The Wonder and Power of Qualitative Inquiry

The Wonder and Power of Qualitative Inquiry

As scholar practitioners, we may focus our work around four constructs:  lifelong learning, solving immediate problems, responding to opportunities, and creating innovative results.  Qualitative research provides us unique opportunities to explore these areas. The America Educational Research Association asks us to consider what we have learned from our own experiences and probe how we can “learn sensitively from one another’s contemporary experiences and histories” (2017). Recently I’ve had the opportunity to hear discussions from several key qualitative researchers.  Following are some of the insights they’ve shared.

Carolyn Ellis is the leading proponent for autoethnographic research, a methodology that demonstrates the emotional power and academic value of personal stories and reflection.  Ellis and colleagues (2011, p. 273) describe autoethnography as “an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyze (graphy) personal experience (auto) in order to understand cultural experience (ethno).”  Focusing on what she calls the “relational ethics of care” and “compassionate research,” she is currently working with holocaust survivors to share their individual histories.  By recasting their poignant memories, she crafts metaphors that apply evryone.  

Yvonna Lincoln is a pioneer in the development of qualitative research methodologies.  She encourages researchers talk about the humanity and connections made in qualitative research. She reminds us, “We are story tellers. We have the power to share stories - the power to make the understanding of those lived part of the human condition.  If we have any hope for change, we must learn to understand all sorts of people to work together for the common good.” 

Max Van Manen, a primary spokesman for phenomenology, describes the methodology as “the reflective study of the way we experience the world in our everyday life.”  He argues for questioning experiences that give rise to the actual data.  He invites researchers to ask “the meanings of experiences” and to use anecdotes and narratives “to help readers to start to wonder.”

Here is a metaphor that helps me visualize the different approaches a researcher may take to viewing and interpreting an event or experience.  Consider a pivotal or critical experience as a play involving one or more performers.  The performance occurs in a particular place.  The venue has different sorts of seating: Near to the stage, further away, orchestra, mezzanine, balcony, middle seat or aisle.  Different seats provide different perspectives.  One may want to be close to get a good look at the set, costumes, or performers’ expressions.  Another may choose to be further away for a more comprehensive look at the performers, the set, the peripheral aspects of the setting, and even the reactions of the other members of the audience.  In addition, one’s perspective may be shaped by the experiences he brings to the performance.  If the play describes divorce, for example, the viewer who has experienced divorce may interpret events differently than one who has not.  That perception would be shaped further by whether the viewer lived the experience as child or adult.  If it involves the death of a loved one, a person who has lost someone dear may judge the characters differently, through a different prism, than one who does not share that experience. In addition, the performance might be viewed differently by the makeup artist who must patronize cranky actors or the wardrobe manager or choreographer or writer analyzing how well the performers interpret their work.  And so it goes.

There are multiple versions of the same event to describe.  These can include the experience as described by the initiator, the event as described by the respondent, and the experience as recorded by the researcher through notes and memos. 

Of course, there is another unavailable version, which might be an “objective, post positivist view” of the event, perhaps a video sound recording of the story, an “instant replay” of the sort we expect in sporting events. As we know, however, even in those situations, expert observers often disagree about the facts displayed in the recorded reality, as well as how to interpret them.

Lincoln admonishes qualitative researchers: “Pursue your passions.”  Johnny Saldana reminds us, “If reflection doesn’t lead to action, what good is it?” The Center for Professional Responsibility in Education provides the opportunity to pursue those passions within a community of practitioner scholars who thoughtfully examine the complexities and tensions within the PK-12 environment. I invite you to join the CPRE and explore your passions.