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On Qualitative Inquiry: Approaches to Language and Literacy Research

reviewed by Mary M. Juzwik - 2005

coverTitle: On Qualitative Inquiry: Approaches to Language and Literacy Research
Author(s): George Kamberelis and Greg Dimitriadis
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807745448, Pages: 182, Year: 2005
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The publication of On Qualitative Inquiry: Approaches to Language and Literacy Research marks the introduction of a new set of books co-published by Teachers College Press and the National Conference on Research in Language and Literacy. The set, Approaches to Language and Literacy Research, is part of the ongoing Language and Literacy series published by Teachers College Press and edited by Dorothy S. Strickland and Celia Genishi, and it aims to offer “definitive sources of information” about different research approaches in language and literacy (p. vii), with future volumes to focus on ethnography, classroom discourse analysis, teacher inquiry, narrative inquiry, and formative experiments. On Qualitative Inquiry clears the ground for this new set of books by addressing a broad and interesting question: “What conditions of possibility—ideas, discursive and material practices, social and political forces—had to be in place for many and varied forms of qualitative inquiry to emerge, develop, and gain legitimacy when and how they did?” (p. 2). This question is formulated and addressed primarily through what authors George Kamberelis and Greg Dimitriadis call a “genealogical” framework.

With a genealogical logic and organization, Kamberelis and Dimitriadis take their cue from Michel Foucault in tracing, primarily through philosophical and historical contextualization and explication, those conditions of possibility and social processes that have come to define and naturalize the current field(s) of qualitative research. This project is complex, just as these authors suggest is the collective of practices known as “qualitative inquiry.” The book, as a result, offers a nuanced poststructural “reading” of the emergence of qualitative research in the last century, with some emphasis on language and literacy research. The authors claim that a genealogical approach is particularly relevant at a currently difficult juncture for qualitative inquiry: Whereas “commonsense” notions among researchers in literacy studies and education indicate that qualitative research is more widespread than “quantitative” work, federal policies are now—more than ever—decreeing that “qualitative research” is not scientific and therefore does not even count as research (p. 5).

The first chapter of the book usefully introduces what the authors call a series of “analytical strata” for approaching qualitative inquiry. Explicitly avoiding the terms “method” and “methodology” because of the imprecision with which these terms are often used, Kamberelis and Dimitriadis alternatively suggest four different strata for conceptualizing the practice of qualitative research.

The first stratum, epistemologies, refers to researchers’ broad philosophical orientations concerning knowledge and how people come to have knowledge. Examples they proffer are positivism and constructionism. At the next stratum are theories, “‘detours’ that help us ground our engagement with new problems and allow that engagement to function as a substrate for generating more theory” (p. 15). Dismissing facile distinctions between “theory” and “practice,” the authors clarify that theories themselves are practices. Not only are they “quasi-formal conceptual tools-in-action,” they are also “processes of trying out ways of making sense of phenomena of interest” (p. 15). Here they offer as one example Rosenblatt’s transactional theory of reading. Forming the third stratum are approaches, “systematic yet dynamic . . . social scientific formations that provide loosely defined structures for conceiving, designing, and carrying out research projects” (p. 17). Rather than being “rigid templates” that constitute correct technique for doing research, approaches emphasize research as practice. Ethnography is one example of an approach given by the authors. The final stratum, research strategies, are “specific practices and procedures that researchers deploy to collect and analyze data and to report their findings” (p. 18), and the authors categorize three basic types: observational, interview, and archival. At the level of strategies, researchers’ techniques and other technical matters become relevant. One example of a research strategy, according to the authors, is discourse analysis.

This first chapter seems particularly useful for researchers-in-training because the delineation of the four strata emphasizes that “when designing and conducting research, one should work hard to develop principled alignments between and among epistemological positions, relevant theoretical frameworks, approaches to research, and strategies for collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data” (p. 13). The articulation of this viewpoint is particularly timely given the current popularity of the idea of training “mixed-method” literacy researchers: Discussions on this issue have a tendency to elide the complexities that constitute the practice of being and becoming a researcher and doing research.

With that groundwork laid, the next three chapters launch into more complex historical and philosophical territory. The second chapter articulates four “chronotopes” of qualitative research. The term “chronotope,” used by Bakhtin in his examination of the novel, refers to “durable structuring structures” in space and time. Chronotopes, as understood in this chapter, “index durable historical realities that constitute what is common, natural, and expected by collectives of social scientists who conduct particular kinds of qualitative research” (p. 25). The authors map out four chronotopes that dominate qualitative inquiry in language and literacy: objectivism and representation (Chronotope I), reading and interpretation (Chronotope II), skepticism, conscientization, and praxis (Chronotope III), and power/knowledge and defamiliarization (Chronotope IV). These four are compared along four dimensions: assumptions about knowledge (i.e. epistemologies), theories of truth, conceptualizations of the subject-object relationship, and theories of language.

A summary of these four chronotopes is warranted, as the authors’ delineation of them forms the conceptual center of the book. Chronotope I subscribes to a correspondence theory of truth, holds that knowledge is a “mirror of nature,” believes subjects and objects to be separate and nonconstitutive, and treats language as a neutral vehicle of thought. Chronotope II subscribes to a consensus theory of truth and assumes that knowledge is socially constructed but value neutral. Subjects and objects, although separate, are mutually constitutive, and language is constitutive of thought but remains value neutral. Chronotopes III and IV are more “critical,” in that they link knowledge with power. For Chronotope III, truth emerges from dialogue within an “ideal speech situation,” and knowledge, although socially constructed, is linked to relationships of power. As in Chronotope II, subjects and objects are separate, yet mutually constitutive. Rather than being value neutral, language (which also constitutes thought) is a function of existing power relations. Chronotope IV seems to be that favored by, and exemplified in the practice of, the authors. In this chronotope, knowledge is an effect of existing power relations, whereas truth is an effect of power/knowledge. Both subjects and objects are produced within existing relations of power. Language is a force among other forces that produces the real. Although relative claims are made about the merits of each of these four chronotopes (the merits of each are, the authors claim, contingent on the questions the researcher is exploring), a privileged role for the last is suggested by the amount of space for explanation it is given within the chapter (14 pages, in contrast to 8 for Chronotope III, 5 for Chronotope II, and 3 for Chronotope I).

The third and fourth chapters of the book offer selective histories of anthropology and sociology, respectively, operationalizing the four chronotopes in the history of ideas and practices within emerging disciplinary traditions. Important in chapter 3 is the attention given to the ethnography-of-communication tradition, with a particularly insightful genealogical explication of Shirley Brice Heath’s groundbreaking work on literacy (Chronotope II). Chapter 4, focused on sociology, is particularly useful for its explanation and contextualization of grounded theory, symbolic interactionism, critical Marxist, and poststructural perspectives. All these perspectives have undoubtedly been influential in configuring the contemporary landscape of qualitative research on language and literacy. I do, however, wish the authors had made a clearer case for why these disciplinary histories, rather than others, are explored in greater depth. For example, although the discipline of linguistics is a peripheral figure in chapter 3 (often braided together with the history of anthropology), I found myself wondering why the authors chose not to devote a full chapter to the emergence of this discipline, given its pervasive influence on language and literacy research in recent years. Further, although these two chapters do usefully map out certain disciplinary “conditions of possibility” that have supported and shaped emerging strands of qualitative inquiry, that these chapters about disciplinary histories take up nearly half the space of the book’s text (74 of 158 pp) makes it difficult to wrap one’s mind around the meaning of an important claim made in the book: that qualitative inquiry is now a “transdisciplinary meta-discourse” (pp. 6, 135).

This very notion is elaborated in the book’s fifth and final chapter, in which the authors suggest that they have provided a “principled transdisciplinary language for thinking and talking” about qualitative inquiry (p. 138), presumably through the strata of chapter 1 and the chronotopic organization of chapter 2. The final chapter also provides a series of brief “annotations” of key studies in language and literacy, organized around the following 12 approaches: ethnography of communication, grounded theory, ethnomethodology, discourse analysis/conversation analysis, linguistic anthropology-of-education approaches, narrative and life history approaches, critical Marxist approaches, New Journalism, autoethnography, “symbolic interactionism in a new key” (p. 150), critical discourse analysis, and genealogy/rhizomatics. One benefit of providing annotations of exemplary studies in language and literacy at this point in the book is that they are situated both within disciplinary traditions (e.g., anthropology and sociology, as discussed in chapters 3 and 4) and chronotopes (i.e., chapter 2) and across these traditions and categorizations. For example, the authors highlight Niko Besnier’s (1995) exemplary study of literacy on a Polynesian atoll because of its deployment of discourse analysis/conversation analysis. The authors illuminate the transdisciplinary nature of this study by pointing out that although it is situated within the anthropological ethnography-of-communication tradition, the analyses of spoken language owe a large debt to the sociological research tradition of conversation analysis. Moreover, the authors point out that although this study is located primarily within Chronotope II, it also “flirts with the impulses of Chronotope IV” in its conclusions about gender and identity (p. 144). Although researchers of language and literacy may find reason for dissatisfaction in the necessary limiting of studies for inclusion (e.g., why did the authors choose not to explicate the recent and widely acclaimed study Literacy in American Lives [Brandt, 2001] as exemplary of the grounded theory tradition?), these annotations nevertheless usefully articulate currently available and emerging qualitative approaches in research on language and literacy.

The authors also return in chapter 5 to one of the exigencies prompting this genealogy of qualitative inquiry: Qualitative researchers today face an increasingly hostile research climate in which definitions of research are narrowing, often casting qualitative inquiry as a poor imitation of “real science” (i.e., randomized experiments). As a result, federal funding (at least in the United States) for qualitative inquiry is dwindling as researchers must struggle to articulate the legitimacy of their practices and findings. While the genealogical work of this book does usefully contextualize and historicize these struggles (e.g., a reminder that the turn to education by Hymes, Heath, and others in the ethnography-of-communication tradition was fueled largely through a crisis of relevance in anthropology), it does little in the way of proposing solutions to the current obstacles facing qualitative researchers, and particularly those just beginning their careers. Also troubling is a problem of relevance that is facing language and literacy studies today: Whereas a metalanguage for qualitative inquiry has increased and research has proliferated, the work of qualitative researchers has exerted too little influence on state and national literacy policies, while also failing to consistently respond to the “What shall we do on Monday morning?” question. It appears that the Approaches to Language and Literacy Research set is well poised to address these and related challenges facing qualitative researchers of language and literacy.

With On Qualitative Inquiry, Kamberlelis and Dimitradis push at the boundaries of qualitative inquiry, prodding readers to simultaneously think forward and backward about the proliferation of some—and the foreclosure of other—possibilities for qualitative research. Because this book is premised on the work of Foucault and organized genealogically, readers should come to it expecting a particular focus on and preference for the Continental philosophical tradition throughout. The historical and philosophical precision with which the authors execute their excavation task is likely to be particularly useful for researchers in training, especially doctoral students and researchers in language and literacy who are at the beginning of their careers as researchers or who are seeking to further explore or contextualize new approaches or strategies in ongoing research programs. The first four chapters will also be of interest for more general courses on qualitative inquiry, as they are not organizationally tethered to language and literacy research in particular (though most of the exemplary studies discussed are literacy or language studies). The transdisciplinary nature and the sophisticated theoretical structuring of this reading of qualitative inquiry makes this book an important contribution not only to literacy and language research, but also to qualitative research in education more generally.


Besnier, N. (1995). Literacy, emotion, and authority: Reading and writing on a Polynesian

atoll. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Brandt, D. (2001). Literacy in American lives. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 11, 2005, p. 2502-2507
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11811, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 12:40:09 AM

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About the Author
  • Mary Juzwik
    Michigan State University
    E-mail Author
    MARY M. JUZWIK is assistant professor of language and literacy at Michigan State University, where she teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on discourse, writing, and literacy education. Her recent and current qualitative research projects focus on the impact of oral narrative performances in teaching discourse, examined from a rhetorical perspective. Recent publications include articles in College Composition and Communication, Across the Disciplines: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Language, Learning, and Academic Writing, and The Journal of the Council of Writing Program Administrators.
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