Analyzing Qualitative Inquiry

In all the literature I have read about qalitative inquiry it is always recommended that you choose the ontology, or research paradigme, that is closest to your own world view. Hatch (2006) and Silverman (2006) are both stressing this point. What they also say, is that the epistemology of your research project goes hand in hand with this ontology. Or at least it should do so, in order to keep the coherence in the project and its design – which is closely connected to its validity.

In some cases, however, you are not free to choose either ontology or epistemology, or you work in a project where the researchers have different views on reality and how we can gain knowledge about this reality. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It opens for a lot of discussion, which means you have to scrutinize your own views. Also it mirrors the complexity of the small part of the world we are going to investigate, which is never simple or coherent.

But what are you going to do when you find yourself in a project with many contributors, and your job is to analyze the material? The question is not as simple as it might seem, and luckily, David Silverman, among others, is discussing this in his book Interpreting Qualitative Data . His discussion is about how pure information you can get from for instance qualitative interviews, and this is not a question with one answer, it depends on…right: Your worldview and the epistemology connected to it.

Silverman lines up three different main groups of world views: a) the positivist b) the emotionalist c) the constructivist. The positivist believes that the world is «out there,» and the social researcher’s job is to find and describe the collected data objectively. The emotionalist researcher is digging for the essence of the data, and is only slightly different from the positivist, because he/she also believes that the world is «out there» and the researchers job is to find its purest form, the essence of the phenomenon in question. To be able to do this without interference from one’s own experience, or theoretical knowledge of the object, the researcher has to put his/her experience and theoretical baggage aside, which is called epoche. The constructivist view has several appearances, but what they have in common is of course that they do not believe that it is possible to find any pure or raw social data. All data is constructed, and in case of interview, there is a construction going on between the researcher and the respondent.

If several world views are mixed in the same project, it seems that these could not fit together. What will it do to the validity of the project? It is more and more common that projects are run by project groups, with the described epistemologic variety. How are we going to establish trustworthiness in the results of the project? Kvale and Brinkmann (2007) suggests that there are three different views on validity: a) Validity = coherence. This means that the stringency and coherence in the whole project should be open and obvious, to create trust in the knowledge produced by the project b) Validity = communicativity. This means that there is not necessarily an obvious coherence in the project, it could be more eclectic, but the point is that there has to be one or more readers who discuss the project to conclude about what knowledge is produced c) Validity = pragmatic. This means that the validity in the project is not in the research text, but in what action the text produces, in other words the validity is found in the research project’s impact in the public sphere.

These questions are, as I see it, extremely interesting, because they are not only highly theoretical, they are questions about what we want our research to provide in the society this research is part of. There is no ONE right answer to these questions, and I would be very happy if someone spent some time to discuss it with me.

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4 kommentarer den “Analyzing Qualitative Inquiry”

  1. Vigdis, this is one of the first topics in my studies that I can recall is what I now refer to as having a transformative experience. I initially learned about these issues, which I refer to by the term of research paradigms. I recall reading about these in Guba’s The Paradigm Dialog, which I still think is one of the best books on the topic. I also know that the Guba and Lincoln chapter in The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research addresses these concerns as well.

    What I remember most was when, after studying quantitative work for a number of years and never finding it addressed the complexities of the human experience, or really ever spoke to my experiences, I came across the issue of research paradigms. I had only seen the positivistic / postpositivistic ones prevalent in the natural sciences and as they also were forced into the social sciences. What a breadth of fresh air!

    However, I am somewhat new to the concept of using these within the language of ontology or epistemology. I am not clear on how this language can be used.


    • vigdissj Says:

      Jeffrey, as I see it, from all the methodology literature on qualitative inquiry I have read (which by now is several works: David Silverman, Amos Hatch, Steinar Kvale, The SAGE handbook from 2000 and 2005, to mention some), the question on how the researcher view the world (his/her ontology) is deeply connected to how the same researcher view the possibilities of having/finding/collecting knowledge about this same world and how it could be done (epistemology).

      These world views and views on knowledge together form the basis of the research paradigm you work within.

      One example: If you view the world as being without one Grand Truth, but more like each person forming their own truths, which are all equal in validity – and that these truths are constructed within each person’s mind, you are most likely a constructivist. If you believe that two or more persons construct a social reality or truth together, you are possibly a sosial constructionist (these descritptions are extremely simplyfied). This is your ontology. If you think that the way to gather knowledge is to talk to people, that is, gather knowledge through language, as in an interview, or in fieldwork, or in document studies, or by creating narratives, and the research participant is a co-constructor of the «knowledge» that is collected, this is the epistemology that comes with the social constructivist research paradigme.

      If you want your research to have coherence, it is very important that ontology and epistemology fits together. Finding a research method is thus never just finding an appropriate method, there is always an ontology that is the basis of the epistemology or method, and you’d better find out which one before your research project collapses. Or the best way: discover your own beliefs, scientific or other, which is the ground on which you not only build your research, but your own way of being in the world – your ontology. The epistemology will follow. Another example: if you believe that strict empirical research, where you collect raw data which is your access to the «real» world (the world as it is), you do not choose narrative inquiry as your research method. If you do, you are mixing two research paradigmes who do not fit together. This is, I believe, obvious. Behind this failured mix of paradigmes lies two ontologies who do not fit; on the contrary, they are opposed to each other. The first is based on the belief that there is a reality behind language, one we can reach if we only try as hard as we can to be objective, and remove all bias. The second believe that there is no objective reality behind language, at least not one that can be reached, but rather that reality, subjective as it may be, is constructed through language, possibly in narratives or to be structured into narratives within the inquiry.

      See? Ontology and epistemology is just another, and possibly more basic, way to talk about research paradigmes. It is the language of the philosophy of science.

  2. Vigdis, this is all quite nicely and simply stated. I agree that considering the ontology and epistemology are both important.

    However, this seem to be more commonly done in by researchers engaged in qualitative methods rather than by those engaged in quantitative studies. Do you agree, and if so, why do you think this may be the case?


    • vigdissj Says:


      thanks for commenting. I would like to blur a little what I first wrote. First of all, the concept «ontology» for many has a metaphysical ring to it, it’s about beliefs, may be even religious beliefs. For instance, Charles Taylor, the well-known philosopher on «self» and modernity, is a catholic, and admits that this is part of his ontology. So where does this put him when it comes to scientific paradigms? What about all the other researchers with different kinds of religious beliefs? Those beliefs must of course be put aside, as must all pre-judgements, to make sure the research is as objective as possible. Or must they? Are there other ways to go – when it is not possible to fully step out of one’s own shoes, to put it metaphorically?

      Another example that contradicts what I wrote above, is this: Say you work in a project, with a group of researchers, at least in my country this is quite common. These researchers might have very different ontologies, and thus also different epistemologies. Yet you are going to write a report together, when the project is ended. What will you do in a case like that? There is no way there will be a coherence between ontology and epistemology.

      A third example is that the reality we research is very complex, as the human beings in it. Aren’t we all quite paradoxical? Is it possible to describe oneself, even as a researcher, with a rather coherent, simplistic view on reality, experience, relations, and so on? Should research mirror this complex, dirty, often paradoxical, messy reality? Or is it the task of science to cut neat little pieces from reality, observe them, squeeze them for information, to see what they contain, and let those little pieces represent the whole? This has been done often enough.

      I know these are challenging questions, and they have no immidiate answer, and at least no answer that unites all the research community. Nevertheless, I would love to discuss them.

      As for your question, I believe that quantitative researchers are quite clear about what paradigm they are in, don’t you? May be the ontology follows the epistemology, not the other way around? The empirical data is all there is? I do not know. May be you do?

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