| Qualitative Inquiry in Education
Y611 | 5289 | Schwandt
Professor Thomas A. Schwandt (Ed. Bldg. Room1000; 856-8540; firstname.lastname@example.org)
Y611 is an introduction to the nature, purpose, theory, and methods
of a family of approaches to social science and educational research
variously called ethnography, qualitative inquiry, qualitative fieldstudy,
case study, naturalistic inquiry, or interpretive inquiry. The purpose of
this course is to help you explore qualitative inquiry as method and
The field of qualitative inquiry is extremely rich and diverse and
encompasses a variety of conceptions of its aim and methods as influenced by
the Chicago School of Sociology, the traditions of symbolic interactionism
and ethnomethodology, and the ethnographic tradition in cultural
anthropology. More recently, ideas from philosophical hermeneutics,
postmodern theory, feminist theory, and critical social science have been
added to the mix.
Given these multiple influences and the wide variety of ways in
which qualitative inquiry is presented and defended, it is not easy to
summarize in a tidy way what qualitative inquiry is. The six-hundred-plus
page Handbook of Qualitative Research can reasonably be viewed as an
extended definition of the field. But, for the purposes of providing a
starting point, the following very loose, working definition will suffice:
Qualitative inquiry is (1) grounded in an epistemology that is broadly
'interpretivist' which means that it is concerned with understanding how
social action is experienced, understood, and produced by social actors; (2)
based on procedures for generating data that are flexible and sensitive to
the context in which social action is being studied; (3) based on methods of
analysis and interpretation which take up understandings of complexity,
detail, and context.
We can expand this working definition by emphasizing that
qualitative inquiry can perhaps best be understood as 'fieldstudy' or
'fieldwork.' This characterization points the way to several other
important aspects of this way of doing inquiry and helps distinguish it from
other forms of empirical investigation of the social world. First,
qualitative inquiry as fieldstudy emphasizes observation in situ -- that is,
learning by means of a (relatively) sustained presence in a naturally
occurring situation or setting and observing the goings-on there. Second,
'fieldstudy' is not merely a methodological move but an epistemological
requirement. In other words, the inquirer assumes that immersion, intimate
familiarity, or empathetic participation in the human action that he or she
studies is necessary for grasping, understanding, and eventually portraying
the seeings, feelings, and actings of social actors.
This understanding of qualitative fieldstudy as a particular kind of
epistemology or way of knowing distinguishes this kind of work from the
fairly routine practice of generating qualitative data (through interviews,
observations, and document analysis) that is a feature of many kinds of
empirical investigations of socio-political phenomena. It also helps us
understand why qualitative fieldstudy is not simply a method or collection
of techniques but is inextricably linked to various interpretive frames of
reference or ways of viewing human action. This idea is frequently
misunderstood in the applied fields where 'qualitative inquiry' has
particularly taken hold. In part this is because qualitative inquiry in
applied fields like education had its origins in a broad negative reaction
to the dominance of methods of measurement, experimentation, and the
statistical design and analysis of experiments (the tools and methodological
framework of the educational psychologist). Early advocates of qualitative
work pointed to the importance of capturing aspects of human experience and
understandings of human action through different means of generating and
analyzing data (e.g., through extensive, unstructured interviewing,
participant observation, and so forth).
But the focus on different methods often obscured the fact that
these methods were closely tied to interpretive frames for viewing human
action. For example, symbolic interactionism is a source of much
qualitative fieldstudy. Symbolic interactionism is a theory of society that
is premised on a definition of individuals and human action radically at
odds with the assumptions of neo-behaviorism that inform much of educational
psychology. Likewise, at least one form of ethnography in cultural
anthropology is premised on the assumption that culture is knowledge that
members of a group use to generate and interpret social behavior. That
knowledge can only be had by treating the people that one studies as
informants who teach the inquirer their understandings. We could make
similar claims about the frames of reference of ethnomethodology and
phenomenological sociology. All of these frames of reference, or ways of
viewing the social world, structure the activity of fieldstudy and shape the
categories, ideas, concepts, themes, and so forth in which the 'results' of
fieldstudy are analyzed, interpreted, and reported. It is these frames of
reference that give qualitative methods their meaning. Considered apart
from such frameworks, methods for generating and analyzing qualitative data
are simply another set of tools in any competent inquirer's repertoire.
Readings being considered for this course include:
Coffey A. & Atkinson, P. Making Sense of Qualitative Data. Sage, 1996.
Emerson, M., Fretz, R. I., and Shaw, L. L. Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes.
University of Chicago Press, 1995.
Feldman, M. S., Strategies for Interpreting Qualitative Data. Sage, 1994.
Holstein, J. A. & Gubrium, J. F., The Active Interview. Sage, 1995.
van den Hoonaard, W. C. , Working With Sensitizing Concepts. Sage, 1997.
Wolcott, F. The Art of Fieldwork. AltaMira Press, 1995.
Selected papers to be placed on reserve in the library.
This is a 'labor intensive' course. In addition to regular participation in
class discussions and careful examination of required readings, students are
expected to read some of the methodological literature to supplement their
developing understanding of qualitative fieldstudy. Students must also
complete a small scale field study and take a final examination.