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In this research paper, recent developments in the uses and representations of interpretive, research methods are analyzed. Micromethods are focused on those interpretive approaches which yield close readings of texts and social situations. This will require serious attention to forms of narrative analysis, and the uses to which narrative material can be put by a society and its members, including social scientists. Accordingly, my intentions are fourfold. First, to analyze the problems and issues confronting the use of micro-qualitative methods and research evidence. Second, to deﬁne and locate this sprawling, interdisciplinary ﬁeld of qualitative inquiry within the history of interpretive methods in the United States in the twentieth century. Third, to discuss the multiple uses and forms of qualitative inquiry, including its uses in participatory, applied action research settings. Speculations on where interpretive narrative inquiry will go in the twenty-ﬁrst century form the conclusion.
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1. The Field Of Interpretive Research And Its History
Interpretive research methods produce descriptions and accounts about the ways of life of the writer and those written about. There are multiple forms, or strategies of qualitative research (see below), including ethnography, participant observation, and case study analysis. The use of these strategies is connected to speciﬁc methodological practices, ranging from interviewing, to participant observation, to the use of visual, narrative, and personal experience methods. These methods generate speciﬁc types of empirical materials. These materials come in multiple forms, ranging from transcribed interviews and ﬁeld observations, to life stories, cultural texts (stories, music, cinema, soap operas, TV news, televised sporting events), the artifacts and symbols of material culture (building and burial sites, pottery, tools, clothing), photographs, archival records, biographical, and historical documents. Traditionally, these materials are seen as producing the evidence that qualitative researchers use when they formulate interpretations of social and cultural phenomenon. Three interconnected activities deﬁne the interpretive research process. They go by a variety of labels or names, including theory, method, and analysis. Behind these terms stands the researcher who has a gendered biography, and who speaks from a particular class, race, cultural, and ethnic perspective. This researcher confronts the world with a set of ideas, or basic beliefs. These beliefs can be called a paradigm (Guba 1990). A paradigm consists of an epistemology, an ontology, and a set of research strategies. Speciﬁc types of methodological practice are speciﬁed by a paradigm’s epistemology. Ontology raises basic questions about reality and the nature of human nature. Methodology addresses the issue of how we gain knowledge about the world. Today in qualitative inquiry multiple paradigms, each with its particular ontology, epistemology, and methodology, compete for attention. These paradigms include logical postivism, postpositivism, constructionism and feminism, Marxism and critical theory, cultural studies and ethnic models. (Logical positivists believe in an external reality that can be apprehended by the methods of objective science. In contrast, postpositivists assert that there may be an external reality, but it cannot be known perfectly.)
The positivist paradigm, within interpretive methodology, presumes an objective world that can be studied with objective, micro-research methods. The constructivist paradigm presumes multiple realities, and contends that the researcher and those studied create understandings about the world and its meanings. Terms like trustworthiness, credibility, transferability, dependability, and conﬁrmability replace the traditional positivist criteria of internal and external reliability and validity. Feminist, ethnic, critical theory, and cultural studies models privilege a real world that makes a material diﬀerence in the lives of men, women, and children. Interpretive methods are used, and researchers experiment with new ways of writing and presenting empirical evidence.
These paradigms, which structure qualitative research, operate in a complex historical ﬁeld which cross-cuts ﬁve historical moments. These ﬁve moments simultaneously operate in the present. They are deﬁned as the traditional (1900–50), the modernist, or golden age (1950–70), blurred genres (1970–86), the crisis of representation (1986–90) and postmodern, or present moments (1990–present). The present moment is deﬁned by the refusal to privilege any method or theory, or methods claim to validity.
Successive waves of critical, epistemological discourse move across these ﬁve moments. The traditional period is associated with the logical positivist, quantitative research paradigm. In this period qualitative researchers attempted to justify their research methods in terms of traditional criteria of reliability and validity. Researchers sought to maintain a detached, objective stance toward the world and their objects of study. Research methods were the means by which evidence about the world was collected. The other who was studied was alien, foreign, and strange.
The ﬁeld worker, during this period, was lionized, made into a larger-than-life ﬁgure who went into and then returned from the ﬁeld with stories about strange people. These accounts were structured by the norms of classical ethnography. This sacred bundle of terms (Rosaldo 1989, p. 31) organized ethnographic texts in terms of four beliefs and commitments: a commitment to objectivism, a complicity with imperialism, a belief in monumentalism (the ethnography would create a museum-like picture of the culture studied), and a belief in timelessness (what was studied never changed). This model of the researcher, who could also write complex, dense theories about what was studied, holds to the present day.
The modernist and blurred genres moments are connected to the appearance of postpositivist arguments. The logic of multiple methods (and triangulation) was adopted, embodied in the development of empirically grounded theory. During this period, researchers started to move away from the detached observer stance of the traditional moment. At the same time a variety of new interpretive, qualitative perspectives made their presence felt, including hermeneutics, structuralism, semiotics, phenomenology, cultural studies, and feminism.
The modernist phase or second moment builds on the canonical works from the traditional period. Social realism, naturalism and slice-of-life ethnographies are still valued. This was the golden age of rigorous qualitative analysis.
By the beginning of the third stage (1970–86), ‘Blurred Genres,’ qualitative researchers had a full complement of paradigms, methods, and strategies to employ in their research. Geertz’s two books, Interpretation of Cultures (1973) and Local Knowledge (1983), deﬁned the beginning and end of this moment. In these two works he argued that the old functional, positivist, behavioral, totalizing approaches to the human disciplines was giving way to a more pluralistic, interpretive, open-ended perspective. This new perspective took cultural representations and their meanings as its point of departure. Calling for ‘thick descriptions’ of particular events, rituals, and customs, Geertz suggested that all qualitative writings were interpretations of interpretations. The observer had no privileged voice in the interpretations that were written. The central task of theory was to make sense out of a local situation.
In the blurred genre phase the humanities became central resources for critical, interpretive theory, and the interpretive research project broadly conceived. The blurred genres phase produced the next stage, the crisis of representation. Here researchers struggled with how to locate themselves, their empirical materials, and their subjects in reﬂexive texts. It became increasingly clear that research methods were not neutral tools that produced value-free observations. Rather all observations were understood to be theory- laden; facts were not independent of the observer’s values; and observers could not sustain an objective, detached view of themselves, the world, and the research process.
The ﬁfth moment is the present. It is characterized by a sensibility which doubts all previous paradigms and historical moments. Theories are now read in narrative terms, as tales from the ﬁeld (Geertz 1988). Preoccupations with the representation of the ‘Other’ remain. New epistemologies from previously silenced groups emerge to oﬀer solutions to this problem. The concept of the aloof researcher has been abandoned. Action, activist-oriented research is on the horizon, as are more social criticism and social critique. The search for grand narratives is being replaced by more local, small-scale theories ﬁtted to speciﬁc problems and speciﬁc situations.
1.1 Reading History
The following conclusions can be drawn from this brief history. Each of the earlier historical moments continues to operate in the present, either as legacy, or as a set of practices that researchers follow or argue against. The multiple and fractured histories of qualitative research make it possible for any given researcher to attach a project to a canonical text from any of the previous historical moments. Multiple criteria of evaluation now compete for attention. There have never been so many paradigms, strategies of inquiry, or methods of analysis to draw upon and utilize. Researchers are in a moment of discovery and rediscovery, as new ways of looking, interpreting, arguing, and writing are debated and discussed. The qualitative research act can no longer be viewed from within a neutral or objective perspective. Class, race, gender, and ethnicity shape the process of inquiry, making research a multicultural process.
1.2 Interpretive Inquiry As A Site Of Multiple Methodological Research Practices
Any deﬁnition of micro-interpretive research and the evidence generated by qualitative methods must work within this complex historical ﬁeld. Qualitative research and qualitative evidence mean diﬀerent things in each of these moments. Nonetheless, an initial, generic deﬁnition can be oﬀered.
Interpretive inquiry is multimethod in focus, involving a naturalistic approach to its subject matter. This means interpretive researchers study things in their natural settings, attempting to make sense of these things in terms of the meanings people bring to them. Qualitative research involves the studied use and collection of case study, personal experience, introspective, life story, interview, observational, historical, interactional, and visual texts which describe routine and problematic moments and meanings in individual’s lives.
Qualitative research, as a set of interpretive practices, privileges no single methodology over another. It has no theory, or paradigm that is distinctly its own. Multiple theoretical paradigms, as argued above, claim use of qualitative research methods and strategies, from constructivism, to cultural studies, feminism, Marxism, and ethnic models of study. Qualitative research does not belong to a single discipline.
These separate and multiple uses and meanings of the methods of qualitative research make it diﬃcult to agree on any essential deﬁnition of the ﬁeld, for it is never just one thing. Still a deﬁnition must be made. I borrow from, and paraphrase Nelson, Treichler, and Grossberg’s attempt to deﬁne cultural studies (1992, p. 4).
Qualitative research is an interdisciplinary, counter-disciplinary ﬁeld. It cross-cuts the humanities, the social and the physical sciences. Qualitative research is many things at the same time. It is multi-paradigmatic in focus. Its practitioners are sensitive to the value of the multi-method approach. They are committed to the naturalistic perspective; and to the interpretive understanding of human experience. At the same time the ﬁeld is inherently political and shaped by multiple ethical and political positions. Qualitative research embraces two tensions at the same time. On the one hand it is drawn to a broad, interpretive, critical sensibility. On the other hand it is drawn to more narrowly deﬁned positivist, postpositivist, humanistic and naturalistic conceptions of human experience and its analysis.
This rather awkward statement means that qualitative research, as a set of interpretive practices, embraces within its own history, constant tensions, and contradictions over the project itself, including its methods, and the forms its ﬁndings and interpretations take.
2. The Crisis Of Interpretation
Today qualitative researchers confront a double crisis of representation and legitimation. Embedded in the discourses of poststructuralism and postmodernism (Denzin 1997, p. 6, Lather 1993), these two crises are, as Lather (1993) notes, coded in multiple terms, variously called and associated with the narrative, ‘interpretive, linguistic, and rhetorical turns’ in the social sciences. This linguistic turn makes problematic two key assumptions of social theory and interpretive research. The ﬁrst assumption, as suggested above, presumes that theorists and researchers can no longer directly capture lived experience; such experience, it is argued, is created in the social text written by the researcher. This is the representational crisis. It confronts the inescapable problem of representation, but does so within a framework that makes the direct link between experience and text problematic.
The second assumption makes the traditional criteria for evaluating and interpretive theory and re- search problematic. This is the legitimation crisis. It involves a serious rethinking of such terms as validity, generalizability, and reliability, terms already retheorized in postpositivist, constructionist-naturalistic, feminist, and interpretive discourses. This crisis, asks, ‘How are interpretive, ethnographic studies to be evaluated in the poststructural moment?’ Clearly these two crises blur together.
2.1 The Representational Crisis
A single but complex issue deﬁnes the representational crisis. It involves the assumption that much if not all social science and ethnographic writing is a narrative production, structured by a logic that separates writer, text, and subject matter. Any social text can, accordingly, be analyzed in terms of its treatment of four paired terms: (a) the ‘real’ and its representation in the text, (b) the text and the author, (c) lived experience and its textual representations, and (d) the subject and his or her intentional meanings. The text presumes a world out there (the real), that can be captured by a ‘knowing’ author through the careful transcription (and analysis) of ﬁeld materials (interviews, notes, etc.). The author becomes the mirror to the world under analysis. This reﬂected world then re-presents the subject’s experiences through a complex textual apparatus which typically mingles and mixes multiple versions of the subject. The subject is always a textual construction, for the ‘real’ ﬂesh-blood person is always translated into either an analytic subject as a social type, or a textual subject who speaks from the author’s pages.
Qualitative researchers have historically assumed that their methods probe and reveal lived experience. They have also assumed that the subject’s word is always ﬁnal, and that talk directly reﬂects subjectivelived experience. The literal translation of talk thus equals lived experience and its representation.
Poststructuralism challenges these assumptions. Language and speech do not mirror experience, they create it and in the process of creation constantly transform and defer that which is being described. The meanings of a subject’s statements are, therefore, always in motion. There can never be a ﬁnal, accurate representation of what was meant or said, only diﬀerent textual representations of diﬀerent experiences. As Lather (1993, p. 3) observes, these arguments do not put an end to representation, they signal instead the end of pure presence (Lather 1993, p. 3). The task at hand is to understand what textually constructed presence means, since there is only ever the text. This leads to the question of a text’s authority.
2.2 The Legitimation Crisis
Many contemporary qualitative researchers challenge postpositivist arguments concerning the text and its validity. Lather (1993) and Scheurich (1997, p. 84) argue that validity is a text’s call to authority and truth. Lather calls this version of validity epistemological. That is, a text’s authority is established through recourse to a set of rules concerning knowledge, its production, and representation. These rules, as Scheurich (1997) notes, if properly followed, establish validity. Without validity there is no truth, and without truth there can be no trust in a text’s claims to validity. With validity comes power, and validity becomes a boundary line ‘which divides good research from bad, separates acceptable (to a particular research community) research from unacceptable research … it is the name for inclusion and exclusion’ (Scheurich 1997, p. 84).
Poststructuralism reads the discussions of logical, construct, internal, ethnographic and external validity, text-based data, triangulation, trustworthiness, credibility, grounding, naturalistic indicators, ﬁt, coherence, comprehensiveness, plausibility, truth, relevance, as attempts to reauthorize a text’s authority in the postpositivist moment. Such moves still hold (all constructionist disclaimers aside) to the conception of a ‘world-out-there’ that is truthfully and accurately captured by the researcher’s methods and written text.
These words, and the methodological strategies that lie behind them, represent attempts to thicken and contextualize a work’s grounding in the external empirical world. They represent eﬀorts to develop a set of transcendent rules and procedures that lie outside any speciﬁc research project. These rules, if successfully followed, allow a text to bear witness to its own validity. Hence a text is valid if it is suﬃciently grounded, triangulated, based on naturalistic indicators, carefully ﬁtted to a theory (and its concepts), comprehensive in scope, credible in terms of member checks, logical, truthful in terms of its reﬂection of the phenomenon in question. The text’s author then announces these validity claims to the reader. Such claims now become the text’s warrant to its own authoritative representation of the experience and social world under inspection.
2.3 Resistances To Qualitative Studies
The academic and disciplinary resistances to interpretive, micro-research further illustrate the politics embedded in this ﬁeld of discourse. The challenges to qualitative research are many. Qualitative researchers are called journalists or soft scientists. Their work is termed unscientiﬁc, or only exploratory, or entirely personal and full of bias. It is called criticism not theory, or it is interpreted politically, as a disguised version of Marxism, or Humanism.
These resistances to qualitative inquiry reﬂect an uneasy awareness that its traditions commit one to a critique of the positivist project. But the positivist resistance to qualitative research goes beyond the ‘ever-present desire to maintain a distinction between hard science and soft scholarship’ (Carey 1989, p. 99). The positive sciences (physics, economics, and psychology) are often seen as the crowning achievements of Western civilization, and in their practices it is assumed that truth can transcend opinion and personal bias (Carey 1989, p. 99). Qualitative inquiry is seen as an assault on this tradition, leading some positivists to retreat into a ‘value-free objectivist science’ (Carey 1989, p. 104) model to defend their position. But these critics seldom attempt to make explicit, and critique the ‘moral and political commitments in their own contingent work’ (Carey 1989, p. 104).
The opposition to positive science by the postpositivists and the poststructuralists is seen as an attack on reason and truth. At the same time, the positive science attack on qualitative research is regarded as an attempt to legislate one version of truth over another.
2.4 Action Research
In the contemporary period greater use is being made of qualitative evidence in participatory and applied action programs. Life stories, case histories, and personal narratives are often used as key documentary evidence to establish the need for social change. Such materials are also used as proof that an applied action program works. Indeed qualitative (and narrative) evidence lends itself especially well to those applied action programs which stress the subjective, reﬂexive dimensions of social experience. They further imply that such materials are critical to the implementation of participatory action research as a practical, collaborative, participatory, emancipatory, and reﬂexive project. First-person narrative texts allow Third World and indigenous persons to share in the ownership of the research endeavor. Such texts anchor research in the context of ongoing community life. They help community members develop a shared orientation toward collective action aimed at addressing social injustice.
Participatory ethno-dramas, forum, and political theater can be used to mobilize community consciousness around an instance of perceived injustice or repression. For example, Brecht’s Epic or Dialectical Theatre is deliberately disruptive and political, and thus anticipates the more radical forms of contemporary postmodern, political theater that has connections back to Artaud’s concepts of a pure theatre (Birringer 1993, p. 217). Third World popular theater has been used by ‘oppressed Third World people to achieve justice and development for themselves’ (Etherton 1988, p. 991). This form of dramatic representation extends what theater and narrative can do politically.
3. In Conclusion
The legacies of the present move in several directions at the same time. They all turn on social texts and narratives, their uses and how they are read. The narrative turn in the social sciences presumes that social texts, including recorded or visual texts, interviews, ﬁeldwork notes, transcribed conversations, speeches, ﬁlm, music, advertisements, personal, electronic, and archival documents, can be rigorously and scientiﬁcally analyzed through the methods of narrative analysis.
But Trinh (1989, p. 141) warns us that traditional, empiricist narrative methods represent an approach to storytelling that must be avoided. They turn the story told into a story analyzed. In so doing they sacriﬁce meaning for analytic rigor. They only hear and read the story from within a set of predetermined structural categories. They do not hear the story as it was told. The goal is to recover these lost stories.
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