Understanding and Evaluating Qualitative Educational Research


Edited by: Marilyn Lichtman

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    I have written this book to introduce you to the writing of and about qualitative research. In Part I, I provide examples of journal articles that illustrate a variety of research approaches. In Part II, I present writing about current issues in the field of qualitative research. I assume you have some familiarity with what qualitative research is, what various research approaches are, and how you as a researcher should conduct your own research.

    The Structure

    Part I considers seven different research approaches. I selected articles that illustrate how different researchers do research related to each approach. Some of the writers are new to the field while others have been writing for some time. To the extent possible, the articles relate to education. The approaches covered are ethnography, grounded theory, phenomenology, case study, action research, narrative, and mixed methods. I provide embedded comments, along with commentary before and after each article, that should help you understand and evaluate each approach and each article.

    In Chapter 1, I provide you with two examples of ethnography. Ethnography is the study of cultures, and the methods derive from the field of anthropology. Ethnographers used to be quite clear on what they meant when they talked about studying culture. Ethnographers usually include thick and rich descriptions of those they study. Postmodernism has led to questioning our boundaries of cultures. Some issues facing ethnographers today are the same as those in the past: how to define the boundaries of time and space of what is studied. Other issues arise that are more pertinent to today's world: Can ethnography be a virtual rather than actual ethnography? Are there or should there be political overtones for the ethnographer? You might enjoy reading Sarah Henderson Lee's educational ethnographic blog online at http://sarahhendersonlee.blogspot.com/. At the time of my writing, her most recent posting was June 27, 2009.

    In Chapter 2, I offer you two examples of articles on the topic of grounded theory. Grounded theory developed from the writings of Glaser and Strauss in 1967. Some would say it is not a research approach at all, but rather a way of generating theory; however, I choose to call it a research approach in this book. Of all the research approaches, grounded theory is the most “objective” and scientific. (It is important to understand that Glaser and Strauss came to a parting of the ways, and that Strauss wrote many of the later texts with Corbin.) The key elements to consider are type of coding and theoretical saturation. You might find the blog by the Lonely Dissertator interesting. It includes at least 12 entries on grounded theory, especially from the viewpoint of Glaser. You can read it at http://lonelydissertator.blogspot.com. At the time of my writing, the most recent posting was October 17, 2009.

    Chapter 3 introduces you to research using phenomenology. Phenomenology has its basis in philosophy, especially existentialism. Widely used in nursing research, phenomenology also has been used to study the lived experiences of those in education. Vicky Teinaki in January 2009 provides a good discussion in the Johnny Holland blog at http://johnnyholland.org/2009/01/19/phenomenology-invisible-interfaces-are-a-myth/.

    The case study approach to research is covered in Chapter 4. Many disciplines make use of case studies. In qualitative research, you can think of a case study of a program, a class, a school, or of an individual. Helena Bukvova provides links to excellent references in her November 2009 blog at http://bukvova.wordpress.com/2009/11/16/case-study/.

    Action research is the subject of Chapter 5. Closely related to case study, action research also focuses on a program, class, or school. You can read an excellent pamphlet about the topic by Eileen Ferrance, published by the Northeast and Islands Regional Laboratory at Brown University in 2000. These labs are supported with federal funds from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education: http://www.alliance.brown.edu/pubs/themes_ed/act_research.pdf.

    A teacher whose primary purpose is to make changes in the classroom often designs action research studies. Bendriss offers some interesting discussions in his blog on teaching English. You can read it at http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/blogs/bendriss/action-research. At the time of my writing, the most recent posting was February 13, 2009.

    Chapter 6 includes articles illustrating a narrative approach to qualitative research. In essence, narratives represent the stories of our lives and their meaning. It is closely aligned with life history and biography. In addition to the articles you should find Bud Goodall's book Writing Qualitative Inquiry: Self, Stories, and Academic life (2008) on creative nonfiction stimulating.

    The final chapter of Part I, Chapter 7, presents studies that use a mixed method approach to conducting research. These studies are said to combine elements of both quantitative and qualitative research approaches. You might find a review of the workshop offered by Riesmann especially helpful. You can see it at http://www.narrativenetworkaustralia.org.au/NarRes08/NarResrchCourse08.pdf.

    You can read Christina Pikas's commentary on using mixed methods at http://scienceblogs.com/christinaslisrant/2009/06/in_search_of_pragmatism_and_mi.php?utm_source=sbhomepage&utm_medium=link&utm_content=channellink. Finally, you can view slides on the topic at http://www.slideboom.com/presentations/72121/CH19-Mixed-Methods.

    Part II deals with important issues related to the theory and practice of conducting qualitative research. Due to space considerations, I have included only brief extracts of the actual articles in this text.

    It may seem strange to you since you have just finished reading articles selected to illustrate different research approaches, but the first issue I deal with is a consideration of clarifying and distinguishing among approaches. Perhaps when you finished reading Part I, you found yourself thinking that some of the approaches seemed remarkably similar to each other. In Chapter 8, I address clarifying research approaches and examine various research approaches, especially looking outside the field of education.

    Another issue that has gained interest recently relates to quality and accountability in the new millenium. I offer some comments from recent writings in Chapter 9. Chapter 10 discusses standards for evaluating qualitative research. I caution that there is no single set of standards that apply to all types of qualitative research. Chapter 11 is devoted to academic freedom, research ethics, and institutional review boards. It is closely tied to the topic I discuss in Chapter 10. In Chapter 12, I offer readings on writing and presenting qualitative research. In keeping with my philosophy about the value of self-reflection, I offer you some readings about reflexivity in Chapter 13. Chapter 14 concludes Part II with some writings about negotiating through graduate school. The epilogue addresses my thoughts on reading, writing, and thinking about qualitative research.

    Complete citations for all articles appear in the reference list at the back of the book. Links to journal articles are included in Part I. In addition, specific references appear at the end of each chapter in Part II.

    Selection of Individual Articles

    When I began thinking about this book in 2008, I had to consider a process for selection of journal articles. What research approaches should I include? What journals would I use? What time frame would I include? How could I select content that would be interesting and meaningful to my readers? I knew that I wanted a range of authors—those new to the field as well as those who had published previously. These are the steps that I followed:

    • I decided on the research approaches. I identified research approaches that many writers in the qualitative research field consider important. My reviewers were helpful in this regard. I recognize that I did not include all possible research approaches. For instance, I did not include articles that illustrate feminist research, nor did I include articles on autoethnography. Also, I did not select articles that illustrate biography. This does not mean I do not consider these important: I do. Rather, it was a matter of space. It is quite interesting that within several approaches there are differences in how the approach might be addressed. One view might be classic or basic while an alternative to the same research approach might be considered more avant garde. To the extent possible, I tried to choose articles that illustrate a variety of ways people are doing and writing about qualitative research.
    • I decided on the journals. My preference was to select journals that specifically publish articles that are qualitative in nature. I began with these journals: Qualitative Inquiry (first issue 1995; first interdisciplinary international journal providing a forum for qualitative methodology; U.S. based); Qualitative Research (first issue 2001; U.K. based); the Qualitative Report (first issue 1990; online; U.S. based); International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education (QSE; first issue 1988; U.K. based); Forum: Qualitative Social Research (first issue 1999; online; Berlin based; multilingual). I reviewed all issues of these journals for the years 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009 (through May). I also reviewed other journals that I knew published relevant articles. I had complete access to all these journals, as well as all others that participate in either SAGE's Journals Online or Virginia Tech's library system.
    • I decided on the time period. I had decided in the early conception of this volume to concentrate on recent articles. I wanted to offer you what is available and current as you read this book. Since the field has gone through many changes, I did not want you to read articles that were written following principles that many no longer consider important. The 14 journal articles I present cover the following dates: 2006 (three articles), 2007 (two articles), 2008 (six articles), and 2009 (three articles).
    • I decided on the content. One criterion I used was that the articles should be interesting to students in education. I also selected articles that represented a range of writing styles. I do not include any dissertations, because they tend to be too long, although I include some dissertations rewritten as journal articles. I do not include any reviews of research.
    • I decided on the authors. I did not want to be influenced by the background or experience of the authors. I discovered after the fact that some of the articles were based on the dissertation of the author. Although I had hoped to cover authors from a broad base of expertise, for the most part authors were connected with universities or academic settings.

    I read many articles before I selected the ones that appear in this book. Some were too technical. Some did not really illustrate the research approach as well as I initially expected from the abstract. Some included content that was not related to education.

    It is important to understand that these 14 articles are a small sampling of articles from thousands. Another author might have chosen a completely different group. I was not familiar with any of the articles before I chose them, nor did I know any of the authors. Nevertheless, I believe they represent a set from which you can learn and gain insight into how others do and write about qualitative research.

    Selection of Issues

    In addition to locating articles for this book, I also came across a number of issues that were written about repeatedly. Many are not usually addressed in textbooks. Many affect how we do research, how we make our needs known to the larger academy, and how we see ourselves operating within a larger group of educational researchers. I selected seven issues of particular interest that I think are very important for you to read.

    Evaluating Qualitative Research

    Qualitative research approaches take many forms. Grounded theory approaches tend to be closer in style and form to quantitative research approaches. Action research tends to be practical and applicable to immediate problem solving. Even within a particular approach, the way a researcher might handle particular aspects may differ. Because of this, we cannot develop one specific set of criteria that can be applied to all situations. Consequently, there are not concrete rules or expectations that you can use as a guideline when deciding to what extent a published article represents “good” research or a “good” example of a particular research approach.

    If you read articles about how to evaluate a research study, you will not find agreement as to what makes a “good” study. Journal editors struggle with the problem. Government funding agencies are conflicted. Institutional review boards are challenged. How can you as a student new to the field deal with this complex issue?

    Here are some general guidelines you might find helpful:

    • The writing. Although a researcher might have planned and conducted a piece of research in an appropriate and interesting manner, it is ultimately the way in which it is communicated that is the key to whether the study succeeds. I would like you to begin with how the research is communicated.1 Here are some questions you might consider: Are you drawn into the research? Can you understand what is written? Does it make sense in terms of what you know? Are complex issues explained clearly? Does the writer engage you so you will feel compelled to continue to read? Does the writing avoid remoteness and obtuseness? I think you get the idea.
    • The research approach. Does the writer help you understand the approach he or she took in conducting the research? Does the research approach appear suitable for the research questions that the author is trying to answer? Does the author explain elements of the research approach? Does the author apply those elements appropriately?
    • The meaningfulness and value. It is the researcher's responsibility to help you see why the study is important. While you may not personally find a study of interest, you can still determine whether it is of importance to others by reading what the researcher has to say about it.

    Whatever research approach was taken, I look for some very basic elements.

    Things I really like to find in a study

    • A way to engage the audience
    • Interconnection of all the parts
    • Clear explanations
    • Writing that draws me in
    • The voice of the researcher and of the participants
    • The writer's interpretation of how the study contributes to the field

    Things that annoy me about a qualitative study

    • Unfounded claims and interpretations
    • A literature review that is just there, that is not connected to the remainder of the study in any meaningful way
    • Use of jargon
    • Forcing a study to be more quantitative by constructing tables and using statistics that do not fit the data

    I believe you will find the content of the articles to come especially interesting. Many deal with students, parents, schools, and education. I also expect that you will be able to gain a better understanding of the similarities and differences between and among various qualitative research approaches.

    For comments or questions, please contact me at MarilynLichtman09@gmail.com or mlichtma@vt.edu.


    1 In this book, I only consider written communication. Researchers might also choose to communicate via video, live performance, or other means.


    Recently, I extensively revised Qualitative Research in Education: A User's Guide. That book, which was published in April 2009, is aimed at students taking coursework in qualitative research.

    One thing was missing from that book: there were no examples of different kinds of qualitative research approaches for students to read. While I provided links to articles in the field through the student study site, I still felt something was lacking. Understanding and Evaluating Qualitative Educational Research addresses that missing piece.

    It was Diane McDaniel's vision that led to this book. She worked with me extensively in designing a proposal and in developing the vision for the book. Her insight and encouragement drove me to move ahead with the project. SAGE is fortunate to have her.

    On a day-to-day basis, Deya Saoud kept me going. She answered my questions with grace and alacrity. She figured out ways to solve the myriad technological difficulties I encountered as I tried to interact with the research articles I wanted to include. I owe her a personal debt of gratitude for making the details happen. Again, SAGE knows how to identify staff that keeps its authors happy.

    Alison Hope has worked closely with me on every detail: checking facts, making sure that dates and references were accurate, rewriting my sometimes obtuse text.

    Sarah K. Quesenberry and Brittany Bauhaus worked with me on production.

    Any omissions, misstatements or other errors are mine.

    Thanks to the staff of the library at Virginia Tech for providing me support and computer access and for answering the many questions I posed from the comfort of my home.

    I would also like to thank the reviewers of this text:

    • Nataliya Ivankova, University of Alabama-Birmingham
    • Trina Paulus, University of Tennessee
    • LeAnn Putney, University of Nevada-Las Vegas
    • Katrina Rodriguez, University of Northern Colorado
    • James Valadez, Cal Lutheran University

    For the past two years, I have been extensively involved as assistant chairman and chairman of the Corcoran Gallery of Art's Docent Council. Located one block from the White House in Washington, DC, the Corcoran Gallery opened its doors in 1897. It is one of the oldest private museums in the United States. For its time, it was on the forefront of recognizing American art. In my leadership positions, my mind often turned toward the art world. I always connected art and research, and still do. I want to thank the staff at the Corcoran—especially Linda Powell and Joanna Anderson—for making my chairmanship run smoothly. I also want to thank my docent council members who generously gave of their time and talents. I would never have had time for this book without all those other pieces of my life working so well.

    Since leaving active teaching at Virginia Tech in 2004, I no longer have immediate contact with faculty and students. This writing task turned out to be a solitary activity. I thank my many friends who are probably tired of hearing me say I am working on my book and not available for other things. To Shirley Cohen, Phyllis Leonard, Louise Appell, Judy Barokas, Beverly Flowers, Dorothy Sargeant, Ruth Bell, Irene Schulkin, and Rita Girshman—I can finally stop telling you I am not available. To all my other fellow exercise friends and bridge buddies, I thank you for being my friends.

    And without the ongoing love and support I receive from all my family members none of this would be worth doing. To my children Ellen, David, and Judy, you are my rock. To my brother Lee and my sister-in-law Claire, how lucky I am to be related to you. To my other family members—Margaret, Jim, Anath, Michael, and Lilah—you are a great bunch of people.

    And always on my mind and in my heart is my late husband and best friend, Marty Gerstein. I only wish you were here to share my accomplishment.

  • Epilogue: Reading, Writing, and Thinking about Qualitative Research

    I had two primary objectives in preparing this book of readings. First, I wanted to expose readers to published research studies that illustrate various qualitative research approaches. In order to accomplish that, I had to decide what research approaches I wanted to use. This was fairly easy to accomplish. Of course, I didn't include all the qualitative research approaches that are out there. Due to space limitations, I chose to omit autoethnography, biography, and feminist philosophy, among others. However, I believe I selected those approaches most commonly used in education.

    What proved much more daunting was the other component to accomplishing this objective: What research studies should I choose? How was I to decide? I had some general guidelines in mind. For instance, I wanted fairly recent studies to illustrate current practices. I also wanted a blend of those studies written by established scholars in the field and those written by scholars just entering the field. I decided to select articles from journals that I knew to be amenable to publishing qualitative research studies.

    Next, I was faced with this dilemma: how to locate studies in which the topic was primarily related to education. I broadly defined this by also including studies about students or parents.

    I encountered another problem: there was obviously no way to read all the studies published that illustrate a particular research approach. In fact, I read many, and I read the abstracts of many more. At some point, though, I knew I needed to just make a decision. I made a number of false starts. I began with an article and prepared comments, but found that the article was too long, or too cumbersome, or too difficult to understand, so I would abandon it and look for another. Due to space limitations, I decided I would include two examples for each research approach.

    What you have just completed reading, then, represents my best efforts to expose you to qualitative research that represents a variety of research approaches, a variety of journals, and a mix of new and established scholars.

    I do not want you to come away with the notion that these represent the best of what is out there. Rather, I want you to know these studies illustrate a range of what is available. I believe my comments about each study will help you to see its strengths and shortcomings.

    My second objective was to present current issues about qualitative research. Even though you have gained knowledge about qualitative research, you will find that reading about some of the issues and controversies in the field should help you to position your knowledge in a broader context.

    In writing the second part, I needed to decide what the issues were. Were some more important than others? I actually began to develop a list of issues and corresponding writing as I pursued my first objective. Once I had identified an issue, I needed to broaden my search. I knew I did not want to write literature reviews related to these issues. Rather, I wanted to expose you to writing by scholars in the field. I reviewed many articles covering a broad range of disciplines.

    By no means can I say these are the only issues swirling in the qualitative research waters today, nor do I claim to have done a complete review of all that is written. I do believe that some issues are very important, though. That there is a movement to return to more foundationalist and conservative forms of research is clear. What fueled that movement remains somewhat fuzzy in my mind—politics, conservatism, or perhaps just those who are well intentioned but poorly informed. But if qualitative research is to survive—and I know it will—those in the field have a responsibility to make their voices heard.

    A second issue is important to me personally—and to the profession: remove boredom from our writing. I have tried to avoid the use of jargon and obtuse language in my own writing. I have also tried to bring the personal into what I write. For me, at least, this helps overcome boredom. But I want you to take a lesson from Cauley and others and use techniques and language to engage your audience.

    This book is about reading, writing, and thinking about qualitative research.

    • Reading: This book of readings introduces you to published works related to qualitative research. Some of the readings I have included are meant to be exciting, interesting, and meaningful and others less so. It is also my intention for you to learn about new things and about new ways to conduct research.
    • Writing: This book of readings introduces you to various means and manner of writing. Some of the writing is quite academic and detached. I believe that is true for some of the more traditional qualitative research approaches, especially grounded theory. Some of the writing is very personal and reflective. That is true for writing by authors who have a feminist background. Although I did not specifically include an article with a feminist perspective, you will see it permeates some of the writing. Some of the writing uses alternative presentation forms. I have offered you poems and a play.
    • Thinking: This book of readings is designed to challenge your own thinking about research in general and qualitative research in particular. I ask you to consider these questions as you move ahead in the field:
      • Who sets the rules and criteria for what is the “right” kind of research?
      • Who should be in charge of this task?
      • How can we ensure that all voices are heard?
      • What role can you play as newcomers to the field?
      • What responsibilities do others already in the field have to the field and to you?
    Final Thoughts

    In writing this book, I have relied on published articles. However, we all know that there is a lag time between conception and writing of an article and publication. With new technology, we see almost immediate transmission of information via the Internet. One way to communicate “instantaneously” is through blogging. I suspect some new ideas can emerge through this technique.

    As I sit at my computer preparing to submit this manuscript to my editor, I decided to do one final Google search on qualitative research. It is now the middle of August 2009. During my final edit in December 2009 I rechecked the URLs. I added two additional ones. I have been searching this topic for many months. Below are the links that surface today. Some I have already included in other parts of this book. Others are new, and I do not know whether they still will be available online when this book comes out in print.

    I searched on the terms “qualitative research blogs, qualitative research syllabus, or qualitative research 2009.” I read through 10 screens for each of the three terms. Here is a smattering of what I found. (You can also go to http://www.sagepub.com/lichtmanreadings and access the sites from the Web).

    Qualitative research—a dynamic, evolving field designed to study humans in their natural settings. This book adds a small piece to the enormous puzzle.

    About the Author

    Marilyn Lichtman in front of destroyer in St. Petersburg, Russia (2009)

    Marilyn Lichtman is a retired professor of educational research and evaluation. After receiving her doctorate in educational research and statistics from The George Washington University, she taught at The Catholic University of America. She then relocated to Virginia Tech (Northern Virginia and Blacksburg) where she taught quantitative and qualitative research courses and directed many students as they completed their dissertations. Lichtman was an early user of the Internet for teaching, having put many of her qualitative courses and syllabi online. She has conducted numerous research studies for school systems and the Department of Defense Schools worldwide; she has served on review panels for the Department of Education; and she has consulted for local and state systems in Maryland and Virginia. Lichtman serves on the boards of Forum: Qualitative Social Research (FQS) and The Qualitative Report (both online journals). In 2006 (revised 2009) Lichtman published Qualitative Research in Education for SAGE.

    In addition to her professional work in education, she has taken a strong interest in art. Having served as a docent at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC for more than 15 years and most recently chairman of the Docent Council, she has integrated thoughts about art and qualitative research. She recently completed two courses in writing art criticism and issues in contemporary art in the joint program of The University of Illinois and the Phillips Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Culminating her interest in art, she took the Grand Tour of art venues in 2007, traveling with her daughter and son-in-law (both artists) to Art Basel (in Basel, Switzerland), Documenta 12 (in Kassel, Germany), and the Venice Biennale (Italy). You can read her blog at http://thegrandtour07.blogspot.com.

    Lichtman can be contacted at MarilynLichtman09@gmail.com or mlichtma@vt.edu.

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