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Chapter 3. A Short Chapter on Epistemology (How Do We Know What We Know?)

What is epistemology a short introduction.

Epistemology is the name we give to the cluster of questions we have about how we (humans) know things about the world. As beings made up of matter with various sensory organs, our ability to “grasp” the world out there is constrained by those sensory organs and the matter (e.g., brain) we use to process what our senses take in. How do we know that what we see with our eyes is actually out there in the world and not an image that our brain projects or manipulates? How do we know we are not living in someone else’s imagination or having images and thoughts live-streamed into our consciousness? What, after all, is our consciousness? Those are difficult questions, impossible to answer, which is one of the main conclusions of those who ask epistemological questions. It is difficult to know what is real! On a more prosaic level, closer to home, we are asking epistemological questions when we address the shortcomings of our ability to know what someone else is thinking or what some social fact or circumstance actually means to other people.

Qualitative researchers tend to ask these kinds of questions all the time. They are at the heart of why we engage in the kinds of methods we engage in. For example, we are sometimes skeptical of large-scale surveys because we think that people’s answers are not so clearly understood as a yes-or-no response or multiple-choice answer would have us believe. Take a question that asks college students to rate their satisfaction with their university’s response to COVID, on a scale of one to ten. First of all, we don’t know how people are using the scale and what a particular number ranking means to them. Second, we don’t really know what aspects of the university response different people will be responding to. Maybe one person didn’t like the mask policy, so they scored a two, while someone else really enjoyed remote learning, so they scored a ten, and yet another person didn’t have time to complete the survey, so they quickly answered all questions with a five. How do we know that the average response of seven reflects a reality that the response was, overall, more positive than negative? What do we really know from this about the university’s response? To be fair, a skilled survey researcher will be able to write questions that reduce some of these ambiguities, but they will never be able to completely get at the reality of the situation. Nor will a qualitative researcher, although at least they will be able to sit down with a person, ask follow-up questions as needed, and urge the person to explain their answers as thoroughly as possible to get closer to the truth.

The above example also helps explain why we sometimes use quantitative and sometimes qualitative research methods. Surveys are terrible at capturing subtle and personal evaluations because they do not allow for probing questions and follow-up conversations. They are much better at recording simple data, such as “Did your university move to remote learning during COVID?” There is less ambiguity possible there, as the meanings of the various words and the question overall are less subject to multiple interpretations. When we are interested in the meanings of actions, evaluations, and personal understandings, qualitative research methods are more likely to get us closer to the “truth” of the matter we are pursuing.

They will still not get us to the full truth, however, as the full truth is unknowable. This is an epistemological statement with which most qualitative researchers would agree. This is in contrast to how much natural science proceeds. [1] Quantitative research attempts to follow a scientific model, where reality may be difficult to know but remains possible. Qualitative researchers also follow a scientific model but are less prone to positivist thinking. They are sometimes more like historians than biologists in that they acknowledge that, at least for people, there is no one single reality but refractions of reality through multiple perspectives.

Epistemological Approaches

At some point, every qualitative researcher has to grapple with the limits of our knowledge and come to terms with that limitation. Over time, various approaches to this problem, or epistemological perspectives , have been developed. As a beginner, you might find one of these perspectives more attractive than others, but it is probably best to use this section as a reference for later, when you yourself begin to wonder what it is you can really know about the questions you are asking, the people you are listening to, and the context in which you have situated your study. Think of this chapter as a companion and guide for when those questions inevitably come up in your research. Each of the following perspectives provides a grounding for deciding what knowledge is even possible and then how you, the researcher, can best go about acquiring that knowledge as accurately and reliably as possible.

Epistemological Perspective 1: Objectivism

Basic statement of knowledge: Meaning and reality exist independently (outside) of any particular consciousness.

Objectivism holds that there is a reality independent of our minds. Researchers are tasked with finding that independent reality and reporting back to the rest of us about what it is. This perspective is widely adopted by quantitative researchers (see the survey question example above). Those who adopt this perspective believe that it is possible to get at some objective truth if the appropriate tools are used well.

Epistemological Perspective 2: Subjectivism

Basic statement of knowledge: There is no meaning or knowable reality independent of the meaning or reality constructed by particular consciousnesses.

Subjectivism holds the opposite of objectivism: there is no reality we can know independent of our minds. Now, this is not a statement about reality itself. That is an ontological (“being”) question. It is only a statement about what is knowable (this is what makes it an epistemological issue). Take the film The Matrix . Neo, the protagonist, is offered a red pill to “wake him up” to the reality that his entire existence has been an illusion, implanted while he slept attached to tubes, his body providing an energy source for an entirely other reality than the one he has been “dreaming.” What is actual reality is not known reality at all. Those who adopt a constructivist perspective recognize that we don’t have access to red pills that allow us to see “what is really real.” Our knowledge is only of what we think is true, putting aside what might actually be true. When we talk to Neo, it will be a Neo without access to a red pill. We can still learn a lot from Neo about the world he lives in, even if it is more properly only the world he thinks he lives in.

Epistemological Perspective 3: Constructivism

Basic statement of knowledge: People construct meaning from facts, events, and the reality out there.

Like subjectivism, constructivism rejects the idea that we can know reality independently of the people who interact with it. Unlike subjectivism, constructivism places the stress not on the individual consciousness but on the interaction between thought and the world. There is something out there, but I can only partially grasp it and thus partially understand it. What I see (hear, taste, sense) will be influenced by the context I find myself in and the historical forces that help shape my understanding of the world. We are using this perspective when we talk about people seeing different realities, as in the case of a police officer shooting an unarmed Black man, where each perceives a mortal threat. One may be more “accurate” than the other in their perception of reality, but that is a value judgment ( axiology issue) separate from the epistemological issue. Researchers try to understand the reality as apprehended by various others. They do not presume to know the actual reality, as that is, epistemologically speaking, impossible to do.

Epistemological Perspective 4: Critical Realism

Basic statement of knowledge: People cannot know “reality.”

This is a genuinely alternative approach to reality and social science, one that argues that the line between epistemology (how we know) and ontology (what we know) cannot be properly defined by us. So all of the various epistemological perspectives are flawed. Derived from the work of Roy Bhaskar, this approach was meant to stand apart from both positivist/objectivism and interpretivist/subjectivism. Critical realists distinguish between an unobservable “real” domain (see fig. 3.1), an “actual” domain, and an “empirical” domain. The empirical domain is the one we can “see.” It comprises the everyday experiences of our lives. It is possible to look beneath the surface and apprehend the power and impact of unobservable social structures and organizations. This is the level at which critical realists operate.

An iceberg shown above and below the waterline. Above the waterline is the Empirical domain (perceived). At the water line is the Actual domain. Below the waterline is the Read domain (hidden).

If this makes your head swim, don’t worry! I’ve included critical realism here because you should know this approach exists, not because you need to fully grasp it to conduct good qualitative research. Even critical realists don’t always agree with one another on what this all means. If you want to know more about this approach, I’ve included some relatively accessible articles and books in the “ Further Readings ” section.

Other Ways of Knowing

In the course of the last fifty years or so, there have been a series of critiques against dominant forms of knowledge that presume to be universal. For example, Mary Field Belenky and her colleagues ( 1997 ) developed five models of “women’s ways of knowing” that are distinct from the ways that men know the world. This can be viewed as a particular instance of Standpoint Theory , developed by feminist philosophers in the 1970s and 1980s. Standpoint Theory posits that one’s social location delimits one’s understanding and experience of the world. This “standpoint epistemology” has been applied to various persons on the margins; some phenomenological qualitative research can even be understood as capturing the epistemology of those with little power (e.g., first-generation college students, undocumented immigrants, Indigenous persons, women). Articles and books that reference “ways of knowing” generally lie within this tradition. Theorists associated with this position include Patricia Hill Collins (also a pioneer of Intersectionality Theory), Donna Haraway, Sandra Harding, and Dorothy Smith (the originator of institutional ethnography).

According to standpoint epistemologists, a standpoint is a place from which persons view the world. This standpoint influences how the person socially constructs the world. We see here the connection to the third epistemological perspective, constructivism. But for standpoint epistemologists, inequalities in the social world create differences in standpoints, which means that the world as constructed is differentiated. There is no one universal world that has been socially constructed by the combined actions and interactions of its denizens. Instead, there are many social worlds. All standpoints, including the dominant standpoint, are partial.

Quick Philosophical Terminology Recap

  • Epistemology = how we know things
  • Ontology = what exists
  • Axiology = values

Qualitative Research Practices and Assumptions

Regardless of which epistemological perspective one adopts, qualitative researchers engage in certain practices and assumptions that attempt to get at reality, despite the limitations imposed by imperfect knowledge. They do this by being conscious of those knowledge limitations.

The first, and probably the most important of these, is to recognize the importance of viewpoint. Whether or not reality exists or is out there like we think it is out there, we can only get at the social world through people, and people are located differently in society and will consequently have different vantage points from which to apprehend reality. You might consider the parable of the blind men and the elephant (fig 3.2) . This parable originated in the Indian subcontinent and may be older than 500 CE, when it first appeared as part of a Buddhist text. The story goes like this: Several blind men come across an elephant for the first time. Having no reference for such a creature, they attempt to use their remaining senses to describe it. Each takes one part of the elephant—the smooth curved tusk, the round pillar-like legs, the softly swishing tale, the rough wrinkly hide of the torso, the large and surprisingly delicate ears—and tells the others what the elephant is. You might see this parable as highlighting the difference between what is (ontology: there is an elephant) and what is knowable (epistemology: what can be known of the elephant). Because each man has his own context and his own vantage point, what each makes of the elephant is uniquely different. All descriptions are true and accurate, but none of them actually describe “the elephant” itself. The moral of the parable is usually presented as telling people not to take their own truth for the whole truth, to admit the limitations and fallibility of their own perceptions, and not to ignore other people’s limited (but accurate) truths of a situation or an event.

6 blind individuals around an elephant.

Qualitative researchers take the parable to heart and build the lessons of the story into their research design. They might include comparisons of people differentially situated, for example, to gauge the strength or ubiquity of a culture or set of opinions. They will be skeptical of taking one group’s statements of an event as an accurate depiction of that event, especially if that group is located in a privileged position or position of power. For example, asking White people only about the existence of racism today is surely a poor way of getting at the actual reality of racism.

Related to this recognition that reality is multiply apprehended and that vantage point matters is an ethical practice to acknowledge others’ understanding of the world, even if you personally might disagree with that understanding. Going back to the above example, we might want to know why White people recognize and acknowledge the existence of racism less often than people of color. You might think you have the obvious answer already, but good research often pushes past the obvious answers. Acknowledging and respecting the multiplicity of vantage points and hence multiple “realities” opens up a lot of interesting research questions. Sometimes the epistemological questions bleed into axiological questions of value. For example, have you ever wondered, “How in the world could they think that?” or “Are they misbehaving because they don’t know any better (i.e., they have a different understanding of what is right or the impact of their actions) or because of something else (i.e., they like acting badly)?” These are the kinds of questions that can only be answered, albeit imperfectly, through qualitative research. They are not appropriate questions for a survey.

Finally, we ourselves are located in a particular position and have a particular vantage point on the social world we inhabit. We do not live outside it. We can’t ever truly isolate the variables or study whatever it is we are studying as a completely neutral observer. We are blind men too. We can take steps to minimize our influence on the study and the influence of our position on what we apprehend, but we can never completely do either. One way we improve our research is to be constantly reflective on these issues. Writing down our own beliefs, suppositions, expectations, and values before we begin is actually quite helpful. I encourage you to keep a journal for research where you consciously reflect on your motivations and expectations as you work through your research (and the journal can be used for so much more, as will be discussed later). Do not think of this as supplemental to the research or as egocentric navel-gazing. It’s quite important. So important that we are devoting an entirely separate chapter to it (chapter 6).

Further Readings

The following are a few books and articles that explore epistemology in qualitative research in general or that highlight and explain particular epistemological viewpoints (e.g., critical realism). Asterisked works are engaging qualitative studies that can serve as models of good qualitative research. Note that the articles in particular are drawn from a wide range of disciplines; graduate students might want to read those related to their areas of study.

Bhaskar, Roy. 2008. A Realist Theory of Science . London: Routledge. The classic statement of critical realism by its founding theorist. A difficult read.

Bowleg, Lisa. 2017. “Towards a Critical Health Equity Research Stance: Why Epistemology and Methodology Matter More Than Qualitative Methods.” Health, Education & Behavior 44(5):677–684. Includes a discussion of epistemological stance and its influence on all aspects of the research process.

Bryman, Alan. 1984. “The Debate about Quantitative and Qualitative Research: A Question of Method or Epistemology?” British Journal of Sociology 35(1):75–92. Questions whether epistemological paradigms are clearly linked to qualitative versus quantitative research methods.

Collier, Andrew. 1994. Critical Realism: An Introduction to Roy Bhaskar’s Philosophy . London: Verso. Perhaps a slightly more accessible introduction to critical realism than reading Bhaskar but nevertheless quite difficult going.

Gorski, Philip S. 2013. “‘What Is Critical Realism? And Why Should You Care?’” Contemporary Sociology 42(5):658–670. A special review essay on several books on critical realism (mostly by Bhaskar). Although the material is difficult, this is probably the best introduction to the subject.

Gringeri, Christina, Amanda Barusch, and Christopher Cambron. 2013. “Epistemology in Qualitative Social Work Research: A Review of Published Articles, 2008–2010.” Social Work Research 37(1):55–63. Explores the epistemological foundations of qualitative social work research through a metareview was completed of one hundred articles from social work journals. This covers a lot of ground in an interesting way and may be appropriate for all readers.

Harding, Sandra. 1992. “Rethinking Standpoint Epistemology: What Is ‘Strong Objectivity’?” Centennial Review 36(3):437–470. An important article in the history and development of Standpoint Theory. More readable than most articles in this vein.

Haverland, Markus, and Dvora Yanow. 2012. “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Public Administration Research Universe: Surviving Conversations on Methodologies and Methods.” Public Administration Review 72(3):401–408. An attempt to clarify some of the misunderstandings that can occur when researchers mix different methodological positions in their research designs due to their lack of awareness of distinctions between different ways of knowing and their associated methods.

Juutilainen, Sandra A., Melanie Jeffrey, and Suzanne Stewart. 2020. “Methodology Matters: Designing a Pilot Study Guided by Indigenous Epistemologies.” Human Biology 91(3):141–151. Demonstrate how Indigenous epistemologies, such as nonhierarchical approaches to relationship, can be incorporated into qualitative research.

Luttrell, Wendy. 1989. “Working-Class Women’s Ways of Knowing: Effects of Gender, Race, and Class.” Sociology of Education 62(1):33–46. Based on participant observation in classrooms and in-depth interviews with female students in an adult education program, Luttrell describes how Black and White working-class women “define and claim knowledge.”*

Martínez, Theresa A. 1996. “Toward a Chicana Feminist Epistemological Standpoint: Theory at the Intersection of Race, Class, and Gender.” Race, Gender & Class 3(3):107–128. An engaging and readable exploration of one application of Standpoint Theory.

Miller, Thaddeus R., Timothy D. Baird, Caitlin M. Littlefield, Gary Kofinas, F. Stuart Chapin, and Charles L. Redman. 2008. “Epistemological Pluralism: Reorganizing Interdisciplinary Research.” Ecology and Society 13(2):45–62. The authors argue for the recognition of multiple ways of knowing when designing collaborative interdisciplinary research, particularly in the area of ecological/social studies.

Sayer, Andrew. 2000. “Introduction.” Pp. 1–28 in Realism and Social Science .  Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE. This is a terrific introduction to critical realism.

Sayer, Andrew. 2011. Why Things Matter to People: Social Science, Values and Ethical Life . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. A highly recommended book for anyone who wants to understand how people make ethical judgments and how these are connected with epistemological stances. This is an applied version of critical realism that is compelling and impassioned.

Scheurich, James Joseph, and Michelle D. Young. 1997. “Coloring Epistemologies: Are Our Research Epistemologies Racially Biased?” Educational Researcher 26(4):4–16. Discusses the possibility of “epistemological racism” and what we can do about it.

Smith, Dorothy E. 1989. The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology . Boston: Northeastern University Press.   A classic work in which Smith develops a method for analyzing how people view contemporary society from specific gendered viewpoints. Long heralded as a breakthrough feminist text articulating a sociology developed “from the standpoint of women.”

Trosow, Samuel E. 2001. “Standpoint Epistemology as an Alternative Methodology for Library and Information Science.” Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy 71(3):360–382. Discusses the problem of perceived “ neutrality ” in library sciences and how Standpoint Theory might prove a more rewarding alternative for studies in this area.

Yilmaz, Kaya. 2012. “Comparison of Quantitative and Qualitative Research Traditions: Epistemological, Theoretical, and Methodological Differences.” European Journal of Education 48(2):311–325. A nice overview of the differences between quantitative and qualitative research that includes a section on epistemological disagreements. Good for beginning students wanting to get a handle on the split between quantitative and qualitative research in the social and behavioral sciences.

  • Actually, there is more “unknowingness” in the natural sciences now than there has been since Newton and Bacon, as those working in quantum physics will tell you! ↵

The branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge.  For researchers, it is important to recognize and adopt one of the many distinguishing epistemological perspectives as part of our understanding of what questions research can address or fully answer.  See, e.g., constructivism , subjectivism, and  objectivism .

An epistemological perspective where meaning and reality exist independently (outside) of any particular consciousness.  It is similar to positivism and empiricism.  In all three approaches, the researcher is detached from the object of knowledge; they are a “neutral” observer outside the object of study.  Objectivism is the default epistemological perspective of most quantitative research.  Contrast subjectivism and constructivism

Epistemological perspective where there is no meaning or knowable reality independent of the meaning or reality constructed by particular consciousnesses.

Epistemological perspective in which people construct meaning from facts, events, and the reality “out there.”  In contrast to objectivism , which embraces the belief that a human can come to know external reality (the reality that exists beyond one's own mind), constructivism holds that the only reality we can know is that which is represented by human thought.  In other words, although reality is independent of human thought, meaning or knowledge about that reality is always a human construction.  See also social constructionism.

A branch of philosophy that studies judgments about values; ethical questions in research (as when one decides to design a participatory action research study for the purpose of engaging the community and offering a more socially just outcome).

The branch of philosophy that explores and seeks to understand being, existence, and reality itself rather than how one knows that reality (which is the subject of epistemology ).

A philosophical approach pioneered by Roy Bhaskar that attempts to resolve the tension between objectivism and constructivism .  According to this approach, epistemology (how we know) and ontology (what exists) are separate; something previous approaches confused.  Reality cannot be observed and exists outside of and independent of any human perceptions or “constructions.”  According to critical realists, unobservable structures cause observable events and the social world can be understood only if people understand the structures that generate events.  In practical terms, critical realism stands apart from both positivist and interpretivist approaches to social science.

A feminist theoretical perspective that argues that knowledge stems from social position.  The perspective denies that traditional science is objective and suggests that research and theory have ignored and marginalized women and feminist ways of thinking.  Note that this is an epistemological perspective.

The position taken by any researcher regarding the object of study, not to prove a particular perspective or manipulate data to arrive at a desirable conclusion.  Among qualitative researchers, neutrality does not mean detachment.  See also empathetic neutrality .

Introduction to Qualitative Research Methods Copyright © 2023 by Allison Hurst is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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What is Qualitative in Qualitative Research

Patrik aspers.

1 Department of Sociology, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden

2 Seminar for Sociology, Universität St. Gallen, St. Gallen, Switzerland

3 Department of Media and Social Sciences, University of Stavanger, Stavanger, Norway

What is qualitative research? If we look for a precise definition of qualitative research, and specifically for one that addresses its distinctive feature of being “qualitative,” the literature is meager. In this article we systematically search, identify and analyze a sample of 89 sources using or attempting to define the term “qualitative.” Then, drawing on ideas we find scattered across existing work, and based on Becker’s classic study of marijuana consumption, we formulate and illustrate a definition that tries to capture its core elements. We define qualitative research as an iterative process in which improved understanding to the scientific community is achieved by making new significant distinctions resulting from getting closer to the phenomenon studied. This formulation is developed as a tool to help improve research designs while stressing that a qualitative dimension is present in quantitative work as well. Additionally, it can facilitate teaching, communication between researchers, diminish the gap between qualitative and quantitative researchers, help to address critiques of qualitative methods, and be used as a standard of evaluation of qualitative research.

If we assume that there is something called qualitative research, what exactly is this qualitative feature? And how could we evaluate qualitative research as good or not? Is it fundamentally different from quantitative research? In practice, most active qualitative researchers working with empirical material intuitively know what is involved in doing qualitative research, yet perhaps surprisingly, a clear definition addressing its key feature is still missing.

To address the question of what is qualitative we turn to the accounts of “qualitative research” in textbooks and also in empirical work. In his classic, explorative, interview study of deviance Howard Becker ( 1963 ) asks ‘How does one become a marijuana user?’ In contrast to pre-dispositional and psychological-individualistic theories of deviant behavior, Becker’s inherently social explanation contends that becoming a user of this substance is the result of a three-phase sequential learning process. First, potential users need to learn how to smoke it properly to produce the “correct” effects. If not, they are likely to stop experimenting with it. Second, they need to discover the effects associated with it; in other words, to get “high,” individuals not only have to experience what the drug does, but also to become aware that those sensations are related to using it. Third, they require learning to savor the feelings related to its consumption – to develop an acquired taste. Becker, who played music himself, gets close to the phenomenon by observing, taking part, and by talking to people consuming the drug: “half of the fifty interviews were conducted with musicians, the other half covered a wide range of people, including laborers, machinists, and people in the professions” (Becker 1963 :56).

Another central aspect derived through the common-to-all-research interplay between induction and deduction (Becker 2017 ), is that during the course of his research Becker adds scientifically meaningful new distinctions in the form of three phases—distinctions, or findings if you will, that strongly affect the course of his research: its focus, the material that he collects, and which eventually impact his findings. Each phase typically unfolds through social interaction, and often with input from experienced users in “a sequence of social experiences during which the person acquires a conception of the meaning of the behavior, and perceptions and judgments of objects and situations, all of which make the activity possible and desirable” (Becker 1963 :235). In this study the increased understanding of smoking dope is a result of a combination of the meaning of the actors, and the conceptual distinctions that Becker introduces based on the views expressed by his respondents. Understanding is the result of research and is due to an iterative process in which data, concepts and evidence are connected with one another (Becker 2017 ).

Indeed, there are many definitions of qualitative research, but if we look for a definition that addresses its distinctive feature of being “qualitative,” the literature across the broad field of social science is meager. The main reason behind this article lies in the paradox, which, to put it bluntly, is that researchers act as if they know what it is, but they cannot formulate a coherent definition. Sociologists and others will of course continue to conduct good studies that show the relevance and value of qualitative research addressing scientific and practical problems in society. However, our paper is grounded in the idea that providing a clear definition will help us improve the work that we do. Among researchers who practice qualitative research there is clearly much knowledge. We suggest that a definition makes this knowledge more explicit. If the first rationale for writing this paper refers to the “internal” aim of improving qualitative research, the second refers to the increased “external” pressure that especially many qualitative researchers feel; pressure that comes both from society as well as from other scientific approaches. There is a strong core in qualitative research, and leading researchers tend to agree on what it is and how it is done. Our critique is not directed at the practice of qualitative research, but we do claim that the type of systematic work we do has not yet been done, and that it is useful to improve the field and its status in relation to quantitative research.

The literature on the “internal” aim of improving, or at least clarifying qualitative research is large, and we do not claim to be the first to notice the vagueness of the term “qualitative” (Strauss and Corbin 1998 ). Also, others have noted that there is no single definition of it (Long and Godfrey 2004 :182), that there are many different views on qualitative research (Denzin and Lincoln 2003 :11; Jovanović 2011 :3), and that more generally, we need to define its meaning (Best 2004 :54). Strauss and Corbin ( 1998 ), for example, as well as Nelson et al. (1992:2 cited in Denzin and Lincoln 2003 :11), and Flick ( 2007 :ix–x), have recognized that the term is problematic: “Actually, the term ‘qualitative research’ is confusing because it can mean different things to different people” (Strauss and Corbin 1998 :10–11). Hammersley has discussed the possibility of addressing the problem, but states that “the task of providing an account of the distinctive features of qualitative research is far from straightforward” ( 2013 :2). This confusion, as he has recently further argued (Hammersley 2018 ), is also salient in relation to ethnography where different philosophical and methodological approaches lead to a lack of agreement about what it means.

Others (e.g. Hammersley 2018 ; Fine and Hancock 2017 ) have also identified the treat to qualitative research that comes from external forces, seen from the point of view of “qualitative research.” This threat can be further divided into that which comes from inside academia, such as the critique voiced by “quantitative research” and outside of academia, including, for example, New Public Management. Hammersley ( 2018 ), zooming in on one type of qualitative research, ethnography, has argued that it is under treat. Similarly to Fine ( 2003 ), and before him Gans ( 1999 ), he writes that ethnography’ has acquired a range of meanings, and comes in many different versions, these often reflecting sharply divergent epistemological orientations. And already more than twenty years ago while reviewing Denzin and Lincoln’ s Handbook of Qualitative Methods Fine argued:

While this increasing centrality [of qualitative research] might lead one to believe that consensual standards have developed, this belief would be misleading. As the methodology becomes more widely accepted, querulous challengers have raised fundamental questions that collectively have undercut the traditional models of how qualitative research is to be fashioned and presented (1995:417).

According to Hammersley, there are today “serious treats to the practice of ethnographic work, on almost any definition” ( 2018 :1). He lists five external treats: (1) that social research must be accountable and able to show its impact on society; (2) the current emphasis on “big data” and the emphasis on quantitative data and evidence; (3) the labor market pressure in academia that leaves less time for fieldwork (see also Fine and Hancock 2017 ); (4) problems of access to fields; and (5) the increased ethical scrutiny of projects, to which ethnography is particularly exposed. Hammersley discusses some more or less insufficient existing definitions of ethnography.

The current situation, as Hammersley and others note—and in relation not only to ethnography but also qualitative research in general, and as our empirical study shows—is not just unsatisfactory, it may even be harmful for the entire field of qualitative research, and does not help social science at large. We suggest that the lack of clarity of qualitative research is a real problem that must be addressed.

Towards a Definition of Qualitative Research

Seen in an historical light, what is today called qualitative, or sometimes ethnographic, interpretative research – or a number of other terms – has more or less always existed. At the time the founders of sociology – Simmel, Weber, Durkheim and, before them, Marx – were writing, and during the era of the Methodenstreit (“dispute about methods”) in which the German historical school emphasized scientific methods (cf. Swedberg 1990 ), we can at least speak of qualitative forerunners.

Perhaps the most extended discussion of what later became known as qualitative methods in a classic work is Bronisław Malinowski’s ( 1922 ) Argonauts in the Western Pacific , although even this study does not explicitly address the meaning of “qualitative.” In Weber’s ([1921–-22] 1978) work we find a tension between scientific explanations that are based on observation and quantification and interpretative research (see also Lazarsfeld and Barton 1982 ).

If we look through major sociology journals like the American Sociological Review , American Journal of Sociology , or Social Forces we will not find the term qualitative sociology before the 1970s. And certainly before then much of what we consider qualitative classics in sociology, like Becker’ study ( 1963 ), had already been produced. Indeed, the Chicago School often combined qualitative and quantitative data within the same study (Fine 1995 ). Our point being that before a disciplinary self-awareness the term quantitative preceded qualitative, and the articulation of the former was a political move to claim scientific status (Denzin and Lincoln 2005 ). In the US the World War II seem to have sparked a critique of sociological work, including “qualitative work,” that did not follow the scientific canon (Rawls 2018 ), which was underpinned by a scientifically oriented and value free philosophy of science. As a result the attempts and practice of integrating qualitative and quantitative sociology at Chicago lost ground to sociology that was more oriented to surveys and quantitative work at Columbia under Merton-Lazarsfeld. The quantitative tradition was also able to present textbooks (Lundberg 1951 ) that facilitated the use this approach and its “methods.” The practices of the qualitative tradition, by and large, remained tacit or was part of the mentoring transferred from the renowned masters to their students.

This glimpse into history leads us back to the lack of a coherent account condensed in a definition of qualitative research. Many of the attempts to define the term do not meet the requirements of a proper definition: A definition should be clear, avoid tautology, demarcate its domain in relation to the environment, and ideally only use words in its definiens that themselves are not in need of definition (Hempel 1966 ). A definition can enhance precision and thus clarity by identifying the core of the phenomenon. Preferably, a definition should be short. The typical definition we have found, however, is an ostensive definition, which indicates what qualitative research is about without informing us about what it actually is :

Qualitative research is multimethod in focus, involving an interpretative, naturalistic approach to its subject matter. This means that qualitative researchers study things in their natural settings, attempting to make sense of, or interpret, phenomena in terms of the meanings people bring to them. Qualitative research involves the studied use and collection of a variety of empirical materials – case study, personal experience, introspective, life story, interview, observational, historical, interactional, and visual texts – that describe routine and problematic moments and meanings in individuals’ lives. (Denzin and Lincoln 2005 :2)

Flick claims that the label “qualitative research” is indeed used as an umbrella for a number of approaches ( 2007 :2–4; 2002 :6), and it is not difficult to identify research fitting this designation. Moreover, whatever it is, it has grown dramatically over the past five decades. In addition, courses have been developed, methods have flourished, arguments about its future have been advanced (for example, Denzin and Lincoln 1994) and criticized (for example, Snow and Morrill 1995 ), and dedicated journals and books have mushroomed. Most social scientists have a clear idea of research and how it differs from journalism, politics and other activities. But the question of what is qualitative in qualitative research is either eluded or eschewed.

We maintain that this lacuna hinders systematic knowledge production based on qualitative research. Paul Lazarsfeld noted the lack of “codification” as early as 1955 when he reviewed 100 qualitative studies in order to offer a codification of the practices (Lazarsfeld and Barton 1982 :239). Since then many texts on “qualitative research” and its methods have been published, including recent attempts (Goertz and Mahoney 2012 ) similar to Lazarsfeld’s. These studies have tried to extract what is qualitative by looking at the large number of empirical “qualitative” studies. Our novel strategy complements these endeavors by taking another approach and looking at the attempts to codify these practices in the form of a definition, as well as to a minor extent take Becker’s study as an exemplar of what qualitative researchers actually do, and what the characteristic of being ‘qualitative’ denotes and implies. We claim that qualitative researchers, if there is such a thing as “qualitative research,” should be able to codify their practices in a condensed, yet general way expressed in language.

Lingering problems of “generalizability” and “how many cases do I need” (Small 2009 ) are blocking advancement – in this line of work qualitative approaches are said to differ considerably from quantitative ones, while some of the former unsuccessfully mimic principles related to the latter (Small 2009 ). Additionally, quantitative researchers sometimes unfairly criticize the first based on their own quality criteria. Scholars like Goertz and Mahoney ( 2012 ) have successfully focused on the different norms and practices beyond what they argue are essentially two different cultures: those working with either qualitative or quantitative methods. Instead, similarly to Becker ( 2017 ) who has recently questioned the usefulness of the distinction between qualitative and quantitative research, we focus on similarities.

The current situation also impedes both students and researchers in focusing their studies and understanding each other’s work (Lazarsfeld and Barton 1982 :239). A third consequence is providing an opening for critiques by scholars operating within different traditions (Valsiner 2000 :101). A fourth issue is that the “implicit use of methods in qualitative research makes the field far less standardized than the quantitative paradigm” (Goertz and Mahoney 2012 :9). Relatedly, the National Science Foundation in the US organized two workshops in 2004 and 2005 to address the scientific foundations of qualitative research involving strategies to improve it and to develop standards of evaluation in qualitative research. However, a specific focus on its distinguishing feature of being “qualitative” while being implicitly acknowledged, was discussed only briefly (for example, Best 2004 ).

In 2014 a theme issue was published in this journal on “Methods, Materials, and Meanings: Designing Cultural Analysis,” discussing central issues in (cultural) qualitative research (Berezin 2014 ; Biernacki 2014 ; Glaeser 2014 ; Lamont and Swidler 2014 ; Spillman 2014). We agree with many of the arguments put forward, such as the risk of methodological tribalism, and that we should not waste energy on debating methods separated from research questions. Nonetheless, a clarification of the relation to what is called “quantitative research” is of outmost importance to avoid misunderstandings and misguided debates between “qualitative” and “quantitative” researchers. Our strategy means that researchers, “qualitative” or “quantitative” they may be, in their actual practice may combine qualitative work and quantitative work.

In this article we accomplish three tasks. First, we systematically survey the literature for meanings of qualitative research by looking at how researchers have defined it. Drawing upon existing knowledge we find that the different meanings and ideas of qualitative research are not yet coherently integrated into one satisfactory definition. Next, we advance our contribution by offering a definition of qualitative research and illustrate its meaning and use partially by expanding on the brief example introduced earlier related to Becker’s work ( 1963 ). We offer a systematic analysis of central themes of what researchers consider to be the core of “qualitative,” regardless of style of work. These themes – which we summarize in terms of four keywords: distinction, process, closeness, improved understanding – constitute part of our literature review, in which each one appears, sometimes with others, but never all in the same definition. They serve as the foundation of our contribution. Our categories are overlapping. Their use is primarily to organize the large amount of definitions we have identified and analyzed, and not necessarily to draw a clear distinction between them. Finally, we continue the elaboration discussed above on the advantages of a clear definition of qualitative research.

In a hermeneutic fashion we propose that there is something meaningful that deserves to be labelled “qualitative research” (Gadamer 1990 ). To approach the question “What is qualitative in qualitative research?” we have surveyed the literature. In conducting our survey we first traced the word’s etymology in dictionaries, encyclopedias, handbooks of the social sciences and of methods and textbooks, mainly in English, which is common to methodology courses. It should be noted that we have zoomed in on sociology and its literature. This discipline has been the site of the largest debate and development of methods that can be called “qualitative,” which suggests that this field should be examined in great detail.

In an ideal situation we should expect that one good definition, or at least some common ideas, would have emerged over the years. This common core of qualitative research should be so accepted that it would appear in at least some textbooks. Since this is not what we found, we decided to pursue an inductive approach to capture maximal variation in the field of qualitative research; we searched in a selection of handbooks, textbooks, book chapters, and books, to which we added the analysis of journal articles. Our sample comprises a total of 89 references.

In practice we focused on the discipline that has had a clear discussion of methods, namely sociology. We also conducted a broad search in the JSTOR database to identify scholarly sociology articles published between 1998 and 2017 in English with a focus on defining or explaining qualitative research. We specifically zoom in on this time frame because we would have expect that this more mature period would have produced clear discussions on the meaning of qualitative research. To find these articles we combined a number of keywords to search the content and/or the title: qualitative (which was always included), definition, empirical, research, methodology, studies, fieldwork, interview and observation .

As a second phase of our research we searched within nine major sociological journals ( American Journal of Sociology , Sociological Theory , American Sociological Review , Contemporary Sociology , Sociological Forum , Sociological Theory , Qualitative Research , Qualitative Sociology and Qualitative Sociology Review ) for articles also published during the past 19 years (1998–2017) that had the term “qualitative” in the title and attempted to define qualitative research.

Lastly we picked two additional journals, Qualitative Research and Qualitative Sociology , in which we could expect to find texts addressing the notion of “qualitative.” From Qualitative Research we chose Volume 14, Issue 6, December 2014, and from Qualitative Sociology we chose Volume 36, Issue 2, June 2017. Within each of these we selected the first article; then we picked the second article of three prior issues. Again we went back another three issues and investigated article number three. Finally we went back another three issues and perused article number four. This selection criteria was used to get a manageable sample for the analysis.

The coding process of the 89 references we gathered in our selected review began soon after the first round of material was gathered, and we reduced the complexity created by our maximum variation sampling (Snow and Anderson 1993 :22) to four different categories within which questions on the nature and properties of qualitative research were discussed. We call them: Qualitative and Quantitative Research, Qualitative Research, Fieldwork, and Grounded Theory. This – which may appear as an illogical grouping – merely reflects the “context” in which the matter of “qualitative” is discussed. If the selection process of the material – books and articles – was informed by pre-knowledge, we used an inductive strategy to code the material. When studying our material, we identified four central notions related to “qualitative” that appear in various combinations in the literature which indicate what is the core of qualitative research. We have labeled them: “distinctions”, “process,” “closeness,” and “improved understanding.” During the research process the categories and notions were improved, refined, changed, and reordered. The coding ended when a sense of saturation in the material arose. In the presentation below all quotations and references come from our empirical material of texts on qualitative research.

Analysis – What is Qualitative Research?

In this section we describe the four categories we identified in the coding, how they differently discuss qualitative research, as well as their overall content. Some salient quotations are selected to represent the type of text sorted under each of the four categories. What we present are examples from the literature.

Qualitative and Quantitative

This analytic category comprises quotations comparing qualitative and quantitative research, a distinction that is frequently used (Brown 2010 :231); in effect this is a conceptual pair that structures the discussion and that may be associated with opposing interests. While the general goal of quantitative and qualitative research is the same – to understand the world better – their methodologies and focus in certain respects differ substantially (Becker 1966 :55). Quantity refers to that property of something that can be determined by measurement. In a dictionary of Statistics and Methodology we find that “(a) When referring to *variables, ‘qualitative’ is another term for *categorical or *nominal. (b) When speaking of kinds of research, ‘qualitative’ refers to studies of subjects that are hard to quantify, such as art history. Qualitative research tends to be a residual category for almost any kind of non-quantitative research” (Stiles 1998:183). But it should be obvious that one could employ a quantitative approach when studying, for example, art history.

The same dictionary states that quantitative is “said of variables or research that can be handled numerically, usually (too sharply) contrasted with *qualitative variables and research” (Stiles 1998:184). From a qualitative perspective “quantitative research” is about numbers and counting, and from a quantitative perspective qualitative research is everything that is not about numbers. But this does not say much about what is “qualitative.” If we turn to encyclopedias we find that in the 1932 edition of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences there is no mention of “qualitative.” In the Encyclopedia from 1968 we can read:

Qualitative Analysis. For methods of obtaining, analyzing, and describing data, see [the various entries:] CONTENT ANALYSIS; COUNTED DATA; EVALUATION RESEARCH, FIELD WORK; GRAPHIC PRESENTATION; HISTORIOGRAPHY, especially the article on THE RHETORIC OF HISTORY; INTERVIEWING; OBSERVATION; PERSONALITY MEASUREMENT; PROJECTIVE METHODS; PSYCHOANALYSIS, article on EXPERIMENTAL METHODS; SURVEY ANALYSIS, TABULAR PRESENTATION; TYPOLOGIES. (Vol. 13:225)

Some, like Alford, divide researchers into methodologists or, in his words, “quantitative and qualitative specialists” (Alford 1998 :12). Qualitative research uses a variety of methods, such as intensive interviews or in-depth analysis of historical materials, and it is concerned with a comprehensive account of some event or unit (King et al. 1994 :4). Like quantitative research it can be utilized to study a variety of issues, but it tends to focus on meanings and motivations that underlie cultural symbols, personal experiences, phenomena and detailed understanding of processes in the social world. In short, qualitative research centers on understanding processes, experiences, and the meanings people assign to things (Kalof et al. 2008 :79).

Others simply say that qualitative methods are inherently unscientific (Jovanović 2011 :19). Hood, for instance, argues that words are intrinsically less precise than numbers, and that they are therefore more prone to subjective analysis, leading to biased results (Hood 2006 :219). Qualitative methodologies have raised concerns over the limitations of quantitative templates (Brady et al. 2004 :4). Scholars such as King et al. ( 1994 ), for instance, argue that non-statistical research can produce more reliable results if researchers pay attention to the rules of scientific inference commonly stated in quantitative research. Also, researchers such as Becker ( 1966 :59; 1970 :42–43) have asserted that, if conducted properly, qualitative research and in particular ethnographic field methods, can lead to more accurate results than quantitative studies, in particular, survey research and laboratory experiments.

Some researchers, such as Kalof, Dan, and Dietz ( 2008 :79) claim that the boundaries between the two approaches are becoming blurred, and Small ( 2009 ) argues that currently much qualitative research (especially in North America) tries unsuccessfully and unnecessarily to emulate quantitative standards. For others, qualitative research tends to be more humanistic and discursive (King et al. 1994 :4). Ragin ( 1994 ), and similarly also Becker, ( 1996 :53), Marchel and Owens ( 2007 :303) think that the main distinction between the two styles is overstated and does not rest on the simple dichotomy of “numbers versus words” (Ragin 1994 :xii). Some claim that quantitative data can be utilized to discover associations, but in order to unveil cause and effect a complex research design involving the use of qualitative approaches needs to be devised (Gilbert 2009 :35). Consequently, qualitative data are useful for understanding the nuances lying beyond those processes as they unfold (Gilbert 2009 :35). Others contend that qualitative research is particularly well suited both to identify causality and to uncover fine descriptive distinctions (Fine and Hallett 2014 ; Lichterman and Isaac Reed 2014 ; Katz 2015 ).

There are other ways to separate these two traditions, including normative statements about what qualitative research should be (that is, better or worse than quantitative approaches, concerned with scientific approaches to societal change or vice versa; Snow and Morrill 1995 ; Denzin and Lincoln 2005 ), or whether it should develop falsifiable statements; Best 2004 ).

We propose that quantitative research is largely concerned with pre-determined variables (Small 2008 ); the analysis concerns the relations between variables. These categories are primarily not questioned in the study, only their frequency or degree, or the correlations between them (cf. Franzosi 2016 ). If a researcher studies wage differences between women and men, he or she works with given categories: x number of men are compared with y number of women, with a certain wage attributed to each person. The idea is not to move beyond the given categories of wage, men and women; they are the starting point as well as the end point, and undergo no “qualitative change.” Qualitative research, in contrast, investigates relations between categories that are themselves subject to change in the research process. Returning to Becker’s study ( 1963 ), we see that he questioned pre-dispositional theories of deviant behavior working with pre-determined variables such as an individual’s combination of personal qualities or emotional problems. His take, in contrast, was to understand marijuana consumption by developing “variables” as part of the investigation. Thereby he presented new variables, or as we would say today, theoretical concepts, but which are grounded in the empirical material.

Qualitative Research

This category contains quotations that refer to descriptions of qualitative research without making comparisons with quantitative research. Researchers such as Denzin and Lincoln, who have written a series of influential handbooks on qualitative methods (1994; Denzin and Lincoln 2003 ; 2005 ), citing Nelson et al. (1992:4), argue that because qualitative research is “interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, and sometimes counterdisciplinary” it is difficult to derive one single definition of it (Jovanović 2011 :3). According to them, in fact, “the field” is “many things at the same time,” involving contradictions, tensions over its focus, methods, and how to derive interpretations and findings ( 2003 : 11). Similarly, others, such as Flick ( 2007 :ix–x) contend that agreeing on an accepted definition has increasingly become problematic, and that qualitative research has possibly matured different identities. However, Best holds that “the proliferation of many sorts of activities under the label of qualitative sociology threatens to confuse our discussions” ( 2004 :54). Atkinson’s position is more definite: “the current state of qualitative research and research methods is confused” ( 2005 :3–4).

Qualitative research is about interpretation (Blumer 1969 ; Strauss and Corbin 1998 ; Denzin and Lincoln 2003 ), or Verstehen [understanding] (Frankfort-Nachmias and Nachmias 1996 ). It is “multi-method,” involving the collection and use of a variety of empirical materials (Denzin and Lincoln 1998; Silverman 2013 ) and approaches (Silverman 2005 ; Flick 2007 ). It focuses not only on the objective nature of behavior but also on its subjective meanings: individuals’ own accounts of their attitudes, motivations, behavior (McIntyre 2005 :127; Creswell 2009 ), events and situations (Bryman 1989) – what people say and do in specific places and institutions (Goodwin and Horowitz 2002 :35–36) in social and temporal contexts (Morrill and Fine 1997). For this reason, following Weber ([1921-22] 1978), it can be described as an interpretative science (McIntyre 2005 :127). But could quantitative research also be concerned with these questions? Also, as pointed out below, does all qualitative research focus on subjective meaning, as some scholars suggest?

Others also distinguish qualitative research by claiming that it collects data using a naturalistic approach (Denzin and Lincoln 2005 :2; Creswell 2009 ), focusing on the meaning actors ascribe to their actions. But again, does all qualitative research need to be collected in situ? And does qualitative research have to be inherently concerned with meaning? Flick ( 2007 ), referring to Denzin and Lincoln ( 2005 ), mentions conversation analysis as an example of qualitative research that is not concerned with the meanings people bring to a situation, but rather with the formal organization of talk. Still others, such as Ragin ( 1994 :85), note that qualitative research is often (especially early on in the project, we would add) less structured than other kinds of social research – a characteristic connected to its flexibility and that can lead both to potentially better, but also worse results. But is this not a feature of this type of research, rather than a defining description of its essence? Wouldn’t this comment also apply, albeit to varying degrees, to quantitative research?

In addition, Strauss ( 2003 ), along with others, such as Alvesson and Kärreman ( 2011 :10–76), argue that qualitative researchers struggle to capture and represent complex phenomena partially because they tend to collect a large amount of data. While his analysis is correct at some points – “It is necessary to do detailed, intensive, microscopic examination of the data in order to bring out the amazing complexity of what lies in, behind, and beyond those data” (Strauss 2003 :10) – much of his analysis concerns the supposed focus of qualitative research and its challenges, rather than exactly what it is about. But even in this instance we would make a weak case arguing that these are strictly the defining features of qualitative research. Some researchers seem to focus on the approach or the methods used, or even on the way material is analyzed. Several researchers stress the naturalistic assumption of investigating the world, suggesting that meaning and interpretation appear to be a core matter of qualitative research.

We can also see that in this category there is no consensus about specific qualitative methods nor about qualitative data. Many emphasize interpretation, but quantitative research, too, involves interpretation; the results of a regression analysis, for example, certainly have to be interpreted, and the form of meta-analysis that factor analysis provides indeed requires interpretation However, there is no interpretation of quantitative raw data, i.e., numbers in tables. One common thread is that qualitative researchers have to get to grips with their data in order to understand what is being studied in great detail, irrespective of the type of empirical material that is being analyzed. This observation is connected to the fact that qualitative researchers routinely make several adjustments of focus and research design as their studies progress, in many cases until the very end of the project (Kalof et al. 2008 ). If you, like Becker, do not start out with a detailed theory, adjustments such as the emergence and refinement of research questions will occur during the research process. We have thus found a number of useful reflections about qualitative research scattered across different sources, but none of them effectively describe the defining characteristics of this approach.

Although qualitative research does not appear to be defined in terms of a specific method, it is certainly common that fieldwork, i.e., research that entails that the researcher spends considerable time in the field that is studied and use the knowledge gained as data, is seen as emblematic of or even identical to qualitative research. But because we understand that fieldwork tends to focus primarily on the collection and analysis of qualitative data, we expected to find within it discussions on the meaning of “qualitative.” But, again, this was not the case.

Instead, we found material on the history of this approach (for example, Frankfort-Nachmias and Nachmias 1996 ; Atkinson et al. 2001), including how it has changed; for example, by adopting a more self-reflexive practice (Heyl 2001), as well as the different nomenclature that has been adopted, such as fieldwork, ethnography, qualitative research, naturalistic research, participant observation and so on (for example, Lofland et al. 2006 ; Gans 1999 ).

We retrieved definitions of ethnography, such as “the study of people acting in the natural courses of their daily lives,” involving a “resocialization of the researcher” (Emerson 1988 :1) through intense immersion in others’ social worlds (see also examples in Hammersley 2018 ). This may be accomplished by direct observation and also participation (Neuman 2007 :276), although others, such as Denzin ( 1970 :185), have long recognized other types of observation, including non-participant (“fly on the wall”). In this category we have also isolated claims and opposing views, arguing that this type of research is distinguished primarily by where it is conducted (natural settings) (Hughes 1971:496), and how it is carried out (a variety of methods are applied) or, for some most importantly, by involving an active, empathetic immersion in those being studied (Emerson 1988 :2). We also retrieved descriptions of the goals it attends in relation to how it is taught (understanding subjective meanings of the people studied, primarily develop theory, or contribute to social change) (see for example, Corte and Irwin 2017 ; Frankfort-Nachmias and Nachmias 1996 :281; Trier-Bieniek 2012 :639) by collecting the richest possible data (Lofland et al. 2006 ) to derive “thick descriptions” (Geertz 1973 ), and/or to aim at theoretical statements of general scope and applicability (for example, Emerson 1988 ; Fine 2003 ). We have identified guidelines on how to evaluate it (for example Becker 1996 ; Lamont 2004 ) and have retrieved instructions on how it should be conducted (for example, Lofland et al. 2006 ). For instance, analysis should take place while the data gathering unfolds (Emerson 1988 ; Hammersley and Atkinson 2007 ; Lofland et al. 2006 ), observations should be of long duration (Becker 1970 :54; Goffman 1989 ), and data should be of high quantity (Becker 1970 :52–53), as well as other questionable distinctions between fieldwork and other methods:

Field studies differ from other methods of research in that the researcher performs the task of selecting topics, decides what questions to ask, and forges interest in the course of the research itself . This is in sharp contrast to many ‘theory-driven’ and ‘hypothesis-testing’ methods. (Lofland and Lofland 1995 :5)

But could not, for example, a strictly interview-based study be carried out with the same amount of flexibility, such as sequential interviewing (for example, Small 2009 )? Once again, are quantitative approaches really as inflexible as some qualitative researchers think? Moreover, this category stresses the role of the actors’ meaning, which requires knowledge and close interaction with people, their practices and their lifeworld.

It is clear that field studies – which are seen by some as the “gold standard” of qualitative research – are nonetheless only one way of doing qualitative research. There are other methods, but it is not clear why some are more qualitative than others, or why they are better or worse. Fieldwork is characterized by interaction with the field (the material) and understanding of the phenomenon that is being studied. In Becker’s case, he had general experience from fields in which marihuana was used, based on which he did interviews with actual users in several fields.

Grounded Theory

Another major category we identified in our sample is Grounded Theory. We found descriptions of it most clearly in Glaser and Strauss’ ([1967] 2010 ) original articulation, Strauss and Corbin ( 1998 ) and Charmaz ( 2006 ), as well as many other accounts of what it is for: generating and testing theory (Strauss 2003 :xi). We identified explanations of how this task can be accomplished – such as through two main procedures: constant comparison and theoretical sampling (Emerson 1998:96), and how using it has helped researchers to “think differently” (for example, Strauss and Corbin 1998 :1). We also read descriptions of its main traits, what it entails and fosters – for instance, an exceptional flexibility, an inductive approach (Strauss and Corbin 1998 :31–33; 1990; Esterberg 2002 :7), an ability to step back and critically analyze situations, recognize tendencies towards bias, think abstractly and be open to criticism, enhance sensitivity towards the words and actions of respondents, and develop a sense of absorption and devotion to the research process (Strauss and Corbin 1998 :5–6). Accordingly, we identified discussions of the value of triangulating different methods (both using and not using grounded theory), including quantitative ones, and theories to achieve theoretical development (most comprehensively in Denzin 1970 ; Strauss and Corbin 1998 ; Timmermans and Tavory 2012 ). We have also located arguments about how its practice helps to systematize data collection, analysis and presentation of results (Glaser and Strauss [1967] 2010 :16).

Grounded theory offers a systematic approach which requires researchers to get close to the field; closeness is a requirement of identifying questions and developing new concepts or making further distinctions with regard to old concepts. In contrast to other qualitative approaches, grounded theory emphasizes the detailed coding process, and the numerous fine-tuned distinctions that the researcher makes during the process. Within this category, too, we could not find a satisfying discussion of the meaning of qualitative research.

Defining Qualitative Research

In sum, our analysis shows that some notions reappear in the discussion of qualitative research, such as understanding, interpretation, “getting close” and making distinctions. These notions capture aspects of what we think is “qualitative.” However, a comprehensive definition that is useful and that can further develop the field is lacking, and not even a clear picture of its essential elements appears. In other words no definition emerges from our data, and in our research process we have moved back and forth between our empirical data and the attempt to present a definition. Our concrete strategy, as stated above, is to relate qualitative and quantitative research, or more specifically, qualitative and quantitative work. We use an ideal-typical notion of quantitative research which relies on taken for granted and numbered variables. This means that the data consists of variables on different scales, such as ordinal, but frequently ratio and absolute scales, and the representation of the numbers to the variables, i.e. the justification of the assignment of numbers to object or phenomenon, are not questioned, though the validity may be questioned. In this section we return to the notion of quality and try to clarify it while presenting our contribution.

Broadly, research refers to the activity performed by people trained to obtain knowledge through systematic procedures. Notions such as “objectivity” and “reflexivity,” “systematic,” “theory,” “evidence” and “openness” are here taken for granted in any type of research. Next, building on our empirical analysis we explain the four notions that we have identified as central to qualitative work: distinctions, process, closeness, and improved understanding. In discussing them, ultimately in relation to one another, we make their meaning even more precise. Our idea, in short, is that only when these ideas that we present separately for analytic purposes are brought together can we speak of qualitative research.

Distinctions

We believe that the possibility of making new distinctions is one the defining characteristics of qualitative research. It clearly sets it apart from quantitative analysis which works with taken-for-granted variables, albeit as mentioned, meta-analyses, for example, factor analysis may result in new variables. “Quality” refers essentially to distinctions, as already pointed out by Aristotle. He discusses the term “qualitative” commenting: “By a quality I mean that in virtue of which things are said to be qualified somehow” (Aristotle 1984:14). Quality is about what something is or has, which means that the distinction from its environment is crucial. We see qualitative research as a process in which significant new distinctions are made to the scholarly community; to make distinctions is a key aspect of obtaining new knowledge; a point, as we will see, that also has implications for “quantitative research.” The notion of being “significant” is paramount. New distinctions by themselves are not enough; just adding concepts only increases complexity without furthering our knowledge. The significance of new distinctions is judged against the communal knowledge of the research community. To enable this discussion and judgements central elements of rational discussion are required (cf. Habermas [1981] 1987 ; Davidsson [ 1988 ] 2001) to identify what is new and relevant scientific knowledge. Relatedly, Ragin alludes to the idea of new and useful knowledge at a more concrete level: “Qualitative methods are appropriate for in-depth examination of cases because they aid the identification of key features of cases. Most qualitative methods enhance data” (1994:79). When Becker ( 1963 ) studied deviant behavior and investigated how people became marihuana smokers, he made distinctions between the ways in which people learned how to smoke. This is a classic example of how the strategy of “getting close” to the material, for example the text, people or pictures that are subject to analysis, may enable researchers to obtain deeper insight and new knowledge by making distinctions – in this instance on the initial notion of learning how to smoke. Others have stressed the making of distinctions in relation to coding or theorizing. Emerson et al. ( 1995 ), for example, hold that “qualitative coding is a way of opening up avenues of inquiry,” meaning that the researcher identifies and develops concepts and analytic insights through close examination of and reflection on data (Emerson et al. 1995 :151). Goodwin and Horowitz highlight making distinctions in relation to theory-building writing: “Close engagement with their cases typically requires qualitative researchers to adapt existing theories or to make new conceptual distinctions or theoretical arguments to accommodate new data” ( 2002 : 37). In the ideal-typical quantitative research only existing and so to speak, given, variables would be used. If this is the case no new distinction are made. But, would not also many “quantitative” researchers make new distinctions?

Process does not merely suggest that research takes time. It mainly implies that qualitative new knowledge results from a process that involves several phases, and above all iteration. Qualitative research is about oscillation between theory and evidence, analysis and generating material, between first- and second -order constructs (Schütz 1962 :59), between getting in contact with something, finding sources, becoming deeply familiar with a topic, and then distilling and communicating some of its essential features. The main point is that the categories that the researcher uses, and perhaps takes for granted at the beginning of the research process, usually undergo qualitative changes resulting from what is found. Becker describes how he tested hypotheses and let the jargon of the users develop into theoretical concepts. This happens over time while the study is being conducted, exemplifying what we mean by process.

In the research process, a pilot-study may be used to get a first glance of, for example, the field, how to approach it, and what methods can be used, after which the method and theory are chosen or refined before the main study begins. Thus, the empirical material is often central from the start of the project and frequently leads to adjustments by the researcher. Likewise, during the main study categories are not fixed; the empirical material is seen in light of the theory used, but it is also given the opportunity to kick back, thereby resisting attempts to apply theoretical straightjackets (Becker 1970 :43). In this process, coding and analysis are interwoven, and thus are often important steps for getting closer to the phenomenon and deciding what to focus on next. Becker began his research by interviewing musicians close to him, then asking them to refer him to other musicians, and later on doubling his original sample of about 25 to include individuals in other professions (Becker 1973:46). Additionally, he made use of some participant observation, documents, and interviews with opiate users made available to him by colleagues. As his inductive theory of deviance evolved, Becker expanded his sample in order to fine tune it, and test the accuracy and generality of his hypotheses. In addition, he introduced a negative case and discussed the null hypothesis ( 1963 :44). His phasic career model is thus based on a research design that embraces processual work. Typically, process means to move between “theory” and “material” but also to deal with negative cases, and Becker ( 1998 ) describes how discovering these negative cases impacted his research design and ultimately its findings.

Obviously, all research is process-oriented to some degree. The point is that the ideal-typical quantitative process does not imply change of the data, and iteration between data, evidence, hypotheses, empirical work, and theory. The data, quantified variables, are, in most cases fixed. Merging of data, which of course can be done in a quantitative research process, does not mean new data. New hypotheses are frequently tested, but the “raw data is often the “the same.” Obviously, over time new datasets are made available and put into use.

Another characteristic that is emphasized in our sample is that qualitative researchers – and in particular ethnographers – can, or as Goffman put it, ought to ( 1989 ), get closer to the phenomenon being studied and their data than quantitative researchers (for example, Silverman 2009 :85). Put differently, essentially because of their methods qualitative researchers get into direct close contact with those being investigated and/or the material, such as texts, being analyzed. Becker started out his interview study, as we noted, by talking to those he knew in the field of music to get closer to the phenomenon he was studying. By conducting interviews he got even closer. Had he done more observations, he would undoubtedly have got even closer to the field.

Additionally, ethnographers’ design enables researchers to follow the field over time, and the research they do is almost by definition longitudinal, though the time in the field is studied obviously differs between studies. The general characteristic of closeness over time maximizes the chances of unexpected events, new data (related, for example, to archival research as additional sources, and for ethnography for situations not necessarily previously thought of as instrumental – what Mannay and Morgan ( 2015 ) term the “waiting field”), serendipity (Merton and Barber 2004 ; Åkerström 2013 ), and possibly reactivity, as well as the opportunity to observe disrupted patterns that translate into exemplars of negative cases. Two classic examples of this are Becker’s finding of what medical students call “crocks” (Becker et al. 1961 :317), and Geertz’s ( 1973 ) study of “deep play” in Balinese society.

By getting and staying so close to their data – be it pictures, text or humans interacting (Becker was himself a musician) – for a long time, as the research progressively focuses, qualitative researchers are prompted to continually test their hunches, presuppositions and hypotheses. They test them against a reality that often (but certainly not always), and practically, as well as metaphorically, talks back, whether by validating them, or disqualifying their premises – correctly, as well as incorrectly (Fine 2003 ; Becker 1970 ). This testing nonetheless often leads to new directions for the research. Becker, for example, says that he was initially reading psychological theories, but when facing the data he develops a theory that looks at, you may say, everything but psychological dispositions to explain the use of marihuana. Especially researchers involved with ethnographic methods have a fairly unique opportunity to dig up and then test (in a circular, continuous and temporal way) new research questions and findings as the research progresses, and thereby to derive previously unimagined and uncharted distinctions by getting closer to the phenomenon under study.

Let us stress that getting close is by no means restricted to ethnography. The notion of hermeneutic circle and hermeneutics as a general way of understanding implies that we must get close to the details in order to get the big picture. This also means that qualitative researchers can literally also make use of details of pictures as evidence (cf. Harper 2002). Thus, researchers may get closer both when generating the material or when analyzing it.

Quantitative research, we maintain, in the ideal-typical representation cannot get closer to the data. The data is essentially numbers in tables making up the variables (Franzosi 2016 :138). The data may originally have been “qualitative,” but once reduced to numbers there can only be a type of “hermeneutics” about what the number may stand for. The numbers themselves, however, are non-ambiguous. Thus, in quantitative research, interpretation, if done, is not about the data itself—the numbers—but what the numbers stand for. It follows that the interpretation is essentially done in a more “speculative” mode without direct empirical evidence (cf. Becker 2017 ).

Improved Understanding

While distinction, process and getting closer refer to the qualitative work of the researcher, improved understanding refers to its conditions and outcome of this work. Understanding cuts deeper than explanation, which to some may mean a causally verified correlation between variables. The notion of explanation presupposes the notion of understanding since explanation does not include an idea of how knowledge is gained (Manicas 2006 : 15). Understanding, we argue, is the core concept of what we call the outcome of the process when research has made use of all the other elements that were integrated in the research. Understanding, then, has a special status in qualitative research since it refers both to the conditions of knowledge and the outcome of the process. Understanding can to some extent be seen as the condition of explanation and occurs in a process of interpretation, which naturally refers to meaning (Gadamer 1990 ). It is fundamentally connected to knowing, and to the knowing of how to do things (Heidegger [1927] 2001 ). Conceptually the term hermeneutics is used to account for this process. Heidegger ties hermeneutics to human being and not possible to separate from the understanding of being ( 1988 ). Here we use it in a broader sense, and more connected to method in general (cf. Seiffert 1992 ). The abovementioned aspects – for example, “objectivity” and “reflexivity” – of the approach are conditions of scientific understanding. Understanding is the result of a circular process and means that the parts are understood in light of the whole, and vice versa. Understanding presupposes pre-understanding, or in other words, some knowledge of the phenomenon studied. The pre-understanding, even in the form of prejudices, are in qualitative research process, which we see as iterative, questioned, which gradually or suddenly change due to the iteration of data, evidence and concepts. However, qualitative research generates understanding in the iterative process when the researcher gets closer to the data, e.g., by going back and forth between field and analysis in a process that generates new data that changes the evidence, and, ultimately, the findings. Questioning, to ask questions, and put what one assumes—prejudices and presumption—in question, is central to understand something (Heidegger [1927] 2001 ; Gadamer 1990 :368–384). We propose that this iterative process in which the process of understanding occurs is characteristic of qualitative research.

Improved understanding means that we obtain scientific knowledge of something that we as a scholarly community did not know before, or that we get to know something better. It means that we understand more about how parts are related to one another, and to other things we already understand (see also Fine and Hallett 2014 ). Understanding is an important condition for qualitative research. It is not enough to identify correlations, make distinctions, and work in a process in which one gets close to the field or phenomena. Understanding is accomplished when the elements are integrated in an iterative process.

It is, moreover, possible to understand many things, and researchers, just like children, may come to understand new things every day as they engage with the world. This subjective condition of understanding – namely, that a person gains a better understanding of something –is easily met. To be qualified as “scientific,” the understanding must be general and useful to many; it must be public. But even this generally accessible understanding is not enough in order to speak of “scientific understanding.” Though we as a collective can increase understanding of everything in virtually all potential directions as a result also of qualitative work, we refrain from this “objective” way of understanding, which has no means of discriminating between what we gain in understanding. Scientific understanding means that it is deemed relevant from the scientific horizon (compare Schütz 1962 : 35–38, 46, 63), and that it rests on the pre-understanding that the scientists have and must have in order to understand. In other words, the understanding gained must be deemed useful by other researchers, so that they can build on it. We thus see understanding from a pragmatic, rather than a subjective or objective perspective. Improved understanding is related to the question(s) at hand. Understanding, in order to represent an improvement, must be an improvement in relation to the existing body of knowledge of the scientific community (James [ 1907 ] 1955). Scientific understanding is, by definition, collective, as expressed in Weber’s famous note on objectivity, namely that scientific work aims at truths “which … can claim, even for a Chinese, the validity appropriate to an empirical analysis” ([1904] 1949 :59). By qualifying “improved understanding” we argue that it is a general defining characteristic of qualitative research. Becker‘s ( 1966 ) study and other research of deviant behavior increased our understanding of the social learning processes of how individuals start a behavior. And it also added new knowledge about the labeling of deviant behavior as a social process. Few studies, of course, make the same large contribution as Becker’s, but are nonetheless qualitative research.

Understanding in the phenomenological sense, which is a hallmark of qualitative research, we argue, requires meaning and this meaning is derived from the context, and above all the data being analyzed. The ideal-typical quantitative research operates with given variables with different numbers. This type of material is not enough to establish meaning at the level that truly justifies understanding. In other words, many social science explanations offer ideas about correlations or even causal relations, but this does not mean that the meaning at the level of the data analyzed, is understood. This leads us to say that there are indeed many explanations that meet the criteria of understanding, for example the explanation of how one becomes a marihuana smoker presented by Becker. However, we may also understand a phenomenon without explaining it, and we may have potential explanations, or better correlations, that are not really understood.

We may speak more generally of quantitative research and its data to clarify what we see as an important distinction. The “raw data” that quantitative research—as an idealtypical activity, refers to is not available for further analysis; the numbers, once created, are not to be questioned (Franzosi 2016 : 138). If the researcher is to do “more” or “change” something, this will be done by conjectures based on theoretical knowledge or based on the researcher’s lifeworld. Both qualitative and quantitative research is based on the lifeworld, and all researchers use prejudices and pre-understanding in the research process. This idea is present in the works of Heidegger ( 2001 ) and Heisenberg (cited in Franzosi 2010 :619). Qualitative research, as we argued, involves the interaction and questioning of concepts (theory), data, and evidence.

Ragin ( 2004 :22) points out that “a good definition of qualitative research should be inclusive and should emphasize its key strengths and features, not what it lacks (for example, the use of sophisticated quantitative techniques).” We define qualitative research as an iterative process in which improved understanding to the scientific community is achieved by making new significant distinctions resulting from getting closer to the phenomenon studied. Qualitative research, as defined here, is consequently a combination of two criteria: (i) how to do things –namely, generating and analyzing empirical material, in an iterative process in which one gets closer by making distinctions, and (ii) the outcome –improved understanding novel to the scholarly community. Is our definition applicable to our own study? In this study we have closely read the empirical material that we generated, and the novel distinction of the notion “qualitative research” is the outcome of an iterative process in which both deduction and induction were involved, in which we identified the categories that we analyzed. We thus claim to meet the first criteria, “how to do things.” The second criteria cannot be judged but in a partial way by us, namely that the “outcome” —in concrete form the definition-improves our understanding to others in the scientific community.

We have defined qualitative research, or qualitative scientific work, in relation to quantitative scientific work. Given this definition, qualitative research is about questioning the pre-given (taken for granted) variables, but it is thus also about making new distinctions of any type of phenomenon, for example, by coining new concepts, including the identification of new variables. This process, as we have discussed, is carried out in relation to empirical material, previous research, and thus in relation to theory. Theory and previous research cannot be escaped or bracketed. According to hermeneutic principles all scientific work is grounded in the lifeworld, and as social scientists we can thus never fully bracket our pre-understanding.

We have proposed that quantitative research, as an idealtype, is concerned with pre-determined variables (Small 2008 ). Variables are epistemically fixed, but can vary in terms of dimensions, such as frequency or number. Age is an example; as a variable it can take on different numbers. In relation to quantitative research, qualitative research does not reduce its material to number and variables. If this is done the process of comes to a halt, the researcher gets more distanced from her data, and it makes it no longer possible to make new distinctions that increase our understanding. We have above discussed the components of our definition in relation to quantitative research. Our conclusion is that in the research that is called quantitative there are frequent and necessary qualitative elements.

Further, comparative empirical research on researchers primarily working with ”quantitative” approaches and those working with ”qualitative” approaches, we propose, would perhaps show that there are many similarities in practices of these two approaches. This is not to deny dissimilarities, or the different epistemic and ontic presuppositions that may be more or less strongly associated with the two different strands (see Goertz and Mahoney 2012 ). Our point is nonetheless that prejudices and preconceptions about researchers are unproductive, and that as other researchers have argued, differences may be exaggerated (e.g., Becker 1996 : 53, 2017 ; Marchel and Owens 2007 :303; Ragin 1994 ), and that a qualitative dimension is present in both kinds of work.

Several things follow from our findings. The most important result is the relation to quantitative research. In our analysis we have separated qualitative research from quantitative research. The point is not to label individual researchers, methods, projects, or works as either “quantitative” or “qualitative.” By analyzing, i.e., taking apart, the notions of quantitative and qualitative, we hope to have shown the elements of qualitative research. Our definition captures the elements, and how they, when combined in practice, generate understanding. As many of the quotations we have used suggest, one conclusion of our study holds that qualitative approaches are not inherently connected with a specific method. Put differently, none of the methods that are frequently labelled “qualitative,” such as interviews or participant observation, are inherently “qualitative.” What matters, given our definition, is whether one works qualitatively or quantitatively in the research process, until the results are produced. Consequently, our analysis also suggests that those researchers working with what in the literature and in jargon is often called “quantitative research” are almost bound to make use of what we have identified as qualitative elements in any research project. Our findings also suggest that many” quantitative” researchers, at least to some extent, are engaged with qualitative work, such as when research questions are developed, variables are constructed and combined, and hypotheses are formulated. Furthermore, a research project may hover between “qualitative” and “quantitative” or start out as “qualitative” and later move into a “quantitative” (a distinct strategy that is not similar to “mixed methods” or just simply combining induction and deduction). More generally speaking, the categories of “qualitative” and “quantitative,” unfortunately, often cover up practices, and it may lead to “camps” of researchers opposing one another. For example, regardless of the researcher is primarily oriented to “quantitative” or “qualitative” research, the role of theory is neglected (cf. Swedberg 2017 ). Our results open up for an interaction not characterized by differences, but by different emphasis, and similarities.

Let us take two examples to briefly indicate how qualitative elements can fruitfully be combined with quantitative. Franzosi ( 2010 ) has discussed the relations between quantitative and qualitative approaches, and more specifically the relation between words and numbers. He analyzes texts and argues that scientific meaning cannot be reduced to numbers. Put differently, the meaning of the numbers is to be understood by what is taken for granted, and what is part of the lifeworld (Schütz 1962 ). Franzosi shows how one can go about using qualitative and quantitative methods and data to address scientific questions analyzing violence in Italy at the time when fascism was rising (1919–1922). Aspers ( 2006 ) studied the meaning of fashion photographers. He uses an empirical phenomenological approach, and establishes meaning at the level of actors. In a second step this meaning, and the different ideal-typical photographers constructed as a result of participant observation and interviews, are tested using quantitative data from a database; in the first phase to verify the different ideal-types, in the second phase to use these types to establish new knowledge about the types. In both of these cases—and more examples can be found—authors move from qualitative data and try to keep the meaning established when using the quantitative data.

A second main result of our study is that a definition, and we provided one, offers a way for research to clarify, and even evaluate, what is done. Hence, our definition can guide researchers and students, informing them on how to think about concrete research problems they face, and to show what it means to get closer in a process in which new distinctions are made. The definition can also be used to evaluate the results, given that it is a standard of evaluation (cf. Hammersley 2007 ), to see whether new distinctions are made and whether this improves our understanding of what is researched, in addition to the evaluation of how the research was conducted. By making what is qualitative research explicit it becomes easier to communicate findings, and it is thereby much harder to fly under the radar with substandard research since there are standards of evaluation which make it easier to separate “good” from “not so good” qualitative research.

To conclude, our analysis, which ends with a definition of qualitative research can thus both address the “internal” issues of what is qualitative research, and the “external” critiques that make it harder to do qualitative research, to which both pressure from quantitative methods and general changes in society contribute.

Acknowledgements

Financial Support for this research is given by the European Research Council, CEV (263699). The authors are grateful to Susann Krieglsteiner for assistance in collecting the data. The paper has benefitted from the many useful comments by the three reviewers and the editor, comments by members of the Uppsala Laboratory of Economic Sociology, as well as Jukka Gronow, Sebastian Kohl, Marcin Serafin, Richard Swedberg, Anders Vassenden and Turid Rødne.

Biographies

is professor of sociology at the Department of Sociology, Uppsala University and Universität St. Gallen. His main focus is economic sociology, and in particular, markets. He has published numerous articles and books, including Orderly Fashion (Princeton University Press 2010), Markets (Polity Press 2011) and Re-Imagining Economic Sociology (edited with N. Dodd, Oxford University Press 2015). His book Ethnographic Methods (in Swedish) has already gone through several editions.

is associate professor of sociology at the Department of Media and Social Sciences, University of Stavanger. His research has been published in journals such as Social Psychology Quarterly, Sociological Theory, Teaching Sociology, and Music and Arts in Action. As an ethnographer he is working on a book on he social world of big-wave surfing.

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Contributor Information

Patrik Aspers, Email: [email protected] .

Ugo Corte, Email: [email protected] .

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Epistemology and Metaphysics for Qualitative Research

  • By: Tomas Pernecky
  • Publisher: SAGE Publications Ltd
  • Publication year: 2016
  • Online pub date: January 05, 2017
  • Methods: Realism , Critical realism , Epistemology
  • DOI: https:// doi. org/10.4135/9781473982956
  • Keywords: knowledge , metaphysics , philosophy , philosophy of science , scientific realism , social facts , truth Show all Show less
  • Print ISBN: 9781446282397
  • Online ISBN: 9781473982956
  • Buy the book icon link

Subject index

This clearly written and provocative text outlines the wide range of epistemological and metaphysical pillars of research. In a clear, easy to follow style, the reader is guided through an array of concepts that are defined, explained and made simple. With the aid of helpful examples and case studies, the book challenges the prevailing modes of thinking about qualitative inquiry by showcasing an immense variety of philosophical frameworks. Armed with a strong understanding of this philosophical backbone, students will be able to choose and defend a ‘pick and mix’ of research methods that will uniquely complement their research.  • Empiricism  • Rationalism  • Realism  • Skepticism  • Idealism  • Positivism  • Post-positivism  • Idea-ism  • Hermeneutics  • Phenomenology  • Social Ontology  • Quantum Mechanics Essential reading for new and experienced researchers, this ‘must’ for any social science bookshelf will help unlock a new level of research creativity.

Front Matter

  • Acknowledgements
  • Chapter 1 | Introduction: Situating Metaphysics and Epistemology in Qualitative Research
  • Chapter 2 | In Search of Truths: Empiricism Versus Rationalism
  • Chapter 3 | Scepticism, Idea-ism, and Idealism
  • Chapter 4 | German Idealism, Phenomenology, and Hermeneutics
  • Chapter 5 | Realism, its Varieties and Contenders
  • Chapter 6 | Social Ontology
  • Chapter 7 | Quantum Reality: Contemporary Views of the Things-in-Themselves
  • Chapter 8 | Conclusions: On Academic Creativity and Philosophical and Methodological Freedom

Back Matter

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Book cover

Qualitative Research Using R: A Systematic Approach pp 1–19 Cite as

Qualitative Research: An Overview

  • Yanto Chandra 3 &
  • Liang Shang 4  
  • First Online: 24 April 2019

3495 Accesses

5 Citations

Qualitative research is one of the most commonly used types of research and methodology in the social sciences. Unfortunately, qualitative research is commonly misunderstood. In this chapter, we describe and explain the misconceptions surrounding qualitative research enterprise, why researchers need to care about when using qualitative research, the characteristics of qualitative research, and review the paradigms in qualitative research.

  • Qualitative research
  • Gioia approach
  • Yin-Eisenhardt approach
  • Langley approach
  • Interpretivism

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Qualitative research is defined as the practice used to study things –– individuals and organizations and their reasons, opinions, and motivations, beliefs in their natural settings. It involves an observer (a researcher) who is located in the field , who transforms the world into a series of representations such as fieldnotes, interviews, conversations, photographs, recordings and memos (Denzin and Lincoln 2011 ). Many researchers employ qualitative research for exploratory purpose while others use it for ‘quasi’ theory testing approach. Qualitative research is a broad umbrella of research methodologies that encompasses grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss 2017 ; Strauss and Corbin 1990 ), case study (Flyvbjerg 2006 ; Yin 2003 ), phenomenology (Sanders 1982 ), discourse analysis (Fairclough 2003 ; Wodak and Meyer 2009 ), ethnography (Geertz 1973 ; Garfinkel 1967 ), and netnography (Kozinets 2002 ), among others. Qualitative research is often synonymous with ‘case study research’ because ‘case study’ primarily uses (but not always) qualitative data.

The quality standards or evaluation criteria of qualitative research comprises: (1) credibility (that a researcher can provide confidence in his/her findings), (2) transferability (that results are more plausible when transported to a highly similar contexts), (3) dependability (that errors have been minimized, proper documentation is provided), and (4) confirmability (that conclusions are internally consistent and supported by data) (see Lincoln and Guba 1985 ).

We classify research into a continuum of theory building — >   theory elaboration — >   theory testing . Theory building is also known as theory exploration. Theory elaboration refers to the use of qualitative data and a method to seek “confirmation” of the relationships among variables or processes or mechanisms of a social reality (Bartunek and Rynes 2015 ).

In the context of qualitative research, theory/ies usually refer(s) to conceptual model(s) or framework(s) that explain the relationships among a set of variables or processes that explain a social phenomenon. Theory or theories could also refer to general ideas or frameworks (e.g., institutional theory, emancipation theory, or identity theory) that are reviewed as background knowledge prior to the commencement of a qualitative research project.

For example, a qualitative research can ask the following question: “How can institutional change succeed in social contexts that are dominated by organized crime?” (Vaccaro and Palazzo 2015 ).

We have witnessed numerous cases in which committed positivist methodologists were asked to review qualitative papers, and they used a survey approach to assess the quality of an interpretivist work. This reviewers’ fallacy is dangerous and hampers the progress of a field of research. Editors must be cognizant of such fallacy and avoid it.

A social enterprises (SE) is an organization that combines social welfare and commercial logics (Doherty et al. 2014 ), or that uses business principles to address social problems (Mair and Marti 2006 ); thus, qualitative research that reports that ‘social impact’ is important for SEs is too descriptive and, arguably, tautological. It is not uncommon to see authors submitting purely descriptive papers to scholarly journals.

Some qualitative researchers have conducted qualitative work using primarily a checklist (ticking the boxes) to show the presence or absence of variables, as if it were a survey-based study. This is utterly inappropriate for a qualitative work. A qualitative work needs to show the richness and depth of qualitative findings. Nevertheless, it is acceptable to use such checklists as supplementary data if a study involves too many informants or variables of interest, or the data is too complex due to its longitudinal nature (e.g., a study that involves 15 cases observed and involving 59 interviews with 33 informants within a 7-year fieldwork used an excel sheet to tabulate the number of events that occurred as supplementary data to the main analysis; see Chandra 2017a , b ).

As mentioned earlier, there are different types of qualitative research. Thus, a qualitative researcher will customize the data collection process to fit the type of research being conducted. For example, for researchers using ethnography, the primary data will be in the form of photos and/or videos and interviews; for those using netnography, the primary data will be internet-based textual data. Interview data is perhaps the most common type of data used across all types of qualitative research designs and is often synonymous with qualitative research.

The purpose of qualitative research is to provide an explanation , not merely a description and certainly not a prediction (which is the realm of quantitative research). However, description is needed to illustrate qualitative data collected, and usually researchers describe their qualitative data by inserting a number of important “informant quotes” in the body of a qualitative research report.

We advise qualitative researchers to adhere to one approach to avoid any epistemological and ontological mismatch that may arise among different camps in qualitative research. For instance, mixing a positivist with a constructivist approach in qualitative research frequently leads to unnecessary criticism and even rejection from journal editors and reviewers; it shows a lack of methodological competence or awareness of one’s epistemological position.

Analytical generalization is not generalization to some defined population that has been sampled, but to a “theory” of the phenomenon being studied, a theory that may have much wider applicability than the particular case studied (Yin 2003 ).

There are different types of contributions. Typically, a researcher is expected to clearly articulate the theoretical contributions for a qualitative work submitted to a scholarly journal. Other types of contributions are practical (or managerial ), common for business/management journals, and policy , common for policy related journals.

There is ongoing debate on whether a template for qualitative research is desirable or necessary, with one camp of scholars (the pluralistic critical realists) that advocates a pluralistic approaches to qualitative research (“qualitative research should not follow a particular template or be prescriptive in its process”) and the other camps are advocating for some form of consensus via the use of particular approaches (e.g., the Eisenhardt or Gioia Approach, etc.). However, as shown in Table 1.1 , even the pluralistic critical realism in itself is a template and advocates an alternative form of consensus through the use of diverse and pluralistic approaches in doing qualitative research.

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Chandra, Y., Shang, L. (2019). Qualitative Research: An Overview. In: Qualitative Research Using R: A Systematic Approach. Springer, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-3170-1_1

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Research-Methodology

Epistemology

Epistemology in a business research as a branch of philosophy deals with the sources of knowledge. Specifically, epistemology is concerned with possibilities, nature, sources and limitations of knowledge in the field of study. Alternatively, epistemology can be explained as the study of the criteria by which the researcher classifies what does and does not constitute the knowledge. [1] In simple words, epistemology focuses on what is known to be true. It is a way of thinking opposite to ontology.

As a branch of research philosophy epistemology deals with the following questions:

  • What is knowledge?
  • Do we have knowledge?
  • How we can gain knowledge?

Epistemology is a vast field with multiple areas and issues. However, you are not expected to discuss it in great details in business studies. You need to discuss the sources of knowledge in general and the sources of knowledge used in your research in particular. In research philosophy there are many different sources of knowledge. Sources of knowledge related to business research in particular can be divided into the following four categories:

  • Intuitive knowledge is based on intuition, faith, beliefs etc. Human feelings play greater role in intuitive knowledge compared to reliance on facts.
  • Authoritarian knowledge  relies on information that has been obtained from books, research papers, experts, supreme powers etc.
  • Logical knowledge  is a creation of new knowledge through the application of logical reasoning.
  • Empirical knowledge  relies on objective facts that have been established and can be demonstrated.

Research process may integrate all of these sources of knowledge within a single study. For example, researchers can use intuitive knowledge i.e. researchers can use their intuition to choose a specific problem to explore within research area. Authoritarian knowledge, on other hand, can be obtained during the process of literature review. Moreover, researchers can generate logical knowledge as a result of analysing primary data findings, and conclusions of the research can be perceived as empirical knowledge.

Epistemology has many branches that include essentialism, historical perspective, perennialsm, progressivism, empiricism, idealism, rationalism, constructivism etc. Empiricism and rationalism are two major constructing debates within the field of epistemological study that relate to business studies. Empiricism accepts personal experiences associated with observation, feelings and senses as a valid source of knowledge, whereas rationalism relies on empirical findings gained through valid and reliable measures.

Once you accept a specific epistemology, you need to employ associated research methods.  The table below describes important aspects of epistemologies of the main research philosophies related to business research:

Epistemology of popular research philosophies in business research [2]

In your dissertation you are expected to address and clarify the epistemology of your study, but you don’t have to go much into the details. You can do the following:

1. If you are writing a dissertation for an undergraduate, bachelor-level level, you need to provide a definition of epistemology. If you are writing an MBA dissertation or a PhD thesis you need to provide several definitions by referring to relevant sources and specify the definition you adapt for your study.

2. You need to discuss what is accepted and what is not accepted as knowledge in your research. It is important to justify your arguments by referring to your research aim and objectives.

3. You have to specify research philosophy and research methods that correspond to your chosen epistemology. For example, if you only accept observable phenomena based on data and facts as knowledge, your research philosophy would be positivism. Alternatively, if you consider subjective meanings and non-quantifiable data as knowledge, you would have to follow interpretivism research philosophy.

My e-book,  The Ultimate Guide to Writing a Dissertation in Business Studies: a step by step assistance  contains discussions of theory and application of research philosophy. The e-book also explains all stages of the  research process  starting from the  selection of the research area  to writing personal reflection. Important elements of dissertations such as  research philosophy ,  research approach ,  research design ,  methods of data collection  and  data analysis  are explained in this e-book in simple words.

John Dudovskiy

Epistemology in business research

[1] Hallebone, E. &         Priest, J. (2009) “Business and Management Research: Paradigms and Practices” Palgrave Macmillan

[2] Table adapted from Saunders, M., Lewis, P. & Thornhill, A. (2012) “Research Methods for Business Students” 6 th  edition, Pearson Education Limited

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    How we can gain knowledge? Epistemology is a vast field with multiple areas and issues. However, you are not expected to discuss it in great details in business studies. You need to discuss the sources of knowledge in general and the sources of knowledge used in your research in particular.

  20. The Epistemology of Qualitative Research

    Abstract. Read online. This article discusses questions that are relevant to the epistemology of qualitative research. In order to do so, the presumed dichotomy between qualitative and quantitative research is discussed and challenged. According to the author, the similarities between these methods are more relevant than its differences.

  21. Understanding epistemology and its key approaches in research

    Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that concerns itself with the theory of knowledge. It is regarded as a core area of philosophy because it deals with the nature of our knowledge.

  22. Qualitative Thematic Analysis of Transcripts in Social Change Research

    This paper, on qualitative thematic analysis (QTA) in social change research, falls somewhere between a reflective piece and a how-to guide. Using two examples from my own previous research, I discuss why QTA in the field of social change or social justice, which often analyzes the words of vulnerable, marginalized, or underserved populations, is so fraught, so contested, and so often dismissed.

  23. Linking Ontology, Epistemology and Research Methodology

    Epistemology Linking Ontology, Epistemology and Research Methodology DOI: Authors: Mukhles M. Al-Ababneh Al-Hussein Bin Talal University Abstract and Figures The purpose of this paper is to...

  24. (PDF) ONTOLOGY, EPISTEMOLOGY AND AXIOLOGY IN ...

    the research philosophy are: being (ontology); knowing (epistemology) and acting (axiology). Some researches are located in a positivist epistemology, where no objective truth is