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Qualitative Inquiry in Education: The Continuing Debate


reviewed by David T. Hansen - 1992

coverTitle: Qualitative Inquiry in Education: The Continuing Debate
Author(s): Elliot W. Eisner, Alan Peshkin
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807730165, Pages: , Year: 1990
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This collection of original essays and reflections by a group of experienced scholars addresses the current state of qualitative research in education. The book’s editors, Elliot Eisner and Alan Peshkin, perceive the collection as voices in a wide-ranging conversation that they hope will continue to characterize the field. I will provide a flavor of the discussion by sampling the tone and scope of the separate arguments, while also trying to show that the metaphor of a conversation raises important questions about the future of qualitative inquiry.


In Part I of the book, on objectivity in research, D.C. Philips untangles the concept of objectivity from notions of certainty, in so doing paying homage to postmodern doubts about the prospect of attaining certain knowledge. But Philips argues that some ways of studying the world and speaking about it are better than others, namely those that have faced “the demands of reason and of evidence” (p. 30)—that have been responsive to what he describes as a critical community of inquirers, and that have, in so doing, earned objective status. Leslie Roman and Michael Apple, in contrast, self-consciously reject the use of objectivity as a criterion of good research. They argue that positivist assumptions about inquiry continue to haunt naturalistic studies. They endorse subjectivist ethnography (they also call it a “materialist feminist approach”) in which a researcher’s political commitments take center stage rather than remaining tacit and unquestioned, as the authors complain is too often the case. Egon Guba responds by suggesting that both arguments assume “ontological realism,” that is, the idea that there is a concrete, stable, and discoverable reality. He locates this assumption in Philips’s talk of the possibility of objectively true (even if not certain) knowledge, and in Roman and Apple’s talk of underlying material conditions that structure the appearances of social life. Guba counters that “realities are negotiable” (p. 89), and suggests dropping the concern with objectivity in favor of a consensus view of truth.


In Part II, on validity, Madeleine Grumet states that allegiance to conventional concerns about validity narrows perception by removing “connectedness” with the world of people and things. Describing qualitative inquiry as art, not science, she writes an interpretive essay on the experience of one of her students in which she tries to instantiate her view that “if it is as a teacher that I engage in inquiry into teaching, then I do not deny or disguise my relation to the object of that inquiry but make that relation the object of the inquiry itself’ (p. 105). Harry Wolcott, in turn, reminds us that the concept of validity originated in test construction, and he recommends that it be once more relegated to that domain. He urges inquirers to pursue understanding through a process he calls “disciplined subjectivity.” He outlines his meaning by listing some straightforward advice for would-be ethnographic researchers, and shows why he rejects validity by describing in equally straightforward (if unsettling) fashion how he almost lost his life at the hands of an ex-informant. Philip Jackson responds to these two highly personal, in some respects extraordinary accounts by calling attention to the ordinary—to the routine, the mundane, the ongoing aspects of life in educational settings. He cautions against “looking for trouble”—as he characterizes Grumet’s and Wolcott’s efforts—and seeks to alert investigators to the difference between looking “at” phenomena to derive meaning and looking “past” them, the latter all too often a consequence, he argues, of looking “for” particular things in them.


Part III of the book is devoted to generalizability. Robert Donmoyer tells us that worries about generalizability originated in quantitative studies of aggregates. He points out that education is an applied field in which most practitioners work with and are concerned about individuals rather than aggregates. As such, contends Donmoyer, case studies of lived experience have particularly useful (meaning generalizable) applications. Janet Schofield declares that since so much qualitative research is done in the service of evaluation, criteria for generalizability of findings must be articulated. She argues that the criteria will differ depending on whether the research is examining “what is”—such as how a “typical” school or classroom is run, or examining “what may be”—such as a phenomenon in one stage of its cycle (e.g., a school district undergoing reform), or examining “what could be”—perhaps ideal or unusual settings that concretize visions of what other settings might become. Howard Becker reacts to these papers by asking, Why all the fuss about whether qualitative research is generalizable? He asserts that there are no deep epistemological problems regarding qualitative research, and says that educators routinely generalize about social variables and processes (even if the latter are expressed, he informs us, in different ways in different times and places).


Jonas Soltis begins Part IV, a section on ethics, by arguing for ethical awareness and sensitivity in fieldwork. He discusses what he calls the personal, the professional, and the public dimensions of ethical awareness, connecting this analysis to the various purposes of research, which he summarizes as description, judgment, intervention, and social critique. Louis Smith follows by narrating his own experience as researcher over the years, in so doing illuminating the complexity, the contextuality, and perhaps above all the inescapability of ethical issues in qualitative research. He implies that one way to become more reflective about these moral realities is to perceive one’s studies not as investigations that could, in effect, be conducted by anyone, but rather that are being conducted by this person here and now. Yvonna Lincoln responds by calling for a “categorical imperative” in qualitative inquiry, one that would prohibit any and all deception of the researched by those doing the research. She urges investigators to consult the researched about what needs to be looked at, why it needs study, and how to go about doing it. Soltis, in reply, cautions that focusing on a categorical imperative may direct attention away from the concrete, complex ethical realities of face-to-face interaction. He wonders, further, if researchers can actually avoid using others as means to the ends of inquiry. The question becomes, if qualitative research can be justified at all on ethical grounds (as Soltis, Smith, and Lincoln believe to be the case), in what spirit and in what manner it will unfold.


These considerations lead to the book’s final part, on the uses of qualitative research. Thomas Barone suggests that narrative (or “novelistic”) writing be given a central place in the field, adding that these writings be read as “occasions” rather than merely as sources of tips or techniques about research and/or practice. Specifically, Barone urges readers to employ such texts as “occasions for conspiracy,” as educational experiences through which they can identify and articulate “plausible options” for a better future (p. 311). Christopher Clark, in turn, discusses a combined first- and second-grade classroom lesson, disarmingly called “the making of applesauce,” in which he participated. He describes the reactions to his account of it by personnel from the school itself, by some educational researchers, and by his daughter and by an old friend who used to teach. Clark emphasizes what he sees as the broad and often unpredictable value of qualitative research, a value he compares to art, literature, poetry, and music. Matthew Miles and A. Michael Huberman direct the bulk of their response to Barone’s remarks, which they quite forcefully criticize (Barone is given the last word for a counterpoint). In a nutshell, Miles and Huberman believe that Barone’s perspective threatens to take more light than it sheds on educational phenomena (the metaphor is Wolcott’s). Among other things, they worry that his approach may undermine the process of accumulating knowledge in educational research.


This last concern raises a question that seems appropriate for this symposium to end on: Will qualitative inquiry lead to cumulativity, which has been the historic ambition of the social sciences, or will it lead to—conversation? This question presupposes the possibility that accumulating unshakeable research findings may be an illusory aim for the field. It also presumes that conversation can produce more than words. The fine book that Eisner and Peshkin have provided shows that since there is no universal agreement among qualitative researchers on what constitutes objectivity, validity, generalizability, or an appropriate ethical stance in research—save, perhaps, that all these considerations are thoroughly intertwined—the conversation will not be cumulative in the sense of merely adding to a store of knowledge. But it can be educative, as it informs and reforms vision and thus, perhaps, educational practice itself. Indeed, one could ask whether practice can be meaningfully changed—deepened, extended, strengthened—without also changing perception, but that is the subject of another conversation.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 93 Number 4, 1992, p. 749-752
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 269, Date Accessed: 10/20/2021 9:39:05 PM

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About the Author
  • David Hansen
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    DAVID T. HANSEN is Professor of Philosophy and Education at Teachers College, where he directs the Program in Philosophy and Education. Recent publications include Exploring the Moral Heart of Teaching: Toward a Teacher's Creed. New York: Teachers College Press, 2001; "The moral environment in an inner-city boy's high school." Teaching and Teacher Education, special issue on The Pedagogical Function of the School, in press; and "Teaching as a moral activity." In V. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of Research on Teaching, Fourth Edition. Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association, 2001.
 
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