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EDUC.6922: Qualitative Research Methods for Practitioner Scholars

Historical and Philosophical Foundations

Early explorers sought to observe and describe the people and experiences they encountered in their travels. The rich narrative tradition of qualitative research has its roots in the desire to discover and inform others about what we learn. Humans are storytellers, and qualitative research is fundamentally about the stories told by the data. Today, we recognize that researchers bring their subjective biases to their observations and descriptions. Those early explorers’ biases were sometimes benign with a curious eye for exotic cultures, and often tragic as the reports were used to justify colonization and oppression of “savage” people. Perhaps because the origins of naturalistic research were so clouded by bias, modern qualitative researchers strive to clarify their stances, philosophies, and potential biases or subjectivities.

The chart below illustrates the evolution of qualitative research from the colonial to post-colonial era:



Small scale pre-industrial social organization (bands, tribes, clans, kingdoms; rural, agrarian, animal husbandry)

Disappearing cultures and languages

Places within the realm of colonized countries

Large scale evolving industrial society (bureaucracies, institutions, urban areas, industries)

Emerging social problems: exploited groups, office workers, management, civil rights, unemployment

Places within the realm of industrialized or industrializing countries

The struggle at the intersection of colonialism and industrialization is deeply connected to the themes, perspectives, and directions the methodology has taken. Research about people, their actions and interactions, and their artifacts form the basis of anthropology, archeology, sociology, and other fields. Today’s qualitative research is performed across fields as diverse as education, health sciences, business, criminal justice, etc. In each field, researchers strive to acknowledge and define their research perspectives.

In order to understand the complex and conflicting philosophies at the foundation of qualitative traditions, we first need to recognize differing beliefs about the nature of knowledge itself.

Ontology, the branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of reality, addresses two main positions:
• realism (also called objectivism) 
• idealism (also called subjectivism).

Realists believe that there is an objective reality that exists in the physical world and in a social reality. Idealists believe that reality is constructed in the mind and is subjective to individuals and groups. Of course these fundamental ontological differences lead to differing perspectives on the meaning and methods of research. It is helpful to have a basic understanding of these perspectives as you learn more about qualitative research, especially since much of the material uses the terminology to describe both what they are doing and why they are doing it. The table below is a very rudimentary summary of research paradigms, or philosophical belief systems that guide scholars. Chapters 2-4 in Savin-Baden and Major’s Qualitative Research provide more detailed information.


Positivists believe that there is an objective, factual “truth” that can be discovered by observation and experience. Usually seeks quantitative information.


A positivist researcher might construct an experiment using the scientific method. She begins with a hypothesis and sets out to test it.


Post-positivists believe that objective knowledge exists, but error exists too. As Dr. William M.K. Trochin of Cornell Dept of Human Ecology explains, the post-positivist acknowledges that researchers “are inherently biased by their cultural experiences, world views, and so on.” Usually seeks quantitative information triangulated through multiple measures.

A post-positivist researcher might use quantitative statistics to analyze results of a survey, but follow up with qualitative focus groups or interviews.


Pragmatists believe that the goal of research should be practical applications, particularly regarding social reality. Pragmatism has been favored by sociologists and educational philosophers. Research should be done in a natural context using approaches that are best suited for the circumstance.

A pragmatist researcher might observe a classroom before and after a teaching strategy is implemented in addition to analyzing the results of a pre- and post-test.

Critical social theory

Critical social theorists believe that truth must be seen through historical reality and research should strive for social change. Its roots are in Marx’s criticism of social structures that create oppression and his call for revolutionary change.

A critical social theorist researcher might describe a set of observations and interpret the data in terms of historical problems. Critical theorists may also offer potential solutions or alternatives.


Phenomenologists seek to reveal the essence of an experience (or phenomenon), investigating how experiences are lived. Phenomenologists acknowledge and then “bracket” or set aside their own biases to be as open as possible to the subject’s experience.

A phenomenologist might interview a subject trying to understand her experience through her eyes and consider all aspects of the experience to get at what it means to the subject.


Originally a literary concept, post-structuralism in research emphasizes the ways in which constructs about the self and social relationships are formed through language, symbolic discourse, and linguistic codes. Post-modern critical theorists often incorporate ideas of both critical theory and post-structuralism to criticize power structures and systems that create oppression.

A post-structuralist researcher may examine the research subject using methods like textual analysis, discourse analysis, or narrative inquiry.  Researcher and participant interpretations are considered as constructed knowledge and value individual identity (ex. as a feminist, person of color, etc.) as a lens through which meaning is decoded.

Social constructionism

Social constructionists believe that knowledge is socially and culturally constructed by individuals interacting with each other.

A social constructionist researcher might observe interactions to uncover how shared knowledge is developed.


Constructivists believe that reality and truth are constructed in the minds of individuals.

A social constructionist researcher might conduct interviews to understand how the individual’s perspective creates his or her understanding of what is true.


The paradigms associated with qualitative research are historically, philosophically, and politically diverse, but generally fall under the umbrella of an interpretivist framework.


Here is an example of how the paradigms and perspectives work together: Three researchers investigated how traditional medical knowledge was passed down in rural communities in Nigeria (Adekannbi, Olatokun & Ajiferuke, 2014). The research sought to illuminate how and by whom knowledge is socially and culturally constructed as practitioners of traditional medicine pass knowledge to apprentices and children. Acknowledging that research participants have diverse biases based on their individual identities and social experiences, researchers employed a post-positivist approach to garner as many perspectives as they could. They selected participants from various regions and tribes. They used mixed methods, both quantitative and qualitative data analysis techniques to triangulate results from questionnaires, interviews, and focus groups. The practitioners’ viewpoints varied widely, from those who only wanted to teach their own children to others who believed anyone who wanted to learn was now their spiritual child. The practitioners’ children had similarly diverse views; 27% became or were becoming traditional medicine practitioners, but what of the rest? Some eschewed traditional medicine as “ungodly,” others preferred to go to college, etc. The constructivist approach to seeking truth as a matter of individual perspective allowed the researchers to uncover the diverse stories behind the numbers. Such varied viewpoints can only be fully described using the rich narrative that qualitative research allows.

At this point, prospective researchers may wonder, so which paradigm is best? While philosophers may have their favorites, a hierarchy of which method, philosophy, or paradigm is “better” is not particularly helpful to most researchers. What is “best” is whatever method will most effectively help you answer your research question.