The Transcendence of Quality Over Paradigms in Qualitative Research

A graduate course in qualitative research methods may be framed arouunitynd discussions of the particular theoretical or philosophical paradigms – belief systems or world view – that qualitative researchers use in varying degrees to orient their approach for any given study.  And, indeed, if the instructor is using popular texts such as those from Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln  (2011) or John Creswell (2013) – each of which have new 2017 editions – students would be learning first about the different implications and approaches associated with various paradigm orientations, followed by (or along with) the corresponding methodological considerations.

There have been over the years debates in the academic qualitative research community about how best to identify and talk about these paradigms as well as quality concerns related to conducting research based around any one of these belief systems.  In the broadest sense, the most oft-discussed paradigms in qualitative research are: postpositivism – often allied with a more quantitative approach where the emphasis is on maintaining objectivity and controlling variables in order to approximate “reality”; constructivism or interpretivism – in which the belief is not hinged to one objective reality but multiple realities that are socially constructed based on subjective meanings; and critical theory – where the focus is on bringing about social change for the marginalized or oppressed (e.g., issues related to racism, classism, or sexism) by way of a localized, fully collaborative approach.

It is these underlying paradigm orientations that fuel further discussions concerning what it means to conduct a “quality” qualitative study.  Clara Hill’s “consensual qualitative research” – that is grounded somewhere between postpositivism and constructivism, and prescribes a highly-specific method – is just one example.

It is not at all clear, however, that the researcher needs a paradigm-bound research design where one set of criteria pertains to one orientation but not to another.  As important as a theoretical or philosophical orientation may be to serving as the foundation to a qualitative research effort, it need not be tied to the quality measures the researcher utilizes in the actual doing of the research.  In fact, the quality aspects of a research design should transcend, or at least be a separate discussion from, the consideration of paradigms. Regardless of the philosophical thinking that supports the approach, all qualitative research necessitates an implementation that maximizes the study’s credibility, analyzability, transparency, and ultimate usefulness to the research team, the end users, as well as the research community as a whole.  This type of quality framework is discussed more fully here.

As discussed many times in this blog and elsewhere, qualitative research is complex and deserving of a varied and complex debate on any number of aspects.  This complexity, however, unites us in our commitment to building quality components into our research designs so that all of us – no matter our theoretical/philosophical understanding of what it means to engage qualitative research – can realize our objectives.

Creswell, J. W. (2013). Qualitative inquiry & research design (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Denzin, N. K., & Lincoln, Y. S. (Eds.). (2011). The Sage handbook of qualitative research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

[Image captured from http://appalachianson.wordpress.com/2013/09/16/join-hands-unite-the-riot/ on 26 February 2014.]

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