Foundational Qualitative

Domain Theories


One hallmark of common sense reasoning is the ability

to draw useful inferences even with little information.

Research on mental models suggests that qualitative

representations are an essential component of

common sense reasoning about the physical world.

This common sense qualitative knowledge also

provides the framework for efficient application of

more quantitative and/or domain-specific knowledge.

Qualitative reasoning orchestrates the use of more

detailed knowledge by detecting what important

questions remain unresolved, and by identifying the

relevant phenomena which must be investigated to

resolve them. Because of this, qualitative reasoning is

seeing widespread application in engineering tasks.


We believe qualitative physics can provide similar

payoffs for the tasks driving the HPKB initiative. In

JFACC campaign planning, for example, an important

capability is estimating the indirect effects of actions.

Traditional planning representations encode the direct

effects of an action on the environment. But they do

not support reasoning about the indirect physical

effects of actions, especially the changes wrought by

physical processes. The ability to support reasoning

about the effects of actions on complex engineered

systems, even with little detailed information, could

provide valuable support to effects-based planning.


Qualitative physics can similarly provide payoffs for

the Genoa Intelligence Analysis task. Physical

metaphors and simple qualitative models are often

combined with other kinds of knowledge to describe

the economic aspects of a country. For example, a

rising population combined with a poor harvest means

either starvation, importing food, or adventurism to

gain the necessary resources for survival. This

common sense inference rests on treating the

population as an entity that requires flows of certain

inputs (e.g., food) to remain in existence, knowing

what can disrupt those flows (e.g., poor harvest), and

knowing what such entities are likely to do when faced

with those sorts of conditions (which requires

combining this qualitative knowledge with other

common sense knowledge of people, economics, and

geopolitics). Qualitative representations provide the

appropriate level of resolution for situations involving

significant uncertainty, because they neither impose

unrealistic computational requirements (i.e., accurate

numerical data and mathematical models) nor do they

generate misleadingly detailed predictions (i.e., a

floating point number predicting how many days until a

revolution, given the number of inches of rainfall that

year). The ability to quickly identify classes of

behaviors and their causes, coupled with the ability to

characterize the conditions that might lead to one

behavior rather than another, could be valuable both in

detecting nascent crises and in suggesting courses of

action. Returning to our example, a prediction of bad

weather over a region, combined with knowledge of

its demographics and economic state, can thus lead to

the detection of potential political instability and the

identification of courses of action that could mitigate

the problem (i.e., negotiate trade arrangements to

relieve the pressure on the food supply). Tools to craft

and trigger indicators for such situations that are based

on underlying qualitative models similar to those used

by people are likely to be easier to use, and their

results will be easier to interpret.


We are creating a library of foundational qualitative

domain theories that can provide the common sense

substrate for these and similar tasks. The bulk of this

library will be created by synthesizing the results of our

previous research efforts, which have already yielded

powerful models of space, quantity, physical

processes, and causality. Our starting points include

the following:


     Space: Diagrammatic representations that

     integrate symbolic and numerical spatial

     information. Qualitative descriptions of space

     useful for reasoning about motion that can be

     used to characterize paths, boundaries, and

     accessibility. Qualitative representations of

     surfaces and angle that provide important

     spatial relationships for reasoning about

     contact. Qualitative representations of flow

     fields that provide "back of the envelope"

     descriptions of spatially distributed phenomena.

     Quantity: Qualitative descriptions of magnitude

     and qualitative representations for expressing

     partial information about functional relationships

     (e.g., "population growth depends on food


     Time-varying behavior: Symbolic

     representations of patterns of behavior (e.g.,

     increasing, asymptotic approach, equilibrium,

     oscillation) that can be generated by qualitative

     reasoning and/or be detected in numerical data.

     Substances: Qualitative models of liquids and

     gases, including contained stuff, molecular

     collection, bounded contained stuff, and plug

     ontologies. Models of phase changes.

     Physical processes: A general representation

     system for physical processes, with an

     integrated causal account that closely matches

     common sense intuitions regarding physical


     Causality: A vocabulary of causal relationships

     that is grounded in psychological explorations..


[For more details, see our papers here.]


While we are starting from a decade-plus accumulated

research base, creating an integrated, coherent library

of domain theories still requires work. The formalism

used for many of these representations were optimized

for particular styles of reasoning such as envisioning.

We must recode these representations in the newer

formalisms we have developed that better support

multi-task reasoning. These representations were also

optimized for a particular class of applications, e.g.,

engineering problem solving. We must do new

representation work to fill in the gaps between these

theories, to achieve the broad coverage required for

common sense reasoning.


To overcome the brittle encodings of these ideas, we

will recode them in an augmented axiomatic

framework. Specifically, we will use a full predicate

calculus language (e.g., KIF) augmented with

higher-order representation conventions that provide

more natural encodings for particular classes of

concepts. More specifically, we will use

compositional modeling to express much of the

non-spatial content of these domain theories.

Compositional modeling organizes domain knowledge

into model fragments, which are pieces of

knowledge about a phenomenon, principle, law, or

equation and modeling knowledge, which expresses

relevance information. Given a situation to be

represented in the context of some task, a model of

that situation is composed by automatic model

formulation algorithms that use modeling assumptions

to reason about which aspects of the domain theory

are relevant to the task at hand.


The methodology of compositional modeling meshes

well with the goals of the HPKB program. The

abilities to incrementally add detail, to shift perspective

and granularity, and to specify control knowledge

separately from the domain physics all provide critical

support for using foundational domain theories in

task-specific knowledge bases.


Model formulation algorithms are still an area of active

research, but there are already sufficient useful results.

We will use CML (Compositional Modeling

Language), a representation language we developed

jointly with Xerox PARC, Stanford KSL and UT

Austin, in writing our domain theories when possible.

CML is a work in progress; the state of the art is

evolving too quickly to expect it to remain static. Any

extensions we find necessary to CML based on this

project will be merged into the specification as



Our methodology for creating representations includes

rigorous, incremental testing. We will use our existing

reasoning systems for this purpose. For example, we

will use Gizmo Mark2, a qualitative reasoner designed

to provide efficient, incremental qualitative reasoning

to test these models. We will also use our

diagrammatic reasoning tools in conjunction with

Gizmo Mk2 to test the spatial aspects of our



To focus our domain modeling, we will draw on

examples of concern to JFACC and GENOA. In

addition to the Challenge Problems, we are focusing

on theories of weather and climate, civilian logistics

distribution systems, and basic properties of vehicles.







Multi-Visual Qualitative

  Method: Observing Social

    Groups in Mass Media


     George Tsourvakas+


 The Qualitative Report, Volume 3, Number 3,

            September, 1997







In reviewing the bibliography upon which

qualitative method is based, the author refers to

ethnography, ethnomethdology, symbolic

interactionism and cultural studies, and argues

that a combination of the qualitative methods is

actually possible. To enforce his point, he gives

the example of research that was recently

conducted about the National Television

Channel of Greece. Moreover, through the

theoretical review, he asserts that the

application of all qualitative methods is a way to

transfer ourselves from observation to focusing

and depth interviews. He believes that such an

application can be really effective while

collecting data as well as while analyzing and

presenting the results of the research. Finally, it

is his firm conviction that this shift to qualitative

multi-methods can be also achieved in other

scientific fields, apart from that of mass media.




In this article I aim to present the way in which

three qualitative research methods can be

effectively combined: observation, focus groups,

in-depth interviews. In order to see the

application of their simultaneous use in the same

field, I have initially considered the national

television channel of Greece and, specifically,

the journalists through their labour relations. The

article consists of four parts: first, I present a

theoretical review of the foundations of the

qualitative methods; second, I refer to the

specific choice of the multi-visual qualitative

method; third, I develop its application into three

distinct levels of research: design, data collection

procedure and analysis; and fourth, I evaluate

the qualitative method itself.


    Interpretative Social Inquiry:

    Influence in Communication



The frameworks of interpretative social science

were many years in the making and involved the

development of concepts from several branches

of the human sciences. In their work, Weber,

Husserl and Schultz, provided warrants for

many concepts that later became important,

including the social construction of reality

(Berger & Luckmann, 1967; Garfinkel, 1967),

the rules of language use (Cicourel, 1974), and

the self in social life (Goffman, 1959). Their

ideas continue to exert great influence on nearly

all of the human sciences.


Interpretative inquiry has been practiced in a

number of social scientific disciplines, but it is

especially prominent in sociology. The approach

itself has many names: interactionist (Fisher &

Strauss, 1978; Silverman, 1985, p. 85),

humanistic, phenomenological, naturalistic

(Wester, 1987, p. 14) or, simply, qualitative



The common heritage is Weber's (1964, p. 88)

classic formulation of sociology: "a science

which attempts the interpretive understanding of

social action in order thereby to arrive at casual

explanation of its course and effects". The

essence of interpretive sociology is the analysis

and interpretation, through understanding

(verstehen) or emphatic understanding, of the

meaning that people give to their actions.


Four methodological sources merit further

discussion: ethnomethodology, ethnography,

symbolic interactionism, and cultural studies.


The first form of interpretive inquiry seeks to

identify the rules that people apply so as to

make sense of the world around them. Whereas

ethnomethodology originates from the work of

phenomenologists, in particular Husserl (1931)

and Schultz (1967), the central figure in its later

development has been Garfinkel, who conceived

the term, formulated the core ideas and has

served as a source of inspiration for other

ethnomethodological researchers. For Garfinkel,

ethnomethodology is a form of "practical

sociological analysis" (Schultz, 1967, p. 1). This

sociological analysis, however, is not merely an

undertaking of professional sociologists; on the

contrary, ethnomethodology is an everyday

activity in which social agents constantly engage

as they arrive at an interpretive understanding of

other agents and actions through interaction,

thus making sense of social reality.


As a sociological approach, ethnomethodology is

actually a peculiar one. It forsakes the usual

theory-building path of developing explanations

of human behavior in topical fashion.

Ethnomethodology's distinct "topic" is the local

construction of meaning through certain

interactional practices, mostly conversational

(Sacks, 1963). The content of those practices is

of little, if any, importance or consequence.

What are consequential are really situational

resources and the sequence of activities used in

constructing coherence for a given practice.

That is, the nature of work is not to be found in

the products, proclamations or expressed

ideologies of organizations, but in the observable

activities and use of artifacts in the workplace.

Every workplace has its own organization of

resources and sequence of activities. The focus

is on how and when people engage in an

activity, not what its functional status might be.

A thorough look at some key concepts reveals

the interpretive basis of ethnomethodology.


All social life is enacted in contexts. The

practical reasoning in which people engage

depends upon their use of situational resources

in specific contexts. Expressions that draw upon

particular aspects of the local context to

establish orderliness, naturalness and factuality

are called indexical expressions. The meanings

of most, if not all, utterances would be

unfathomable if we did not know the contexts in

which they are spoken (Dore & McDermott,

1982). Indexicality involves the artful

organization of behavior and other resources of

a setting (like workplace) in order to create a

meaningful act. As Garfinkel (1967, pp. 1-11)

points out, indexical expressions possess rational

properties because they are responsible for

creating the order in interaction. The rules and

norms of social situations are evident in the

indexicality of the communicative action itself.


There is no one research method associated

with ethnomethodology. Nevertheless,

participant observation and in-depth interviewing

are frequently employed as significant elements

of an open research strategy. A prominent place

is almost always given to everyday

conversation, this being the primary medium of

everyday interaction. A special approach,

refined to perfection by Garfinkel and his

colleagues, is that of experiments which are

designed to disrupt those rules of conversation

that are taken for granted. As Garfinkel (1967,

p. 37) himself described the technique:

"[p]rocedurally it is my preference to start with

familiar scenes and ask what can be done to

make trouble". Douglas (1976), in particular, has

greatly contributed to the development of this

approach, and has in the process ignited a

continuing debate of the ethnical legitimacy of

such research strategies (Cavan, 1978). The

justification given for using a disruptive mean of

research is that its final result is the underlying

rules governing human behavior in everyday



Ethnomethodology has had a major impact on

the communication research agenda. Its most

direct application is found in the area of

conversation analysis.


As it is evident from the list of research

concerns that was mentioned above, the

overriding interest in the structure of speech

virtually leaves little or no room for its relational,

affective or cultural aspects. The value of

conversation analysis as a way to describe the

local construction and organization of

interactional coherence has been increasingly

recognized in the communication field.

(Heritage, 1984). In terms of method,

conversation analysis often relies on transcripts

of discourse tape-recorded under naturalistic

conditions. Unlike discourse analysis, however,

conversation analysis admits additional types

and levels of contextual detail beyond the

transcript itself, and usually results in an

interpretive rather than statistical analysis

(Hopper, Koch, & Mandelbaumet, 1986).


Media studies that draw, in part, on this

approach include Mollotch and Lester's (1974)

examination of news as purposive behavior and

Tuchman's (1978) investigation of news

organization. A landmark study of interpretive

social inquiry into media, drawing according to

its references on symbolic interactionism,

ethnomethodology and ethnography was Lull's

(1980) examination of the social uses of

television. He wondered how media, particularly

television, "play a central role in the methods

which families and other social units employ to

interact normatively" (Lull, 1980, p. 198). Using

a combination of participant observation and

interview research methods, Lull and his

associates examined interaction and

communication patterns in their natural setting:

the home. This work actually functioned as a

preparation of the way for many recent studies

in the ethnography of communication.


The second tradition leading to qualitative

communication inquiry draws inspiration from

anthropological and socio-linguistic approaches

to language. The ethnography communication

considers discourse as pro-vital to the study of

social life.


The greater part of research falling under the

ethnography of communication rubric concerns

speech performance. Its theoretical grounding

derives from several sources, of which the most

prominent is the philosophy of Wittgenstein

(1953). Wittgenstein asserts that the practice of

language can be effectively analyzed only in

terms of the logic of "language games". He

argues that there are no private rules of

meaning in language. The meanings of language

emerge only when we are aware of the social

rules that govern its usage.


Two streams of empirical study came together

to form the ethnography of communication

research program: socio-linguistics and folklore.

Socio-linguistics is concerned with the

relationship between linguistic forms (especially

grammatical rules and vocabularies) and their

social uses and meanings. It also includes a

focus on how people as members of a specific

culture gain competence in the use of linguistic

codes and forms. On the other hand, folklorists

study oral and material cultures. Operating

somewhere between humanistic (literature and

ethnic studies) and scientific (anthropology and

linguistics) disciplines. Folklore studies involve

the collection of examples of "in situ" speech or

musical performance in order to develop a clear

understanding of their cultural and historical

origins and functions. In contrast to socio-

linguistics, which stresses the social practice of

language, folklore studies stress the artful

performance of feeling and thought in regional,

ethnic or national cultures.


Today, ethnography is practiced in other

disciplines as well, such as anthropology, within

which several versions of this approach now

exist (Clifford & Marcus, 1986; Ellen, 1984;

Sanday, 1983). However, despite such diversity,

most anthropological seem to agree on three

major core principles.


First, ethnographic research is concerned with

cultural forms in the widest sense of the term,

including everyday life as well as religion and

arts (Fetterman, 1989; Hammersley & Atkinson,

1983). Second, studies generally acknowledge

the need for long-term participant observation,

with the researcher functioning as the primary

instrument of inquiry. And third, multiple

data-collection methods are generally employed,

according to Sanday (1983, p. 21), as a check

on observational findings.


More specifically, Sanday (1983) identifies three

distinct types of anthropological ethnography:

holistic, semiotic and behavioristic. Of these

three, the holistic one has the longest tradition

and it is dominant within the discipline. The

word "holistic" refers directly to scope of inquiry

and specifically to the purpose of investigating

many aspects of the particular group or society

that is being studied. For this exact reason,

anthropological ethnographies have commonly

been situated in clearly defined settings, such as

a village or other small geographical community.

Finally, the establishment of rapport between the

researcher and the group studied is considered

to be a critical element of ethnography (Seiter,

Bochers, Kreutzner, & Warth, 1989). This is

one of the reasons why some researchers

(Wolcott, 1975) suggest a minimum of one year

for the fieldwork phase of an ethnographic



The 1960's and 1970's saw the development of

the field of communication ethnography with

several anthologies, field studies and pragmatic

statements making its progress (Bauman &

Sherzer, 1975; Leeds-Hutwitz, 1984; Stewart &

Philipsen, 1984). Fieldwork has been conducted

that it describes role-based communicative

styles as they function in particular subcultures

or social situations. Through these studies, we

can learn how communities "enforce" speech

norms, and what happens when they are

breached. The speech community is viewed as

a constantly performed accomplishment, with a

basis in consensual rules.


Braber (1989) examined critically three

ethnographic studies of women and popular

culture, and essentially came to the same

conclusion that much of what is considered to

be ethnography deviates somehow from what

anthropologists mean by the term. Moreover,

Braber questioned Hobson's (1982) analysis of

the British soap opera "Crossroads", Radway's

(1984) study of female readers of popular

romance fiction, and Seiter and colleagues'

research on soap opera viewers. All three

studies were limited, definitely to a varying

degree, in regard to the aspects of

anthropological ethnography that Braber

considered: centrality of the concept of culture,

employment of participant observation, and

smallness of the research setting.


In spite of these subject, the call for more

ethnographies of media audiences is frequent

and forceful. Ian Ang, in her book "Desperately

Seeking the Audience", disparages the emphasis

on de-contextualized quantitative data, largely

promoted by the television industry, and

recommends "ethnographic understanding" of

audiences as an alternative (Ang, 1991). On the

other hand, although she argues at length for the

value of ethnography in audience research, still,

she devotes no more than a footnote to the

characteristics of ethnography as a concrete,

empirical approach to conducting research.


For all the discussion and disagreement among

anthropologists about the nature of ethnography,

the anthropological consensus, as noted above,

may well provide the best starting point for

designing ethnographic media research. At the

same time, there are a number of general issues

outstanding in the scientific debate on how to

develop systematic and applicable qualitative

research methods.


Symbolic interactionism was the form of

interpretive inquiry at the center of the

theoretical and methodological reorientation of

the 1960's and 1970's; it is the study of how the

self and the social environment mutually define

and shape each other through symbolic

communication. It is grounded primarily on

Mead's book Mind, Self and Society (Mead,

1934), which was described as the "single most

influential book to date, on symbolic

interactionism" (Manis & Meltzer, 1967, p. 140).

Others, (e.g., Cooley, 1930; Dewey, 1925;

Thomas, 1928), also contributed to its

development, but there is general agreement

that the refinement of the theoretical position

came from Blumer (1969). He posited, first of

all, that people act on the basis of the meaning

they themselves ascribe to objects and

situations. Second, Blumer held the conviction

that meaning derives from interaction with

others, and that this meaning is transformed

further through a process of interpretation

during interaction (Meltzer, Petras, & Reynolds,

1975, p. 2).


Coupled to these notions was a methodology

stressing respect for the world and actions in

that world, what is often referred to as a

naturalistic perspective (Lincoln & Guba, 1985).

Specifically, participant observation is normally

associated with the naturalistic perspective and

generally with the work of symbolic

interactionists (Ackroyd & Hughes, 1981, pp.

102-103; Rock, 1979, p.178).


Other sociologists also contributed a lot to the

development of the naturalistic perspective.

Goffman (1959), for example, is credited with

the creation of a distinct "dialect" of symbolic

interactionism, the dramaturgical approach

(Meltzer, Petras, & Reynolds, 1975).


Symbolic interactionism has several points of

affinity with communication. It is mostly

concerned with the role of symbolic expression

in processes of social affiliation as well as of

social conflict. It provides explanations for the

relationships among understanding, motive and

message design. What is most important for

students of communication is that symbolic

interactionism offers a way inside the meanings

inherent in roles and actions (Duncan, 1962;

Faules & Alexander, 1978).


Furthermore, symbolic interactionism has

directly influenced the development of the

constructivist approach to interpersonal

communication (Delia, 1977). Constructivism

seeks to explain how persons adjust and adapt

their communicative situations. It has borrowed

widely from rhetorical theory, personal construct

theory, and cognitive-developmental psychology.

It also draws on such concepts from symbolic

interactionism as role taking, the definition of the

situation, and the emergence of meaning in

interaction. Qualitative methods of inquiry have

played a small role in empirical studies of

constructivism. For the most part, the approach

relies on structured coding systems applied to

simulated social situations.


Interactionism concepts have also contributed to

the interest in looking at organizational

communication as a cultural phenomenon. The

interpretive debts of this approach are quite

eclectic, with strong elements of

ethnomethodology, narrative theory, and cultural

hermeneutics cited in its founding essays

(Pakanowsky & O'Donell-Trujillo, 1983).

However, its emphasis on the performance

organizational myth, ritual and everyday

interaction, as well as the focus on conflict,

belies an interactionist influence.


As Raymond Williams documents generously in

his book Keywords (1976), "[c]ulture is one of

the two or three most complicated words in the

English language" (p. 87). From its early

meaning of the "cultivating" of resources and

knowledge, the word took on its own current

usages: a) "general process of intellectual,

spiritual, and aesthetic development", b) "a

particular way of life, either of people, a period,

a group, or humanity in general", and c) "the

works and practices of intellectual and

especially artistic activity" (p. 90).


All three usages, Williams notes, are closely

related, but in the social sciences the second

meaning has predominated. In cultural

anthropology, where the concept is crucial,

culture is the system of meanings through which

social practices make sense to a people, and by

which these practices carry on across

generations in enduring form (Geertz, 1973;

Schneider, 1976 ). Culture also distinguishes the

range of behaviors and statuses permitted to the

members of a group or a social body. Artifacts

such as totems, metaphorically clarify the

identities of tribes and ethnic groups. So,

considered as a system, culture makes it

possible to think of all the material and

organizing efforts of a people.


Apart from that, it can also be argued that

cultural studies embody diverse approaches that

all have an interest in the matter of signification.


From a classical marxist framework, the

primary function of ideology is to naturalize the

conditions of societal inequity and economic

class dominance existing in capitalistic societies.

The concept of cultural hegemony has been

used widely in cultural studies in order to

characterize the political struggle for domination

(Gitlin, 1979; Gramsci, 1971; Hall, 1982).

In some ways, like the Chicago School symbolic

interactionists, British cultural studies,

psychoanalysts, and reception studies analysts,

also began to examine in close detail the

marginal and struggling elements in society,

including working class male students (Willis,

1977), punk subculture (Hebdige, 1979), and

teenage girls (McRobbie, 1982). In their

accounts, cultural action is an artful and

self-conscious attempt to secure spaces and

moments of identity in a society obsessed with

instrumental control. Therefore, culture was

seen in a new light: "[c]ulture is understood both

as a way of life--encompassing ideas, attitudes,

languages, practices, institutions, and structures

of power--and a whole range of cultural

practices: artistic forms, texts, canons,

architecture, mass- produced commodities, and

so forth" (Nelson, Treichler, & Grossman, 1992,

p. 5).


In some of its forms, feminist research has

followed a cultural studies path in attempting to

understand how women interpret male and

female signs in mainstream texts such as

television. Feminist theory holds the conviction

that practices of everyday communication tend

to exclude, marginalize, or distort the future

interests of money, because these practices

serve the interests of a patriarchal social

system. Feminist research seeks to document

these practices, their effects in gender

relationships, and how creative resistance to

them can occur. Other feminist studies focus on

how women use specialized media so as to

explore their own aspirations and identities

(Brown, 1990; Grodin, 1991). In accordance

with their beliefs about women's culture and

interpersonal styles, feminist researchers often

use a collaborative approach that involves close

relationships with participants in defining and

exploring the research problem (Stanley &

Wise, 1983).


In a structruralistic, semiological and

postmodern culture, the intertextuality of a

cultural artifact tends to draw attention

reflexively to its own stylistic conventions,

historical antecedents, and ways of "reading" it

(Fiske, 1987). Some proponents of

post-modernism claim that the media have

become such skilled readers of mediated

culture, that notions of either ideological

dominance by the media or the autonomy of self

are passé (Gergen, 1991). Postmodern life is

seen as situational, fragmented, fluid, style

centered, participatory, and reflexive. The

textual form of communication studies exhibits

some of these same characteristics, especially in

the sense of breaking down the author's

imposed master narrative of traditional social

science (Browning & Hawes, 1991).


To sum up, cultural studies has no stable object

of inquiry. It is up to the theoretical perspective,

and often to the purpose of individual analysis, to

drive work in cultural studies.


  Multi-Visual Qualitative Method


Qualitative approaches try to bring us close to

the performances and practiced of

communication. The qualitative inquirer seeks

somehow to get inside this action. The research

"instrument" is the human investigator, who

reflexively becomes an inseparable part of both

the action itself and the ensuing description. The

"human subject" is the other person(s), whom

we respect and from whom we learn. The

"data" are texts, which change over time as the

researcher's interests, knowledge, and abilities

change through time. The "products" are

typically full of voices, stories, events,

interpretations, hypotheses, and claims. The

"qualitative research" of this article concerns the

empirical study of communication from an

interpretive and cultural- hermeneutical



A particular example comes from the results of

our recent multi-method qualitative research act

about the journalists who work in National

Television Channel of Greece.


First, the objective of this multiple method study

was called "idiographic". One does generalize in

qualitative research, but not in a way that tries

to attain the scope of a universal law. Instead,

the richness of the particular elements that have

documented and the patterns of themes they

exhibit, allow the researcher to generalize in

other cases of the same problem in the culture

of a people.


Second, theory in qualitative inquiry usually

consists of some ways to understand a people's

(journalistic work) rationality. Then, we are

interested in their logic and in the kind of

evidence they consider worthwhile or relevant.

But the purposes of research are clearly not

exhausted there. To expand the implications of

the case(s) under study, we bring other frames

of reference to bear, such as the conceptual

resources of the communication discipline. One

uses the case to inform theoretical and practical

arguments about morality, ideology, politics,

social interaction, or symbolic discipline. A

useful representation of the case results from

our ability to translate the practices of the other

person(s) into language and into a set of

problems with which we are familiar in the

communication discipline.


In our research, we used a qualitative

multi-method, such as observation, focus groups

and individual in-depth interviews. In these

combined uses of qualitative methods, the goal

was to use a qualitative multi-method, such as

observation, focus groups and in-depth

interviews. In these simultaneously combined

uses, our goal was to use each method so that it

contributes something and/or unique to the

understanding of the phenomenon under study.

This mix of qualitative methods actually gives

new opportunities for an effective research,

perhaps of any kind.


An often quoted definition of observation has

been offered by H. S. Becker and B. Geer:


     By participation observation we

     mean that method in which the

     observer participates in the daily

     life of the people under study,

     either openly in the role of

     researcher of covertly in some

     disguised role, observing things

     that happen, listening to what is

     said, and questioning people, over

     some length of time. (Becker &

     Geer, 1957, p. 28)


     The primary purpose of participant

     observation research, accordingly,

     is to describe in fundamental terms

     various events, situations, and

     actions that occur in a particular

     social setting. This is achieved

     through the development of case

     studies of social phenomena,

     normally employing a combination

     of data collection techniques. But,

     what are the actual advantages of

     naturalistic settings? Three major

     advantages of such settings are: a)

     an ability to collect data on a

     larger range of behaviors, b) a

     greater variety interactions with

     the study participants, and c) a

     more open discussion.


Observation will always have a advantage

whenever it is necessary to observe behaviors in

their natural context and, especially, when it is

necessary to follow these behaviors in detail

over time. Moreover, such a method is the

primary tool for the investigation of broad

aspects of culture, like television organizations.


However, when we wish to study a participant

group like journalists, it is surely preferable to

follow focus groups as a second (not

alternative) qualitative method in the same case.


Focus groups are not really new. Within the

social sciences, Bogardu's description of group

interviews is the earliest published work.

Furthermore, group interviews played a notable

part in applied social research programs during

World War II, including efforts to examine the

persuasiveness of propaganda and the

effectiveness of training materials for the troops

(Merton & Kendall, 1946) as well as studies on

factors that affected productivity of work

groups (Thompson & Demerath, 1952). At

present, there are two principal means of group

interviews have: collecting qualitative data in

groups and open-ended interviews, both of

which typically occur with individuals. Likewise

group interviews, focus groups not only occupy

an intermediate position between the other

qualitative methods, but it also possesses a

distinctive identity of their own.


Focus groups as a qualitative method have the

following characteristics: a) it is limited to verbal

behavior, b) it only consists interaction in

discussion groups, c) the groups are created and

managed by the researcher, d) it requires

greater attention to the role of the moderator,

and e) it provides less depth and detail about the

opinions and experiences of any given



As a result of these, thus, they offer something

of a compromise between the strengths of

participant observation and individual

interviewing. Functioning in this way, that is as a

compromise between the weaknesses and the

strengths of these other qualitative techniques,

focus groups are not as strong or effective as is

either of them within their specialized domain.

The respective weaknesses of observation and

individual interviewing, however, allow focus

groups to operate across traditional boundaries,

but this flexibility may be the greatest strength

of this method helping our progress in a

scientific field.


Broadly speaking, four approaches inform

interviewing practice: ethnographic, feminist,

postmodernist and personal construct approach.

In all approaches, however, reflexivity is

accorded a key role, in the sense of the

researcher reflecting on his or her own

experience and role within the conduct of the



George Kelly's research designs (1955) are an

integral part of his personal construct

psychology. For Kelly, objective reality is a

myth. Our subjective reality is based on the

meaning that we have attached to previous

experiences. It is the meaning that is influential,

not the event itself. Such personal meanings are

the basis of our individual theories or

frameworks, through which we filter and

interpret current experiences. Kelly's focus is on

the individual as the maker of meaning. It is the

idiosyncratic nature of our experience that

accounts for the difference between people.

Personal construct approach, there, is a dynamic

element of personal agency. "People are neither

prisoners of their environment nor victims of

their biographies, but active individuals struggling

to make sense of their experiences and acting in

accordance with the meaning they impose on

those experiences" (Kelly, 1995, p. 15).


This kind of individual interviewing has a clear

advantage: a greater amount of information for

each informant to handle and share, as he or she

is able to evaluate each situation calmly and

correctly. As these suggestions show,

observation, focus groups and individual

interviews can be complementary techniques

across a variety of different research designs.

In particular, either of them can be used in

either a preliminary or a follow-up capacity with

the rest. This illustrates the larger point that the

goal of combining research methods is to

strengthen the total research project.


   Planning and Research Design


The first choice and move is the research

design: the funnel and the cycle share the image

of circularity, but for the cycle itself it is

dominant (Carbaugh & Hastings, 1992;

Spradley, 1980). The basic idea is that the

researcher initially formulates a research

problem, engages in such activities of

observation, focus groups and individual

interviewing, and develops tentative

explanations. The he or she goes back to collect

new data, possibly to consult the literature again,

to revise and test new explanations, and so on.

The process continues until he or she "gets it

right", that is until the task of interpreting

problematic data is finally resolved.


Coming full circle in our discussion, the release

of control opens us to unexpected paths of

questioning and discovery. Curiosity and

creative suspicion are continually turned on both

the design and our own process of converting

experience to knowledge. An insistence on

control would surely prevent us from being fully

skeptical about how we can familiarize

ourselves with another cultural reality.


Multi-visual qualitative method needs to be

planned in the same systematic way as any

other type of research. It is useful to draw up a

checklist of preliminary questions in order to

develop a description of the situation, such as :

"What is happening already? What is the

rationale for this? What am I trying to change?

What are the possibilities? Who is affected?

With whom will I have to negotiate?" (Elliot,



The outline of the stages of multi-visual

qualitative research is:


   a.Select the general area,


   b.Discuss, observe, read, and decide on

     your first action,


   c.Take your action,


   d.Examine the information you have



   e.Evaluate, processes and outcomes,


   f.Plan next action,


   g.Take next action, and




    Data Collection: Observing -

       Focusing - Interviewing


We need to gather data in order to come to a

position of being able to monitor the practice

which is at the center of the inquiry. The

methods selected for gathering the information

you need for action will depend on the nature of

the information required. It is highly important to

gather information that will tell us more as a

practitioner than we already know in general.

This should be done in such a way that it

informs the thinking of not just us, perhaps, as a

"key" researcher, but of all concerned with the

intervention programmes, and so offer the

opportunity to evaluate the efficacy of

intervention programmes in general. This may

involve a combination of the following

procedures, wherever this is appropriate. At this

point, it is important to stress that if we are

carrying out practitioner research, we must

select those data collection methods that do not

distort our practices in an unwelcome way or

lead us to wrong conclusions that make our

research useless:


   a.Collection of document relating to the



   b.Detailed diary,


   c.Observation notes,


   d.Notes of meeting with the focus group,




   f.Shadowing: shadow studies can give vital

     information when the study extends over

     boundaries into different aspects of

     practice, as can happen in institutional



   g.Tape, video, photographs recording,


   h.Triangulation: this is an essential

     ingredient whereby you use a range of

     the above methods to check out the

     information gained, the interpretations,

     and your decisions about action.


In a multi-visual qualitative research that was

recently conducted in the greek National

Television Channel 1, we tried to consider the

various bureaucracy problems that usually

appear in an organization like this:


   a.We carefully observed the behavior of

     officers and employees in all organization



   b.We experimented with small groups of

     new journalists,


   c.Focusing on the constructs and choosing

     only few of the evident associations, we

     noticed that those colleagues construed

     as supportive, are also experienced as

     inventive, trustworthy, and less likely to

     be politically malleable.


The whole study was based on the analysis of

observations, documents from focus groups and

interviews. The cycle of the research process

moved from gaining an initial picture through this

material to exploring themes and writing up. At

each stage followed, the analysis generated was

discussed with the participants employed in the

organization. The individual interviews focused

on the topics of the past, present and future of

the specific organization, its values, atmosphere

and ethos, its purpose and mode of functioning,

the working environment, the composition of

workers, the participants' experience and views

on the position of the organization in society,

and, finally, the current use of the organization

and its facilities. Hence the study was organized

around bureaucracy principles of consultation

about the research questions, reciprocity within

the process of generating the accounts and

analysis, and accountability over the emerging



Analysis focused on the following issues:

structure, how this was perceived by the

participants as well as by the researcher, what,

if any, kinds of role divisions exist, management

structure, the patterns and flow of workday;

communication and information processing,

decision-making structures, regularity of

meetings and who attends them, access to

records, how people find out about what is going

on and how democratic this is; environment,

appearance, accessibility, how well resourced

this was and how conducive to successful

organizational and worker functioning, relations

with external organizations (private television);

effectiveness to the extent perceived by the

organization, and why, whether considered in

terms of personal development, success rates or

mere survival; power and politics, formal versus

informal forms of power, power used positively

and/or negatively, the value accorded to

expertise, confidence and time spent within the



As a result of building up this picture of the

specific television separately and given the

different focus of the services and varying

levels of financial security, each step exhibits a

different profile of strengths and weaknesses,

achievements and problems. Nevertheless,

some similarities of structure sere discernible,

with high levels of member participation, few

role divisions, high levels of trust and

cooperation, and collective forms of work. The

structures on which the organization was based

all relied heavily on personal networks that were

used to organize work. Despite a common

preoccupation with issues of structure,

communication, resources and development, the

organization demonstrated differences in their

fluidity of organizational boundaries, differential

demands made of workers and corresponding

ability to cope with stress, differences in ability

to take positive action over which journalists

used and worked within the organization and

different accounts of the role of political

commitment within the work.


Hence the tensions or contradictions of

bureaucratic practice were crucially played out

through organizational structures and roles. In

terms of the role of personal networks, these

are the arteries along which the blood of the

organizations flow. They worked best when

based on prior or current friendship; but, owing

to their informality, some members could be

inadequately supported, and these were

precisely those most likely to leave.


On the other hand, in terms of its adequacy,

sociological theory appears to have little to say

about organizational structures such as these

experienced in this research. Therefore, the

study poses new questions for both media and

sociological research including: the role of

friendship within organizational structures and

formats; strategies deployed in, and political

analyses of, the process of managing

engagement with outside structures (politic and

social services) without recuperation; the

perception and exercise of power relations--how

these are used positively and/or destructively,

and how this relates to the position of each

organization externally.


Now that some of the key subjects of the

analysis have been outlined, we can step back to

the focus on the production of this account.


In these two steps, Planning and Collecting data,

we didn't give attention to the technique of

qualitative multi-method (focus group interview

practice, tactical observing, sampling, adopting

roles, question design and use etc.) as much as

to the methodology of multi-visual qualitative

analysis. Besides, each researcher is allowed to

follow his or her own technique in the

application of a qualitative method, bearing in

mind some ground principles, which he or she

shouldn't take for granted.


 Analyzing and Writing Texts in the



There is some strategies of qualitative analysis:

metaphorical, dramatistic, typological, discursive

and phenomenological (Lindlof, 1995).


It is commonly accepted that language forms

the greater part of all the exemplars examined

so far. This should not be surprising, given that

language does a great deal more than convey

the content of our thought. Oral and written

languages constitute the primary means by

which individual experience becomes an

accessible social reality. It is through the

practice of language that we define and

accomplish foals in relationships. Indeed, if we

want to know how something is done and what

it really means, we do have to consider how it is

talked about.


Yet, the development of computer technologies

and software, some designed for qualitative data

applications, is proceeding apace and seems to

be exerting some serious influence on analytic



Conclusively, the way in which we write and

present every qualitative research, depends

directly on each researcher as an individual. In

our study of the bureaucratic behavior of the

workers in the greek National Television

Channel, writing had a double style in its

appearance: first, we presented, on the basis of

hypothetical questions, the dialogues and the

specific words of the participants who were

interviewed, and second, followed the

hermeneutical conclusion.




There may be external validity problems. At

times, the results can end up in being very

subjective, depending more on who the

researcher was than the situation which was

being observed. Researchers may well notice

different aspects of the situation while doing

their job.


A researcher can produce results that are

over-impressionistic, carelessly produced, or just

idiosyncratic. The fact that somebody is known

to be interested in a particular (social)

phenomenon, could well affect people's behavior

and response, and this is likely to be different

when the observer is present and when he or

she absent.


The question "why" may be poorly formulated,

leading directly to a concentration on the wrong

aspects of a situation. As it has already been

mentioned, one should be aware of the possible

inter-dependence of observations and

interpretations. The question "what", may also

be quite problematic, as there may well be

internal problems of validity. The researcher

could be blind towards what is being looked at,

(s)he may not understand or conceive it, (s)he

may think that (s)he has noticed something or

may influence the ongoing process both

consciously and unconsciously.


In conclusion, despite the potential drawbacks,

multi-visual qualitative method will surely

produce rich and exciting results when applied,

which could well end up in challenging all the

existing assumptions about social life so far.

Moreover, it could question our ideas about

experience and rules, and point out the way

towards new developments. Admittedly, a lot

still depends on who the researcher is, but

following the guidelines described above should

help to minimize the problems of this effect. Of

all qualitative methods it is probably the least

reactive and the one that is most likely to

produce valid results and insights that are very

much rooted in "real life".




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            Author Note


+George Tsourvakas, Ph.D., is a lecturer of

Sociology at Panteio University of Political and

Social Sciences. His research interests in mass

media, qualitative research methods, and visual

forms and styles, are recorded in three books: a)

Images and Contents of Television:

Communication: An ethnographic content

analysis (dissertation) (published in Greek by

Korfi Publications, 1995), b) Qualitative

Research: Applied for Studying Mass Media

(Union Greek Authors, 1996 - in Greek), c)

Social Representations in Visual Advertising

Reality (Basdeki Publications, 1997 - in Greek).

He can be reached at 8-10 Deinostratou str.,

117 43 N. Kosmos, Athens, Greece. His e-mail

address is


           Article Citation


      Tsourvakas, G. (1997, September).

Multi-visual qualitative method: Observing social

groups in mass media [75 paragraphs]. The

Qualitative Report [On-line serial], 3(3).



George Tsourvakas

1997 copyright




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Practicing Qualitative Research


  Keeping Things Plumb in

    Qualitative Research


      Ronald J. Chenail+


The Qualitative Report, Volume 3, Number 3,

            September, 1997







As qualitative research projects are

conceptualized and conducted, they can grow

out of alignment as researchers make choices

as to their Area of Curiosity, Mission Question,

Data Collected, and Data Analysis. This

phenomenon of being muddled is a natural, and

sometimes necessary, part of the overall

process. The important part of being in a

muddle is to recognize it and to work to tidy it

up. In this paper, a way to keep qualitative

research projects plumb is presented. A case

study is also shared to show how one project

was found to be out of alignment and how it

was realigned using the Qualitative Research

Plumb Line.




In an earlier paper (Chenail & Maione, 1997),

Paul Maione and I wrote about qualitative

research and the importance of sensemaking in

the construction of coherent inquiries. Crucial

to this sensemaking process was for

researchers to understand how the research

project at hand fit within the larger contexts of

the literature on the topic, their previous

experiences with the phenomenon in question,

and the sense they were making of the

phenomenon out in the field. From this

perspective, this circular process of comparing

and contrasting what was known of the

phenomenon from field, literature, and personal

experience (i.e., "The Y of the How")

becomes the triangulatory engine of qualitative



The term, triangulation, comes from the

practice by which sailors and surveyors

determine location by studying the intersection

of three points. With the proper equipment and

with careful measurements, people are able to

circumnavigate the world and to construct

magnificent buildings accurately within a few

degrees or inches.


Triangulation in research terms (Denzin, 1978)

usually means that researchers use different

sets of data, different types of analyses,

different researchers, and/or different

theoretical perspectives to study one particular

phenomenon. These different points of view

are then studied so as to situate the

phenomenon and locate it for the researcher

and reader alike. At the same time, a careful

reflection of what the researchers use as the

particular points (of view) to triangulate the

phenomenon tells us as much about the

"location" of the researchers themselves as it

does about the phenomenon itself. And that's

the rub!


With sailing and surveying, the object of

triangulation is for you to locate where you are

in relation to some other points. In research,

the object of triangulation is for you to locate

the meaning of some other phenomenon "out

there." In doing so, it is easy to forget that you

are always part of the equation, too. Lose

yourself in your study and you lose your study!


If you have done at least one qualitative

research study, then you have probably lost

yourself at least once in and amongst that vast

region located somewhere between the

literature, the field, and yourself. Projects

which start so simply can so often end up in

such a complex muddle (Bateson, 1972). Why,

or how does this happen?


Research projects, especially qualitative ones,

can become muddled and do get out of line

because, when the richness of our curiosities

meets the richness of qualitative data,

researchers can easily become overwhelmed

with the choices they have to make. This

embarrassment of richness can be brought to

an even higher level when researchers study

phenomena with which they have previous,

direct experience, as is the case when

practitioners study what they also practice.

The posture of "not knowing" is a hallmark of

qualitative inquiries. It is the wonderful

strength of these approaches to research and

practice. It can also become a grave weakness

if researchers fail to understand how they go

about "not knowing" or, said in more positive

terms, researchers have to know how they go

about not knowing!


Before we go on, it is important for me to say

that getting into a muddle is a natural, and,

probably necessary, part of every qualitative

research project. Qualitative research projects

that become too tidy too soon are probably

ones in which researchers never give

phenomena a fair chance to show their

richness in variety or in which researchers are

more interested in "truthifying" their theories

than falsifying them.


 Plumbing in Qualitative Research


Having said this, I do think that somewhere

along the line, qualitative researchers need to

"plumb up" their projects. By plumb, I mean

that there should be a basic and simple reason

for doing a study; something like a mission

statement or maybe, a mission question for the

project, by which you can keep track to see if

you are beginning to drift from your line of

inquiry or if you are staying on course with

your research.


After you have constructed your mission

question, you should keep it in your pocket and

carry it with you where ever you go in your

research travels. And, every once and a while,

you should pull this mission question out of

your pocket, and let it dangle from your hand

like a carpenter or mason's plumb line. Hold

the mission question up to your mind's eye and

see if your mission question is plumb with your

project as it is unfolding. In many cases, you

will find that things have come out of



How can such a thing happen? Well, for one, it

can be fairly confusing once you enter a

project and begin making operational decisions

(see Maione, 1997 for a fuller discussion of

choice points in constructing a research

project). In many ways, the project can begin

to take on a life of its own. For instance, once

you enter the field and come into contact with

all the variety of data that can be collected out

there. It is easy to begin to gather data, which

is wonderful in and of itself, but does not relate

directly to your mission question.


For example, say you want to study what

happens in a work group as they develop a

new product. As you join with the folks in the

work group, you begin to talk with them about

their experiences of being members of the

group. These informal talks lead to more

formal interviews and you begin to collect

some fantastic stories about what it is like

working in the work group. It's time to take the

mission question plumb line out of your pocket

and see how this data is lining up with your



In your hand, you have the question, "What

happens in a work group as workers develop a

new product"? Out there in the field, you are

collecting stories from the workers about

working in work groups. This leads to an

interesting question: Are stories about working

in a work group going to help you address your

mission question regarding what is going on in

work groups? They might, and then again, they

might not. You would have to ask yourself if

collecting and studying stories about the work

groups is a better way of studying group

processes than collecting and studying

conversations of the workers as they actually

develop a project in the group. Interview data

may be great stuff, but in the context of your

mission question, things seem to be getting

out-of-alignment and your project is drifting

from its original course.


If you are not aware of the drifts which may

occur in a project, you may soon find yourself

far away from the project you had originally

proposed. This in itself may not be a bad thing.

Maybe the project as it evolves is a better one

than what you had originally conceptualized.

The problem arises if you are not cognizant of

this growing incoherence between the project

as proposed and the project as constructed.


Given this possible confusion (e.g., the talk of

work groups being mistaken for the talk of the

workers about group work talk or the worker's

talk about group work talk being mistaken for

group work talk itself), I propose a simple

Qualitative Research Plumb Line to help you

line up your decisions properly or to see when

things have gotten out of line. In doing so, you

will avoid the problems which beset many an

unaware qualitative researcher.


The Qualitative research Plumb Line consists

of a series of four components:


        1.Area of Curiosity

        2.Mission Question

        3.Data to be collected

        4.Data Analysis Procedure


By "Area of Curiosity," I mean the area or

phenomenon you want to study in your project.

For instance, an area of curiosity could be

doctor-patient interaction, a village in

Honduras, re-engineering in organizations, or

whatever piques your curiosity.


By "Mission Question," I mean "What are the

actual questions you want to address in your

study?" or "What to you want to know about

this area of curiosity?" For example, in the

area of doctor-patient interaction, you may

want to know "How do doctors and patients

explore patients' current states of health?".

With the village in Honduras, your question

might be "What are the ways in which parents

and children resolve conflict?". For the

re-engineering area of curiosity, your question

may be "What do the members of the

organization think about the current

re-engineering efforts in their company?"


By "Data to be collected," I mean "What is

collected or what is generated by your

activities ‘in the field'?" In the area of

doctor-patient interaction, you could collect

recordings of their conversations, review case

notes, and/or interview the doctors and patients

about their interactions. In the case of our

Honduran village study, you could generate

field notes from your observations of certain

rituals in the community, you could interview

key informants about these rituals, and/or you

could participate in these rituals and record

your experiences in a diary. With the

re-engineering in organizations project, you

could collect and study the company's annual

reports and strategic planning documents, you

could sit in on planning sessions and take field

notes, and/or you could interview stakeholders

both inside and outside of the organization and

collect their opinions on the progress of the

re-engineering project.


By "Data Analysis Procedure," I mean, "How

are you going to analyze that which you have

collected out in the field?" This process starts

by the researcher naming that which was

collected. It sounds simple, but it can be tricky.

My father had an expression that he was fond

of saying on our dairy farm which I think is

pertinent here. He used to say, "You tell me

what it is and I'll tell you what to feed it!" In

the case of research, "You tell me what the

data are, and I'll tell you with what to study it!"

Just as it is important for you to know whether

your data are ordinal or categorical in

quantitative research when you make a

selection of a correlational coefficients, it is

also crucial for you to declare whether your

data are talk or observations of talk when you

make a selection of qualitative data analyses.


In our three hypothetical projects, the studies

of doctor-patient interaction, a village in

Honduras, and re-engineering in an

organization, we could have generated and

collected an endless variety of data. As we

engage in this process, we should know how to

name that which we collecting. From this

process of making the nature of our data overt,

we can then systematically go about selecting

qualitative data analyses which fit. For

instance, if what you collect in an interview is

deemed as the other person's story, then it

would follow or line up that you would want to

look at those data analysis approaches which

are used to study narratives (e.g., Riessman,

1993). If, however, you consider these

interviews to be collected conversations, you

then would probably be best served by

examining the choices available in the domain

of conversation analysis (e.g., Psathus, 1995).

Then, again, you may consider this all to be

discourse, so if that is the case, you should

take a look at those analytical approaches from

discourse analysis (e.g., Schiffrin, 1994).


Of course, you can always "mix and match"

different analytical approaches in your project,

as well as using more than one approach to

study the same body of data. My suggestion

here is to keep things simple at first. Try some

standard analytical approaches, ones which

have been employed previously with the type

of data you have so carefully collected, before

you go out and try some more exotic method.


Taking the time to conceptualize these three

areas is a crucial preliminary step to building a

sound research project. Once those decisions

are made, it is still imperative for researchers

to check how things are developing. That is

where the Qualitative Research Plumb Lines

comes into play. To demonstrate how this

process works, I will present one research

project and show how using the Qualitative

Research Plumb Line helped one research

team get out of their muddle and get their

project re-aligned.


  A Case Example of Plumbing in

        Qualitative Research


Back in graduate school, I was part of a

research group which was interested in

studying referrals of young patients with

innocent heart murmurs to pediatric

cardiologists (Chenail, 1991; Chenail, et al.,

1990). We were curious as to how these

referrals were being made because the

pediatric cardiologists in our group wanted to

know why the parents of the referred children

were so stressed during the hospital visit since

the kids were being referred with a relatively

benign heart condition. A heart murmur is

simply a "clicking" sound in the heart which

can be detected during a routine checkup such

as a well baby visit to a pediatrician or during

physicals given to children before they are

cleared to play organized sports.


From a physiological perspective, the condition

was not very worrisome, but from a parental

point of view, the referral seemed to be quite

another story. The doctors of our research

group guessed that somehow the referral

process was contributing to the anxiety they

were seeing in the patients' families when they

came to the hospital. To address this curiosity,

we proceeded to interview parents about their

referral experiences to find out what, if

anything, had happened in these previous

doctor-patient/parent interactions which may

have added to their worry over their children.


This study may sound fine to you, but before I

go too far, I need to draw the Qualitative

Research Plumb Line to see how things are or

are not lining up.


First, I ask, "What is the area of curiosity?"


     Referrals to Pediatric

     Cardiologists when the

     presenting problem is a child with

     a suspected innocent heart



Second, I ask, "What questions do I have about

this area of curiosity?"


     The Mission Question: What

     happens, if anything, during these

     referrals which may get the

     parents of the patients with

     innocent heart murmurs to

     become upset, or at the least,

     very concerned?


Third, I ask, "What data will be collected that

will help me to address my question(s)?"


     Audiotaped interviews of parents

     talking about their referral



Fourth, I ask, "What will be our method of data



     Conducting discourse analysis

     (DA) of the audiotape interviews

     to discover themes in the

     interviewees' talk.


Now that I have addressed all of the plumb

line questions, let's see how the answers lined



First Qualitative Research Plumb Line



 Area of


              Referrals to pediatric




              What happens in these

              referrals to cardiologist?

 Data Collected:

              Interviews about these

              referrals to cardiologists

 Data Analysis:

              DA about the interviews

              about the referrals



Do you see the problem? The Area of

Curiosity and Mission Question line up, the

Data Collected and Data Analysis line up, and

the Area of Curiosity and the Data Collected

are aligned. But, when you compare the

Mission Question with the Data Collected, you

can see that things are not quite plumb. The

Area of Curiosity aligns with both the Mission

Question and with the Data Collected in that

all three are concerned with referrals, but the

Mission Question is focused on the referrals

themselves, whereas the Data Collected are

the talk about these the referrals. The two are

connected, but not quite the same! In this case,

the talk of the referral is not the same as the

talk about the talk of the referral. We had a

coherence problem in the study: The key

components were not lining up. We had

substituted something about the thing (i.e., the

interviews) for the thing itself (i.e., the

referrals). Given this alignment problem, we

had to decide how to plumb up our project.


In our situation, we felt that the stories of these

families were very important in the overall

referral process. The tales the families were

telling us helped us to hear that it was just as

important for people to know how families

experienced referrals as it was to know just

what happened in the referrals when they

were made in the first place. With this in mind,

we gradually shifted our focus from the

referrals themselves to the experiences of

families about these referrals.


Second Qualitative Research Plumb Line



 Area of


              Parents sensemaking of

              their and their childrens'

              referrals to pediatric

              cardiologists for innocent

              heart murmurs (About




              How did the parents make

              sense of these referral

              episodes? (About referrals)

 Data Collected:

              Audiotape interviews with

              parents who are talking

              about their childrens'

              referrals for innocent heart

              murmurs (About referrals)

 Data Analysis:

              Discourse Analysis of the

              audiotape interviews with

              the parents (About




This is not to say that studying the referrals

was not important or that that would not make

a great study, too. We could have kept going

on the Area of Curiosity / Mission Question

line and have brought our Data Collection

process more in line. In our situation, we chose

not to do this because we simply did not want

to sacrifice the moving and informative stories

we were collecting. We felt that we would

rather realign our Mission Statement from

"What happens, if anything, during these

referrals which may get the parents of the

patients with innocent heart murmurs to

become upset, or at the least, very

concerned?" to "How do parents experience

the process of having their children being

referred for an innocent heart murmur to a

pediatric cardiologist?" With this change, our

project now came into perfect alignment.




Believe it or not, this sort of thing happens

quite often in the process of conducting

research projects. Muddles can happen as you

begin to make choices in your inquiries. The

first step in working out any sort of this bind is

to draw your plumb line early and often.

Studies can get out of line at any time.

Sometimes your initial attempts at defining

your Area of Curiosity may need subsequent

clarification or calibration. This is probably one

reason why Weick (1995) says, "How can I

know what I think until I see what I say." or

why von Foerster (1984) states, "Doing =

Knowing" (p. 60). Sometimes you just have to

begin to "do" a study before you can "see"

what is going on. With these words in mind

and your plumb line in hand, you should be able

to tidy up any muddle you encounter (or

create!) in your qualitative research





      Bateson, G. (1972). Metalogue: Why do

things get in a muddle? In Steps to an ecology

of mind. New York: Ballentine.


      Chenail, R. J. (1991). Medical discourse

and systemic frames of comprehension.

Norwood, NJ: Ablex.


      Chenail, R. J., Douthit, P. E., Gale, J. E.,

Stormberg, J. L., Morris, G. H., Park, J. M.,

Sridaromont, S., & Schmer, V. (1990). "It's

nothing serious, but...": Parents' interpretations

of referral to pediatric cardiologists. Health

Communication, 2(3), 165-187.


      Chenail, R. J., & Maione, P. (1997,

March). Sensemaking in clinical qualitative

research [28 paragraphs]. The Qualitative

Report [On-line serial], 3(1). Available:


      Denzin, N. K. (1978). The research act:

A theoretical introduction to sociological

methods (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.


      Maione, P. V. (1997, July). Choice points:

Creating clinical qualitative research studies

[37 paragraphs]. The Qualitative Report

[On-line serial], 3(2). Available:


      Psathas, G. (1995). Conversation

analysis: The study of talk-in-interaction.

Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


      Riessman, C. (1993). Narrative analysis.

Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


      Schiffrin, D. (1994). Approaches to

discourse. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.


      von Foerster, H. (1984). On constructing a

reality. In P. Watzlawick (Ed.), The invented

reality: How do we know what we believe

we know? (Contributions to constructivism)

(pp. 41-61). New York: W. W. Norton.


      Weick, K. E. (1995). Sensemaking in

organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


            Author Note


+Ronald J. Chenail, Ph.D., is Dean of the

School of Social and Systemic Studies and

Associate Professor in the Department of

Family Therapy at Nova Southeastern

University, 3301 College Avenue, Fort

Lauderdale, Florida 33314 USA. His e-mail

address is


          Article Citation


      Chenail, R. J. (1997, September). Keeping

things plumb in qualitative research [37

paragraphs]. The Qualitative Report [On-line

serial], 3(3). Available:


Ronald J. Chenail

1997 copyright




       Return to the top of the paper.


      Return to the Table of Contents.












A Pragmatic View of Thematic



          by Jodi Aronson


The Qualitative Report, Volume 2, Number 1,

             Spring, 1994





Ethnographic interviews have become a

commonly used qualitative methodology for

collecting data (Aronson, 1992). Once the

information is gathered, researchers are faced

with the decision on how to analyze the data.

There are many ways to analyze informants'

talk about their experiences (Mahrer, 1988;

Spradley, 1979; Taylor & Bogdan, 1984), and

thematic analysis is one such way.


Although thematic analysis has been described

(Benner, 1985; Leininger, 1985; Taylor &

Board, 1984), there is insufficient literature that

outlines the pragmatic process of thematic

analysis. This article attempts to outline the

procedure for performing a thematic analysis.


     Performing a Thematic Analysis


The ethnographic interview is a commonly

used interviewing process employed by

research-clinicians (Kuehl & Newfield, 1991;

Kuehl, Newfield & Joanning, 1990; Newfield,

Joanning, Kuehl, & Quinn, 1990; Newfield,

Kuehl, Joanning & Quinn, 1991; William,

1992). From the conversations that take place

in a therapy session or those that are

encouraged for the sake of researching a

process, ideas emerge that can be better

understood under the control of a thematic

analysis. Thematic analysis focuses on

identifiable themes and patterns of living and/or



The first step is to collect the data. Audiotapes

should be collected to study the talk of a

session or of an enthnographic interview

(Spradley, 1979). From the transcribed

conversations, patterns of experiences can be

listed. This can come from direct quotes or

paraphrasing common ideas. The following is

an example.


A family was interviewed to get a better

understanding of their experience with a

juvenile justice system. The entire interview

was transcribed. The first pattern of

experience listed, was the process of the

juvenile being arrested, and the different

explanations from the various family members.

The second pattern of experience listed was

the attitude that each family member had

toward the process (Aronson, 1992).


The next step to a thematic analysis is to

identify all data that relate to the already

classified patterns. To continue the above

example, the identified patterns are then

expounded on. All of the talk that fits under the

specific pattern is identified and placed with

the corresponding pattern. For example, each

family member somehow named their

"attitude" while they were speaking. The father

stated that he is "anti-statist," the mother said

that she is "protective," and the son stated that

"felt bad for what he had done" (Aronson,



The next step to a thematic analysis is to

combine and catalogue related patterns into

sub-themes. Themes are defined as units

derived from patterns such as "conversation

topics, vocabulary, recurring activities,

meanings, feelings, or folk sayings and

proverbs" (Taylor & Bogdan, 1989, p.131).

Themes are identified by "bringing together

components or fragments of ideas or

experiences, which often are meaningless

when viewed alone" (Leininger, 1985, p. 60).

Themes that emerge from the informants'

stories are pieced together to form a

comprehensive picture of their collective

experience. The "coherence of ideas rests with

the analyst who has rigorously studied how

different ideas or components fit together in a

meaningful way when linked together"

(Leininger, 1985, p. 60). Constas (1992)

reiterates this point and states that the

"interpretative approach should be considered

as a distinct point of origination" (p. 258).


When gathering sub-themes to obtain a

comprehensive view of the information, it is

easy to see a pattern emerging. When patterns

emerge it is best to obtain feedback from the

informants about them. This can be done as

the interview is taking place or by asking the

informants to give feedback from the

transcribed conversations. In the former, the

interviewer uses the informants' feedback to

establish the next questions in the interview. In

the latter, the interviewer transcribes the

interview or the session, and asks the

informants to provide feedback that is then

incorporated in the theme analysis.


The next step is to build a valid argument for

choosing the themes. This is done by reading

the related literature. By referring back to the

literature, the interviewer gains information

that allows him or herself to make inferences

from the interview or therapy session. Once

the themes have been collected and the

literature has been studied, the researcher is

ready to formulate theme statements to

develop a story line. When the literature is

interwoven with the findings, the story that the

interviewer constructs is one that stands with

merit. A developed story line helps the reader

to comprehend the process, understanding, and

motivation of the interviewer.




Aronson, J. (1992). The interface of family

therapy and a juvenile arbitration and

mediation program. Unpublished doctoral

dissertation, Nova Southeastern University,

Fort Lauderdale, FL.


Benner, P. (1985). Quality of life: A

phenomenological perspective on explanation,

prediction, and understanding in nursing

science. Advances in Nursing Science, 8(1),



Constas, M. A. (1992). Qualitative analysis as

a public event: The documentation of category

development procedures. American

Educational Research Journal, 29(2),



Kuehl, B. P., & Newfield, N. A. (1991).

Family listeners among the Nacirema: Their

curative ceremonies and how the natives view

them. Family Therapy Case Studies, 6(1),



Kuehl, B. P., Newfield, N. A., & Joanning, H.

(1990). Toward a client-based description of

family therapy. Journal of Family

Psychology, 3(3), 310-321.


Leininger, M. M. (1985). Ethnography and

ethnonursing: Models and modes of qualitative

data analysis. In M. M. Leininger (Ed.),

Qualitative research methods in nursing

(pp. 33-72). Orlando, FL: Grune & Stratton.


Mahrer, A. R. (1988). Discovery-oriented

psychotherapy research. American

Psychologist, 43(9), 694-702.


Newfield, N. A., Kuehl, B. P., Joanning, H., &

Quinn, W. H. (1990). A mini-ethnography of

the family therapy of adolescent drug abuse:

The ambiguous experience. Alcoholism

Treatment Quarterly, 7(2), 57-80.


Newfield, N. A., Kuehl, B. P., Joanning, H., &

Quinn, W. H. (1991). We can tell you about

psychos and shrinks: An ethnography of the

family therapy of adolescent substance abuse.

In T. C. Todd & M. D. Selekman (Eds.),

Family therapy approaches with adolescent

substance abusers (pp. 277-310). Boston:

Allyn & Bacon.


Spradley, J. (1979). The ethnographic

interview. New York: Holt, Rinehart and



Taylor, S. J., & Bogdan, R. (1984).

Introduction to qualitative research

methods: The search for meanings. New

York: John Wiley & Sons.


William, J. L. (1992). Don't discuss it:

Reconciling illness, dying, and death in a

medical school anatomy laboratory. Family

Systems Medicine, 10(1), 65-78.


Jodi Aronson, Ph.D., LMFT is the Clinical

Director of MCC Behavioral Care, 3313 West

Commercial Boulevard, Suite 112, Fort

Lauderdale, FL 33309.


Return to the Table of Contents







Qualitative Research: Central

      Tendencies and Ranges


       by Ronald J. Chenail


The Qualitative Report, Volume 1, Number 4,

              Fall, 1992





It is always interesting to listen closely when

someone says, "Qualitative research is..." or

curious to read intently an article or book

which prominently features "qualitative

research" in the title, and then experience a

strange, defamiliarization process as the words

of the conversation, lecture, article, or book

don't seem to fit your notion of what

"qualitative research" is and isn't. Well, you are

not alone in your confusion. As far as I know,

no one has copy rights on the term so it ends

up meaning a variety of things for a variety of

people. As a matter of fact, that is the most

important point: Qualitative research can be a

diverse, rich, and sometimes self-contradictory

world of inquiry. Meta-analyses of qualitative

research methods and philosophies are quite

common in the field and serve as good

introductions to this diversification of approach.

In this short essay I offer one such

examination of the field by presenting a series

of couplets which help to exemplify central

tendencies (CT) and ranges (R) of qualitative



            Couplet One


 CT: Qualitative research is synonymous

    with ethnographic and participant

         observation methods.

  R: Qualitative research is polysemous

       when it comes to method.


Much of qualitative research is dominated by

research traditions from education, sociology,

and anthropology. The researchers from these

fields favor such methods as ethnography,

participant observation, and naturalistic inquiry.

In addition to these popular methods,

qualitative research can also include methods

from fields like communication (e.g., discourse

analysis or conversation analysis), literature

(e.g., narratology or figurative language

analysis), or Biblical studies (e.g., exegesis or



            Couplet Two


  CT: Qualitative research is conducted

      from a scientific perspective.

 R: Qualitative research can be conducted

       from a number of contexts.


Much of qualitative research is practiced from

a scientific viewpoint. It is legitimized by its

juxtaposition with quantitative approaches (i.e.,

qualitative research as pre-quantitative,

qualitative research as post-quantitative, or

qualitative and quantitative research in

triangulation configurations) and it is

undertaken with similar goals in mind as

quantitative approaches (e.g., to predict, to

confirm, etc.). There are many varieties of

qualitative research which do not embrace a

scientific way of knowing and doing. There is

artistic or literary qualitative research which is

based upon an artist's way of practice and

knowledge production. Another type is clinical

qualitative research which constructs its

investigations by examining clinicians' methods

and applying those ways of knowing in

research inquiries (e.g., the use of circular

questioning in data collection and analysis).


            Couplet Three


  CT: Qualitative researchers assume a

  monological position of privilege with

       their practice knowledge.

   R: Qualitative researchers assume a

 dialogical position of difference with their

         practice knowledge.


In our culture, knowledge produced from a

practice of research, qualitative or quantitative,

is usually placed above awareness derived

from a practice of practitioners as in the case

of educators reflecting on their teaching or

therapists re-searching their work in the clinic.

Some researchers, qualitative and quantitative,

realize that researchers can take their place

along side other practitioners and engage in

dialogue towards a creation of a community of

knowing and not knowing.


            Couplet Four


  CT: Qualitative researchers attempt to

 replicate known forms of method in their


  R: Qualitative researchers attempt to

    create new method forms for their



For some, aesthetics and pragmatics in

qualitative research mean that researchers

attempt to approximate a known,

well-practiced, and established form or

tradition in their research project at hand (e.g.,

"In this study, the researcher employed a

Glaser and Strauss grounded theory

approach.") or improvise on a well-known

approach (e.g., "The Spradley ethnographic

interview was modified in the following

ways..."). Other qualitative researchers feel

that particularities of each research project are

so unique that they require a distinctive method

for every study. They may identify research

tradition(s) which inspired their method for a

specific project, but they will also allow each

study to have its own project-specific method

which emerge from the special characteristics

of the project.


            Couplet Five


  CT: Qualitative researchers' analyses

  tend to focus on central tendencies and

     pre-study variables in the data.

 R: Qualitative researchers' analyses also

 focus on ranges and serendipities in the



Qualitative researchers have a habit of

focusing on what is familiar and central to the

study at hand. That which was known through

literature searches and previous observations

before the study was conducted becomes

central in the unfolding process of the

research. Also, that which is observed as

happening or occurring the most during the

study garners the lion's share of the spotlight.

What may be missed through this style of

inquiry is an opportunity for investigators to

know what might not have been known to

them prior to the study. Space and time have

to be allowed in research to create room for

such discoveries. Also, the margins of a

project often provide some of the most

interesting and informative patterns for

investigators if they include a curiosity for the

exception in their work and a hesitancy to

explain quickly that which might turn out to be



             Couplet Six


    CT: The end product of qualitative

 research project resembles the style of a

   classic or traditional research report.

  R: Qualitative research may produce a

  variety of final products which include

  poems, collages, pictorials, videos, and

            clinical pieces.


For the most part, qualitative researchers'

reports of their work approximate the shapes

of a traditional research report: problem,

literature review, hypothesis(es) and/or

research questions, method, analysis(es),

discussion, and conclusion(s). These sections

may follow a linear progression or may be

presented in a circular or recursive pattern, the

choice being dependent on the process

followed in the study and/or prescriptions

suggested by the publishing source. Qualitative

researchers may also choose literary or artistic

modes of re-presentation for their work. These

choices include novel and poetic forms, as well

as expressions of pastiche and collage. Other

researchers explore more audio-visual

re-productions in the forms of videos, films,

and pictorial exhibits. Still other qualitative

investigators' reports assume forms usually

associated with clinical expression--the case

study, for example. For all of these

researchers great care is taken in choosing a

medium which contributes to the message of

the research.


Hopefully, this short series of dialectics helps

to exemplify both the popular and the possible

when it comes to qualitative research practice

and production. It is important that such

options are known and explored because all

too often, qualitative research suffers from a

lack of fit between the intent of researchers in

conducting their work and the choices of

method that they make in trying to accomplish

those goals. Producing compelling and relevant

qualitative research begins with awareness,

appreciation, and critical consumption of the

variety of expressions available to the

researchers. In addition, acceptance or

dismissal of qualitative research by editors,

reviewers, teachers, funding sources,

practitioners, and researchers should also

emerge from a comprehension of the central

tendencies and ranges of these methods.



             Author Note


This article appeared in the AFTA Newsletter

No. 47, Spring 1992 and is reprinted here by

permission of the American Family Therapy

Association, Inc.


Ronald J. Chenail is the Dean of the School

of Social and Systemic Studies at Nova

Southeastern University, Fort Lauderdale,

Florida 33314, USA. His e-mail address is


Return to the Table of Contents










The Hermeneutics of Transcript



         by Joyce G. Love


The Qualitative Report, Volume 2, Number 1,

             Spring, 1994





My goal was to understand the subjective

understandings that medical couples have

about their lives. My interest in career and

home life dates back fifteen years to the time

that I completed a master's thesis on medical

and law students. After taking a rather

extended hiatus which included marrying a

physician, having children, and divorcing a

physician, I decided to compare my own

experience with the experiences of other

medical wives. As I reviewed the published

literature on medical couples, it soon became

evident that the trend included a rather bleak

view of physicians and their marriages. The

overall theme that ties together the several

hundred articles and books on the topic reflects

a pathologizing perspective discussed in the

familiar deficit descriptions depicted in the

medical model of doctors' and their spouses'

personalities. Such descriptions include the

doctor as a compulsive, workaholic,

emotionally distant robot and his wife as a

dependent shell of a being whose most

characteristic feature is that of an emotional

cripple. By the time I exhausted the literature

on the topic of medical marriages, I knew that

a significant element of the research was

missing. I knew that the research should invite

the voices of the couples themselves and

explore these couples' lives by exploring the

perspectives, meanings, understandings,

descriptions, and interpretations the couples

themselves brought forth. I wanted what

ethnographic research typically calls an emic

or native perspective. The goal of emic

understanding is elaborated in hermeneutic and

phenomenologic methodologies (Kvale, 1983;

Packer, 1985).


The "hermeneutic circle" described by

Schleiermacher (Palmer, 1969) became a

useful concept in my methodology since it

addressed the ways in which two people in

conversation, or a reader reading a text,

mutually transform each other's ideas through

continuing interaction. Gergen (1988) uses "the

dance" in describing the ever changing and

continuous movement of partners, their

relatedness and their reasoning in social

interchange. Additionally, there is an internal

dialogue in the hermeneutic circle in which the

researcher continually uses metaphors,

explanatory principles, and prior knowledge to

understand what is read or heard in an

interview. Geertz (1983) uses the baseball

game as an example of this aspect of the

hermeneutic circle (see p. 69). Geertz (1983)

further emphasizes how we can know

another's thought through our own words and

mind. He describes an "intellectual

movement,....a conceptual rhythm...a

continuous dialectical tacking between the

most local of local detail and the most global of

global structure (p. 69).


I chose seven couples who varied by the

following: medical specialties, spouses' careers,

ages, stages in life in terms of years married,

number of marriages within couple, and

number and ages of children. All but one of the

couples depicted the traditional marriage

where the husband was the physician. I

conducted in-depth, semi-structured interviews

centering around issues that I found in the

literature, around my own preconceived

notions, prejudices and biases, and around

ideas that the couples brought up or focused

on. I had no goal or particular hypothesis to

prove or disprove as would be along the lines

of quantitative research methods. I merely

wanted to hear the ways the couples managed

what appeared to be stressful lives, how they

balanced busy careers and hectic, demanding

family lives, and what methods or avenues

they took to create workable or not so

workable lives.


My creativity was set in motion when the

struggle to utilize a hermeneutic methodology

collided with the challenge to interpret the

transcribed interviews. How was I to

determine what was important enough to

discuss and what was not? I needed signs,

indications, manifestations, symbols that I

eventually called "features of significance."

These features tapped revealing information of

difference- difference from my

presuppositions, prejudices, and biases;

difference from what was discussed and

interpreted in previous literature; and,

difference from what the interviewees

determined to be acceptable and mundane

understandings of their lives.


Within a few days after an interview, I listened

and took notes. I listened for themes of interest

and began to attempt to put into my words the

ways in which the spouses interpreted their

lives. As I received the completed transcripts,

I read each one carefully. I listened to the

tapes again as I read over the transcripts.

Where I noticed items of interest, I placed

themal notes in the margins. Transcripts were

photocopied and data that was seen as very

significant was cut out and attached to index

cards. Index cards were coded for

identification and location in transcript. The

marginal notes and the index cards served as

building blocks for perceived themes.

Researcher's ideas, hunches, and

interpretations were kept in a journal.


A central question throughout these analyses

was, "What is a theme?" How was I to

recognize, invent, construct, deconstruct,

reconstruct, and textualize "themes?" Some

might say that anything said by an analyst is a

"bias" or a "prejudice." Another voice (e.g.,

Gadamer, 1976) might celebrate the inner

dialogue of the researcher and encourage the

author to include such pondering in the text. In

the spirit of this voice, I have chosen several

ways to voice the themes I heard in the

interviews and read in the transcripts.


Themes were identified by utilizing several

features of significance. These include (from

Love, 1992):


     1. Repetition within and across

     interviews. Ideas, beliefs,

     concerns, and issues that one or

     the other or both spouses discuss

     repeatedly throughout the

     interview or/and are brought up

     at least once in an interview and

     are then again noted in other

     interviews are considered



     2. Levels and nature of affect.

     This includes emotion that is

     evident through nonverbal cues

     such as a sudden rise in vocal

     volume, change in facial

     expressions and other bodily

     movements all noted

     concomitantly with particular

     content lend significance to that

     content or theme.


     3. Historical explanations,

     descriptions, and interpretations.

     Stories of the past that explain

     and justify present behaviors and

     meanings are considered



     4. Explicit and implicit

     interpretations. These require

     connections between thoughts

     and activities and meanings

     ascribed to them whether they be

     obvious and direct or implied and

     metaphoric. These interpretations

     are considered significant.


     5. Serendipity. Behaviors and

     expressions of the participants

     that are different from what was

     expected, based upon my reading

     and experience. These

     unexpected surprises are

     significant since they allow the

     research to recognize ideas

     which have not yet been

     published. (pp. 123-124)


The interview transcripts were extensively

annotated with identification of features of

significance, as well as descriptions of my

reactions to what they said and what I said. I

thoroughly examined each transcript for ideas

which seemed to add voices to the discussion

on medical families. Also, I closely reviewed

the transcripts for signs of my own

transformation. As I conducted the interviews,

I was intrigued, and somewhat embarrassed,

by my own "slips" of the tongue and by my

more personal questions of the spouses.


An example of how I used the features of

significance to search for themes involves a

couple where the husband was a physician and

the wife was a dentist. The couple described

their decision in terms of the theme "quid pro

quo" as the wife assessed both hers and her

husband's careers in the following:


     As I said before, I mean David's

     career came FIRST, and so he,

     that was his first responsibility

     and mine was more part time so

     the kids were more my

     responsibility. (Love, 1992, p.



Several features of significance were used

here to determine the importance of this

snippet. Repetition was obvious in the

comment "As I said before" and also in

rereading the entire transcript the theme "quid

pro quo" came up on numerous occasions.

Levels and nature of affect is noticeable in the

word "FIRST" which is capitalized to indicate

in the transcript the rise in vocal volume

indicating the significance of this comment.

Historical explanations was another feature of

significance that was used in connecting the

present behaviors and meanings to the history

of the relationship. Since David's career came

first and the raising of the children was the

wife's responsibility for the most part, this

couple found their day-to-day living to be

consistent with their unwritten agreement.


I found that each couple utilized unique

maneuvers to make life as liveable and

enjoyable as possible. They each tried their

best to conduct their lives in the most serene

manner as possible. The themes that were

invented through the analysis are constructs

reflecting the creative solutions I noticed they

used in facing the day-to-day challenges of

career/family life. In re-reviewing the literature

and my presuppositions and prejudices, I found

a striking difference between these and what I

learned from an emic perspective. As I took

an insider's view, I found myself to be totally

immersed in the lives of the people I studied.

Finally, I began taking on an increased respect

and understanding of the lives that at one time

were viewed from a pathologizing, negative,

and hopeless perspective.




Geertz, C. (1983). Local knowledge: Further

essays interpretive anthropology. New

York: Basic Books.


Gergen, K. J. (1988). If persons are texts. In









Presenting Qualitative Data


       by Ronald J. Chenail


The Qualitative Report, Volume 2, Number 3,

            December, 1995





After all the data have been collected and the

analysis has been completed, the next major

task for qualitative researchers is to re-present

the study in the form of a paper or a lecture.

The challenge of converting mounds of data

and analysis can be quite overwhelming even

for the experienced researcher. To help you

with your efforts at presenting qualitative

research in your papers and in your talks, I ask

you to consider the following ideas: Openness,

Data as Star, Juxtaposition, and Data

Presentation Strategies.


1. Openness


In 1993, Marc Constas wrote a very helpful

article for those qualitative researchers who

process, analyze, organize, and present their

qualitative data in categories. In his paper,

"Qualitative analysis as a public event: The

documentation of category development

procedures," Constas presented a simple chart

which can help qualitative researchers make

overt their assumptions, logics, and choices

when conducting a research study. Constas

wrote his article for a number of reasons. First,

he was concerned that qualitative researchers

make all sorts of choices in creating our

research studies and methods, and that for the

most part, we are not very good at sharing

these decisions, and the rationales for these

choices in our presentations of our work. He

pointed out that quantitative researchers are

also guilty of this oversight, but Constas also

argued that qualitative researchers are

especially vulnerable to this

method-reporting-deficit. Unlike their

quantitative brothers and sisters, qualitative

researchers often create new methods for

their particular studies, or they improvise and

modify current, extant approaches.


Given this idiosyncratic leaning with their

methods, qualitative researchers can be easily

criticized for leaving the reader "in the dark"

when it comes to describing the

method-creation process. One irony to this

whole situation is that for researchers who

pride themselves on their skills at description,

explanation, and interpretation, qualitative

researchers are often woeful on applying these

abilities in their presentations of their methods.


To address these shortcomings, Constas

advocated a spirit of openness in the

presentation of qualitative research methods.

He asked researchers to focus their

descriptive and narrative skills on themselves

and their researching activities, and to present

the story of their method construction in their

qualitative research presentations.


When I talk about this point, I usually

paraphrase the anthropologist Gregory Bateson

(Harries-Jones, 1995) and say that it takes two

studies to present one in qualitative research.

One study is the "official" research project and

the other study is the study about that study. In

a well-done qualitative research study, in

addition to seeing the results of the labor, the

reader should have ample opportunities to

examine the particulars of the inquiry: What

choices were made by the researcher in the

construction of the study, what were the steps

in the process of forming the research

questions, selecting a site, generating and

collecting the data, processing and analyzing

the data, and selecting the data exemplars for

the paper or presentation.


It is in this spirit of openness that trust is built

between the researcher and the reader. It is

not a matter of the researcher simply telling

the reader that a study is valid or reliable for

that qualitative research study to be valid or

reliable. Rather, the process of establishing the

trustworthiness of any study comes down to

the quality of the relationship built between the

researcher and the community of readers and

critics who examine the study (Atkinson,

Heath, & Chenail, 1991). As with any

important relationship, for example, husband

and wife, parent and child, friend and friend, or

researcher and reader, openness is an

extremely important factor in the value and

quality of that interaction.


A way to maintain this posture is to consider

the other in the process at all times and make it

a priority that you present as much of the

"back stage" information of your research as

possible. By back stage I mean that you

communicate as clearly as you can what it

was that you did to create your project, what

were your choices along the way, what else

did you consider doing in the project but chose

not to do. Get clear with yourself what it is that

you are doing at every point along the way of

doing your project. Note it and present it to

your readers. Even if what you were doing

was intuitive guessing, let the reader in on it

(Chenail, 1994).


Openness also entails involving "the other" in

your research. The other can be the

participants in your study and they can also be

your colleagues who comment on and who

read your work. In presenting your study, tell

the reader what it is that you are planning to do

in your study and then ends with you doing it.

Someone who is reliable is someone whom you

can depend on in a certain situation. They are

consistent: They do it the same way all of the

time, and they let you know if they had to

change their plans. The same would hold for

reliability in qualitative research: Be open with

what it is you are going to do, give the details

of your design and process as best you can,

and then follow the plan each and every time

you collect data, or transcribe, or categorize,

and so forth. If through the process you decide

that it would make sense to adjust what it is

you are doing, note the change, describe it in

detail, and follow through with the new plan.

Throughout this process, you invite the reader

and\or co-participants in the study to dialogue

with you as to how you are doing with your

description of what it is you are doing and the

actual carrying out of the plan (Chenail, 1994).


If you are successful in carrying out this plan

of being open in your presentation of your

study, other researchers should be able to

come along after you, and be able to step into

your shoes. This is very important for two

reasons: One, this will allow your readers to

judge the validity of your efforts. After having

been presented both the process and the

results of the analysis, readers are in a much

better position to see if they can see what you

were seeing or at least accept that your take

on the data was a valid one. Two, by

re-presenting plenty of the data, you will also

allow the reader to see what they can see in

the data. It is a way to "share the wealth" and

to invite another to continue the inquiry and

conversation (Chenail, 1994).


2. Data as Star


I believe that the data, which have been

painfully collected, should "be the star" in the

relationship. By this I mean, the main focus in

qualitative research is the data itself, in all its

richness, breadth, and depth. When all is said

and done, the "quality" in a qualitative research

project is based upon how well you have done

at collecting quality data. So, it only seems

natural that when it comes time to present "the

fruits of your labor," you should make every

effort to feature the data in your presentations.


In addition to the considerations stated in the

earlier section on Openness, there are still

other ways to embrace this aspect in your

work, especially when it comes to data.

Present as much of the data you collected as is

physically possible in your papers and

presentations. Store your data and make it

available for others to view and re-view. Of

course in doing this you will have to notify the

other participants in your study that this is your

intention and secure their permission. A good

example of this trend in qualitative research is

Waitzkin's (1991) recent work. Not only did he

present lengthy excerpts in his book from the

transcripts he collected and analyzed, but he

also made the complete transcripts available to

the reader by storing them with a national

clearinghouse. In this way, anyone who

wanted to study the complete transcripts could

do so.


Another factor in this data-rich notion of

presenting qualitative research is the "just one

thing" rule. In order to give your data its due in

your conference presentations and in your

writings, you have to concentrate on one

aspect of your study. For instance, if you have

been studying doctor-patient interaction by

examining transcripts and audio recordings of

doctors talking with patients during routine

visits to the clinic, you will have to select one

aspect of this wonderfully rich interpersonal

communication, say "taking the patient's

personal history," and concentrate your efforts

on re-presenting just this one feature of the



Of course, there are other ways to present

more and different aspects of your analysis,

but this effort to fit more themes, categories, or

features in your time-limited talks or

word-limited papers will require you to do a

number of things. One, you will have to reduce

your data in order to present more of it. This

can be done by using quantitative techniques

like structuring your data into central

tendencies and ranges, or frequency guided

shapes. Two, you may have to greatly limit the

number of examples you can present per

category. And three, you may have to do more

"summarizing talk" in which you talk about

your data or above your data instead of

presenting the data in the juxtaposing style

described below.


As data analysis turns to data presentation it

can be easy for the researcher and reader

alike to loose a sense of place for the data. As

the process of winnowing the data begins, the

emphasis becomes one of selecting one

poignant exemplar after another as all of the

significant "wheat" (i.e., that data which is

deemed significant or exemplary) gets

separated from all of the non-significant "chaf"

(i.e., that data which is determined to be

non-significant or redundant) (Hopper, 1986).

To balance this tendency towards data

separation and data isolation, researchers have

to take great care to situate their data so

readers can have an appreciation of "from

whence the data came" and can begin to

evaluate the meaning of the data in context.


Acknowledging that there is always a degree

of reduction in qualitative research,

researchers must still endeavor to give the

readers an impression of where the data was

found, how was it generated and collected, and

what was its context prior to its being

separated in analysis and isolated in the

re-presentation process? Although this task of

"grounding the data" may sound daunting, there

are a number of ways that the data selected

for analysis and presentation in a paper can be

contextualized and "placed" for the readers.


One way to do this is to begin to think like a

novelist, someone who must create a setting in

which to place their characters. For without a

setting, it would be quite difficult for readers to

have a sense of just who these fictional folks

are. "I always begin a novel with place," writes

Shelby Hearon (1992, p. 17) in her article,

"Where Fiction Lives'...Placing Fiction." For

her place is synonymous with plot, but not the

plot taken to mean a series of events in a

story. In contrast, Shelby follows her Oxford

dictionary and considers plot to be "a small

portion of any surface differing in character

and aspect from the rest" (p. 17). To her, "this be a fine way to think about where

fiction begins: with that plot, that parcel of land,

that place that you make yours and no one

else's" (p. 17).


I think the same holds for researchers when

they write their case studies and

ethnographies. The studies started in some

place. The data was collected at some local.

The text started with some context. For their

studies to then have situational validity when

finally appearing in print, researchers must

re-construct the data's setting and allow us to

return to the place where the data once lived.

This is the artistry that is writing qualitative



One of the beauties of this qualitative research

is how qualitative researchers seek out these

places of character and aspect and attempt to

make the events and happenings of these

parcels of data come alive for the reader. To

this artistic end, qualitative researchers have to

think how to create "round" informants instead

of "flat" ones in their papers. Researchers

have to work hard at developing the details of

these plots so that their readers can have a

sense of where the data was naturally

occurring when it was originally encountered

by the researcher. The readers have to have a

clear picture of the data's setting so that they

can begin to have a perspective from which to

judge the observations being made by the

researcher regarding the data. Without the

setting, without the developed characterization,

there can be no context and with no context

for the data, there can be no significant

meaning in the analysis.


Robert Hopper (1986) in his paper, "Speech,

for Instance. The Exemplar in Studies of

Conversation," presents another good way

qualitative researchers can create context in

their data re-presentations. His technique,

which I call "letting the tape recorder run," is a

very simple process to accomplish a context

building goal. In doing a conversation analysis,

one major step is to select exemplary pieces of

talk for commentary and review. Within a

conversation there may be many moments of

interaction which pique a conversation

analyst's curiosity. After repeated listenings

and transcribing, the researcher is ready to say

something about this bit of winnowed data.


Instead of re-presenting just the slice of talk

which is the focus of the analysis, Hopper

suggests that researchers should display their

data with ample preceding and following talk

so that the readers can get a sense of flow and

be able to see the data in its natural setting. In

this way, readers can have a better

perspective to judge the merits of the

researcher's claims regarding the data.


By providing this "bigger picture" through this

context building, researchers can give their

data its "star treatment." In addition, readers

are provided a good view of the proceedings

and are given a solid vantage point to render

their critiques of the show.


3. Juxtaposition, Juxtaposition,



When Bob Costas was the host of the late

night talk show, Later, he asked Mel Brooks,

"What is your definition of comedy?" Mel

answered, "Juxtaposition, Juxtaposition,

Juxtaposition!" By this he meant that his

approach to comedy was a matter of

juxtaposing things which would produce a

funny reaction on the part of the audience. For

instance, having the Monster in Young

Frankenstein doing a soft shoe routine while

singing the sophisticated song, "Putting on the

Ritz," was a comedic juxtaposition for Mel, and

his audience too!


In qualitative research, juxtaposition is also the

key to producing a quality presentation or

paper. To do so, you have to juxtapose data

excerpts with your talk about the data. Be it in

the presentation of categories, themes,

taxonomies, typologies, pictures, or drawings,

the essence of presenting qualitative research

comes down to how well you are able to

juxtapose the data with your descriptions,

explanations, analysis, or commentaries.


Also involved in this juxtaposition of data and

talk about the data is how you choose to use

"the literature" in this weave. Do you annotate

the data by citing relevant previous studies or

theoretical pieces? Do you contrast the data

you have collected with what has been

previously said in the literature about similar

data? Do you use the data to guide you to

areas in the literature you had not previously

considered? Do you triangulate your data with

the literature as way of validating your

observations? In all of these choices,

juxtaposition is still the central concern!


In this process of juxtaposition, your emphasis

should be on staying close to the data. The true

art of presenting qualitative research is to be

restrained by your data. Don't overstate the

data and don't understate it as well. Keep the

whole process as simple as possible: Look at

the data and record that what you see-- Report

nothing more and nothing less! If you keep to

that aesthetic, your data will help to support the

validity of your analysis and your analysis will

help to feature the richness of your data.


An important concept to keep in mind as you

juxtapose your data and your talk about the

data is that of rhythm. By rhythm, I mean for

you to create a template for re-presenting your

data so that there is a recognizable pattern

throughout the Analysis or Findings section of

your paper. In this way, the readers can begin

to read in a rhythm.


To accomplish this rhythm, you need to

structure each phase of your data

re-presentation in a similar pattern. For

example, the following is a common way in

which your findings can be displayed:


     Section Heading


     Present the Distinction or Finding


     Introduce the First Data

     Exemplar of this Distinction


     Display the First Data Exemplar

     of this Distinction


     Comment Further on the First

     Data Exemplar

     of this Distinction


     Make Transition to Second Data


     of this Distinction


     Display the Second Data


     of this Distinction


     Comment Further on the Second

     Data Exemplar

     of this Distinction


     Make Transition to the Next

     Data Exemplar

     of this Distinction and Repeat the


     Until the Closing of this Section


As you write (and re-write) your Findings or

Analysis section, having a pattern to structure

your text will greatly improve your ability to lay

out the data upon which you want to comment

and then for you to weave your comments

throughout the narrative.


As a matter of fact, that is exactly how I

construct my Findings sections. After I have

selected my data exemplars (e.g., quotes from

a transcript), I arrange them out in the word

processing file (see the next section on Data

Presentation Strategies for different ideas as to

how to do this step). Then, I go from exemplar

to exemplar adding my comments. Sometime I

call these steps the "Tarzan Process," because

I think of the quotes as vines in the jungle. As I

maneuver myself from one quote to the next, I

imagine myself as Tarzan swinging from one

vine to another. It's a great way to travel and a

fun way to conceptualize the data

re-presentation process.


Just as the patterning was helpful for you as

you wrote up your findings, it will also serve

your readers well as they begin to navigate

through your paper. The soon-to-be-familiar

rhythm of your presentation style will serve as

an involvement strategy as the readers will

grow accustomed to your pace of data

re-presentation. In addition, it will make it

easier for them to go from section to section.

Although the data will be changing, the pattern

will remain the same. In this manner,

cross-section comparisons can be made more

readily by the readers, which, in my opinion,

helps to make the whole paper reading process

much more coherent.


For an excellent example of how this

rhythm-making can be accomplished, I suggest

taking a look at the recent paper in Social

Science & Medicine by Margarete

Sandelowski and Linda Corson Jones (1996)

entitled, "'Healing Fictions': Stories of Choosing

in the Aftermath of the Detection of Fetal

Anomalies." As you look over the Findings

section of this paper, you should be able to see

how the authors create an easy to follow

pattern and they hold to that rhythm throughout

their re-presentation of the data. One last point

about this paper is that you should also take

notice how Sandelowski and Jones also create

simplicity and rhythm in their account by

organizing their data re-presentation around the

single concept of "choice." Time and time

again, they use this complex word (Empson,

1989) to draw wonderful and illuminating

distinctions in the stories of these women and



By keeping to this or another similarly rhythmic

pattern, you can help to bring some simplicity

to the complexity of data re-presentation.

Throughout all the steps entailed in conducting

a qualitative research study, you must always

attempt to build in some sort of simplicity.

Without it, both you and the reader will be

overcome and you all will end up drowning in a

sea of endless data.


4. Data Presentation Strategies


Constas' second reason for writing his piece

was that he wanted to create a taxonomy for

the creators of categories to follow, or at the

least, his article would be a helpful generator

of possibilities for qualitative researchers to

ponder and examine as they considered their

tact in a particular research project.


In the spirit of Constas' paper, I would like to

make a few suggestions which should greatly

improve qualitative researchers attempts at

presenting their carefully collected data. These

strategies should not be taken as the way or as

the only way to present data, just some ways

with which to play and experiment.


The following are just of the many ways data

can be arranged and presented:


Natural - The data is presented in a shape that

resembles the phenomenon being studied. For

instance, if the data are excerpts from a

therapy session, present them in a sequential

order or in an order that re-presents the flow

of the session itself.


Most Simple to Most Complex - For sake

of understanding, start the presentation of data

with the simplest example you have found. As

the complexity of each example or exemplar

presented increases, the reader will have a

better chance of following the presentation.

Erving Goffman's work is a good example of

this style.


First Discovered/Constructed to Last

Discovered/Constructed - The data are

presented in a chronicle-like fashion, showing

the course of the researcher's personal journey

in the study. This style is reminiscent of an

archeological style of presentation: What was

the first "relic" excavated, then the second and

so forth.


Quantitative-Informed - In this scheme data

are presented according to strategies

commonly found in quantitative or statistical

studies. Data are arranged along lines of

central tendencies and ranges, clusters, and



Theory-Guided - Data arrangement is

governed by the researcher's theory or

theories regarding the phenomenon being

re-presented in the study. For instance, a

Marxist-informed researcher might present

data from a doctor-patient interview in terms

of talk which shows who controls the means

for producing information in the interaction,

talk which illustrates who is being marginalized,

and so forth. In clinical qualitative research,

this approach is quite prevalent as clinicians

organize the data in terms of their

understandings of how doctor-patient, or

nurse-patient, and therapist-client interact.


Narrative Logic - Data are arranged with an

eye for storytelling. Researchers plot out the

data in a fashion which allows them to

transition from one exemplar to another just as

narrators arrange details in order to best relate

the particulars of the story.


Most Important to Least Important or

From Major to Minor - Like the journalistic

style of the inverted pyramid, the most

important "findings" are presented first and the

minor "discoveries" come last.


Dramatic Presentation - This one is the

opposite of the inverted pyramid style. With

the dramatic arrangement scheme, researchers

order their data presentation so as to save the

surprises and unforeseen discoveries for last.


No Particular Order Order - As it sounds,

data are arranged with no particular, conscious

pattern in mind, or the researcher fails to

explain how or why the data are displayed the

way they are.




Does it sound simple? Well, that's the idea with

qualitative research: Try to keep your method

simple because in qualitative research the

complexity is in the data. If you get too

complex in your method, the reaction between

a complex method and complex data will be

disastrous. The beauty of qualitative inquiry is

that by asking simple questions like "What is

care?", "How do physicians and nurses talk

with each other?", and "What is the quality of

life for our patients?", we can begin to study

some of the most wonderfully complex

phenomenons in the world. Qualitative

research is the practice of asking simple

questions and getting complex answers. The

art of managing both the simplicity and the

complexity is the real secret to being

successful at conducting qualitative inquiries.

Does it sound exciting? I hope so!




Atkinson, B., Heath, A., & Chenail, R. (1991).

Qualitative research and the legitimacy of

knowledge. Journal of Marital and Family

Therapy, 17, 161-166.


Chenail, R. J. (1994). Qualitative research and

clinical work: "Private-ization" and

"Public-ation". The Qualitative Report

[On-line journal], 2(1), 1, 3-13. Available

World Wide Web:


Constas, M. A. (1992). Qualitative analysis as

a public event: The documentation of category

development procedures. American

Educational Research Journal, 29, 253-266.


Empson, W. (1989). The structure of

complex words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard

University Press.


Harries-Jones, P. (1995). A recursive vision:

Ecological understanding and Gregory

Bateson. Toronto: University of Toronto



Hearon, S. (1992). Where fiction "lives"...

placing fiction. Writer, 105(7), 17-18.


Hopper, R. (1988). Speech, for instance. The

exemplar in studies of conversation. Journal

of Language and Social Psychology, 7(1),



Sandelowski, M., & Jones, L. C. (1996).

Healing fictions': Stories of choosing in the

aftermath of the detection of fetal anomalies.

Social Science & Medicine, 42(3), 353-361.


Waitzkin, H. (1991). The politics of medical

encounters: How patients and doctors deal

with social problems. New Haven, CT: Yale

University Press.


             Author Note


An earlier version of this paper was presented

as part of the following workshop:


Burnett, C., Chenail, R., Flemons, D., Green,

S., & Polkinghorn, B. (1995, December).

Introductory workshop on qualitative

research. Workshop presented at the Tenth

Annual Primary Care Research & Statistics

Conference, San Antonio, TX.


Ronald J. Chenail, Ph.D. is the Dean of the

School of Social Systemic Studies and an

Associate Professor in the Department of

Family Therapy at Nova Southeastern

University, Fort Lauderdale, Florida 33314,

USA. His e-mail address is


Return to the Table of Contents








Mixing Methodologies:


 Can Bimodal Research be a Viable

        Post-Positivist Tool?


         by Douglas S. Nau


The Qualitative Report, Volume 2, Number 3,

            December, 1995







The field of systemic family therapy has often

taken the view that qualitative research is a

more appropriate research methodology for

that field than is quantitative research. In fact,

it is almost heretical in some institutions to

suggest that quantitative research is a

legitimate domain for understanding. It is this

author's opinion that such a view severely

limits the scope the field and may lead to a

description of the subject or family which is



In a recent commentary, Fraenkel (1995)

urges family therapy clinicians and researchers

to consider using both "knowledge about

patters of adjustment" (p. 113) as well as

considering that "each family [i]s utterly

unique" (p. 113). In the debate between

nomothetic and ideographic ways of

understanding commented that "virtually every

field of intellectual endeavor has struggled with

this tension between the general and the

unique" (p. 116). This same tension exists in

the debate between research modalities as

well. He comments that "no matter how

statistically powerful a nomothetic [read

quantitative] finding, it can never definitively

predict the experience and action of the

individual person [qualitative research]." The

research community has historically seen these

two modes of research as historically opposite.

Instead, he argues, why not use the strengths

of both to gain a greater perspective on

families. A research paradigm which utilized

both qualitative and quantitative methodologies

could be productive.


     In good family therapy, general

     knowledge of how many families

     respond to frequently occurring

     situations and challenges...[can

     be] used as a backdrop with

     which to begin rather than

     conclude a clinical inquiry and

     treatment. (Fraenkel, 1995, p.



Blending qualitative and quantitative methods

of research can produce a final product which

can highlight the significant contributions of

both. The studies mentioned below combine

both methodologies to produce contributions to

the field of research. The first is a description

of physician-patient conversations and the

second looks at how traditional beliefs fade

with each subsequent generation.


      The Waitzkin and Britt Study


Waitzkin and Britt (1993) use data collected in

an earlier long-term quantitative study

(Waitzkin, 1984) to determine how physicians

communicate about "self-destructive

behaviors" with their patients. In this study, the

authors used a method of qualitative inquiry

which was somewhat of a hybrid of several

accepted methodologies: literary criticism,

critical theory, and narrative analysis. Their

journey into the world of the doctor-patient

encounter attempted to contextualize the

conversations around what was happening in

the lives of the two patients they used as case

examples. Such dialogues helped the reader to

understand why the attempts of physicians to

curb those "behaviors" may have had little



The authors began their inquiry from questions

which arose from an earlier quantitative study

(Waitzkin, 1984). That study identified certain

assumptions that quantitative research placed

the physician "as the central figure in the

interview" (p. 1123). Therefore, the authors

wanted to put back the sociocultural contexts

of the physician-patient discourse to rediscover

"the crucial ways that contextual issues pattern

the meaning of words exchanged by patients

and doctors" (p. 1123).


The rationale for the qualitative research

method employed in their subsequent study

was that a richer description was needed in

order to understand the ways in which the

physician's "speech genre" (Bakhtin, 1986)

seemed to clash with the experiences of the

patient in the context of his or her daily life.

Such different ways of communicating, they

theorized, might be at odds with each other. As

it turned out, their transcripts of over 50

encounters proved just that.


The authors reviewed the works of Mishler

(1984), Riessman (1990), Viney and Bousfield

(1991) in social psychology, Kleinman (1988)

in the field of cultural anthropology, Cicourel

(1985) in the field of cognitive studies, and

several from the field of medical humanities.

They supported their research with the

writings of Bakhtin (1986) in literary theory

and Foucault's (1977) critiques of medicine and

social control.


The authors' analysis of their data led them to

conclude that there was an inherent "medically

phrased moralism" (p. 1127) in the dialogue

between patient and doctor. They found that

physicians paid little attention to the contextual

issues in a patient's life or the social context of

their coming to see their physician. The

authors found that attention to socially relevant

details were "marginal in medical encounters"

(p. 1134).


The original plan for this study was a

quantitative one. The authors later realized the

limitations of that methodology. The voices of

the participants were never heard by anyone

outside the research team. To correct this,

they embarked on a subsequent effort to let

their research participants speak and when

they did, they discovered new information. The

Waitzkin and Britt (1993) study offered the

research community one example of how

qualitative depth can be linked with quantitative

breadth. The authors offered personal stories

and transcripts of actual conversations

between physicians and their patients which

centered around health and health

maintenance. The conclusions the authors

drew suggested that physicians may benefit

from letting their patients tell their own stories

without placing a veneer over the encounter

that is loaded with medicalese or technical

terminology. By listening more attentively,

physicians may be able to achieve greater

"success" (p. 1135).


While the Waitzkin and Britt (1993) study was

a more distinct two-step process, others have

streamlined the process. One such two-step

process which is more refined and integrated is

a combined qualitative-quantitative study of an

immigrant population. The following study

demonstrates a method for research which

illustrates how qualitative research and

quantitative research can be joined together.


        The Tripp-Reimer Study


Tripp-Reimer (1985) has suggested that an

ethnomethodological research study can be

enhanced by simultaneously combining

qualitative and quantitative methodologies. In

her ethnographic research study of the "evil

eye" (Greek: matiasma) in Greek immigrants

to the United States, she encouraged health

care workers to become more culturally

sensitive. Such sensitivity would, she argued,

better equip practitioners to offer "holistic or

comprehensive health care" (p. 191). The

author convincingly argued for a combined

research method using qualitative and

quantitative techniques.


The author believes that Tripp-Reimer (1985)

may offer another way of mixing methods by

first using qualitative questions to inform the

scope of the quantitative ones. Qualitative and

quantitative methods used in conjunction "may

provide complementary data sets which

together give a more complete picture than can

be obtained using either method singly" (p.

197). This author believes this reasoning to be

sound because both methods provide a

different lens through which to view data.


Tripp-Reimer (1985) suggested that both

research methods have strengths which can be

used effectively. Qualitative research methods

often provide "rich descriptive and

documentary information about a topic or a

phenomenon" (p. 197). She believes that it is

best to use qualitative research first to

generate "important questions" (p. 197) to ask

research participants. The author contended

that qualitative research, when used first in

what might be termed a bimodal process,

could help to "facilitate serendipitous findings,

raise unexpected questions, and identify topics

the investigator might not have otherwise

considered" (p. 197).


Quantitative research methods, on the other

hand, are most appropriately used to "test

hypotheses with the goal of predicting or

explaining" (p. 180). Tripp-Reimer (1985)

suggested that quantitative methods tend to be

more number-driven when the researcher

wished to know how often or how much of a

phenomenon is present. These numbers usually

are able to serve as a base for explaining or

predicting what has occurred or what will

occur in the future.


Tripp-Reimer (1985) used this methodology to

study the Greek immigrant population of the

Columbus, Ohio metropolitan area between

1976 and 1977. Her methods of data collection

began with a questionnaire to the population

identified by the Greek community. From this,

she was able to select five individuals to

participate in a pilot study. The author and her

research team used semi-structured interviews

and participant observation to "obtain

descriptive data concerning the practice of

matiasma" (p. 184). During these interviews,

data was simultaneously collected and later

analyzed using quantitative research methods

and a computer-assisted analytical tool. The

results of her research revealed that first

generation Greek-Americans were 34% more

likely to believe in the concept of the evil eye

than were fourth generation Greek-Americans.

Tripp-Reimer (1985) believed that such a

combined research method was able to allow

her to see in ways she may not have been able

to see with either qualitative or quantitative

research method alone.


Tripp-Reimer (1985) wrote that such bimodal

research permitted a "full understanding of the

situation" (p. 192). Such a statement is difficult

to prove and reflected a positivist viewpoint.

Such a perspective could severely limit any

postmodern study because it posits that

objective reality can be known.


      Is Bimodal Research Viable?


Denzin and Lincoln (1994) write that "objective

reality can never be captured" (p. 2). To

assume that even with binocular vision one can

"have" all the information, or even "know"

what is true is a dangerous positivistic position.

The rub between the two methodologies

comes when we analyze the assumptions

behind each one. These are clearly spelled out

in detail by Denzin and Lincoln (1994, pp. 4-6)

and can be summarized as follows. The

differences between quantitative and

qualitative research is that the first is positivist,

limiting, unable to capture the subjects'

perspective, abstract, and based on flat

descriptions. Qualitative research, the critics

claim, tends to be unscientific and based on

slipshod methodologies. It's proponents claim

that it offers a postmodern and post-positivist

view more in keeping with prevailing social

attitudes. They also claim that such a research

method is able to capture the voices of many

and provide what Geertz (1973) called a "thick

description" of everyday life.


      Can the Marriage be Saved?


There is ongoing contention surrounding

whether or not the two research methods

mentioned above are suitable partners given

their broad theoretical discrepancies. Such a

position which proposes a "marriage" between

them is, no doubt, a post-positivist one.

However, the field of family therapy itself

encourages multiple perspectives and different

ways of knowing. Perhaps one solution out of

the potential gridlock might be to approach the

union of potentially conflicting methods from a

therapeutic stance. This is what Steinglass

(1995), using a similar metaphor, calls "the

wedding of family therapy and family research

methods" (p. 126).


Fraenkel (1995) urges that "the tension

between nomothetic and ideographic

approaches should come to have more the

form and flavor of a healthy dialectic, rather

than that of an acrimonious debate" (p. 120).

In fact, Sells, Smith, and Sprenkle (1995) have

argued convincingly for what they termed a

multi-method, bidirectional research model.

They suggest that ethnographic content

analysis, for example, "lends itself to both

qualitative and quantitative research goals and

combines what are usually considered

antithetical modes of analysis" (p. 202). Adding

yet another twist to this discussion, Janet

Beavin Bavelas (1995) suggests that we

should challenge this dichotomy way of

viewing the two approaches, and instead,

replace it with a continuum way of discussing

and using qualitative and quantitative research



What these recent evocations suggest is that

there are many questions to be pondered

regarding the two approaches to inquiry. Can

qualitative research be viewed with a

quantitative lens? Can quantitative research be

viewed with a qualitative lens? If common

ground can be found on which to build a new

relationship, perhaps differences which

separate the two can be strategically

minimized. "Qualitative and quantitative

methods build upon each other and offer

information that neither one alone could

provide" (Sells, Smith, & Sprenkle, 1995, p.

203). Just as two members of a family might

be encouraged to see the world through the

eyes of the other, perhaps research purists can

be encouraged to see how listening to another

voice may serve to broaden our understanding

of ourselves in a way heretofore obscured.




Bavelas, J. B. (1995). Quantitative versus

qualitative? In W. Leeds-Hurwitz (Ed.), Social

approaches to communication (pp. 49-62).

New York: Guilford Press.


Bakhtin, M. M. (1986). Speech genres and

other late essays. Austin: University of Austin



Cicourel, A. (1985). Text and discourse.

Annual Review of Anthropology, 14,



Denzin, N. K., & Lincoln, Y. S. (1994).

Introduction: Entering the field of qualitative

research. In N. K. Denzin and Y. S. Lincoln

(Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research

(pp. 1-17). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish.

New York: Pantheon.


Fraenkel, P. (1995). Commentary: The

nomothetic-ideographic debate in family

therapy. Family Process, 34(2), 113-121.


Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of

cultures. New York: Basic Books.


Kleinman, A. (1988). The illness narratives.

New York: Basic Books.


Mishler, E. G. (1984). The discourse of

medicine: The dialectics of medical

interviews. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.


Riessman, C. K. (1990). Strategic uses of

narrative in the presentation of self and illness.

Social Science & Medicine, 30, 1195-1200.


Sells, S. P., Smith, T. E., & Sprenkle, D. H.

(1995). Integrating qualitative and quantitative

research methods: A research model. Family

Process, 34(2), 199-218.


Steinglass, P. (1995). Editorial: The clinical

power of research. Family Process, 34(2),



Tripp-Reimer, T. (1985). Combining qualitative

and quantitative methodologies. In M. M.

Leininger (Ed.), Qualitative research

methods in nursing (pp. 179-194). Orlando,

FL: Grune & Stratton.


Viney, L. L., & Bousfield, L. (1991). Narrative

analysis: A method of psychosocial research

for AIDS-affected people. Social Science

Medicine, 32, 757-765.


Waitzkin, H., & Britt, T. (1993). Processing

narratives of self-destructive behavior in

routine medical encounters: Health promotion,

disease prevention, and the discourse of health

care. Social Science Medicine, 36(9),



Douglas S. Nau is a third-year doctoral

candidate in the School of Social and Systemic

Studies' Department of Family Therapy at

Nova Southeastern University, Fort

Lauderdale, Florida 33314, USA. His e-mail

address is


Return to the Table of Contents







Categorizing, Coding, and

  Manipulating Qualitative

        Data Using the

    WordPerfect®+ Word



  John H. Carney*, Joseph

          F. Joiner**,

     and Helen Tragou***


The Qualitative Report, Volume 3, Number 1,

             March, 1997







In this paper, we present a method of

categorizing, coding, and sorting/manipulating

qualitative (descriptive) data using the

capabilities of a commonly-used word

processor: WordPerfect®. We explain the

process and its development in simple terms

for the person who may be familiar with

qualitative research and data, but not with

computer and/or word processor manipulation

of that data. Although we developed the

process to suit our methods, it can easily be

adapted/evolved to fit different research

situations where a method of rapidly handling

large amounts of descriptive data is desirable.




In our experience with qualitative research, we

discovered WordPerfect® had the capability

we needed to assist with categorizing, coding,

and sorting/manipulating qualitative data. We

wanted our qualitative data to speak for itself,

but we became overwhelmed with the manual

process of handling the data. We needed

computer assistance to relieve us of this

manual process. WordPerfect® provided us

with an efficient filing system to pull the data

together, place it in multiple categories with

subcategories, and rearrange it to suit our

inductive process. As a result, WordPerfect®

saved us many hours of manual labor, allowing

us to focus on the meaning of data. Before

describing the process, we reviewed the

characteristics of qualitative research.


Qualitative Research


We approached this research project from a

qualitative design. For us:


     The word qualitative implies an

     emphasis on process and

     meanings that are not rigorously

     examined, or measured (if

     measured at all), in terms of

     quantity, amount, intensity, or

     frequency. Qualitative

     researchers stress the socially

     constructed nature of reality, the

     intimate relationship between the

     researcher and what is studied,

     and the situational constraints

     that shape inquiry. They seek

     answers to questions that stress

     how social experience is created

     and given meaning. In contrast,

     quantitative studies emphasize

     the measurement and analysis of

     causal relationships between

     variables, not processes. Inquiry

     is purported to be within a

     value-free framework. (Denzin

     & Lincoln, 1994, p. 4)


As opposed to quantitative research, qualitative

hypotheses and theories emerged from the

data set while the data collection was in

progress and after data analysis started

(Morse & Field, 1995). We continually

examined the collected data, which consisted

of transcriptions of interviews, for descriptions,

patterns, and relationships between categories.

The relationships we were looking for were

not statistical, but descriptive. This required us

to view our data set from an experiential

perspective from the beginning.


Our Production (Qualitative



     Casting (the data)


Coffey and Atkinson (1996) wrote, "the

segmenting and coding of data are often

taken-for-granted parts of the qualitative

research process. All researchers need to be

able to organize, manage, and retrieve the most

meaningful bits of our data" (p. 26). Chenail

(1994) wrote, "I believe that the data, which

has been painfully collected, should ‘be the

star' in the relationship" (p. 2). With these

thoughts in mind, we set out upon our journey

of coding and categorizing our data, not an

easy task at first.


Due to the nature of the project, our data

risked being upstaged by the other actors. The

project marked our first time together as a

team--three people coming together with many

different ideas, concerns, and temperaments.

In the beginning, we decided to go away from

each other (it was best not to get too close too

soon), identify data bits, then come back

together to see what data each believed to be

important. After the first manual cut-and-paste

session, we realized that a purely manual

operation would take many hours and waste

reams of paper. At that point, we realized we

needed to address this issue, or the data, our

star, risked being upstaged by the supporting

cast. We did not want to manually code and

re-code. We did not want to put the data in the

hands of some unknown computer-driven

qualitative program lest the program becomes

the star.


A star becomes and stays a star only with the

help of the supporting cast and crew hard at

work in the wings. The cast and crew must

utilize their talents and come together as one in

order for the star to shine--so it was with our

project. We now take you back stage to show

you how the cast and crew prepared for

opening night . . .


     Rehearsal (pulling the

     data together)


Behind the curtain, we first had a scissor party

to cut out the individual data bits and we

dumped them unceremoniously in a pile. With

the data bits in a cluttered stack, we laid out

sheets of paper on a large table and began

"scanning the data for categories of

phenomena and for relationships among the

categories" (Goetz & LeCompte, 1981, p. 57).

As we found similarities of units, we

assembled them into piles of look-alike,

feel-alike groups. We wound up with sixteen

stacks, or categories, into which the data

seemed to fall naturally. These sixteen

categories served as our initial category set,

and we assigned some initial short names to

these according to our interpretation of what

each seemed to be saying. Many had warned

us that our initial category set would probably

be just a starting point. As we sat at the end of

our scissor party looking at each other and

reflecting on the amount of work this had been,

we hoped we were at least close to a final

category set.


Independently and collectively, the three of us

looked at our initial category set. Even with

categories, we still saw chaos and lack of

organization with our data. Jointly, and

concurrently with our research advisor, we

agreed where and how to continue with data



We realized we did not have sixteen simple

categories, but rather multiple categories with

subcategories. This implied we needed at least

one major revision of our category set. We

continually struggled with logical levels of data

categories. It was at this point, thinking of

multiple scissor parties yet to come, we

considered the possibility of computer

programs to help us.


We had neither time nor inclination to purchase

and learn another software program. But in

our review of software programs, we realized

the process itself was a simple one consisting

of assigning codes to data bits and then sorting

and tracking them.


Since our transcriptions and data bits were

already on file in WordPerfect® format, we

took a closer look at WordPerfect® and

realized it had the data handling capability we

needed. It was the computer tool we needed.

We still needed to code the data bits with

category names, but we would have had to do

that with any other programs as well.


Before we finalized our category set, we went

through ten revisions--several of which were

complete major revisions. If we had made

these revisions manually, we would still be

working on the project. However, with the

computer, we accomplished major revisions in

minutes rather than hours.


     Dress rehearsal (coding)


Once the major task of transcribing interviews

was done, the rest was simply a matter of

coding and sorting the data according to the

category schemes we developed as we

analyzed our data. The following was the step

by step process of how we accomplished that

with WordPerfect®. We first coded the name

(an alias) and turn number for each interview

transcript as follows in Excerpt One:


            Excerpt One





            But you find with all these

            new experiences and

            _________ (inaudible) the

            theater and knowing yourself,

            it sounds like you really are,

            you've done some incredible

            work, do you feel you're able

            to trust people more because

            of your acting experience?

            Not having...



            That weird, I can trust people

            more on stage than in real life.



            ____________ (inaudible) on

            stage, you have to trust them.

            "Line Space"






We saw several advantages in coding and

arranging the interview in the above format,

and we developed changes in our process as

we went along--an evolutionary process. Turn

numbers (i.e. 226, 227) enabled us to quickly

locate and track interview information within

the original interview. Sometimes we needed

to review context, which might not have been

evident once we reduced the interview to data

bits. Since the names were already aliases, we

chose to use the name as the "code" for the

person. We could have used numbers, but

using names made it easier to simplify our own

internal identification of respondents.


We also chose to separate the coding

information from the body of the data to assist

with identification and analysis. We created

this alignment by using the "left indent"

capability. We formatted our data bits as a

paragraph for each bit. Left indent maintained

the alignment until the end of each paragraph.

We ended paragraphs with the "Return" or

"Enter" key. Specifically, we entered the turn

number, the name, F4 (left indent, function key

4 in version 6 of WordPerfect®), the data, and

then the "Enter" key to end the paragraph.

[We added this coding and alignment to

existing transcripts by inserting the coding at

the beginning of each turn: 226 Rose:F4

existing data--].


We then separately read all of the transcripts

(many times) and high lighted the data bits. We

were pleasantly surprised, when we got

together again, that our agreement of data bits

exceeded 90%. Initially we decided to include

all data bits anyone identified. Later in our

analysis, we edited the files to remove data bits

that seemed extraneous or non relevant.


After our first scissor party with the identified

data bits, we assigned initial categories to the

data bits. We did this by manually arranging

them on separate sheets of paper before we

developed our computer process. We did it

manually because we thought it beneficial for

us to have gone through the process manually

the first time, and we had not yet seen the

need for computer help. Afterwards, we

wondered if we could have done this first

exercise on the computer had we known how.


Next, we took our pages of categorized data

bits, created a new file of each interview

(never mess with the original files), and added

our category coding (i.e. 9001) to the data bits

in the new file. We chose numeric coding for

categories and created a code page to explain

each category. We chose numeric instead of

alphabetic (name) coding because multi-level

categories required a way of keeping track of

the levels. Numbers provided us an easy way

to accomplish this (see Excerpt Two).


            Excerpt Two






                But you find with all

                these new experiences

                and _________

                (inaudible) the theater

                and knowing yourself, it

                sounds like you really

                are, you've done some

                incredible work, do you

                feel you're able to trust

                people more because of

                your acting experience?

                Not having...




                That weird, I can trust

                people more on stage

                than in real life.





                (inaudible) on stage, you

                have to trust them.

                "Line Space"







(Notice that some changes have already

occurred.) In our case, one interviewer (Ques:

or Q:) conducted all of our interviews, so no

further identification was necessary. We could

have identified multiple interviewers within the

"Q" and name or number, i.e., "QBob" or

"Q12", etc.


Also evident in our editing process at that point

was our grouping of multiple components of

some data bits. That is, sometimes, an answer

was meaningless without the question, and

sometimes the data bit spread over several

turns or interruptions. In the above example of

a data bit, a question (Q:) began the exchange

with a response over two turns. We separated

(formatted) the data bits as paragraphs by a

"Line Space" before and after each data bit.

When sorting, WordPerfect® looked for this

"Line Space" to indicate the end of a



We initially assigned a four digit category code

(9001, etc.) to identify our categories for

sorting and created a "code book" to provide

descriptions of each category (i.e., Childhood

and Adolescent Experiences). Later we made

one of the first major changes to our category

scheme. We changed from the four digit code

to a five digit code. We did this to facilitate

additional category/subcategory distinctions

within the code. For small numbers of category

changes, we simply edited the file and keyed in

the changes, but for major changes, we used

the "Replace" function of WordPerfect®

(Under the "Edit" function of the menu bar at

the top of the screen). The "Replace" function

allowed us to "Search for" the old code (i.e.

3024) and "Replace with" the new code (i.e.

32003). (See Figure 1.) WordPerfect® then

found all instances of 3024 in the file and

replaced each with 32003.


With this first major change to our category

scheme, we coded levels of categories within

our category code numbers, which we

illustrated in the following category scheme

from our code book (see Excerpt Three):


           Excerpt Three


     30000 Adult Experiences. - What

     my life has been and is as an



          31000 In Character

          (on stage) - Those

          experiences of life

          directly relating to























               - My








               in my








               Self -




               self -









               in my



          32000 Out of

          Character (off

          stage) - Those

          experiences of life

          not directly related

          to being on stage.






















               - My








               in my






               Self -




               self -









               in my



Although five-digit category coding could

handle much more complicated category

schemes than we needed, it made level

visualization an easier task. With the coding

completed, we came to the point where we

could sort files. We first sorted a single

interview file to see what it looked like

according to our category scheme. Satisfied

with the format, we combined all of our data

bit files into one large file. We did that using

the "Cut and Pate" feature to add each file to a

single master file. Next, we sorted the master

file according to how we wished to view the

data bits. Appendix A showed one example of

our sorted coding alignment of our data bit files

in their final format.


     Show time (sorting)


WordPerfect® sorted by selected words

within a paragraph and could do both numeric

and alphabetic sorts. Since we wished to view

our data within our category scheme, we first

sorted the data by category code (i.e., 32001),

which was the first "word" (See Appendix A.)

in each paragraph. We used version 6.0, which

had the following procedures reflected in the

menus of that version. (Different versions of

WordPerfect® may have somewhat different

menus to accomplish these functions.)


With the file we wished to sort (master file) on

our editing screen, we selected "Tools" from

the menu bar, which listed the tools available.

(See Figure 2.) From that list, we selected

"Sort." Next appeared a screen that asked for

a "Source and a Destination file." Although

WordPerfect® allowed us to sort directly from

file to file, we chose to sort from the

"Document on Screen" to the "Document on

Screen." This choice allowed us to sort the

data and view it immediately without affecting

source files on disk. Since we wanted to do

multiple sorts and see the results as we went

along, we chose this screen to screen option

and used "Save" to save our files after we

were satisfied with the results.(See Figure 3.)


If you are not familiar with this type of

procedure, the following sort procedure and

screens may at first appear complicated. At

the risk of being simple, we will explain sorting

concepts and the step by step process as if you

are unfamiliar with it. Our coding system is

contained in the first three words of each

paragraph (i.e., 32001 62 Butch:), so our

sorting was done with these words. The first

"Sort" menu (See Figure 4.) asked us for

information about how we wanted to sort the

data. The first thing (1) was the "Record

Type." Our data consisted of words arranged

in "Paragraph" form, which happened to be the

default, so no change was necessary. The

default "Type" shown (on the right side of the

menu, Figure 4) happened to be for an "Alpha"

sort for word "1." Our choice for sort was the

first word, but it was numeric, so we selected

(2) to change the "Sort Keys." "Edit" became

our choice shown on the screen. The "Edit

Sort Key" menu (See Figure 5.) allowed us to

select the fields of the sort key to change. We

selected number (2) and selected "Numeric"

for that first sort. (See Figure 6.)


Once we had the correct fields set up for the

sort (See Figure 7.), clicking on "OK" brought

us back to the "Sort" menu, and we selected

"Perform Action" to accomplish the sort. In a

few seconds, WordPerfect® sorted the file

and displayed it in order of category code.

Considering a manual process for doing this,

the speed was absolutely astounding. The

sorted file was then available as a normal

editing file (on screen) for the next step.


Next, especially for our final data presentation,

we chose to continue our arrangement of data

using another option of the sort capability. One

by one we "Block[ed]" each category level just

as one might block for "Cut and Paste." "Sort"

confined itself to the part of the file we

blocked. One by one, we separately blocked

each category level. (i.e., all of the 32001's,

then all 32002's, etc. See Appendix A.) Next

we sorted the "Block[ed]" category by

interviewee name using the "Edit Sort Key"

procedure to select an "Alpha" sort, instead of

a "Numeric" sort, on word three. (i.e., Butch,

see Appendix A.)


Lastly, we "Block[ed]" each name in turn and

did a numeric sort of word two (i.e., 56, see

Appendix A.) to put the interviewee name in

turn order. Our final result was a file that was

in turn order, within name order, within

category order, which was also in order by

subcategories within categories.


At first, the above procedure seemed lengthy

and tedious, but it was far faster and easier

than doing it manually. Once we had done it a

few times, we found it easy to use, and we

accomplished even major revisions of our

category scheme in minutes. Once we had a

printout of the file, we viewed the structure,

determined if we had properly categorized the

data bits, and made changes to the copy as



None of us were accomplished typists. John

had to look at the keyboard, and he still made

errors. While he typed and watched the

keyboard, one of the members of the team sat

behind him reading the corrections and

verifying his typing on the screen. Working in

that manner, we experimented, modified, and

evolved the categories without being dragged

down by manual labor. We evolved our

process to fit our particular study. Once we

understood the concepts of coding and

manipulating data, only our imagination limited

how we might have evolved the process for

our research data.


        Finale (Conclusions)


WordPerfect® helped us with our data in three

important ways. First, it helped to speed up the

mechanistic process--how to store (by giving

the right commands to the computer), to code

(by assigning numbers to each

interviewer/interviewee turn), and to organize

the data (by cutting-and-pasting and

categorizing the selected data bits).

WordPerfect® helped us to be patient and

curious as we synthesized different themes,

categories, and patterns, which were the

threads that wove the themes into a

meaningful tapestry.


Second, by relying on WordPerfect®, we did

not have to argue about which one of us was

responsible for keeping the data--the four

interviews, the nine sort keys, the several

drafts, the final paper, and presentation aids.

All of them were safely stored in separate and

accessible files in the computer.


Finally, by enjoying the easy access to the

data, we speeded up the qualitative research

process and attended to the importance of our

star--the data. We attended to the many

relationships that emerged during that process

among and between data bits, subcategories,

and categories. WordPerfect® did not do the

coding for us. It was a user-friendly program

that did the housekeeping. It kept our data bits

alive, coded, saved, and easily accessible.

WordPerfect® proved to be a great help,

reliable source and a trusted crew member in

our qualitative play.




      Chenail, R. J. (1995). Presenting

qualitative data. The Qualitative Report

[On-line serial], 2(3). Available:]


      Coffey, A., & Atkinson, P. (1996).

Concepts and coding. In A. Coffey & P.

Atkinson, Making sense of qualitative data

(pp. 26-53). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


      Denzin, N., & Lincoln, Y. (Eds.). (1994).

Handbook of qualitative research.

Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


      Goetz, J. & LeCompte, M. (1981).

Ethnographic research and the problem of data

reduction. Anthropology and Education

Quarterly, 12, 51-70.


      Morse, J. M., & Field, P. A. (Eds.).

(1995). Qualitative research methods for the

health professionals (2nd ed.). Thousand

Oaks, CA: Sage.


      WordPerfect® Version 6.0 DOS:

Reference. (1993). Orem UT: WordPerfect®





            Author Note


+WordPerfect® is a registered trademark of

Corel Corporation.




*John H. Carney, M.S. is a former employee

of a major computer company. He earned a

Masters in Counseling Psychology in 1988 and

has now completed all but his disertation for a

Ph.D. in Marriage and Family Therapy at

Nova Southeastern University in Ft.

Lauderdale, Florida, USA, 33314. His email

address is


**Joseph F. Joiner, M.A. received his M.A.

in Pastoral Counseling from La Sale University

in Philadelphia, PA. He is currently enrolled in

the Marriage and Family Therapy Ph.D.

program at Nova Southeastern University in

Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, USA, 33314. His email

address is


***Helen Tragou, M.S. earned a Bachelor of

Arts in General Psychology from Deere

College at Athens, Greece and a Masters in

Mental Health Counseling at Nova

Southeastern University. She has also earned a

speciality degree in Medical Family Therapy

and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Marriage

and Family Therapy at Nova Southeastern

University, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA,

33314. Her email address is


      Carney, J. H., Joiner, J. F., & Tragou, H.

(1997, March). Categorizing, Coding, and

Manipulating Qualitative Data Using the

WordPerfect® [40 paragraphs]. The

Qualitative Report [On-line serial], 3(1).



John H. Carney, Joseph F. Joiner, and

Helen Tragou

29 March 1997 copyright




       Return to the top of the paper.


      Return to the Table of Contents.








Can Sociological Research

 Be Qualitative, Critical and



      David Wainwright+


 The Qualitative Report, Volume 3, Number 2,

               July, 1997







Qualitative Research is enjoying a new found

respectability in medical sociology, derived in

part from an increasing willingness to submit to

positivist criteria of reliability and validity. Whilst

such claims to 'scientific' credibility have raised

the status of the approach, this has only been

achieved by driving a wedge between

ethnographic methods of data-collection and

their origins in the phenomenological strands of

sociological thought. One consequence of this

schism has been to rob qualitative research of

its critical potential, transforming it from a

means of challenging discursive formations into

a mechanism of surveillance.


This paper defines the broad contours of a

qualitative methodology synthesised with the

perspective of social critique. Positivist

arguments are rebutted and validity is

re-conceptualised as reflexive management of

the relationship between the testimony of

informants and a broader process of historical

and structural analysis. The process of

managing validity is illustrated for each stage of

the research cycle.




Qualitative methods of inquiry have often been

viewed with ambivalence and a degree of

trepidation by researchers concerned with the

sociology of health. On one hand such methods

offer an important link to some of the main

concerns of sociological thought, addressing

questions of power, ideology and subjective

meaning. Whilst on the other hand, they may be

viewed as suspect in terms of their validity and

reliability, particularly when compared with the

more 'scientific' methods available to the

quantitative researcher. Traditionally, scepticism

about the value of qualitative methods has been

strongest in the sub-discipline of medical

sociology where, until quite recently, the

dominance of a positivist model of bio-medical

research has tended to exclude

phenomenological approaches.


Over the last ten years the situation has begun

to change, and qualitative research has gradually

acquired a new respectability, with even the

British Medical Journal, prepared to recognise

its worth (Mays & Pope, 1995). But this new

found acceptance has been achieved at a cost;

most notably it has entailed, if not a complete

capitulation to quantitative criteria of validity and

reliability, at least a tendency to meet them

half-way. Whilst this compromise has

undoubtedly raised the status and acceptability

of qualitative research it has also weakened the

link between the technical process of

ethnographic data collection and its basis in

sociological theory. One consequence of this

schism has been to rob the methodology of its

critical content - the assumption appears to be

that qualitative research can be valid, or it can

be critical, but not both at the same time. The

purpose of this paper is to refute that pessimistic

conclusion by sketching out the broad contours

of a qualitative research model that is not only

critical, but also valid and reliable on its own

terms, rather than in accordance with the

narrow constraints of positivism.


    What is qualitative research?


Generally, qualitative research can be

characterised as the attempt to obtain an

in-depth understanding of the meanings and

'definitions of the situation' presented by

informants, rather than the production of a

quantitative 'measurement' of their

characteristics or behaviour. This concern to

reveal the subjective beliefs of those being

studied is common to ethnography, participant

observation, and the various other strands of

qualitative research. For many qualitative

researchers the subjective beliefs of the people

being studied have explanatory primacy over the

theoretical knowledge of the researcher, thus

Jorgensen suggests:


     While the researcher may have a

     theoretical interest in being there,

     exactly what concepts are

     important, how they are or are not

     related, and what, therefore, is

     problematic should remain open

     and subject to refinement and

     definition based on what the

     researcher is able to uncover and

     observe. (Jorgensen, 1989, p. 18)


The ethnographer's concern to avoid imposing a

theoretical framework of meanings and

definitions perhaps originates from the

anthropological study of low technology tribal

cultures in the third world, where the intention

was mainly to describe cross-cultural variations

in social behaviour and beliefs before they

disappeared. Methodologically this entailed

detailed observation and interaction by the

researcher, in order to see the world 'through

the eyes' of the people being studied. The same

approach has been adapted to the study of

sub-cultures within western society, most

notably in the classic studies conducted by the

Chicago School and succeeding generations of

neo-Chicagoans. As Downes and Rock have

noted, the primary imperative for such research

is to catalogue and describe a particular

worldview without imposing external theoretical



     The interactionist takes his job to

     be the documentation of the social

     worlds that constitute a society.

     He methodically plots the

     connections between

     communication, meaning,

     symbolism, and action. He would

     claim that there is little profit in

     imposing alien interpretative

     schemes on a world: people do not

     build their lives on the logic of

     sociology or the sensibilities of

     foreign groups. They have their

     own methods of doing things

     together. (Downes & Rock, 1986,

     p. 143)


Whilst this approach has yielded a diverse and

colourful variety of descriptions of everyday life,

it poses a number of problems or limitations

when viewed from the perspective of critical

social research. First, no attempt is made to

place the beliefs and behaviour of the people

being studied into an historical or structural

context; it is considered sufficient to simply

describe different forms of consciousness

without trying to explain how and why they

developed. This leads to a second problem - the

tendency to adopt an uncritical attitude to the

beliefs and consciousness of informants, without

considering their epistemological adequacy or

their emancipatory potential. The result is a

form of voyeuristic relativism where everyone's

testimony is accorded equal status, and no

attempt is made either to explain or inform the

development of consciousness.


Superficially, such an approach appears to be

the epitome of a value-free sociology; rather

than passing judgement on the lives of others the

researcher becomes an impartial reporter

enabling informants to express their own

definition of the situation. However, the

reluctance to address the processes by which

different forms of consciousness are socially

and historically constructed, coupled with the

absence of any evaluation of the epistemological

status and emancipatory potential of a set of

beliefs, amounts to little more than a passive

legitimation of dominant ideology. Moreover, it is

based on an assumed antagonism between

social theory and the immediate experience of

everyday life. Rather than the means of

obtaining a critical consciousness of ideological

oppression, social theory is conceptualised as an

inevitable part of the dominant ideology -

something to be resisted and struggled against,

rather than a basis for emancipatory activity. In

short, it is assumed that the sociologist has

everything to learn from the people she or he

studies, but that critical social theory can have

no reciprocal role in their emancipation.


In the light of such criticisms a new generation

of 'critical' ethnographers (see Hammersley,

1992) have attempted to synthesise the

traditional focus on the meanings and definitions

of those involved in a social phenomenon with

the insights gained from social critique. The

objective is still to access the subjective beliefs

of the people being studied, but rather than

accepting such beliefs at face value they are

examined critically in the context of a broader

historical and structural analysis. Whilst

Hammersley is keen to distance himself from

critical ethnography, he recognises the value of

this shift in emphasis:


     ...we have no grounds for

     dismissing the validity of

     participant understandings outright:

     indeed they are a crucial source of

     knowledge, deriving as they do

     from experience of the social

     world. However, they are

     certainly not immune to

     assessment, nor to explanation.

     They must be treated in exactly

     the same manner as social

     scientific accounts. (Hammersley

     & Atkinson, 1983, p. 234)


Crucially, appraisal of the testimony of

respondents amounts to much more than simply

checking that they are telling the truth, it entails

looking at the processes that shaped their views

and assessing the extent to which they may be

distorted by ideology. The intention is not

primarily to 'weed-out' unreliable testimony, but

to use historical analysis and sociological theory

to get beneath the surface of everyday

'common-sense' assumptions in order to arrive

at a deeper level of understanding that will not

only be of academic interest to the researcher,

but will also contribute to the development of

critical consciousness amongst oppressed

groups. However, the synthesis of ethnography

and critical social research is an uneasy one, not

least because it necessitates a

re-conceptualisation of validity, in a form quite

different to that adopted by traditional

ethnography or positivist empiricism. The

purpose here is to commence this

reconceptualisation, and in so doing reclaim

qualitative methods for a critical sociology.


   What is critical social research?


Critical inquiry is diverse and flexible and only

takes on a specific form when applied to the

study of a particular phenomenon. Even so, the

approach has several essential elements, and the

intention is to summarise them in order to arrive

at a deeper understanding of the perspective,

and its consequences for ethnographic validity.


At the core of a genuinely critical methodology

lies the application of dialectical logic.

Dialectical reasoning is complex, and only a

brief account can be given here. Essentially, the

approach addresses the relationship between

objects and events in the material world and

their subjective representation in human

consciousness. The dialectical character of this

relationship was addressed by G. W. F. Hegel,

but he took as his point of departure the realm

of ideas, or human spirit, and was concerned

with the way in which human thought became

materialised through practical activity. From this

perspective the individual's knowledge of the

world was essentially knowledge of

materialised, and therefore alienated, human

thought. Through practical activity the individual

could overcome his/her alienation and

re-appropriate the human spirit as it had been

externalised by previous generations. Ilyenkov

gives an eloquent account of Hegel's approach:


     This world was the materialised

     thought of humanity, realised in the

     product, was alienated thought in

     general; and the individual had to

     de-objectify, and arrogate to

     himself, the modes of activity that

     were realised in it, and it was in

     that the process of his education

     properly consisted. In the trained

     mind categories actually

     functioned as active forms of

     thought activity, forms of

     processing the material of sense

     impressions into the form of a

     concept. When the individual had

     them in his experience, and made

     them forms of his own activity, he

     also possessed them, and knew

     and realised them, as

     thought-forms. Otherwise they

     remained only general forms of

     the things given in contemplation

     and representation, and

     counterposed to thought as a

     reality existing outside it and

     independently of it. (Ilyenkov,

     1977, p. 208)


Thus Hegel shifted the focus of logic towards

consideration of sensuous human activity, and

indicated the extent to which the products of

human thought and intervention in nature take

on a naturalised and ahistorical appearance.

Much of Hegel's logic is retained in modern

dialectical thought, but for one fundamental

difference. By starting in the realm of ideas and

examining their impact on the material world,

Hegel was unable to account for the origins of

those thoughts, and was obliged to rely on an

essentialist and metaphysical account of the

'human spirit'. Vulgar materialists, like Ludwig

Feuerbach, noted that this amounted to little

more than religious belief, and sought to ground

human consciousness in experience of the

material world. Thus for Feuerbach it was the

real world that became imprinted on the physical

human brain, rather than the unfolding of the

human spirit that gave rise to the world.


Although Feuerbach's account of human

consciousness dispenses with the idealism of

Hegel's approach, it only does so at the cost of

perceiving humanity as the passive recipient of

data from the material world. It took Marx to

combine the materialist basis of consciousness

identified by Feuerbach, with the dialectical

insights of Hegel. For Marx, consciousness

came from the individual's experience of the

real world, but this experience was one of

practical activity, of conscious intervention to

adapt nature to meet human needs. From this

perspective phenomena could still be identified

as socially constructed, that is, as the product of

human will, without resorting to a metaphysical

account of 'human spirit'. Ilyenkov has noted the

advance that this represents over vulgar



     Materialism in this case does not

     consist at all in identifying the ideal

     with the material processes taking

     place in the head. Materialism is

     expressed here in understanding

     that the ideal, as a socially

     determined form of the activity of

     man creating an object in one form

     or another, is engendered and

     exists not in the head but with the

     help of the head in the real

     objective activity (activity on

     things) of man as the active agent

     of social production. (Ilyenkov,

     1977, p. 261)


Importantly, the human head is not seen as a

purely physical entity, but as a social head, full

of socially constructed information on how to

understand and act in the world, for example,

language, concepts and categories. The focus

on conscious human activity (production in its

broadest sense), essential to the materialist

conception of dialectics, re-introduces Hegel's

problematic, but sets it on a materialist footing -

effectively turning Hegel on his head, as Marx

put it. The problem resides in the gap between

socially constructed phenomena as they exist in

the real world, and the equally socially

constructed representations of those phenomena

in the consciousness of the individual. The key

to this problem is the continuing process of

change over time. First, the world in which we

find ourselves is in a constant state of flux,

requiring us to constantly act upon it, and

constantly represent that process in

consciousness. Unfortunately, as we know from

Hegel, the phenomenal forms through which we

grasp reality are constructed over generations,

and may therefore present themselves to the

individual as static and immutable. The

application of dialectical logic enables us to

recognise the historical specificity and social

construction of prevailing phenomenal forms, in

order that we can act to consciously transform

them, and better satisfy our needs and wants.


The dialectical logic revealed by Marx reflected

the largely unconscious technique used by other

scientists, for example, Darwin had been able to

reveal an organic world in a constant state of

flux, where minute quantitative changes over

time led to the qualitative transformation from

one species to another. That we bother to assign

fixed labels to things which are constantly

changing is a matter of practicality rather than

precision - we name things in order to

understand them, so that we might use them to

meet our needs. However, the fixity of meaning

implied in the act of naming cannot keep up with

a world that is constantly changing, leading us to

continually revise our knowledge of the world.

In this sense a body of knowledge is always

historically specific. This does not imply the

adoption of a relativist epistemology, because at

any given moment some truth claims will grasp

reality more adequately than others. The

importance of dialectical logic is that it enables

us to choose between alternative truth claims

without losing sight of their historical specificity

and transitoriness.


The adoption of dialectical logic has a series of

methodological consequences for critical social

research. First, it is essential to study the

historical development of a phenomenon to

reveal changes in the way it has been

conceptualised over time. The purpose of

studying a phenomenon over time is not simply

to record changes in its appearance or

phenomenal form, but to reveal the nature of the

relationship between the phenomenon's

appearance and its underlying essence. We

noted above that the production of knowledge

involves abstraction from the material world to

the theoretical world, in order to better inform

our practical activity. The dialectical approach

problematises this relationship between objective

reality and our attempts to represent it in

knowledge. Part of the problem is that objective

reality is in a constant state of flux and our

attempts to grasp it through categorisation and

definition must inevitably become out-dated or

inadequate over time. The purpose of studying a

phenomenon over time is, therefore, to reveal

the historical specificity of phenomenal forms

and the extent to which they are socially



The relationship between essence and

appearance is not only problematic because

phenomenal forms become outdated in the face

of constant changes in the material world, but

also because the historically specific categories

through which we grasp the material world also

have a political dimension in that they enable

powerful groups to exercise domination over

less powerful groups. Thus, the second element

of social critique is the deconstruction of

categories or phenomenal forms. This does not

simply entail the production of a detailed

description of the material contents of a given

category, but an attempt to reveal the extent to

which the existence of a category depends upon

a series of relationships with other phenomena

in the social and economic totality. For example,

an uncritical definition of the category 'working

class' might produce a list of occupations, or an

income band, or cultural characteristics such as

educational attainment or 'lifestyle choices'. A

critical account, by contrast, would attempt to

locate the category in a series of social and

economic relations.


Viewing a phenomenon as the product of a

whole network of social and economic relations,

does not mean that all of those social relations

carry equal explanatory potential. It may be

possible to find a key relationship or 'overriding

moment'; for example, with the category

'working class' the key relationship might be that

workers are obliged to sell their labour power to

the private owners of capital, thereby forfeiting

their right to exercise conscious control over the

production and distribution of goods and

services. This process of deconstructing a

phenomenal form or explanatory category is

fundamentally empirical; it is grounded in

observation of phenomena in the real world at a

specific location in time and space, and cannot

be dogmatically generalised to a different



Critique of categories has a series of effects.

First, it shifts explanatory emphasis from the

categories themselves to the social relations that

underpin them. This makes the categories

derived from such analysis more enduring over

time. For example, if the working class is

defined in terms of particular occupations or

cultural attributes, then the term must inevitably

become redundant as the labour market changes

and different cultural patterns emerge. For

instance, it is often remarked that the working

class has declined as a result of the

re-structuring of manufacturing industry (Gorz,

1982), however, if the category is defined in

terms of the relationship between labour and

capital, then the category continues to be of

value while ever that relationship endures, even

though its demographic content may change

over time.


A second effect of deconstruction is that in

laying bare the essence of a phenomenon by

locating its conditions of existence in a specific

network of social and economic relations it also

reveals political factors that cannot be grasped

from its surface appearance. The classic

example is Marx's critique of the phenomenal

forms of bourgeois political economy (Marx,

1887/1983), which revealed the essentially

exploitative and coercive relations that lie behind

the apparent freedom and equity of commodity

production. The hidden political nature of

phenomenal forms is not only to be found in

class relations, but anywhere that knowledge is

implicated in the domination of one group by

another, for example, around gender and race.

The objective of critical social research is to

make such oppressive structures overt in order

that they might be challenged.


This relationship between critical social research

and political activity is two-fold. First, for the

critical social researcher the distinction between

the material world and its abstract

representation in knowledge is not absolute. As

well as having an existence as text or as ideas,

knowledge is also externalised through our

conscious manipulation of material objects, for

example, even a very basic manufactured object

like a spoon has more than a purely physical

existence; as well as being a piece of metal it is

also a consciously designed instrument that can

be used in a specific way to solve a specific

problem. This process of externalising conscious

knowledge to give it a material existence

extends beyond the production of basic tools to

include the built environment, social and

economic institutions, et cetera. Thus, the

production of an alternative body of knowledge

entails much more than abstract

re-conceptualisation of the material world, or the

production of a text, it entails the transformation

of the phenomenal forms of knowledge, that is

the material objects, institutions and processes in

which previous knowledge is embedded. As Lee

Harvey has noted:


     Knowledge changes not simply as

     a result of reflection but as a result

     of activity too. Knowledge

     changes as a result of praxis.

     Similarly what we know informs

     praxis. Knowledge is dynamic, not

     because we uncover more grains

     of sand for the bucket but because

     of a process of fundamental

     reconceptualisation which is only

     possible as a result of direct

     engagement with the processes

     and structures which generate

     knowledge. (Harvey, 1990, p. 23)


This unity between the subjective and objective

world underlines the political basis of critical

social research. The point is not simply to reveal

the oppressive aspects of existing phenomenal

forms as an end in itself, but to embed this

knowledge in the consciousness of the

oppressed in order that they might engage in

practical activity to emancipate themselves.

Füredi suggests that:


     The power of Marxist theory is

     derived, not from the elegance of

     its arguments, but from its

     capacity to make conscious the

     unconscious forces driving

     towards social change. (Füredi,

     1990, p. xxiii)


We noted above that the relationship between

theory and practice is not uni-linear. Whilst the

objective of critical social research is to inform

conscious activity, it also derives its validity from

active involvement in political struggle. From this

perspective the production of knowledge is

deeply embedded in the process of social

transformation; both informing, and derived

from, the struggle to consciously change the

material world.


To summarise, although critical social research

is diverse and constantly developing the

following characteristics are essential to the

approach: the application of dialectical logic

which views the material and social world as in

a constant state of flux; the study of phenomena

over time to reveal their historical specificity;

the critique or deconstruction of existing

phenomenal forms and analytical categories that

delves beneath the superficial appearances

available to unaided common sense to reveal the

network of social and economic relations that

are the essential conditions of existence for a

phenomenon; the exposure of previously hidden

oppressive structures; and a praxiological

orientation in which knowledge is considered to

be inseparable from conscious practical activity.

But the question still remains as to whether this

approach can be synthesised with ethnography

and still constitute a valid methodology.


 Can qualitative research be critical

             and valid?


Not all critical ethnographers would agree with

the above definition of social critique, although,

most would presumably agree that critical

ethnography entails synthesising the subjective

testimony of informants with a broader historical

and structural analysis. But this synthesis of the

insights that traditional ethnography provides into

the subjective experience of everyday life, with

the historical and structural insights offered by

social critique, is by no means easy to maintain.

Not least because it entails combining two quite

separate and possibly incompatible formulations

of validity. The possibility always remains that

the analysis will slide into either a top-down

deductive approach in which a pre-existing

theory is simply legitimated by the selective and

biased use of ethnographic data, or else into a

superficial and particularistic account of the

views of respondents. Giving explanatory

primacy to the testimony of informants would

appear to undermine the validity of social

critique by contravening the injunction to always

look beneath the surface of everyday

appearances; whilst a broader historical and

structural analysis might contradict the

traditional ethnographer's claim that valid

research does not impose a priori theoretical



The solution to this dilemma lies in ensuring that

the analysis is informed by both strands of

inquiry, for example, that issues emerging from

participant observation or ethnographic data can

be placed in an historical and structural context,

and that problems identified in the academic

literature can influence the direction of the

ethnographic study. As such, critical

ethnography entails a constant inter-weaving of

inductive and deductive logic. The researcher

does not set out to test a pre-conceived

hypothesis, nor is an entirely open-ended

approach adopted, instead the researcher begins

by observing the field of study, both as a

participant observer and as a reviewer of

academic literature. From the synthesis of these

sources a research agenda emerges that can be

pursued, again, by a mixture of observation and

theoretical work.


The key to managing this unstable dialectical

relationship between ethnographic observation

and social critique is to re-conceptualise validity

in terms of reflexive practice. Reflexivity refers

to the researcher's conscious self-understanding

of the research process (Hammersley &

Atkinson, 1983), or more specifically, to a

sceptical approach to the testimony of

respondents (i.e., Are they telling me what I

want to hear?), and to the development of

theoretical schema (i.e., Am I seeing what I

want to see?). The purpose of reflexivity is not

to produce an objective or value-free account of

the phenomenon, because qualitative research

of this kind does not yield standardised results,

as Janet Ward-Schofield has suggested: the heart of the qualitative

     approach is the assumption that a

     piece of qualitative research is

     very much influenced by the

     researcher's individual attributes

     and perspectives. The goal is not

     to produce a standardised set of

     results that any other careful

     researcher in the same situation or

     studying the same issues would

     have produced. Rather it is to

     produce a coherent and

     illuminating description of and

     perspective on a situation that is

     based on and consistent with

     detailed study of the situation.

     (Ward-Schofield, 1993, p. 202)


Thus, reflexivity is not primarily a means of

demonstrating the validity of research to an

audience, but rather a personal strategy by

which the researcher can manage the analytical

oscillation between observation and theory in a

way which is valid to him or herself. Of course,

this will be anathema to the positivist. But is it

really so different to the process of establishing

validity in quantitative research? Random

sampling and statistical testing may appear to

make the assessment of validity transparent to a

third party, but such techniques are not immune

to manipulation by an unscrupulous researcher.

In fact, the validity of particular research

findings, be they qualitative or quantitative,

ultimately depends upon trust in the researchers

integrity, at least until the research is replicated.

Validity therefore refers to the techniques

employed by the researcher to indulge a

Socratic distaste for self-deception, and in

critical ethnography this is achieved by



This reflexive management of the research

process in the pursuit of validity applies to each

stage of the research process, from establishing

relations in the field to writing up the

conclusions. Rather than presenting a taxonomy

of qualitative techniques, participant observation

and in-depth interviewing are presented as the

main exemplars of the ethnographic approach.


Selecting and gaining access to a site


Choosing an appropriate site to study, and

forging a relationship with its participant

members, is a key issue for all ethnographic

studies. Ward-Schofield (1993) has explored the

consequences of site selection for validity and

generalisability, and suggests that both can be

maximised either by selecting a 'typical' site or

else conducting a multi-site study. However,

there are problems with either option; first, how

can one identify what constitutes a typical site

without conducting at least a basic

reconnaissance of all potential sites? Secondly,

given that most qualitative studies are conducted

by single researchers or small teams, is it viable

to study multiple sites to the depth required by

qualitative analysis?


Other commentators set less rigorous standards

for site selection, for example, Jorgensen (1989)

refers to a number of qualitative studies derived

from everyday life experiences, where the

researcher literally found him or herself in a

fortuitous location to study a phenomenon.

There is more to recommend Jorgensen's

argument than the dictates of pragmatism;

rather it constitutes a refusal to be bound by

quantitative criteria of reliability, particularly the

claim that the informants in a qualitative study

should be representative of a broader

population. Clearly, if the need to identify a

representative site is accepted, then qualitative

research must always appear to be the poor

relation of quantitative methods where random

sampling can be applied. By contrast the

ethnographer is more concerned with the

validity of the data she or he collects, that is,

with whether or not the data express the

considered and authentic views of the informant,

with minimal interference or distortion by the

research process. It is this criteria of validity

(i.e., the potential to access the authentic views

of the informants) that guides the ethnographer's

selection of a site, rather than the largely

unattainable goal of representativeness. Again

this process needs to be reflexively managed

according to the specific context, potential

considerations include: ease of access to the

informants, whether data can be adequately

recorded (either by field notes or tape-recorder),

and crucially, whether there are any

characteristics of the site that might adversely

influence an informant's testimony, for example,

the close proximity of his/her employer or

spouse. As the context for qualitative research

is infinitely variable the characteristics of an

ideal site cannot be prescribed in advance;

hence the need for reflexive management by the



Front-end management


Having chosen a site, the researcher must

establish contact with the informants. Again the

character of this relationship varies, for

example, from the relatively brief contact of a

single in-depth interview, to participant

observation which might entail a close

relationship between researcher and informants

lasting several weeks or months. Again,

quantitative criteria of validity cannot be

imposed on this aspect of qualitative research.

Although the ethnographer must take care not to

influence the informants in ways which might

distort their behaviour or testimony, the

necessity of establishing a rapport in order to

gain access to what might be sensitive or closely

guarded information means that the degree of

detachment associated with quantitative

research may not be viable or desirable. Instead,

close proximity to the phenomenon being studied

can be viewed as an advantage, for example,

some feminist writers (Stanley, 1990) have gone

so far as suggesting that personal experience

can be a vital source of inside information to be

tapped as part of the research process. Nigel

Fielding has also suggested that there may be

advantages as well as disadvantages:


     One is participating in order to get

     detailed data, not to provide the

     group with a new member. One

     must maintain a certain

     detachment in order to take that

     data and interpret it [sic]). But it is

     also important to note that another

     problem is much less remarked in

     the literature, though it may be

     more common. This is the problem

     of 'not getting close enough', of

     adopting an approach which is too

     superficial and which merely

     provides a veneer of plausibility

     for an analysis to which the

     researcher is obviously committed.

     (Fielding, 1993, p. 158)


Managing the relationship with informants, or

'front end management', is an important aspect

of the validity of any qualitative study, but again

it cannot be prescribed as a specific procedure,

and its adequacy or effectiveness is unlikely to

be immediately transparent to a third party.

Whilst a conscious and reflexive attempt to

establish valid relations in the field can be

reported by the researcher, and may go some

way to reassuring reviewers and readers, any

post-festum assessment of the validity of this

process is ultimately dependent upon trust.


Data collection


Qualitative researchers have a number of

techniques at their disposal for data collection,

including non-participant and participant

observation, focus groups, and in-depth

interviewing. Each of these techniques raises

particular concerns about validity, for example,

participant observers may have difficulty in

taking adequate field notes. However, there are

techniques for overcoming such difficulties, and

as with site selection and front-end management

the greater problem resides in demonstrating

validity rather than achieving it.


As noted above, a more fundamental difficulty

arises in reconciling the 'bottom-up' approach of

qualitative research with the structural and

historical perspective adopted in critical social

inquiry. For example, for many ethnographers

the in-depth interview should be entirely open

ended, with at most a series of topics to be

discussed, but certainly no pre-conceived

questions, as this would entail the researcher

imposing his/her own definition of the situation

rather than enabling the respondents to structure

the research. Thus, Sue Jones suggests that

pre-conceived interview schedules are

unacceptable because:


     ...the interviewers have already

     predicted, in detail, what is

     relevant and meaningful to their

     respondents about the research

     topic; and in doing this they have

     significantly prestructured the

     direction of enquiry within their

     own frame of reference in ways

     that give little time and space for

     their respondents to elaborate their

     own. (Jones, 1985, p. 46)


Whilst this may be a valid approach for

traditional ethnography, or where the interview

is the researcher's first contact with the

respondent, critical ethnography may entail a

much more focused approach to interviewing, in

which questions are asked about specific issues

derived from the broader social critique. This is

particularly the case where extensive participant

observation has already revealed issues to be

examined in greater depth in the interviews.

Whilst critical ethnographers are keen not to ask

leading questions and to enable informants to

express their views fully, the research agenda

and scope of the study are not primarily

determined by the informants. Rather, a

dialectical approach is adopted, allowing the

researcher to oscillate between the world view

of the informant, (e.g., by departing from the

interview schedule to pursue an interesting line

of inquiry), and the insights offered by the

historical and structural analysis, which may

enable the constructs and categories employed

by the informant to be actively deconstructed

during the course of the interview.


The validity of this tendency to structure the

research agenda according to themes raised by

social critique is more likely to be questioned by

traditional ethnographers than by quantitative

researchers who are more or less obliged to

commence data collection with a pre-conceived

agenda. For the critical ethnographer validity

depends upon getting beneath the surface

appearances of everyday life to reveal the

extent to which they are constituted by ideology

or discourse. Thus, rather than commencing the

process of data collection with an 'empty head'

the critical ethnographer is pre-armed with

insights gleaned from social critique.


Data analysis


Nigel Fielding (1993, p. 163) has summarised a

common approach to ethnographic data analysis

in the following model:




              Search for



















Harvey (1990) refers to the same process as

'pile-building', in which the ethnographic data are

first read 'vertically', usually in chronological

order, to identify common themes and relations

which are then coded. The data are then literally

cut up and re-ordered into 'piles' that reflect the

key themes. Specialist software is available to

facilitate this process, but the 'cut and paste'

utility of a word-processor is likely to be

adequate. The re-ordered data are then re-read,

enabling a sequential argument to be

constructed, and illustrative quotations from the

transcripts to be selected.


Harvey also suggests that critical ethnography

differs from traditional forms of qualitative data

analysis, by bringing the broader critique of

social relations to bear on the structuring of

analytical themes. Hence the final analysis is not

derived exclusively from the ethnographic data

but from an oscillation between that and the

social critique. As Sue Jones has noted, this

inevitably entails going beyond the concepts and

understandings of the respondents:


     I know I cannot empathise with

     the research participants

     completely. I also know that I am

     likely at some points to set my

     understanding of their 'concrete'

     concepts - those which they use to

     organise, interpret, and construct

     their own world - within my own

     and/or an audience's concepts and

     frameworks that are different

     from theirs. When I do this,

     however, I try to be clear that I

     am doing this and why, and to

     ensure that this 'second level' of

     meaning retains some link with the

     constructions of the research

     participants. (Jones, 1985, pp.



The identification of themes and the selection of

quotations to illustrate them also raises a

fundamental issue about the validity of

qualitative research; as David Silverman has



     The various forms of ethnography,

     through which attempts are made

     to describe social processes, share

     a single defect. The critical reader

     is forced to ponder whether the

     researcher has selected only those

     fragments of data which support

     his argument. (Silverman, 1985, p.



Silverman's preferred solution to this dilemma is

to introduce simple counting procedures into the

analysis, for example to identify how many

people referred to a specific theme. But this

begs the question of how many people must

refer to a theme before it is deemed significant;

moreover with a small quantitative study it is

unlikely that a view shared by a majority of

respondents could be claimed as representative

of the views of a broader population. In fact, the

application of quantitative criteria of validity to

qualitative data is inappropriate. The rationale

for conducting in-depth interviews is that people

involved in a phenomenon may have insights

that would not otherwise be available to the

researcher, and it is the quality of the insight that

is important, rather than the number of

respondents that share it. This is what

Hammersley meant (in the above quotation)

when he suggested that ethnographic data

should be treated in the same manner as social

scientific accounts - when we quote the work of

a particular social scientist we do so because of

its explanatory power, not because it represents

a commonly held view, and the same logic

applies to qualitative data.


Mays and Pope (1995) have addressed the

validity issue by recommending that qualitative

researchers pass their ethnographic data to

independent researchers to see if they arrive at

the same analysis. But again this is

unsatisfactory. How are we to select an

alternative researcher, and how many should we

consult before we can conclude that the analysis

is valid? Again the mistake lies in applying

quantitative criteria of validity to qualitative data.

Whilst two statisticians applying the same test of

statistical significance to the same quantitative

data-set might stand a good chance of arriving

at the same result, it is extremely unlikely that

two ethnographers would produce the same

reading of a case study, for the same reasons

that a group of students reading the same text

books would be unlikely to produce the same



As noted above, the researcher can influence

the validity of an ethnographic analysis by

adopting a reflexive perspective on his or her

work, the problem resides in demonstrating this

validity to the reader. Whilst the quantitative

researcher may have more convincing ways of

demonstrating validity, such as, random sampling

and statistical inference, even here there

remains the need for the reader to trust in the

integrity of the researcher not to knowingly

engage in deception, and this is doubly true of

qualitative research. Beyond this, the qualitative

ethnographer can strive to demonstrate the

validity of the analysis by providing a 'thick'

description of the case study, and including

sufficient ethnographic data for an alternative

reading to be constructed.




In many accounts of the research process

'writing up' receives little attention, or else it is

treated as an independent activity from data

analysis. Hammersley and Atkinson (1983)

however, claim that writing-up is inevitably a

part of the analytical process, suggesting that

the structure of the report influences the type of

analysis, or at least the way it is understood by

the reader. They identify four types of report:

the 'natural history' (in which the report reflects

the different stages of the research process as

they progressed over time), the 'chronology'

(also temporally organised, but reflecting the

development or 'career' of the phenomenon

being studied, rather than the research process),

'narrowing and expanding the focus' (in which

the analysis moves backwards and forwards

between specific observation and consideration

of broader structural issues), and 'separating

narration and analysis' (in which the

ethnographic data are presented first before

theoretical issues are addressed).


The 'natural history' approach is a very common

format, particularly for presenting quantitative

findings, but it does not fit well with qualitative

research. In fact it can lead to a form of

dishonesty, giving the impression that that the

research followed a tight structure of

background reading, hypothesis construction,

research design, data collection and analysis,

and discussion of results. The qualitative

research process is less well ordered.

Background reading is essential, but which texts

are relevant, and therefore, worth including in a

report or publication, only becomes apparent

towards the end of the research process, and

the literature review should continue throughout

the project as the ethnography raises new

themes for analysis. Similarly, as the above

discussion demonstrates, the sequence of

hypothesis - data collection - analysis, is not

clear cut or linear, but an ongoing and dialectical



The other three formats for writing-up are more

relevant, but should be seen as different aspects

of the process, rather than discrete types. Whilst

the organisation of a report or publication cannot

in itself confer validity, it can make the research

process more transparent to the reader and

allow validity to be more clearly assessed. It is

important to use the report format to illustrate

the oscillation between micro and macro

analysis that comes from combining the

methodologies of ethnography and critical social

research; looking in detail at the informants'

testimony, but broadening this out to a

consideration of structural and historical issues.




An important question to ask at the end of this

discussion of methodology is the extent to which

the methods employed in critical ethnography

enable research findings to be generalised to

other situations. In a quantitative study

generalisability is largely determined by random

sampling and statistical inference, obviously

such techniques are not usually relevant to

qualitative research, making generalisation more

of a problem. In many respects, the way in

which generalisation is conceptualised in

quantitative studies is alien to both ethnography

and critical social research. For the

ethnographer what matters most is gaining an

in-depth understanding of the attitudes, beliefs

and behaviour of the people s/he studies; the

assumption is that this worldview will be context

specific, and that generalisation to others will

therefore be extremely limited. Similarly, critical

social research starts from the assumption that

society is in a constant state of flux, that the

social world and our understanding of it are

constantly changing, again limiting the value of



However, although ethnography and critical

research may question positivist/quantitative

assumptions about generalisability, both

approaches aim to produce findings that have

relevance beyond the immediate context of the

study. Whilst the production of laws of

behaviour is eschewed, there remains an often

almost hidden claim that the behaviour found in

the study will shed some light on the behaviour

of others, even if this explanatory range is

limited in time and space. As Janet

Ward-Schofield (1993) has suggested this claim

entails a re-conceptualisation of generalisability

in terms appropriate to qualitative research. She

prefers the terms 'fittingness', 'comparability', or

'translatability', reflecting the process of detailed

description of the content and context of a

study, so that it can be generalised to examples

that match it closely.


The use of 'thick description' to boost the

generalisability of a qualitative study, is

important, but generalisability depends not just

upon detailed description of a phenomenon, but

on revealing the social relations that underpin it.

For instance, a qualitative study might reveal

that 'patient empowerment' is an expression of a

specific set of relations between the state,

healthcare professionals and their clients, indeed

that these relations are the condition of

existence for patient empowerment.


It might also be concluded that these relations

limit the emancipatory potential of patient

empowerment, and that this limitation will apply

wherever those conditions prevail. To move

beyond those conditions would be to move

beyond something that was recognisable as

patient empowerment.


Conceptualising a phenomenon in terms of its

conditions of existence and the social relations

that characterise it, is a sounder basis for

generalisation than the simple description of

immediate appearances. For example, the

number of people involved in a patient

empowerment initiative might change, as might

the designation of the healthcare professionals,

the geographical location, even its claimed aims

and objectives, but whilst the conditions of

existence and social relations that characterise

the phenomenon remain constant, then the

conclusion that its emancipatory potential is

extremely limited would remain valid. By the

same token, a patient empowerment initiative

might retain its outward appearance, in terms of

the people participating, its geographical

location, et cetera, but be transformed into a

completely different phenomenon (with a

different degree of emancipatory potential), if

change occurred in the social relations that

underpinned it. In either instance, defining the

phenomenon in terms of social relations reveals

whether or not generalisation is valid.




Over the last decade qualitative research has

gained a new respectability in the sociology of

health, even in the more conservative

sub-discipline of medical sociology. But

legitimacy has been bought at the cost of

embracing positivist criteria of reliability and

validity. This compromise has effectively burned

the bridge between ethnographic techniques of

data collection and their origins in

phenomenological thought. One important

consequence of transforming qualitative

research into another weapon in the positivist

arsenal has been to rob the approach of its

critical potential. Rather than being a means by

which researchers and informants can jointly

travel from the experiential reality of everyday

life towards a critical understanding of discourse

formation and the exercise of power, qualitative

research is rapidly becoming a mechanism of

surveillance; an instrument for measuring

subordination to discourse instead of a means of

countering it.


This transformation is legitimated by the bogus

belief that positivist criteria of validity confer a

degree of authenticity upon research findings

that is immediately transparent to a third party.

However, even the powerful tests of validity

which are available to the quantitative

researcher, such as random sampling or

statistical inference, are not immune to

manipulation by disreputable researchers.

Rather than a clearly discernible hallmark of

authenticity, the techniques employed in the

pursuit of validity comprise a means by which

the researcher can minimise the risk of

self-deception. Whilst these techniques can be

reported, their acceptance by a third party must

ultimately entail a degree of trust in the diligence

and integrity of the researcher. This does not

mean that all research findings should be blindly

accepted at face value; the onus is always on

the researcher to persuade his or her audience

that the research findings are valid. The

appropriate perspective for the reader of

research should be, to borrow from Antonio

Gramsci, 'pessimism of the intellect, optimism

of the will', and this applies equally to

quantitative and qualitative research.


The importation of positivist criteria of validity

into the qualitative research process is not only

unjustified on the grounds of scientificity, it is

also grossly inappropriate for the type of

knowledge produced by such a perspective. The

aim of the qualitative researcher is not to

produce a representative and unbiased

measurement of the views of a population, but

to deepen his or her understanding of a social

phenomenon by conducting an in-depth and

sensitive analysis of the articulated

consciousness of actors involved in that

phenomenon. Interview transcripts and field

notes are read by the ethnographer, for the

same purpose that academic texts are also

considered, that is, in the hope of finding fresh

insights and new ways of understanding a

particular phenomenon. Positivist criteria of

validity are quite inappropriate to this process,

their imposition reduces ethnography to the

status of a 'poor relation' of quantitative

research - a means of gathering sensitive

information, but ultimately less valid.


I have argued in this paper for a

re-conceptualisation of rigour and validity in

qualitative research, based on a rejection of

positivist criteria, in favour of the insights

offered by social critique. From this perspective

validity can be re-couched in terms of

reflexively managing the relationship between

the testimony of informants and a broader

process of structural and historical analysis. This

is an uneasy and in some senses contradictory

combination that requires careful management

at each stage of the research process.

However, it does provide an opportunity to get

beneath the surface of everyday appearances,

to produce theoretically informed accounts of

social phenomena that are grounded in people's

experience of everyday life, but which take a

critical approach to the categories and forms

through which everyday life is experienced.




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            Author Note


+David Wainwright, Ph.D. is a Research

Fellow at the Centre for Health Services

Studies, University of Kent at Canterbury. Prior

to this he worked for a London health authority.

He received his B.A. in Sociology from Kent

University in 1988, followed by an M.Sc. in

Social Policy & Planning at the London School

of Economics, and a Ph.D. in Sociology also

from the University of Kent. Dr. Wainwright is

currently conducting research into the health

consequences of job insecurity. Other interests

include: the medicalisation of social problems,

the politics of health promotion, and the

construction of professional self-identity. Recent

publications include: 'The Political

Transformation of the Health Inequalities

Debate, Critical Social Policy, 16(4), 67-82

(1996), and 'The Best of Both Worlds', The

Health Service Journal, 106(5487), 30-31,

(1996). His email address is


           Article Citation


      Wainwright, D. (1997, July). Can

sociological research be qualitative, critical and

valid? [69 paragraphs]. The Qualitative Report

[On-line serial], 3(2). Available:


David Wainwright

June 2, 1997 copyright




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