Social Constructionism & Quality in Qualitative Research Design

If you haven’t already, I strongly encourage you to take a look at Kenneth Gergen’s video on “Social Constructionist Ideas, Theory and Practice.” In it, Dr. GergenSocial Construction provides an overview of how social constructionists think and how such thinking can (and should) apply to real-world matters. Social constructionism is not one thing, not one theory or approach, but rather a “creative resource” that enables a new, expanded way of talking and thinking about concepts. Indeed, it might be said that a constructionist view is one where all so-called “realities” are conceptual in nature, a product of our own personal “baggage” (values) and the relationship we have with the object of our experience (e.g., a person, a product, an event).

In this way, a social constructionist orientation is devoid of the notions pertaining to “truth,” objectivity, and value neutrality; embracing instead the idea that “truth” is elusive while objectivity and value neutrality simply weaken our ability to look at and think about things from a multiplicity of perspectives that ultimately enriches our understanding and moves us toward new positive outcomes. Qualitative research design from a constructionist mindset, for instance, might lead to new methods of inquiry, or perhaps a greater emphasis on storytelling and the participant-researcher relationship in narrative research.

Social constructionism and qualitative research is a natural marriage, wedded by a mutual respect for the complexities of the human experience and the idea that any one facet of someone’s life (and the researcher’s role in exploring this life) intertwines with (contributes to) some other facet. That, as human beings we can’t be anything other than intricately involved together in the construction of our worlds. We can see how fundamental this is to qualitative research by just looking at the “10 Distinctive Qualities of Qualitative Research” which includes the essence of constructionism such as the:

  • Absence of “truth”
  • Importance of context
  • Importance of meaning
  • Participant-researcher relationship
  • Flexibility of the research design

The question remains, however, whether this marriage – between social constructionism and qualitative research – can survive alongside a “framework” intended to guide research design down a path that ultimately leads to useful outcomes. Is a framework that helps guide the researcher to quality outcomes compatible with the creative thinking of the social constructionist? Absolutely. Not only can this alliance survive a quality approach to research design, it can actually thrive.

The Total Quality Framework (TQF)* is one such approach. Like social constructionism itself, it is an approach that is not prescriptive in nature but rather a high-level way of thinking about qualitative research design. The TQF aids the researcher in designing and implementing qualitative research that is credible, analyzable, transparent, and ultimately useful to those who sponsor the research as well as those who may look to adapt the research to other contexts. In doing so, the TQF asks the researcher to think carefully about design-implementation considerations such as: the range of people who are included (and excluded) from participation, researcher training and data gathering techniques, analytical and reflective processes, and the transparency of the reporting. Importantly, the TQF does not ask the researcher to compromise the critical foundation on which qualitative research is built, i.e., its distinctive qualities that celebrate complexity, multiplicity, flexibility, diversity, “irrationality” and contradiction.

Quality considerations walk hand-in-hand with social constructionism (and many theoretical and philosophical orientations), you might even say that they need each other. A quality approach is driven by the researcher’s understanding and utilization of the socially-constructed world (e.g., use of language, the imbalance of power) while the social constructionist ultimately requires research outcomes that are useful.

*Roller, Margaret R., & Lavrakas, Paul J. (2015). Applied Qualitative Research Design: A Total Quality Framework Approach. New York: Guilford Press.

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