studies) or that our scholarly gaze is enhanced by our moral grounding (Brantlinger, 1997, 1999). In contrast, qualitative scholars on the positivist end of the qualitative to quantitative continuum see subjectivity as a problem that interferes with researcher objectivity and, therefore, research validity. These scholars may attempt to bracket their subjectivity by taking inventory of, and attempting to control, their assumptions and biases. Rather than believing it possible to be neutral, distant, and objective, qualitative researchers recommend being explicit about personal positions, perspectives, and value orientations (see Peshkin, 1988). Harry (1996) stressed the importance of maintaining a balanced perspective, which means being aware of preconceived ideas, assumptions, and identities that might unduly influence the research.
Connections Between Researchers and Research Results
Academia is a unique workplace in that scholarship along with teaching and service are requirements for acquiring and maintaining faculty positions. Obviously, that is the reason research is conducted mainly by professors or researchers at university affiliated facilities. Most special education faculty have spent time as classroom teachers. When they leave practitioner domains, however, they may lose track of the dynamics of settings where children and adults with disabilities spend their time. Moreover, most scholars do not have disabilities nor are they parents of children with disabilities. Their positions, then, are located outside school, agency, community, and home settings.
Harding (1993) introduced standpoint theory, which posits that people's perspectives are determined, or at least strongly influenced, by their place in social life. Harding (1998) noted that scientists are part of a particular culture and their science reflects that culture's ways of knowing and representing the world. Scholars' positions are likely to vary from those who receive or provide services, and their studies may take place in laboratories or arranged, fairly contrived natural contexts (Gallagher, 2002). To stay objective and not personally (subjectively) involved, positivists distance themselves from those they study. For example, forced-choice surveys are structured to confirm researchers' hypotheses, so unless they have a qualitative component (comment section), these instruments do not allow children or adults with disabilities, their families, or even direct-care providers to express their own ideas or concerns. Hence, studies situated within the positivist paradigm are etic (in that they take the field or researcher perspective).
Problems arise in (special) education because of who does research and who is studied (Britzman, 1995; Moore, Beazley, & Maelzer, 1998; Troyna & Vincent, 1996). Clearly, the way studies are conceptualized and conducted are affected by the way (dis)ability (school, society) are perceived of by researchers. Summarizing a series of ethnographies, Moore et al. (1998) documented the control exercised by researchers, and the negative influences they had on participants with disabilities and their families. Discussing power relations, Slee (1996) contended that those who receive special education services are often poor, whereas providers are members of an educated, professional middle class. A persistent and pernicious issue in research is the direction of scholars' gaze, which is typically downward at oppressed and marginalized groups (Brantlinger, 1999; Lipsitz, 1998). Unfortunately, much social science scholarship reiterates and reinstates cultural deficit theories (W. Ryan, 1971; Valencia, 1997; Wright, 1993). In other words, dominant, normative, and hegemonic discourses pinpoint deviance, inadequacy, and problems in “Others” (see Armstrong, 1993; Caplin, 1995; DuBois, 1901/ 1965; Gallagher, 2001; Kutchins & Kirk, 1997; J. Richardson, 1999). (Note that when Other is spelled with a capital O, it means the process of identifying other groups of peoples as them—not us—and marginalization is occurring.) It is likely that the medical model of disability is resilient because of the etic nature of most special education research.
Personalized accounts by people with disabilities offer quite different views of classification and treatment than do studies generated in academia. Indeed, Hahn (1983), a man with a physical disability, argued that nondisabled researchers project their existential and aesthetic anxieties onto the bodies of disabled Others. He concluded that more can be learned about their terror of disabilities than about the persons with disabilities about whom they presumably write. Similarly, Oliver (2004) dismissed special education research as having no constructive impact on the lives of people with disabilities—and for alienating them. Oliver (1990) cleverly turned researchers' ideas around and asked them to respond to his reversed versions of their questions. Special education scholars often define disabilities based on a vague notion of normality, without clarifying its nature or importance (Brantlinger, 1997, 2004b). In asserting the value of qualitative work in special education, Pugach (2001) challenged “the nature of the stories we choose to tell about disability as well as the frameworks by which these stories are disciplined” (p. 439).
Contributions of Empirical Qualitative Studies to Special Education
Although the general impression seems to be that qualitative work in special education is relatively recent, we recognize that, historically, empirical qualitative studies (in which investigators systematically collect and analyze information/data according to research questions—ethnographies, interview and observational studies, oral histories) have made a significant, constructive impact on disability-related policy and practice for many decades. Most of this research was not done by special education professionals per se, but by sociologists and anthropologists.
Because we are not historians, we do not claim that Itard's work was the first example of an empirical qualitative design. Nevertheless, an appropriate beginning might be to bring attention to the careful observations done by French physician Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard and reported in his classic case study, The Wild Boy of Aveyron (1806/1962). Victor, the “wild boy,” was a youth found in the woods and presumed to be severely environmentally deprived or else abandoned by his family because of his delayed development. Itard's experiments with various interventions that he hoped would be effective in educating and “civilizing” Victor might be seen as action research (Kemmis & McTaggart, 2000). It could also be considered a single-subject design. Another early example is Anne Sullivan Macy's carefully documented work with Helen Keller, which can be called a qualitative case study with action research and single-subject elements (Keller, 1955, 1903/1976).
In contrast to these carefully controlled and meticulously recorded qualitative undertakings, at about the same time (late 19th and early 20th centuries), other scientists turned to eugenics, pedigree charts, and phrenology purportedly to study the nature of human intellectual distinctions (Burt, 1909, 1912; Estabrook, 1916; Fernald, 1896, 1904, 1912; Goddard, 1912, 1914). A flurry of studies were done to validate assessment instruments and/or techniques to classify people as less intelligent and distinguish them from “normal” people (Spearman, 1904; Terman, 1906, 1919). A number of eugenics-related journals disseminated evidence about the dangers of these defective people. Scientific eugenics solutions and validated “cures” for society's ills flourished through the early 20th century in the United States and Europe (Safford & Safford, 1996; Trent, 1994). This evidence was used to justify the widespread institutionalization (i.e., incarceration) of people with disabilities as well as the enactment of legal mandates for involuntary sterilization and prohibition of marriage. Perspectives of people subjected to these interventions were not considered important and were not solicited. In retrospect, we know these studies were unscientific undertakings done in the name of science to verify fears that society was being swamped and pulled down by the existence, and especially the “breeding” patterns, of people considered to be genetically inferior.
The prominence of societal factors in determining classification and treatment became apparent when conditions related to the United States involvement in World War II depleted the typical labor force, so there was a need for the surplus labor warehoused in state hospitals. Public awareness of the disastrous consequences of eugenics thinking and practices in Nazi Germany climaxed to challenge assumptions about certain people's inherent inferiority as well as the nature and effects of heredity versus the environment. “Scientific” eugenics treatises (e.g., Herrnstein & Murray, 1994; Jensen, 1969) continue to surface today and receive considerable public attention that is not all negative. Thus, changes in societal circumstances, as well as in lay and social science knowledge and viewpoints, culminated in the release from institutions of many people previously considered “too retarded” and/or “dangerous” to live in the community.
In order to understand people's feelings about biased practices, anthropologist Edgerton interviewed 48 people classified as mentally retarded who had spent much of their childhood and adult life in institutions. His resulting book (Edgerton, 1967) was among the studies (see also Morris, 1969) that triggered the deinstitutionalization movement. The injustice and pain revealed in those studies motivated advocates to exert pressure on legislatures and courts to overturn involuntary sterilization laws that had been passed in many states earlier in the century (Brantlinger, 1995). In England, Mattinson (1971), in a report of interviews and observations of people released from institutions revealed that laws against marriage for people with cognitive disabilities were illogical. People with mental retardation who lived together as couples and shared their strengths were “less of a burden” on society than those who lived alone.
The idea that professional prejudice as well as the inevitable power imbalances that exist between professionals and some families might result in children from minority and low-income families being classified as disabled and placed in separated schools or classrooms at a greater rate than white children from middle class families was the theme of Mercer's (1973) book. She found that African American children, who performed competently in their homes and neighborhoods, still had IQs that were low enough for them to be labeled and treated as mentally retarded in school. Her ideas about the 6-hour-a-day retarded child (i.e., only identified as having mental retardation through psychological and academic achievement tests and school tasks) challenged the general faith in the validity and fairness of intelligence tests. This finding provided the impetus for requiring an adaptive behavior measure for people to be classified as having mental retardation. Similarly, in her ethnography, Henshel (1972) demonstrated that school personnel's assumptions about ethnic characteristics affect referral, testing, and placement rates. These qualitative studies were focused on the phenomenon of overrepresentation, which continues to be of interest to advocates concerned about a “do no harm” philosophy related to institutional and professional practice (Artiles & Trent, 1994; Connor & Boskin, 2001; Harry, 1994; Harry, Klingner, Sturges, & Moore, 2002; Mehan, Hertwerk, & Meihls, 1986).
Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) combined qualitative (interviews, observations, and document analysis) and quantitative methods (random sample, experimental design) to discern that attitudes and expectancies of teachers and students affected children's school achievement and educational outcomes. This was another study that reminded professionals and advocates to question the sanctity of intelligence and achievement tests and, more generally, the medical model, which posits disability as a permanent, innate, genetic flaw in certain identified children rather than a social construction that depends on the nature of the context and practices of school and society.
In addition to the classic studies reviewed in the last section, many other qualitative studies center on the emic (insider to phenomena) perspectives of people who receive or provide disability services. Scholars who do ethnographic or interview studies choose contexts outside of academia. Often their sole purpose is to get close to the ideas and listen to the voices of individuals who experience disability or family members or careproviders of these individuals (Bogdan & Taylor, 1994; Booth & Booth, 2000; Brantlinger, 1986, 1994; Brantlinger, Klein, & Guskin, 1994; Hagner, Helm, & Butterworth, 1996; Hamill, 2003; Harry, 1992; Harry, Day, & Quist, 1998; Heshusius, 1981; Kliewer, 1998; Kliewer & Biklen, 2001; MacTavish, Mahon, & Lutfiyya, 2000; Poston et al., 2003; Rao, 2000; Sacks, 1989, 1995; P. Smith, 1999a; Turnbull & Ruef, 1996; Zetlin & Hosseini, 1989). Other studies done in classrooms capture the voices of students and teachers and document classroom practices (Cambone, 1993; Fierros & Conroy, 2002; Grant & Sleeter, 1986; Jimenez & Gersten, 1999; Kalyanpur & Harry, 1999; Lee, 1999; Meyer, Park, Grenot-Scheyer, Schwartz, & Harry, 1998; Turnbull, Blue-Banning, & Pereira, 2000). These qualitative studies include the emic in contrast to quantitative studies' etic perspective.
Pushing the Qualitative Genre's Limits: Postmodern and Critical Studies
Since Kuhn (1962) wrote his classic book, some tenets of positivist, science-oriented research have been challenged. Bastions that shore up claims of getting close to truth through research or accumulating universal and foundational knowledge for all people and all times have been undermined. As a result, both qualitative and quantitative scholarship are ensconced in the hesitancies, tensions, and frictions related to a fairly generalized contemporary paradigm shift. Premises of positivism continue to be questioned by scholars informed by cultural studies, critical theory, feminism, constructivism, postmodernism, postcolonialism, and poststructuralism (Brantlinger, 1997, 1999; Britzman, 1995, 1998; Danforth, 1999; Denzin & Lincoln, 2000; Lather, 1991, 1993). As research wars take place, scholars divide themselves into camps, staunchly exerting the superiority of their own methods and touting certain key concepts as precious or dangerous (see Appendix E).
Before laying out our rationale for expanding the qualitative genre beyond the regularly expected boundaries, we feel compelled to note that in spite of Kuhn's (1962) critique, positive science still dominates special education. As is evident by a perusal of publications in various fields, these new trends and ways of thinking have permeated the arts, humanities, and some social science fields as well as many disciplines within education. However, they seem to have had less impact on mainstream special education thinking. Nevertheless, the paradigm shift has been unsettling to researchers who made their mark with positivist research, and they continue to socialize those they mentor into believing that only certain kinds of research are reliable, valid, and worthwhile. They budge only so far to open the door to unique forms of scholarship. Although empirical qualitative research is published, unconventional scholarship remains shut out. Because we believe experimental qualitative work has much to offer, we make that case in the remainder of this article.
Perhaps the agnosticism of scholars who break with tradition is linked to questioning or scrutinizing everything in their scholarly and perhaps personal realms. Such scholars are likely to gravitate toward experimental ways of conceptualizing, doing, and reporting research. It might be conjectured that it is precisely this break with orthodoxy and routine as well as the dismissal of dogma and an openness to new ideas that drives innovation in a field.
In the most commonly recognized qualitative work, investigators collect data then proceed to the steps of describing, analyzing, and interpreting it. This sequence follows the normative pattern of scholars clarifying their own theories and ideas; planning how to collect and analyze data; and then deciding how best to describe, interpret, and write up results. Yet, there are qualitative studies that produce important, new knowledge that do not follow this formulaic way of conducting research. One such approach involves not deliberately collecting data through interviews and observations, but using data that already exist. There are reasons why it is feasible to start with existing material and go on to the stages of description, analysis, and interpretation. Further, one might note that quantitative researchers access preexisting data banks and perform their own analyses of the data according to the research questions they want to answer.
Content and discourse analysis (looking for situated meanings in language and text) (see Appendix A) typically are analytical techniques used in qualitative inquiry. They also constitute a form of research in their own right (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000). (Note their listing in both Appendices A and B.) However, in contrast to researchers looking for meaningful patterns and themes in data they have personally generated (e.g., interview narratives) or collected (field note descriptions), discourse analysis (Fairclough, 1992; Silverman, 2000) begins at the second stage. Scholars read (inductively analyze) narratives, stories, artifacts, documents—existing text or discourse—that is accessible to them in everyday life.
Cultural study theorists broaden the meaning of the term text to encompass “everything out there,” including tools, equipment, laws, technology, official guidelines, rituals, common procedures, policies, entertainment choice, taste, clothing styles, e-mail traffic, advertisements, media messages, building or room lay-out (including barriers), and institutional forms and processes (i.e., all social practice, interpersonal interactions, and discourses). G. Ryan and Bernard (2000) claimed that “the sociological tradition treats text as a window into human experience” (p. 769). Text does not have to be print but can take on a variety of material or language forms; hence, it can be perceived through any sensory means—visual, olfactory, tactile, and auditory. The news media and entertainment outlets (television, cinema, art galleries, and museums) are fruitful sources of text. Data produced in these formats and venues are ripe for analysis and interpretation. Regarding disability studies, incarnations of special education law, classification systems, and institutional policies are text that is rich in meaning. For example, the discourses in special education textbooks “form the objects” (people with disabilities) they describe (and inscribe) (Brantlinger, in press). Text and visuals in these popular and profitable socialization mechanisms objectify, commodify, and reify their subject(s) (disabilities, interventions, normalized practices) for preservice teachers.
Complicating the process of textual or discourse analyses are the postmodern perspectives that declare that human meanings are not linear and static, but consist of multiple levels that are dynamic, fluid, multifaceted, and time and context-specific. The implications of postmodernism for scholars is that acts of discerning meaning (through research) always are local and temporary, not universal and eternal. Cultural and critical theorists see language as a cultural site of power that creates, maps, and sorts human identities on scales of value (P. Smith, 1997). Language is where mundane rituals and resounding politics occur. Recognizing the instability of language usage, linguists discern different registers (people change speech patterns or styles to adapt to social settings). Psychoanalysts unpack layers of affect by separating conscious from subconscious meanings. For example, they delineate the workings of an id, ego, and super ego and how they interweave and rise to dominate the psyche at different times or in different situations.
Because disparate power relations are integral to hierarchical societies, critical, Marxist, or materialist theorists focus on social class relations in schooling. They unmask the symbolic violence of the hidden curriculum in everyday school rituals for poor children and children of color (Giroux, 1988). Drawing on the seminal work of Gramsci (1929– 1935/1972), critical theorists note that hegemonic dominant messages hold sway in schools, although they are continuously contested by subordinate students. Scholars interested in transformative education believe that as organic intellectuals who identify with the interests of poor and working classes, their role is to enlighten others about unequal power relations and develop emancipatory agendas to liberate subordinates from oppression (Freire, 1989). Freire warned that dominant classes cannot be trusted to voluntarily give up power, so subordinates should strive to emancipate themselves. Hence, disability rights organizations whose membership is mostly people with disabilities have an important role in identifying and protesting demeaning and unfair policies and practices. Critical theorists note the intersection of class with race, ethnicity, language use, gender, and disability. Under the critical umbrella, race theorists scrutinize how power divides and oppresses along racial or ethnic lines, feminists examine issues of power differentials related to gender, and queer theorists examine the damaging consequences of homophobia and heteronormativity for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people (Benjamin, 2001; Clare, 1999; Gerschick, 1998). Critical disability scholars are interested in the hegemony of “ableism.” Indeed, to excavate ideologies embedded in language and institutions that allow dominant practices to prevail, all critical analysts problematize these normative, tacit levels of human thinking and relations.
Contributions of Experimental Qualitative Work
Exciting experimental work may seem relatively recent in special education, yet its roots are deep. Goffman was among the early scholars who relied on the deconstruction of text. In his insightful books (Goffman, 1961, 1963), he provided reflexive and critical analyses of documents, rhetoric, and normative practice to make sense of disability in social life. Around the same time, Foucault's (1965, 1975) works were published. Foucault used discourse analysis and genealogy to trace the history of ideas, language, and institutional formation. In discussing Foucault's (1965, 1972, 1975, 1979, 1980) contribution to textual and discourse analysis, Gubrium and Holstein (2000) wrote:
Whereas ethnomethodology engages the accomplishment of everyday life at the interactional level, Foucault has undertaken a parallel project in a different empirical register. Appearing on the analytic stage during the early 1960s … Foucault considers how historically and culturally located systems of power/knowledge construct subjects and their worlds. Foucauldians refer to these systems as “discourses,” emphasizing that they are not merely bodies of ideas, ideologies, or other symbolic formulations, but are also working attitudes, modes of address, terms of reference, and courses of action suffused into social practices. (pp. 493–494)
Foucault (1972) explained the importance of understanding discourses because they “are practices that systematically form the objects [and subjects] of which they speak” (p. 49). Often dismissed as “too theoretical and impractical,” interpretive scholarship entails the deep reflection about daily life and commonsense (normative thinking) that is needed to unmask the damaging aspects of regular practice. Close scrutiny reveals the power structures and underrgirding one-sided values embedded in mainstream institutions. Certainly this knowledge is essential for people in democracies. The work of Goffman and Foucault help professionals understand what they think they know and the repercussions of their assumptions and actions. This work opens space for lively and productive discussions among and between professionals, families, and persons with disabilities.
Around the time Edgerton, Mercer, and others were interviewing people with disabilities, other scholars were employing versions of discourse analysis that telescoped in on presumptions and values embedded in certain disability-related policies and practices. Based on their analyses of historical sources, Nirje (1970) and Wolfensberger (1972, 1975) developed and espoused a set of normalization principles that came to govern practice for people with disabilities.
The importance of disability language and labeling on individual identity formation and public reaction to difference are explored by cultural anthropologists (McDermott & Varenne, 1996; Mehan, 1979, 1991; Mehan, Hertwerk, & Meihls, 1986; Varenne & McDermott, 1998). Similarly, special educators and their colleagues have provided critical analyses of special education classification and placement (Bogdan, 1988; Bogdan & Taylor, 1976; Taylor, 1988). Other groundbreaking work includes Skrtic (1991, 1995) and Tomlinson (1982), who engaged in philosophical and sociological analyses to critically analyze the nature of special education practices they observed.
The visual rhetoric of pictures taken at institutions (Blatt & Kaplan, 1966) as well as other publications (Blatt, 1970, 1973, 1979) provide poignant evidence of inhumane conditions experienced by people with disabilities who live in large state hospitals. Collecting and interpreting pictorial data (an observational technique) is considered an experimental form of qualitative work (Harper, 2000). Blatt's publications aroused widespread indignation, thus contributing further rationale for deinstitutionalization and inspiration for activists and concerned professionals to find community alternatives for people with disabilities.
It is noteworthy that in identifying problems, these authors of early experimental qualitative studies all focused on context and social discourse rather than on problems located in children or adults. That said, it must be acknowledged that within the field of special education research, questions and methods are related to distinctive ways of perceiving (dis)ability, (in)competence, (ab)normality, school, and society. Based on a literature review that entailed a large-scale discourse or content analysis, Danforth (2001) identified models of disability construction that undergird research and service provision. With an emphasis on personalized imperfection and abnormality, the “functional limitations” (medical, deficit) model frames disability as a condition of biophysical essence and origin that renders individuals unable to perform expected, valued, or “normal” human activities. V. Richardson, Casanova, Placier, and Guilfoyle (1989) called this the “epidemiological model” (p. 3).
In contrast, the “minority group” model views people with disabilities as members of an oppressed group who are subjected to dominant groups' prejudices and biased practices. This model is based on the assumption that societal structures, institutional barriers, and exclusion practices (e.g., “ability”-based reading groups, secondary school tracking or streaming, special education pull-out, class/race segregated schools, property-tax based school funding, segregated living and working arrangements, disparate wages, nonprogressive taxes, public universities requiring tuition, within-district disparities in school funding and human resource distribution) are grounded in generalized hierarchical relations that have distinctive outcomes for dominant and subordinate groups. Critical theorists subscribe to this model because they are attuned to ranking systems, hierarchies, power relations, and hegemonic ideologies that shape social life. The “social construction of disability” (social) model is based on the theory that “it takes a whole culture of people producing idealizations of what everyone should be and a system of measures for identifying those who fall short for us to forget that we collectively produce our disabilities and discomforts that conventionally accompany them” (McDermott & Varenne, 1995, p. 337).
Postmodern antifoundational theorists recognize the reality of unstable subjects, multileveled meanings, and the impossibility of objectivity. Critical theorists emphasize the need for analytical examination of everyday practice and exhort others to concentrate on eradicating the ubiquitous, uneven power relations. Individuals in these philosophical camps (critical theory, social constructivist) tend to believe that the purpose of scholarship is to enhance equity, access, inclusion, and social justice, and the way to reach these goals is through some form of discourse analysis (Baker, 1999, 2002; Capshew, 1999; Goodson & Sikes, 2001; Gould, 1981; McGill-Franzen & Allington, 1993; Mehan, 1979, 1991; Richardson et al., 1987; Young, 2000; Zollers & Yu, 1998). Special education scholars are well-represented in these ranks (Barton & Oliver, 1997; Bogdan & Taylor, 1976; Brantlinger, 1997, 2004a, 2004b; Christensen & Rizvi, 1996; Coles, 1987; Danforth, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002; Ervelles, 2002a, 2002b; Gabel, 1993; Gabel & Danforth, 2002; Groce, 1985; Heshusius, 1995; Linneman, 2001; Mitchell, 1997; Skrtic, 1991, 1996; Slee, 1996; Sleeter, 1986; P. Smith, 1999a, 1999b, 1999c; Taylor, 1988; Troyna & Vincent, 1996; Ware, 2001).
Experimental qualitative researchers often espouse theories about the influence of classification on identity formation of people with disabilities. Scholars make sense of text by looking for schema and patterns that imply or signify certain meanings. They are especially interested in deep structures embedded in language and social practice (i.e., tacit meanings, subconscious understandings, sociocultural knowledge, and ideologies infused through texts and discourses). In their 2001 book, Rogers and Swadener included chapters on the meanings of signs or symbols in special education and disability studies. Because words are not neutral, when scholars examine language they know it is saturated with opaque meanings and ideologies that can be extricated and understood. Labeling practices in special education are potent with meanings, and, clearly, the meanings of professionals in charge of naming practices are not consistent with practitioners' meanings nor do they match those to whom the language refers (Brantlinger, 1986, 1994). Hudak (2001) noted that from a clinical perspective, labeling results in a “false” (imposed, rejected, inferior) self (identity) that is personally dislocating and fragmenting (p. 21). D. Smith (1987) argued that, “textual messages combine institutional discourses with prevailing discursive practices to become the actual everyday sites of engagement with power” (p. 207). Benjamin (2002) reported that because of classification and placement routines and their influences at a British school, “special needs girls had little access to positive identity resources in school” (p. 135).
Personal narratives, life histories, and autoethnographies are prominent and popular forms of experimental qualitative work by people with personal experience with disability. These sometimes are integrated into position papers. We called them “experimental” because, unless they use actual data from diaries, personal journals, or letters, these works rely on authors' current impressions and retrospective recollections. Representing various disciplines, people with disabilities write from the first-person perspective (e.g., Asch & Fine, 1988, 1997; Charlton, 1998; Clare, 1999; Duplass & Smith, 1995; Gerschick, 1998; Grandin, 1995; Grandin & Scariano, 1986; Hahn, 1983, 1997; Linton, 1998; Oliver, 1990, 1992, 1996; Peters, 1993, 2000; Rousso, 1986; Thomson, 1997). Similarly, family members (e.g., Beribe, 1996; Davis, 1995, 1997; Dorris, 1989; Featherstone, 1980; P. Ferguson, 1994a, 1994b; D. Ferguson & Ferguson, 1986, 2001; P. Ferguson, Ferguson, & Taylor, 1992; Gabel, 1996, 1999, 2001; Kittay, 1999; Turnbull & Turnbull, 1979) wrote biographically about loved ones or autobiographically, telling their own versions of special education and/or living with someone who has disabilities. Ronai (1997) told a poignant, mostly disturbing, and sometimes humorous story of growing up with a mother who had retardation. Similarly, P. Smith (1999c) included his feelings about his cognitively impaired mother in an article about ideology and politics of understanding developmental disabilities. This scholarly work introduces readers to insider perspectives on disabilities and special education.
It is interesting that narrative therapy has emerged as a subfield in counseling (Angus, 2004). This form of clinical treatment encourages troubled people to express their feelings and emotions in story form. Reflecting on personal stories allows someone to understand his or her own and others' emotions, views, and beliefs. The telling can serve as catharsis and/or a way to let others know what is problematic in one's lived experiences. Although the primary purpose of narrative research is gleaning information rather than providing therapy, the latter may be a bonus or valuable outcome of the research. T. Smith and Danforth (2000) asked their participants to write letters to teachers who had made them unhappy in school because of the nature of their instruction and evaluation. These letters reveal strong, unresolved feelings of anger and loss. The tone of Ronai's (1997) stories of her life with her retarded mother indicates a certain catharsis that comes from the act of writing about or sharing one's feelings and experiences. As a parallel to categories of quantitative research, in some ways, the autoethnographic forms of narrative research might be considered quasi-experimental qualitative designs because data are not formally collected but generated through retrospective recall, reflection, and the process of storying one's own life in written or another expressive form.
Examples of New Alternative or “Experimental” Qualitative Research
As the end of this article draws near, we believe it is reasonable to illustrate variations of conceptual framework, source of data, and report writing by detailing some recent experimental qualitative work. Allan (1999) chose to situate her case study not only in an inclusive school but also in a Foucauldian theoretical and analytic framework. Her study varies considerably from conventional ethnographies because she wove Foucault's complex, but insightful ideas about the nature of human relations and institutional practice into her own careful observations at a school. This fresh portrayal of school life adds to the appeal of her publication. It might be an example of what Jipson and Paley (1997) called “daredevil” research.
Angrosino (1998) used inventive data collection and rendering. After a decade of doing volunteer work at a residential setting for adults with mental retardation who also had legal difficulties, Angrosino wrote his fictional account based loosely on the actual lives of the men he knew so well. He wrote his ethnographic fiction by using a reflective recall approach, drawing from his memory and general familiarity with the people, the setting, and the issues (see Wisniewski, 2000). Some might claim that because Angrosino did not take careful field notes or conduct and transcribe interviews for subsequent analysis (collecting real data) or, perhaps more importantly, because he did not intend that his study directly match a documented reality, that he did not do legitimate qualitative research. However, the methods he used resemble historical fiction, a genre that is quite acceptable to historians if done carefully and sensitively. Furthermore, Angrosino's study was given the stamp of approval by well-known sociologists Ellis and Bochner (1996) and was published in their alternative ethnographies series. Angrosino and Mays de Perez (2000) subsequently were invited to write a chapter for the prestigious Denzin and Lincoln (2000) handbook on qualitative research. Certainly, the notion of “researcher as primary instrument” in qualitative design is foregrounded in Agrosino's study. The data were in his mind rather than on index cards in a file box or on transcripts of interviews and fieldnotes.
Other researchers use nontraditional report formats (Barone, 1992, 2001; Knowles & Cole, 2001). Representing a study's findings to the readers in interesting and useful ways requires a different organizational scheme than merely providing straightforward descriptive accounts of the data (Bos & Richardson, 1993). Based on her sense of the power of language in conveying meaning about social complexities, McNeil (2000) used poetic transcription (a form of writing in which key words in a longer narrative are highlighted and clustered into poems) to report an evaluation study. MacNeil felt that the poetry format allowed her to succinctly summarize findings in a way that was accessible to those she evaluated. She contended that this alternative report mode softened the authority of the evaluator's conclusion and provoked readers to engage in reflection about what otherwise might be a dry report that they would tend to ignore. Glesne (1997, 1999) affirmed the legitimacy of this method, calling poetic transcription a re-presentation of narrative that involves word reduction illuminating the wholeness and interconnectedness of thoughts. An example of this approach within the disability studies field is a piece that combines white privilege and disability studies by P. Smith and Godfrey (2002). In a paper on the poetics of developmental disability, P. Smith (2001) embedded his “qualitative research project with self-advocates and their construction of choice, control, and power” (p. 379) in postmodernism.
We have just made the case that diverse ways of writing reports can meaningfully convey ideas about social situations and contexts. Richardson (2000) went further to contend that writing itself is a method of inquiry or a “way of finding out about yourself and your topic” in a “worded” or “metaphoric world” in which language is significant (p. 923). She called the class of studies in which the author has “moved outside conventional social scientific writing” a “creative analytic practice” (e.g., poetry, drama, conversations, readers' theater) (p. 929). In addition to judging the substantive contribution of a piece, L. Richardson recommended that aesthetic merit, reflexivity (self-awareness and self-exposure), impact (emotional and intellectual influence), and expression of reality (embodied sense of lived experience that seems “true” or “real”) be considered in doing or evaluating research (p. 937).
Respecting Methodological Pluralism: Qualitative Studies as Encompassing Genre in an Inclusive Academic Climate
Including Wolfensberger's philosophies and concepts in the design of services, Foucault's genealogical studies, Danforth's postmodern analyses, and Ronai's autoethnography may overstretch the expansive range already encompassed under the burgeoning qualitative research umbrella. Nevertheless, there is reason to welcome such experimental qualitative research to our field. Deeply reflective inquiry is essential in special education because we are responsive to—or, more importantly, have power over—vulnerable populations. It is important to recognize that institutionalization, involuntary sterilization, and prohibition of marriage legislation grew out of eugenics science. Similarly, segregation and denial of schooling was based on evaluation sciences. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders series documents official classifications (e.g., homosexuality once was a “character disorder that was treated by incarceration and shock treatment). Another reason to welcome the scrutiny of experimental qualitative methods is that the technical–rational agendas of positivist scholarship and behaviorist professional work dominates special education journals, textbooks, and the minds of scholars and practitioners. The modus operandi of this paradigm is to produce objective knowledge about subjects and treatments, then implement it in supposedly neutral ways. Although we believe some of this work has value, as an enterprise it is cumulative, self-referencing, and self-propelling. Furthermore, by foregrounding objectivity and neutrality, and dismissing subjectivity, value-orientation, and power differentials, it is nonreflexive and noncritical. Because of this tradition, there is a need for researchers who step back and take a value-oriented birds' eye view of the field or squeeze in close to get at the veiled meanings of normative practice in order to keep check on the intentional and/or unintentional repercussions of mainstream special education scholarship and practice. Wolfensberger and Blatt as well as Biklen (1985) are prominent among those who used alternative lenses to inspect special education's everyday practices. When Dunn (1968) engaged in self-reflectivity and asked whether the likely outcomes of special education's proliferating classification and burgeoning pull-out practices were beneficial, he either pleased or alarmed his colleagues. He continues to be seen as a saint or a villain by those in special education.
Some have condemned the “split” in the special education field and the lingering disputes among scholars. We believe such schisms may be healthy. Controversy is endemic to academia. Engaged intellectuals ask unconventional questions that generate distinctive responses. Debate about different styles, techniques, and even value-orientations is consistent with academic freedom and democratic pluralism. It is acceptable to disagree; however, it should be done in a collegial debate (Kunzman, 2003). We may prefer our own way of doing research, but we should attempt to see how others' methods might also be valuable. To enable a free flow of ideas, it would be ideal if at professional conferences, for example, instead of heading toward favorite speakers or divisions, scholars purposely attended a session of someone with whom it is presumed we will disagree. Or, when we go to the library, we should find a journal we have never opened and peruse or closely read the contents. To be mature and wise, we must learn to appreciate diverse research methods just as we value diverse people.
In conclusion, we rely on the astute but now clichéd “one size does not fit all” warning to accentuate that for the best results within the fields of special education and disability studies, few constraints should be put on research questions asked or methods used. Empirical and experimental qualitative scholars must find the best fit and not rely on constricting formulas. Reviewers and readers must think outside their own persuasions and tolerate a range of research methods. Most important, we must be most concerned about catalytic validity or the degree to which research allows an improved understanding of the social world that might lead to transforming practice. Investigators move those they study to understand the world in order to transform it (Lather, 1991, 1993). We must become intellectuals in constant pursuit of knowledge and truly inclusive and effective practice. We should strive to situate our practice in a morality of social reciprocity that attempts to understand how our thinking and practice affect the most vulnerable among us.
Types and Definitions of Qualitative Research
Qualitative naturalistic: umbrella terms encompassing a multitude of types of studies that use one or more qualitative methods
Case study: exploration of a bounded system (group, individual, setting, event, phenomenon, process); can include autobiography and biography
Collective case study: a study that takes place in multiple sites or includes personalized stories of similar (or distinctive) individuals
Ethnography: description/interpretation of a cultural or social group or system; includes observations, interviews, and document analysis
Action research: researcher brings ideas for practice to the fieldwork so as to have an impact on the setting/ participants while collecting data
Collaborative action research: researcher and practitioner share ideas about how to change practice and work together to modify a situation and collect information for the study
Grounded theory: purpose of research is to generate or discover a general theory or abstract analytical hunch based on study of phenomena in a particular situation(s)
Phenomenology: studies of the meaning people make of their lived experiences
Narrative research: collection of personal narratives; based on recognition that people are storytellers who lead storied lives
Life (oral) history research: extensive interviews with individuals to collect first-person narratives about their lives or about events in which they participated
Quasi life history research: encouraging participants to recall and reflect on earlier as well as current meaningful occurrences in their lives
Interpretive research: used synonymously with “qualitative work” and/or to refer to research framed within certain (critical or feminist) theories
Content analysis: close inspection of text(s) done to understand themes or perspectives (also refers to what is done at the analysis stage of qualitative work)
Conversational analysis: studying interactional situations: the structure of talk, conversation, communicative exchanges, includes details about facial expressions, gestures, speed or hesitancy in talk, and tone of voice
Discourse analysis: deconstructs commonsense meanings in text; identifies the meanings that undergird normative ways of conceptualizing and discussing phenomena
Ideological critique: similar to discourse analysis in assuming that political meanings or ideologies are embedded in all discourses, institutions, and social practice.
Note. Naturalistic, interpretive, field study, case study, participant observation, inductive research, and ethnography often are used interchangeably (Merriam, 1998, p. 5) as are the terms inquiry, research, method, design, and study. Definitions were developed by the authors unless a citation is given.
Terms and Concepts for Techniques Commonly Used by Qualitative Researchers
Theoretical or conceptual framework: an orientation or stance researcher(s) bring to their studies; disciplinary or personal lens; frames the “statement of problem” and “research question(s)”
Analysis: making sense of (or find meaning in) collected data (discourses or texts)
Constant comparative method: process of simultaneously collecting and analyzing data; deciding on new areas to explore based on what emerges as the study progresses; looking for recurrent patterns of events or statements
Emergent themes: ideas and concepts that arise or become apparent during data collection or analysis (not predetermined themes; however, predetermined hypotheses can be confirmed by data collected)
Researcher as “instrument”: recognition that individual(s) doing research use sensitivity, logic, and knowledge to form/report (sometimes idiosyncratic and personalized) conclusions about phenomena studied; preference for the use of first person voice
Inductive work: building abstractions, concepts, hypotheses, and theories based on evidence gathered in research (rather than testing and confirming existing theory)
Descriptive account: staying close to reporting data originally recorded; letting data “speak for itself”
Analytical account: expand beyond description to systematic identification of key factors and the relationships among them
Interpretive account: report not restricted by observed data, but reaches to understand and explain results beyond limits of description and analysis
Field work: Going to the site or participants (natural rather than lab settings) to do research:
Document or artifact analysis: examining written materials (e.g., syllabi, newsletters, brochures, memos, journals, diaries, letters) or items (e.g., tools, furniture, clothing, weapons, photos)
Field notes: notes written while observing in a setting
Descriptive field notes: records details of what happens in the field; reconstructed dialogues, descriptions of physical aspects of settings, depictions of activities; capturing a slice of life
Reflective field notes: writing personal reflections, points of clarification or frame of mind and feelings during and/or after observation
Gaining access (to participants or settings): strategies used to convince potential participants that a study is worth doing, and there will be benefits (or no harm done) from participating in research
Gatekeeper: someone (official/unofficial) who controls access to research setting and/or participants
Purposive (purposeful) sampling: identifying and recruiting participants presumed to have information or ideas pertinent to research questions; deliberately maximize/minimize participant diversity; a convenience sampling relies on available and willing participants
Snowball approach: having initial participants identify potential future participants
Grounded theory: deriving substantive ideas from close analysis of data; theory emerges from (rather than tested or confirmed by) research
Open-ended interviews: interview protocols designed to generate participants' narratives in a way that allows them to be true to their own ideas and feelings
Structured interviews: interview protocols designed to be used in the same way (order, wording, timing, setting) for all participants
Semi-structured interviews: interview protocols designed to be used flexibly; sequence of items asked may vary, participants allowed to diverge from questions asked and go off on related tangents
Impromptu interviews: asking questions in a field setting as ideas occur to the researcher; serve to clarify participants' rationale for behaving in a certain way in the setting or to get their reactions to an event or occurrences at the research site
Interview protocols: designed to be used in the same way (order, wording, timing, setting) for all participants
Focus group interviews: Conducting interviews (guided discussions) with a number of participants at the same time
Participant: term used for person who takes part in (is focus of) study (informant, respondent, interviewee also used; use of the word subject is frowned upon)
Observation: collect data by watching and recording the dynamics at a site; ranges from focused (e.g., one child, one idea) to comprehensive (anything that occurs in the setting)
Participant observation: researcher involvement in the life of the individuals in the setting while collecting data; ranges from mostly observation to mostly participation (e.g., teachers doing research in their own class)
Setting: place where research (field work) is conducted (context, site, field, location)
Identifying and categorizing themes: the data analysis stage of reading through interview transcripts and field notes to sort narratives (data) into distinctive categories/themes
Coding data: naming or marking thematic categories during data analysis in preparation for further sorting and/or organizing and writing the report of results
Ethnograph, Qualpro, Hyperqual, Nvivo, Atlas.ti: Computer programs used at the data-recording, categorizing, coding, chunking, and/or analysis stage of doing qualitative research
Determination of n: researchers stop collecting data when regularities (repetitions) emerge or findings reach a saturation point (newly collected data closely replicates earlier data so no new themes emerge); exhaustion of sources; sense that the data are thick
Etic views: social science perspective; researchers' assumptions and perceptions
Emic views: participants' (insiders') perspectives and meanings
Researcher journals, memos, or diaries: mechanisms used by researchers to keep track of personal thoughts, good ideas, plausible explanations, and possible interpretations that appear to be of interest from the time the study is conceptualized to its conclusion
Questions to be Posed in Evaluating (Qualitative) Research
Given the research question: Were appropriate participants chosen? Were participants identified in a purposive way? Was the recruitment procedure sound? Were the questions developed for the interviews appropriate (not leading, clearly worded for comprehension, allow participants' voices to be heard)? Were sufficient questions asked to address the domains of interest? Were adequate mechanisms used for accurate recording and transcribing? Were participants represented in the report in a fair and reasonable way? Were sound measures taken to ensure anonymity and confidentiality?
Given the research question: Were the appropriate setting(s) or people to be observed selected? Was sufficient time spent in the field (number of observations, length of observations, over a long enough time period)? Did the researcher fit in well at the site (accepted, respected, unobtrusive)? To what degree might the researcher have influenced what was observed? Were field notes done in a systematic way (videotaped, written during or soon after observations)? Were sound measures taken to ensure anonymity/confidentiality of persons and sites observed?
Given the research question: Were appropriate documents found and their relevance clarified? Were they obtained and stored in a careful manner? Were detailed records kept on included documents? Were documents sufficiently described and cited? Were confidentiality and anonymity of private or personal documents ensured?
Data Analysis and Report of Results
Is there evidence that results were sorted and coded in a systematic and appropriate way? Were sufficient rationale provided for selection of what was or was not included in the report? Was sufficient information provided about how trustworthiness/credibility of methods were established? Was there evidence of author reflectivity about personal position/perspectives and constraints or limitations related to methods and procedures? Were generalized conclusions substantiated with appropriate participant quotations and/or field note documentation? Were appropriate and sufficient related research studies included in the report?
Note. These questions relate to the idea of transparency or clarity of report (Harry, Sturges, & Klingner, in press). Some qualitative studies are reported in such unconventional formats as stories, poetic transcriptions, and first-person narratives; hence, it is important to be reasonable and logical in evaluating such reports and not apply these quality indicators in an arbitrary or intolerant manner.
Procedures to Establish Credibility or Trustworthiness of Empirical Qualitative Research
Triangulation: search for convergence of evidence among multiple and varied data sources (observations/ interviews; one participant and another; interviews/documents)
Data triangulation: use of a variety of data sources in a study
Investigator triangulation: use of several different researchers or evaluators
Theory triangulation: use of multiple perspectives to interpret a single set of data
Methodological triangulation: use of multiple methods to study a single problem
Disconfirming evidence: after establishing preliminary themes/categories, the researcher looks for evidence that is inconsistent with them (outliers); negative or discrepant case analysis
Researcher reflexivity: researchers self-disclose their assumptions, beliefs, values, and biases (i.e., being forthright about position/perspective)
Member checks: having participants review and confirm the validity of data or results. First level—taking transcribed data or field notes to participants to confirm accuracy or inaccuracy of transcriptions of interviews or field notes of observations. Second level—taking analyses and interpretations of results to participants (prior to publication) for validation of (or support for) researchers' conclusions
Collaborative work: involving multiple researchers to ensure that analyses and interpretations are not idiosyncratic and/or biased; could involve interrater reliability checks on the nature of observations made or coded data
External auditors: using outsiders (to the research) to examine whether (and confirm that) inferences are logical and grounded in findings
Peer debriefing: review data collection and analytical processes with a colleague or someone familiar with phenomena or settings explored
Audit trail: keeping track of interviews conducted and/or specific times and dates spent observing as well as who was observed on each occasion (used to document and substantiate that sufficient time was spent in the field to establish dependability and confirmability)
Prolonged field engagement: repeated observations, multiple interviews, inspection of a range of documents to collect thick data or thick description for study
Thick, detailed description: reporting sufficient quotes and field note descriptions to provide evidence for interpretations and conclusions (Geertz, 1973)
Particularizability: documenting particular cases with thick description so readers can determine the degree of transferability (Erickson, 1986)
Unpacking the Precious and Pugnacious “Ps”
Positivism: ideological stance that posits objective empiricism as the indispensable tool of incremental progress; faith in science (Danforth, 1999); thinking that there is a reality out there to be studied, captured, and controlled (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000, p. 9)
Paradigms: overarching philosophical systems that denote particular ontologies, epistemologies, and methodologies; encompass and represent belief systems, worldviews, philosophical orientations, and interpretive frameworks (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000, p. 6)
Paradigm shifts: a major, systemic change in thinking and practice; describes a retreat from logical empiricism that touted theory/value free observation and decontextualized knowledge that was identified (triggered) by Kuhn, 1962 (J. K. Smith & Deemer, 2000)
Policy: guiding principles developed to shape courses of action or reach objectives
Practice: habitual or customary performance (Webster Dictionary, 1983, p. 710)
Punishing practice: acknowledgment that practice can have a counterproductive and impact
Praxis: ensuring that policy and practice are shaped by (explicitly stated) values; associated with transformative or emancipatory pedagogy and curriculum (i.e., enhances equity)
Parochialism: high likelihood that certain established orthodoxies prevail (in scholarly practice)
Polemics: disputes and controversies (usually identified in those opposing the status quo)
Polemical pluralism: when groups embrace pluralism publicly only as an instrumental, strategic move toward furthering their own agenda; defensive pluralism similarly pays lip service to Others but convinced that nothing important can be learned from them (Bernstein, 1992)
Politics: usually identified in individuals who disagree with mainstream practice, although politics (ideology) permeates all human acts and is most unrecognized and powerful in status quo discourse and practice (Zizek, 1994)
Politicized environments: where scientific fact-making takes place (“context of discovery” is not separable from the “context of justification”) (Lather, 2001)
Practice makes practice: recognition that the current grammar of practice socializes the next generation's practice; hence, the difficulty of changing the status quo (Britzman, 1991); related to theories about habitus (Bourdieu, 1977)
Politics of publishing: understanding that editors and reviewers are fallible and not immune to bias in rendering judgments on the quality or potential contribution of manuscripts
Political correctness: when valuing diversity is a posture rather than an authentic appreciation and acceptance of Others; often used as a put-down of others' insistence on social sensitivity
(Em)piricism: assumption that researcher's role is to scientifically validate a series of best practices and disseminate them to practitioners (Danforth, 1999)
Pretense of objectivity: false assumption that one can observe or think (get at reality and truth) value- or theory-free (Pooper, 1972)
Professionalism: the rise of control by credentialed specialists who claim the expertise to classify and control the circumstances of those without such foundational knowledge (Troyna & Vincent, 1996); a phenomenon of modern technological society
Professional privilege: holding the opinion that service providers should only utilize treatments of educational interventions sanctioned by professionals; epistemic dominance of an educated, professional group (Danforth, 1999)
Positioning scholars: recognizing that scholars are positioned in the educated, middle-class and, thus, have that perspective (draws on Hardings', 1993, standpoint theory)
Posturing: being concerned about impressions on others and acting so as to influence or engage others in deliberately self-serving (distorting) ways
Privileging authoritative knowledge: recognition that discourses demarcating validity are situated in the “science wars” and in social constructions of who claims to have “truth about nature” (Lather, 2001)
Prescriptions for research: inflexible (and illogical) mandating of rigid, standard customs of methodology (e.g., adhering inflexibly to checklists meant to be guidelines and not mandates) (Wolcott, 1990, 1994)
Permitting legislation: acknowledgment that laws include classifications and procedures that appear to protect rights but determine social relations and inscribe hierarchies
Psychometric perspective: use of tests to sort human characteristics into definable and measurable categories; reduction of humans to (IQ, high-stakes) test scores
Postcolonialism: questions colonial assumptions about Western superiority (Eurocentrism); contests the power of some to control Others and resources in Others' traditional territories (Bellamy, 1998)
Postmodernism: blurs distinctions between art and science, challenges claims to exacting rigor and “unblinking” truth-telling (Vidich & Lyman, 2000, p. 60); skepticism that progress results from technical, rational pursuits; questions grand, meta, or master narratives
Postmodern ethnographer: disprivileges received texts and discourses in behalf of an encompassing critical skepticism about knowledge; uses the tool of deconstruction (Vidich & Lyman, p. 60)
Poststructuralism: assumes language is an unstable system of referents, making it impossible to completely capture the meaning of action, intention, text/discourse (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000, p. 25)
Postfoundationalism: critique of scholars' engagement in developing universal and eternal (foundational) knowledge and establishing it as the standard for policy and practice
Postepistemic focus shift: 20th century turn toward indeterminacy in recognition of situated perspective, relationality, and blurred genres; no homogeneous standard of value (Lather, 2001)
Power discrepancies: an uneven distribution of power within academia—and between academia and practitioner/personal sites; power/status/knowledge constructed around hierarchies (e.g., in positivism, differentials are based on proximity to scientific knowledge production)
Powerlessness: recognition of unequal and hierarchical social relations in which dominant groups have power and subordinates are comparatively powerless
Powerful narratives: personal narratives or storytelling in narrative research have potential to make an impact on others (Clandinin & Connelly, 1996; Elbaz-Luwisch, 1997; Halttunen, 1999)
Persuasive metaphors: qualitative reports recognize the importance of metaphor to human understanding and meaning (Janesick, 1998)
Power of stories: stories readily connect us to individuals whose life situations represent ethical or moral or political struggles about which we are enjoined to take a stand (Pugach, 2001, p. 439)
Primitive status: concept that implies that certain humans are underdeveloped or deficient; that Others are not as bright, competent, and worthy as self
Peripheral (dis)placement: adhering to ethnocentric normative practices that centers (mainstreams) and validates dominant groups' practices and marginalizes subordinate Others
(Re)presentation: researchers with preconceived ideas about themselves and Others (reiterations of cultural deprivation and victim-blaming narratives in generations of studies) (Wright, 1993)
People's voice: assertion that “common people” (typical recipients of services) must be heard and their ideas incorporated into institutional policy and practice
Pragmatism: emphasizes that the role of social inquiry is to address specific, practical problems in the everyday life of citizens of a democratic society; knowledge/belief is only valuable as a predisposition toward useful, worthwhile action in the social world (Danforth, 1999)
Penetrating ideologies: understanding that ideologies intrinsic to language and practice function largely at an unconscious level veiled by the status quo of practice; ideological critique explicates the ideological underpinnings of the hegemonic discourses that regulate social life
Psychoanalysis: assumption that human mental life has conscious and subconscious levels; to get at meanings, investigators must delve beyond what is verbalized or performed (Bellamy, 1998)
Performativity: feminist or poststructuralist construct that asserts that people act out scripted social roles (gender, disability, professional) based on normative thinking and practice
Patterned behaviors: notion that there is a deeply inscribed grammar to social life that is resistant to change
Pluralism: philosophy that accepts and respects diverse practices and peoples; an assumption of cultural relativity and human equivalency
Personal perspective: idea that humans roles are always influenced by subjectivity; that scholars are humans influenced by subjectivity and personal longings
Principle of falsifiability: for a theory to be scientific it must be falsifiable–show observations that confirm and also those that might show it to be wrong to get at approximations of truth (Pooper, 1959)
Principles of democracy: because the United States is a democracy, the interdependence among citizens must be foregrounded in institutions rather than success in competition or material production; all humans must have voice, civic engagement, and human rights
(Moral) principle of social reciprocity: morality based on recognition of, and respect for, diverse others (e.g., “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. That is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary” (Judaism); “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful” (Buddhism); “no one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself” (Islam); “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Christianity); “Blessed is he who preferreth his brother before himself” (Baha'i)]
Note. Which terms are precious and which are pugnacious depends on position/perspective.
Authors:Ellen Brantlinger, EdD (email@example.com), Emerita Professor of Education, Curriculum and Instruction, Indiana University, 201 N. Rose Ave., Bloomington, IN 47405. Janette Klingner, PhD, Associate Professor of Education, School of Education, Room 203, University of Colorado at Boulder, 249 UCB, Boulder, CO 80309-0249. Virginia Richardson, PhD, Professor of Education, Educational Studies, Room 4118, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109