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Qualitative approach to inquiry research and theory

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 3480 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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For almost four decades now, the disciplinary boundary between social sciences and humanities has drawn closer together in order to form an interpretive, qualitative approach to inquiry, research, and theory (Denzin and Lincoln, 2008). Although the use of qualitative approaches is not new, it is remarkable the extent to which it has expanded through social sciences and into other related fields such as public health (Carter et al., 2009, Finlay, 2007, Denzin and Lincoln, 2008, Draper, 2004, Liamputtong, 2009).

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In the past, public health research projects primarily involved quantitative methods and approaches (Finlay, 2007). The quantitative approach includes the traditional public health disciples of epidemiology and statistics, and medicine and biology (Draper, 2004). More broadly, this approach employs rigorous, systematic, and objective methodology in order to obtain knowledge that can be generalisable (Denzin and Lincoln, 2008, Patton, 2002). In recent times, however, qualitative research methods and approaches have become increasingly accepted within public health fields (Finlay, 2007, Draper, 2004). Recognition of the value of such research is increasing, where the focus is on the lived experiences of an individual as well as the social context of health and illness. Although, not surprisingly, the increased popularity of the qualitative approach has been met with some resistance (Denzin and Lincoln, 2008). A resurgent scientifically based research paradigm has created a hostile environment for qualitative research. From this perspective, qualitative research is viewed as a “soft” science, and research outcomes are often thought to lack in reliability and validity (Guba and Lincoln, 1998, Liamputtong, 2009, Denzin and Lincoln, 2008). Moreover, quantitative researchers argue that the ‘gold standard’ of producing worthwhile knowledge is based on quantitative, experimental study designs (Denzin and Lincoln, 2005), and that the interpretive nature of qualitative data is of little value in contributing to scientific knowledge (Liamputtong, 2009, Finlay, 2007). Consequently, effort is required from qualitative researchers to be explicit about the process in which research is being carried out and to defend that process as a form of human inquiry that should be taken seriously (Crotty, 1998). More specifically, there is a need for qualitative researchers to understand and appreciate the philosophical and theoretical principles that underpin qualitative research (Draper, 2004, Carter and Little, 2007).

As such, this paper will outline a model developed by Crotty (1998), which provides a framework for the various philosophical and theoretical perspectives that influence and distinguish qualitative inquiry. This framework offers researchers a sense of stability and direction as they move towards understanding and undertaking the research process (Crotty, 1998). Next, this paper will briefly discuss the rationale behind employing qualitative approaches for research, particularly in evaluation settings and culturally diverse research contexts. However, before outlining the framework developed by Crotty (1998), it will be useful to briefly examine what is meant by the term qualitative research (Draper, 2004).

Qualitative Research

Qualitative research is an area of inquiry that crosses disciplines, fields, and subject matters (Denzin and Lincoln, 2005). It includes a range of complex, interconnected terms, concepts, and assumptions. Furthermore, qualitative research does not privilege a single methodological practice over another and has no theory or paradigm that is distinctly its own (Denzin and Lincoln, 2005). The broad use of qualitative research as a term can therefore make it difficult for scholars to agree on any essential definition (Denzin and Lincoln, 2008, Strauss and Corbin, 1996). In this being said, we must establish a definition for the purpose of this discussion. Denzin & Lincoln (2005) define qualitative research as; a situated activity that locates the observer in the world. It is comprised of a set of interpretive, material practices that make the world visible. These practices transform the world and turn it into a series of representations including; field notes, interviews, conversations, and recordings (Denzin and Lincoln, 2005). Essentially this means that qualitative researchers study things in their natural setting, attempting to make sense of, or interpret, phenomena in the context of the meaning people bring to them. Consequently, qualitative research involves an interpretive, naturalistic approach to the world (Denzin and Lincoln, 2005, Denzin and Lincoln, 2008, Patton, 2002, Draper, 2004, Liamputtong, 2009).

As a starting point, during the initial stages of developing a qualitative research project it is suggested that two main questions are addressed (Crotty, 1998). Firstly, what methodologies and methods will be used in the proposed research? Secondly, how will the chosen methodologies and methods be justified? These questions can then be expanded into four basic elements; epistemology, theoretical perspective, methodology and methods (Crotty, 1998). When undertaking social research majority of discussion and terminology relate in some ways to these four main elements, however there are numerous ways in which they are categorized (Patton, 2002, Carter and Little, 2007, Draper, 2004). What is frequently found is that the four elements are placed together in ways that suggest comparability (Crotty, 1998, Carter and Little, 2007). For example, terms such as Ethnography and Constructionism may be placed together as ‘methodologies’, ‘approaches’ or ‘perspectives’ (Crotty, 1998).

In order to prevent confusion it is suggested that these main elements are sorted to provide some guidance when undertaking the research process (Crotty, 1998). Various ways to distinguish these qualitative traditions have been offered by numerous authors (Draper, 2004, Patton, 2002), including: Lincoln and Guba (2005), Schwandt (2007), Crotty (1998) and Creswell (1998). However, for the purpose of this discussion, the framework (please refer to Figure 1 below) suggested by Crotty (1998) will be employed.



Theoretical Perspective

EpistemologyFigure 1

This framework offers three main epistemologies: objectivism, constructionism, and subjectivism (Patton, 2002, Crotty, 1998). These three elements are then suggested to influence in varying degrees different theoretical perspectives: positivism (and postpositivism), interpretivism (symbolic interaction, phenomenology, hermeneutics), critical inquiry, feminism, and post modernism (Patton, 2002, Crotty, 1998). It is far beyond the scope of this paper to define and expand on each of these philosophical and theoretical elements outlined above, however it is important to be aware of the characteristics and distinctions that exist at each level of this model (Draper, 2004).

Firstly, it should be noted that in many research textbooks the use of the term qualitative often implies that is forms an umbrella superior to the term paradigm (Guba and Lincoln, 1998). Furthermore, qualitative research and quantitative research are often compared against each other as polar opposites (Crotty, 1998, Johnson and Waterfield, 2004, Draper, 2004). However, as Crotty (1998) suggests, the distinction between qualitative research and quantitative research is drawn at the level of methods (Crotty, 1998). It does not occur at either the level of epistemology or theoretical perspective. What does occur at these levels is the distinction between objectivist/positivist research, on the one hand, and constructionist and subjectivist research, on the other (Crotty, 1998). As such, discussion of Crotty’s framework will begin at the level of epistemology.


Epistemology aims to provide a philosophical foundation for deciding what kinds of knowledge are possible and how we can ensure that they are adequate and legitimate (Crotty, 1998). In other words, epistemology is the study of the nature of knowledge and justification (Schwandt, 2007). This element is the starting point because epistemology creates the foundation for the research process and will directly influence other elements in the framework (Carter and Little, 2007). More specifically, decisions about epistemology will impact choice of methodology, as some epistemologies are incommensurable to certain methodologies (Carter and Little, 2007). Epistemology may also constrain research methods, determine the relationship between researcher and participant, the appropriate measures of research quality, and the nature of reporting (Carter and Little, 2007).

Although there are a variety of epistemologies (Crotty, 1998, Schwandt, 2007), Crotty’s framework proposes three main epistemologies; objectivism, subjectivism and constructionism. Of these three, constructionism is the epistemology that qualitative researcher often invoke (Crotty, 1998). However, it is important to note that it has become common for qualitative researchers to superficially claim to be a constructionist (Crotty, 1998). When a researcher claims to be a constructionist it is vital that the deeper significance of the term is reflected on, including: what does it mean for research to be constructionist? And what implications does being constructionist hold? Responses to these questions are important for defending the process in which research has been undertaken (Crotty, 1998).

As previously mentioned, Crotty’s framework suggests that from an epistemological perspective the distinction is made between Objectivist/Positivist research, on the one hand, and Constructionist and subjectivist research on the other (Crotty, 1998). Furthermore, the distinction between qualitative and quantitative approaches is drawn at methods. As such, in accordance with this framework, research can be qualitative or quantitative, or both qualitative and quantitative, without this being problematic in any way (Crotty, 1998). However, problems would arise in the attempt of being both objectivist and constructionist (or subjectivist). Therefore, to avoid such conflict there is a need to be consistently objectivist or consistently constructionist (or subjectivist) (Crotty, 1998).

Theoretical Perspective

Next we describe the philosophical stance that forms the base of the chosen methodology for the research project (Crotty, 1998). Inevitably, when undertaking research a number of assumptions are made in relation to the chosen methodology (Crotty, 1998). By stating what these assumptions are we are elaborating the theoretical perspective of the study (Crotty, 1998). Crotty’s suggests the theoretical perspectives: positivism (and postpositivism), interpretivism (symbolic interaction, phenomenology, hermeneutics), critical inquiry, feminism, and post modernism (Crotty, 1998). Generally, qualitative research is said to be broadly rooted in the interpretive tradition, while quantitative research being rooted in the positivist tradition (Draper, 2004, Liamputtong, 2009). However, Crotty offers an alternative position in regards to the distinction drawn at this level (Crotty, 1998).

Crotty suggests that from the level of theoretical perspective, contrast is made between positivism vs. non positivism, not quantitative vs. qualitative (Crotty, 1998). In other words, it is possible for a quantitative piece of work to be presented in non positivist way. Moreover, qualitative research may also be understood in a positivist manner, or situated in an overall positivist setting (Crotty, 1998). For example, when investigators talk of exploring meanings by employing qualitative methods and then ‘confirming’ or ‘validating’ their findings through a quantitative study, the latter is being approached in a positivist way. Consequently, what makes a study turn into a positivist piece of work is not necessarily the use of quantitative methods but the attribution of objectivity, validity and generalisability to quantitative findings (Crotty, 1998).

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Methodology is the third level in the framework and is a term that is frequently used loosely in the literature (Carter and Little, 2007). For example, various authors refer to methodology as: schools of thought or movements (such as symbolic interactionism or feminism), whole disciples (such as anthropology), or methods (such as focus groups or observation). However, the definition that will be offered for the purpose of this discussion is: the research design that determines the choice and use of specific methods and connects them to desired outcomes (Crotty, 1998). Furthermore, methodology is the middle ground that exists between the discussion of methods and the discussion of the philosophy and theoretical elements of the study. In this sense, methods and methodology are closely associated. What is required at this level of the framework is not only a description of the methodology but also an account of the rationale it provides for the choice of methods and the particular forms in which the methods are employed (Crotty, 1998).

There are numerous methodological theories that researchers may adopt in qualitative research. Over the decades, methodologists have articulated various ways to approach qualitative research (Carter and Little, 2007). Some of the methodologies that Crotty (1998) suggest include: Experimental research, Ethnography, Phenomenological research, Grounded theory, Action research and Discourse analysis. Among the various methodological theories that are used in qualitative research, one of the most commonly used is phenomenology (Liamputtong, 2009).

When constructing methodology researchers commonly state that they will use whichever methodology that suits the objectives and research questions of the study (Carter et al., 2009). Although, this does not recognise that this relationship exists in two directions. In other words, the methodologies provide a way of thinking that will strongly impact a study’s possible objectives, questions, and study design. Importantly, however, the objectives, questions, and study design will also shape the choice of methodologies (Carter and Little, 2007). As such, the degree to which a study is undertaken within a theoretical framework will be less important that the degree to which a study can justify the internal consistently of the choices of method, methodology, and epistemology (Carter and Little, 2007).


Finally, the last level of the framework that will be outlined is methods. Research methods can be defined as the particular activities that researchers engage in so as to gather and analyse their data (Crotty, 1998). Whichever data collection methods are chosen for the study, the challenge lies in being capable to undertake the procedure off skillfully, rigorously, and sensitively (Finlay, 2007). Given the aim of identifying and justifying the research process, it is vital that the methods are described in as much detail as possible. Crotty (1998) outlines a wide range of methods that may be employed when undertaking research (Draper, 2004), some of which include: questionnaires, observation, interviews, case studies, document analysis, and focus groups. More specifically, within qualitative research there are multiple methods that may be utilized, some of the most common include: Observation, Interviewing, and Focus Groups (Patton, 2002). However, it is important to note that there is no one particular method or set of methods that completely represent the qualitative approach (Schwandt, 2007).

Methods are the most flexible and pragmatic components of the research process and are strongly influenced by other elements in the framework. Methods also create the pathway to the final research product (Carter and Little, 2007). There is no research without: sampling, data collection, data managements, analysis, and reporting. Additionally, without careful choice of methods, the research questions will not be effectively answered and the objectives will not be met. As methods are the most accessible, observable and obligatory of the four elements in Crotty’s framework, it is often the element that is most attended to in practice (Carter and Little, 2007). It is also too easy to select methods because they are more familiar, faster, or easier to implement without paying sufficient attention to the research outcomes and conclusions they will produce (Carter and Little, 2007). In the health sector, qualitative research is frequently conducted without attention to the philosophical and theoretical perspectives that influence and distinguish qualitative inquiry. In these circumstances, such research will be difficult to justify unless methods, methodology, and epistemology are outlined and internally consistent. By having a firm handle on the methodological and epistemological decisions, the methods should evolve to serve the study (Carter and Little, 2007)


Since the framework developed by Crotty (1998) has been outlined, discussion will now briefly touch on the rationale for employing a qualitative approach to research, particularly in evaluation settings and culturally diverse contexts. The actual and potential application of qualitative methods and approaches is so broad and over time is constantly expanding (Patton, 2002). However, qualitative approaches are not always appropriate for all inquiry situations (Patton, 2002). Certain purposes, questions, problems and situations are more appropriate for qualitative application than others. Within the field of public health qualitative research has much to offer in terms of understanding patterns of behaviour and how particular problems arise, as well as informing the design of interventions or services (Draper, 2004).

In general, within the field of public health quantitative research aims to assist both practitioners and policy makers to ensure that health education and provision are relevant to the needs of service users (Finlay, 2007). Some qualitative research will also focus more particularly on giving a ‘voice’ to marginalized, vulnerable or disempowered individuals or groups, with a view to empower them to take control of their own health. Another relevant application for qualitative approaches is in the context of evaluations, since they tell the programs story by capturing and communicating participant’s stories (Patton, 2002). Qualitative findings in evaluations illuminate the people behind the numbers and put faces on the statistics in order to deepen understanding (Patton, 2002).

More specifically, qualitative research has also become important for collecting information on the perceptions, beliefs, and values of culturally diverse groups (Caldero et al., 2000). As nations become more culturally diverse, qualitative research approaches will become more widely used. This is in the hope to achieve a better understanding of the needs of minorities and other vulnerable populations that are experiencing less than optimal access to health care and experiencing poorer health status then the broader population (Caldero et al., 2000). The use of qualitative research is not intended to replace, but should be considered complementary to, quantitative research approaches. This will result in wider and a more realistic understanding of the health status of our diverse population (Caldero et al., 2000).


In conclusion, it might be true that research can be completed without attending to the philosophical and theoretical foundations of one’s work (Carter and Little, 2007). However, this discussion suggests that having an awareness of these elements carries substantial benefit (Carter and Little, 2007, Draper, 2004). Epistemology, theoretical perspective, methodology and methods are all fundamental concepts (Draper, 2004). Reporting our research requires us to set forth the research process we have engaged in and to do so faithfully and comprehensively (Crotty, 1998). Is it, after all, our account of the research process that establishes the credit of our research. The process itself is the only source of justification. Consequently, effort is required from researchers to be explicit about the process in which research has been carried out and to defend that process of qualitative research as a form of human inquiry that should be taken seriously (Crotty, 1998).

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