B47. The Nature of Qualitative Research

There is no single wellspring of qualitative research from which to draw for setting grand strategy for evaluating NSF programs. The distinction between quantitative and qualitative methods is a matter of emphasis more than a matter of boundary. In each ethnographic or naturalistic or phenomenological or hermeneutic or holistic study, i.e., in each qualitative study, enumeration and recognition of differences in amount have a place. And in each statistical survey and controlled experiment, in each quantitative study, natural-language description and researcher interpretation are expected. Perhaps the most important differences in emphasis are twofold: the distinction between aiming for explanation and aiming for understanding; and the distinction between the personal and impersonal role of the researcher.

Experiential understanding. The distinction among aims, an epistemological distinction, fundamentally separates these two forms of inquiry. The distinction is not derived from the distinction between quantitative versus qualitative. The distinction between inquiry for making explanations versus inquiry for promoting understanding has been nicely developed by philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright in his book, Explanation and Understanding (1971). He acknowledged that explanations are intended to promote understanding and understanding is often expressed in terms of explanation--but they are epistemologically quite different. Von Wright emphasized the difference between formalizations of cause and effect and the informal understandings of experience.

It is a distinction something like that between teaching and learning. Preparing to teach in didactic fashion is different from preparing experiential opportunities for learners. Quantitative research tends to be an effort to improve the theoretical comprehension of the researchers who in turn present it to their colleagues, students, and diverse audiences. Qualitative research tends to be an effort to generate descriptions and situational interpretations of phenomena which the researcher can offer colleagues, students, and others for modifying their own understandings of the phenomena (Stake and Trumbull, 1982).

Generalizations. Quantitative research methods have grown out of scientific search for grand theory. To establish generalizations that hold over diverse situations, most social-science-oriented researchers make observations in diverse situations. They try to eliminate the merely situational, letting contextual effects "balance each other out." They try to nullify context in order to find the most general and pervasive explanatory relationships.

Most program evaluation work has been dominated by this search for grand explanation. Employment of formal measurement and statistical analysis, i.e., quantification, has occurred in order to permit simultaneous study of a large number of dissimilar cases, in order to put the researcher in a position to make formal generalizations about the program. The inappropriateness of a basic science approach for program evaluation has been raised by Michael Scriven (1978) and Lee Cronbach (1982) on the grounds of the particularity of the program, its situationality, and its political context, but both of them have continued to endorse a metric and instrumental orientation to evaluation. Both have emphasized the evaluator's responsibility for authoring program specific descriptions and interpretations.

Emphasis on interpretation. Qualitative evaluation specialists such as Egon Guba, Yvonna Lincoln, and myself, rely heavily on direct interpretation of events and less on interpreted measurements. All research has an orientation to interpretation but with standard quantitative designs there is effort to limit the role of personal interpretation for that period between the time the design is set and the time the data are collected. Standard qualitative designs call for the persons most responsible for interpretations to be in the field, making observations, and making interpretations simultaneously.

The difference is both cause for and attributable to the nature of the research question. In quantitative studies, research questions typically embody a relationship between a small number of variables. For example, "Is there an enduring relationship between variable A, e.g., student achievement, and variable B, e.g., the training of the teachers, over a great variety of conditions C, e.g., classroom and community situations? Efforts are made to operationally bound the inquiry, to define the variables, and to minimize the importance of interpretation until data are analyzed. At the outset, it is important to interpret how relationship between variables would reduce weaknesses in explanation and at closing, it is important for the researcher to modify generalizations about the variables, and in between times, it is important not to let interpretation change the plan of the study.

In qualitative studies, research questions typically orient to unstudied cases or phenomena, seeking patterns of unanticipated as well as expected relationship. For example, "What happens to personal relationships among teachers in this special project P when they are obligated to emphasize a problem solving pedagogy?" Or if the project had been implemented sometime in the past, what happened? The dependent variables are not operationally defined, situational conditions are not known or controlled, even the independent variables are expected to develop in unexpected ways. It is essential to have the interpretative powers of the research team in immediate touch with developing events and ongoing revelations, partly to redirect observations and to pursue emerging issues. Thus the allocation of resources is different. Reliance on carefully developed instruments and redundancy of observations typical in a quantitative study give way to placement of the most skilled researchers directly in contact with the phenomena and making much more subjective claims as to the meanings of data.

In his outstanding summary of the nature of qualitative study, Frederick Erickson (1986) claimed that the primary characteristic of qualitative research is the centrality of interpretation. He said that the findings are not just findings but "assertions." Given intense interaction of researcher with persons in the field and elsewhere, given a constructivist orientation to knowledge, given the attention to participant intentionality and sense of self, however descriptive the report, the researcher ultimately comes to share a personal view. Erickson drew attention to the ethnographers' traditional emphasis on emic issues, those concerns and values recognized in the behavior and language of the people being studied (Geertz, 1973), "thick description," alternative interpretations, and "multiple realities" are expected. Ongoing attention to complex meanings is extremely difficult when the instruments of data-gathering are objectively-interpretable checklists, survey items. The ongoing interpretive role of the researcher is prominent in the work of qualitative research.

Other characteristics of qualitative research. In addition to its orientation away from cause-and-effect explanation and toward personal interpretation, qualitative inquiry is distinguished by its emphasis on holistic treatment of phenomena (Schwandt, in press). I have remarked already on the epistemology of qualitative researchers as existential (non-determinant) and constructivist. These two views are correlated with an expectation that phenomena are intricately related to many coincidental actions and that understanding them requires a wide sweep of contexts: temporal and spatial, historical, political, economic, cultural, social, personal.

Thus the case, the activity, the event are seen as unique as well as common. Understanding it requires an understanding of other cases, activities and events, but also an emphasis on its uniqueness. Such uniqueness is established not particularly by comparing it on a number of variables, there may be few ways in which this one strays from the norm, but the collection of features, the sequence of happenings is seen by people close at hand as in many ways unprecedented, a critical uniqueness. Readers are drawn easily to this sense of uniqueness by providing experiential accounts.

For all the intrusion into habitats and personal affairs, qualitative researchers are non-interventionists. They try not to draw attention to themselves or their work. Other than positioning themselves, they avoid creating situations to test their hypotheses. They try to observe the ordinary and they try to observe it long enough to comprehend what, for this case, ordinary means. For them, naturalistic observation has been the primary medium of acquaintance. When they cannot see for themselves, they ask others who have seen. When there are formal record kept, they search the documents. But they favor a personal capture of the experience, so they can interpret it, recognize its contexts, puzzle the many meanings while still there, and pass along an experiential, naturalistic account for readers to participate in some of the same reflection.

Recognition of risks. Qualitative study has everything wrong with it its detractors claim. The contributions toward an improved and disciplined science are slow and tendentious. New questions are more frequent than old answers. The results pay off little in the advancement of social practice. The ethical risks are substantial. And the cost is high.

The effort to promote a subjective research paradigm is a given. Subjectivity is not seen as a failing to be eliminated but as as essential element of understanding. And understanding frequently will be misunderstanding, by the researchers and by their readers. The misunderstanding will occur because the researcher-interpreters are unaware of their own intellectual shortcomings and because of the weaknesses in protocol which fail to purge misinterpretations. Qualitative researchers have a respectable concern for validation of observations, they have routines for "triangulation" (Denzin, 1970) which approximate in purpose those in the quantitative fields, but they do not have the protocols which put subjective misunderstandings to stiff enough a test.

The phenomena being studied are often long in episode and evolving in nature. Long is the period of time to come to understand what is going on. The work is labor intensive and the costs are great. For most of the studies, these are labors of love. Many of the findings are esoteric. The worlds of commerce and social service benefit all to little from the investments in formal studies. More may come for those who study their own shops and systems by these methods but they are unlikely to bring many of the disciplined views of the specialist into play.

These are personal studies. The issues of other human beings quickly become partly issues of the present research. Privacy is always at risk. Entrapment is regularly on the horizon, as the researcher, a dedicated non-interventionist, raises questions and options previously not considered by the respondent. A tolerable frailty of conduct nearby becomes questionable ethic in distant narrative. Some of us "go native," accommodating to viewpoint and valuation of the people at the site, then reacting more critically when back again with academic colleagues (Stake, 1986).

It is not simply a matter of whether the gains in perspective are worth these costs. The attraction of intensive and interpretive study are apparent, even while they were considered unworthy of respect by many research agencies and faculties for many years, and by some still are. Researchers are compelled to inquire. They are controlled by the rules of funding and their disciplines, but that controls only whether or not they will report their use of qualitative methods -- all researchers will use them. There are times when they are going to be interpretive, holistic, naturalistic, and disinterested in cause, and then by definition they will be qualitative inquirers.


Lee J. Cronbach, 1982. Designing evaluations of educational and social programs. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Norman K. Denzin, 1970. The research act. Chicago: Aldine Publishing.

Frederick Erickson, 1986. Qualitative methods in research on teaching. In Merlin Wittrock, editor, Handbook of research on teaching. Washington, DC: AERA.

Clifford Geertz, 1973. The interpretation of cultures. NY: Basic Books.

Michael Scriven, 1978. Evaluating educational programs: The best models and their relation to testing. Paper delivered at the Second National Conference on Testing sponsored by City University of New York and CTB/McGraw Hill in San Francisco, September 21-22.

Robert E. Stake, 1986. Quieting reform. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Robert E. Stake and Deborah J. Trumbull, 1982. Naturalistic generalizations. Review Journal of Philosophy & Social Science, 7, 1 & 2, 1-12.

Goerg Henrik von Wright, 1971. Explanation and understanding. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ Press.