Qualitative Research Essay

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The rise of qualitative research has generated a great deal of renewed interest in the social and cultural foundations of education. Formerly, research and educational foundations were connected largely through the philosophy of science, and that connection was usually limited to the narrow specialization known as logical positivism. Positivism served as the foundation for quantitative and experimental research designs. Yet with the emergence of qualitative inquiry in the 1980s and 1990s, researchers sought support for their work from a much broader range of scholarly traditions. Today, these traditions include not only the social sciences, but also phenomenology, hermeneutics, critical theory, postmodernism, and aesthetics.

Recent developments in qualitative research are examined below in three sections. The first section recounts the growth of qualitative approaches as one of the leading trends in contemporary educational research. How did educational research, formerly a small and often obscure specialty within the social sciences, become as remarkably diverse as it is today? The second section categorizes current approaches to qualitative research based on their conceptual foundations. These categories include social science–based research, continental perspectives, and the arts. The third section briefly examines some of the ongoing challenges associated with each category.

The Rise Of Qualitative Research

Before the 1970s, educational research was dominated largely by the social sciences. Psychology in particular was seen as an appropriate home for educational researchers because of that discipline’s early interest in theories of learning. Psychology was also attractive to educational researchers because it claimed status as a science. In particular, psychological research vigorously sought to emulate the natural and physical sciences by emphasizing objective procedures, experimental designs, rigorous measurement, and statistical forms of analysis. In turn, early educational research vigorously sought to emulate psychology on the same basis. Early educational psychologists such as Edward L. Thorndike and John B. Watson were committed believers in building a science of education, and that mission was to cast a long shadow across twentieth century educational research.

Anthropology and sociology, not psychology, were the primary avenues through which qualitative methods first entered educational research. Although these disciplines were widely respected, they lacked the same degree of scientific luster as psychology. Partly for this reason, early qualitative studies were suspect from the beginning, and to counter suspicion, early researchers were devoutly loyal to their discipline. Initially, at least, anthropologists conducted anthropological studies that happened to be on education or carried out in educational settings. Likewise, sociologists conducted sociological studies that happened to be on education or carried out in educational settings. As researchers became accustomed to the “field-based” methods of their social science colleagues, qualitative research slowly gained acceptance as a valid form of educational inquiry.

At the same time, the late 1960s and early 1970s brought a new skepticism of social science and especially its tight embrace of positivism. Widely read books such as Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions portrayed science as a historical and social endeavor. Scholars came to write about the “linguistic turn” in the natural as well as the social sciences. This movement sought to recognize how language plays an active role in shaping a field’s knowledge base. Later, sociology and anthropology were to draw more openly on the humanities as well. Concepts such as “thick description” made their way into ethnography, and scholars wrote of the “sociological imagination.” Although these developments helped to invigorate the social sciences, researcher objectivity was tainted, and by implication, science itself was no longer regarded as the sole legitimate source of knowledge.

Educational research was again influenced by these broader developments. Researchers began to question the very possibility of a science of education and the likelihood of ever discovering universal laws. Some of the earliest critics came not from the field’s still small qualitative wing, but from its quantitative majority. Lee Cronbach, for example, wrote with growing discontent over the limitations of a strictly scientific approach. A leading psychometrician, Cronbach argued in a 1974 address to the American Psychological Association that the unstable and dynamic nature of human culture ultimately prevented the social sciences from accumulating the types of predictive generalizations found in the physical and natural sciences. Donald Campbell, a well-known research design specialist, also provides an example of changing perspectives. Campbell’s early views privileged quantitative research over qualitative research on all counts. Later, he reversed this position by arguing that in many cases, qualitative rather than quantitative findings should be regarded as the more trustworthy.

Expanding The Foundations Of Research

The measured skepticism of the 1970s marked a new openness toward innovative research methods and a greater range of research approaches. These developments did not mean that qualitative research was now suddenly welcomed with open arms. On the contrary, debates over the acceptability of qualitative methods in education have always been intense. Throughout the 1980s, these debates were so animated that they came to be called “the paradigm wars.” Nevertheless, persistent clamor has not prevented qualitative research from flourishing into a broad constellation of approaches, orientations, and distinct methodologies. Although such broadly ranging work is difficult to review, the following section organizes different types of qualitative research into three broad groups: (1) social science–based research, (2) continental perspectives, and (3) arts-based inquiry. Although these categories overlap, each category draws on a distinct set of foundational assumptions about the nature of knowledge and how knowledge grows.

Research Based on the Social Sciences

The influence of social science and its positivist foundations has already been noted. These early foundations eventually gave rise to postpositivism. Researchers who embrace postpositivism acknowledge that science cannot establish truth in an absolute or pure sense. They do, however, see considerable merit in using procedural objectivity (i.e., rigorous measurement and scientific methods) to detect and eliminate mistaken beliefs. Thus, the growth of knowledge in this approach is accomplished by a gradual but persistent reduction of error.

Some qualitative researchers continue to look to postpositivism to support their work as a scientific endeavor. Others have turned to constructivism, a position that is increasingly common within the various qualitative camps of social research. Constructivism is rooted in the empirical pragmatism of John Dewey and the genetic epistemology of Jean Piaget. This position rejects the assumption that knowledge consists of an accurate or error-free representation of reality. Instead, constructivists hold that knowledge is created through an interaction between researchers and their objects of study. In other words, knowledge is a product of cognition and socialization; it is construed rather than discovered. As a result, knowledge grows horizontally rather than vertically. Progress is made by moving from a simple or singular view of reality to increasingly complex, differentiated, and multiple perspectives.

Continental Perspectives

Postpositivism and constructivism continue the long-standing relationship between education and the social sciences. An increasingly important but less conventional source of foundational support is associated with the traditions of continental philosophy. Approaches in this category include phenomenology, critical theory, hermeneutics, and postmodernism. It is not possible to do justice to these diverse philosophical movements in the limited space at hand. Nevertheless, continental perspectives will be recognized, even if briefly, because they have provided a rich and widely recognized set of foundational assumptions for qualitative research.

The first continental approach is phenomenology. In the field of philosophy, phenomenology refers to both a complex tradition and a technical method. The method, sometimes referred to as “bracketing,” is associated with the work of Edmund Husserl and his colleague Alfred Schutz. It involves an effort to set aside our taken-forgranted assumptions about a particular phenomenon in order to examine it in a more complete way. Qualitative researchers rarely follow this method in any strict sense. Instead, they have been attracted to phenomenology because of its strong emphasis on human consciousness, meaning, and subjectivity. Phenomenology has been especially useful to researchers who are interested in topics such as engagement, attention, identity, affect, caring, and rapport. The basic approach is to systematically vary the contexts of meaning associated with a given phenomenon. Qualitative researchers usually avoid words such as essence and nature, terms that have been used in philosophical phenomenology. However, they do seek to identify the thematic features of a particular phenomenon and how a range of meanings becomes attached to it.

Critical theory is a second tradition often identified with continental thought. Although critical theory has strongly influenced many forms of social science, the foundational assumptions that have guided qualitative research originate in a philosophical stance. Moreover, the emphasis of critical theory on social justice and activism stands in sharp contrast to the aloof detachment so often recommended in the canons of social science. In particular, critical research is rooted in Karl Marx’s definition of critical theory as a way to support the social and political struggles of a given age. Today, these struggles include the problems of racism, sexism, homophobia, anthropocentricism, and oppressive class structures. When investigating such problems, critical researchers see detachment as neither desirable nor possible.

Instead, critical theory holds that all research is political because it is embedded within socially and historically situated relationships of power. These relationships privilege certain groups over others to create social inequities. The aims of critical research are to reveal and critique these inequities. In particular, the oppression of specific social groups is most troublesome when the mechanisms of oppression are either hidden from consciousness or viewed as a natural part of life. Thus, critical research assumes several functions. First, it seeks to help others recognize that oppressive structures exist and that these structures are unwarranted. Second, critical research seeks strategies for eliminating oppression through political action. Ultimately, the growth of knowledge is measured in terms of democratic participation and social justice.

Hermeneutics is a third broad tradition in continental philosophy that has shaped qualitative forms of research. This tradition may seem an odd juxtaposition with critical theory because the scholarly origins of hermeneutics concern how to interpret biblical texts. Today, however, hermeneutics encompasses a broad range of scholarship, and many different types of qualitative researchers (including critical theorists) may employ hermeneutic methods. These methods are concerned foremost with the interpretation of meaning. Social and educational events are understood by reading them, and such readings rely on what is called the hermeneutic circle. Although this term can have different meanings, it usually refers to a way of examining a text by moving back and forth between the parts of the text and the text as a whole. In hermeneutics, knowledge is a process achieved not through formulaic analyses, but through an ongoing and ever questioning dialogue among the researchers interested in a given topic.

Postmodernism is a fourth continental philosophy that provides qualitative research with foundational support (and challenges). Postmodernism overlaps with phenomenology, critical theory, and hermeneutics in the sense that all of these earlier traditions have represented a move away from the Enlightenment foundations of modern philosophy. However, whether or not postmodernism is itself a philosophy remains unclear. Postmodernism has been described as a mood, a contemporary condition, a view, and even a malaise. Regardless of what postmodernism is, wide-ranging writers associated with this movement (e.g., Pierre Bourdieu, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault) are best known for challenging the Cartesian modes of rationality in which knowledge is viewed as liberating and progressive.

If modernity holds that language, culture, and knowledge are important tools that people use, postmodernism holds that people not only use these tools but are used by them. What postmodern writers refer to as the “death of the subject,” for example, asserts that the modern subject who constitutes meaning is actually constituted by cultural and historical patterns of thought. These patterns include such grand narratives as humanism, formalism, and structuralism.

Postmodernism has informed qualitative research in several significant ways. Some researchers cite postmodernist writers to emphasize the differences between themselves and those they study. The failure of modern research has been to minimize these differences by “totalizing” others through an indiscriminate application of the grand narratives mentioned above. Other researchers attribute a renewed skepticism of research to postmodern “self-reflexivity.” Researchers who engage in self-reflexivity are constantly asking how their own understandings are both partial and limited to what may be highly specific cultural understandings. Finally, some researchers have used postmodernism to experiment with mixing various literary and scholarly genres in the reporting of qualitative research.

Arts-Based Approaches

The preceding sections have identified two broad sources of foundational support for qualitative research: the social sciences and continental perspectives. A third general source is that of the arts. Again, significant overlap could be noted between the arts and many of the other traditions already considered. The postmodern mixing of genres just noted, for example, draws upon the arts. However, arts-based research is known also for its distinct principles and practices. Specifically, arts-based research has taken its lead from the work of scholars and critics in fields such as literature, drama, dance, music, and the visual arts.

One aim of art criticism is to help its audience better understand a particular exhibition, play, symphony, or film. Critics are also interested in helping others understand the genres to which these particular works belong. John Dewey defined the aims of criticism as the re-education of perception. Successful criticism provides new ways of seeing by helping people notice what they would otherwise miss. From this perspective, the growth of knowledge is not principally in the accumulation of facts. Rather, knowledge growth is represented in the enhanced ability to understand objects of study.

The objects of arts-based research are not limited to “great works” or outstanding performances. On the contrary, research in this category may investigate ordinary classrooms, school leadership styles, routine curriculum materials such as textbooks and computer software, lesson plans, classroom decor, or student dress styles. Arts-based research differs from other traditions by actively seeking to recognize the aesthetic foundations of education. Elliot Eisner, who developed an early arts-based approach known as educational criticism, argues that classroom instruction may exhibit a range of artistic dimensions. Like artists, teachers seek emergent ends, and their work requires complex and often subtly nuanced skills. Like artists, teachers work within commonly recognized “genres” (e.g., the lecture, role-playing, Socratic dialogue), and yet who teachers are as individuals also makes a difference in the outcomes of their work. Like art, teaching is shaped by its historical context, and it is open to multiple interpretations. Finally, teaching relies on an amalgam of practiced routine, qualitative judgment, and imagination. All of these artistic dimensions of teaching are open to research.

A final characteristic of arts-based research is that such studies often employ artistic techniques in the reporting of research. In text-based reports, many arts-based researchers consciously use literary forms of language that include metaphor, alliteration, character development, imagery, symbolism, and other rhetorical tropes. Some recent qualitative dissertations in education have taken the form of biographies and novels, for example. In addition, poetry, installation art, dance, drama, and readers’ theater have all been used to present research findings at recent professional conferences, including conferences of the American Educational Research Association.

Ongoing Challenges

Each of the foundational categories mentioned above presents a unique set of challenges for contemporary qualitative researchers. Postpositivism and constructivism, for example, are both rooted in the Enlightenment’s progressive view of change. Both traditions also privilege a view of rationality as the possession of individuals. These views tend to discount many forms of traditional culture. In today’s global context, the result is often a mismatch between research-based technologies and cultural sustainability. Thus, research-“validated” educational programs may actually threaten rather than promote the well-being of some peoples.

Qualitative studies that draw on continental traditions face a different set of challenges. These approaches have given rise to hypersensitivity over the dangers of using knowledge as a tool of cultural domination. Postmodernism in particular holds that all knowledge is local, partial, and suspect. On these grounds, postmodernism has been called an “antiepistemology.” The challenge with this stance is in learning to question privileged knowledge without dismissing what legitimacy that knowledge does have, particularly at a time when women and minorities are now claiming their own rights to this same knowledge.

The challenges of arts-based research stem mainly from its novelty within the educational research community. In particular, many criteria commonly used in art scholarship and criticism do not seem to align well with conventional research standards. Disagreement among different art critics, for example, is often valued. Compare this desire for differing perceptions and interpretations with what conventional researchers rightly strive for in terms of inter-rater reliability. The readers of arts-based research may expect different accounts of similar objects or events, from which different conclusions may be drawn. What, then, does this expectation mean for the replication of a study? Is replication no longer important, or can that concept be reconceptualized to better fit arts-based research? Such issues remain unresolved.

This entry examined the rise of qualitative research in education. It also presented three broad categories of contemporary qualitative research based on the sources from which each type of research draws its foundational support. The first category, social science–based research, includes the traditions of post-positivism and constructivism. Continental perspectives include phenomenology, critical theory, hermeneutics, and postmodernism. Arts-based research includes approaches that borrow from fields such as literary and art criticism. The final section of the entry briefly identified some of the challenges associated with each category. These challenges emphasize the need for further foundational analyses and innovation on the part of future researchers.


  1. Creswell, J. W. (2006). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five traditions (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  2. Eisner, E. W. (1998). The enlightened eye: Qualitative inquiry and the enhancement of educational practice. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  3. Paul, J. L. (2005). Introduction to the philosophies of research and criticism in education and the social sciences. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  4. Schwandt, T. A. (2007). Dictionary of qualitative inquiry (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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