Gary Rolfe. Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods. Editor: Lisa M Given. Sage Publications, 2008.

Essentialism is the philosophical doctrine that certain properties of an object or a concept are necessary or essential rather than contingent or accidental. Thus, we might say of a person that being good is accidental because it is possible not to be good and yet still be a person, whereas occupying space is essential because it is impossible to be a person and yet not occupy a physical space in the world. Essentialists maintain, first, that all objects and concepts can be defined by reference to certain core properties that make them what they are and, second, that it is instructive and useful to inquire into the nature of these essential features. The view that there are certain properties essential to humans, such as a “core self” that defines us as people, is often referred to as “humanism.” Essentialist philosophy has exerted a significant, if sometimes covert, influence over many of the widely accepted and sometimes taken-for-granted tenets of qualitative research, including key issues such as validity, reliability, sample selection, and generalization.

The Origins of Essentialism

The belief that certain properties of things (where “things” include objects, concepts, experiences, etc.) are essential to our understanding and definition of them can be traced back at least as far as Plato, for whom every object or quality in the physical world was derived from a divine, invisible, changeless transcendental “form.” Platonic forms are “ideal types” or essences that exist outside of time and space and of which objects and concepts in the world are merely pale imitations. Let us take as an example the form of the “good.” Some aspects of this transcendental “goodness” can be said to lie at the heart of all good people, and it is this goodness that we perceive when we describe someone as good, although no good person could ever display the good in its essential form because the forms transcend the temperophysical world.

The relevance of this transcendental type of essentialism to research becomes apparent when we consider that, for Plato, all people have had a prior acquaintance with the eternal and divine forms before their births. We can all recognize worldly goodness when we see it because we have all previously had experience of the form of the good. Thus, knowledge of the essence or true nature of things in the world comes not from our senses, which merely show to us the many imperfect manifestations of the form as they exist in the world, but rather from our memories of the forms themselves. Knowledge of the essential nature of everything in the physical world is a priori (prior to experience), and thus research is a process of reacquainting ourselves with what we already know but have forgotten. This gives rise to the so-called Socratic dialogue method of discovery (or perhaps of “recovery” or “research,” the search for something that has been lost) in which the teacher does not attempt to impart knowledge but rather asks a series of questions to draw out the knowledge that the pupil already possesses. As Socrates said to Meno, “The soul has learned all things. … Enquiry and learning are entirely recollection.” If we accept this radical form of essentialism, then research is merely uncovering what is already known and does not rely to any extent on empirical observation of the physical world; indeed, such observation is more likely to confuse and confound than to enlighten.

A similar essentialist philosophy can be seen in early Judeo-Christian culture right up to the Renaissance. In this version of essentialism, all knowledge is related back to God and in particular to the idea of logos as both the word of God and the principle of rationality. This dual meaning can be seen in the opening verse of John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God,” and at various junctures in the Old Testament such as Adam’s naming of the animals in the Book of Genesis. The word (logos) brings order out of chaos; to name something is to impose order on it, and to know the name of something is to know the thing itself. The French philosopher Michel Foucault observed that, according to the Old Testament, language was a gift to human-kind by God himself, and as such it was an absolutely certain and transparent sign for things in the world, so that the name of a thing and the thing itself were indivisible. Foucault argued that, right up until the 16th century, there was an underlying belief or episteme that words retained a resonance of God’s original language to the extent that it was possible to know something of the essence of a thing simply by knowing its name. Thus, the word lion somehow summoned up the essence of lionness and the word good articulated goodness.

Essentialism and the Scientific Method

However, by the 17th century, a distinct move away from this reliance on innate knowledge could be detected. The philosopher John Locke laid the foundations of scientific empiricism by distinguishing between the “nominal” essence of an object and its “real” essence. Although the real essence or fundamental truth of an object could be investigated only through inner contemplation, Locke held that it was nevertheless possible to determine facts and laws concerning its nominal essence or surface properties solely through the senses. This turn to the senses as a primary source of knowledge ushered in the so-called Age of Reason or Enlightenment and with it a splitting of the sign from what it signified. Language was no longer seen to be intrinsically linked to the world; rather, it was merely a representation of it. Thus, the essence of a thing could no longer be discerned simply by knowing its name or even by rational contemplation; to determine its essential nature, it became necessary to examine the thing itself.

David Hume pushed Locke’s empiricism to the extreme, arguing that all attempts to discern the real essence of an object (apart from the abstract objects of mathematics) through inner contemplation or pure reason were doomed to failure. What is believed to be “innate” knowledge about the essence of things is, in fact, derived in subtle ways from the senses. Thus, Hume famously argued that any book that was not concerned with empirical experimentation should be committed to the flames because it could contain “nothing but sophistry and illusion.” We can see, then, that the rise of empirical science during the 17th century ushered in a new approach to essentialism at centered on discovery of the true nature or essence of things in the world through observation and experimentation.

Scientific research, therefore, continued the search for the essential properties that constitute the core of a physical object or an abstract concept but shifted the focus of this search in a significant way. This shift can be seen, for example, in the contrast between the pre-scientific study of astrology and the science of astronomy. Astrologers were concerned with the search for the distinct and unique essence of each individual planet; for example, to distinguish between the warlike influence of Mars and the peaceful influence of Venus. Furthermore, these essences could be discerned through contemplation of the inner “nature” of the planets. In contrast, astronomers and other early scientists turned their gaze outward to the planets themselves and employed inductive or cumulative research methods to categorize objects into groups based on similarities. Astronomers wished to formulate general laws that explained the behavior of all planets because this enabled them to make predictions about the existence and movements of other as yet unknown planets. The search for essential properties continued but shifted from inner contemplation to outside observation and from the individual to the universal. Nevertheless, the notion of logos, the confluence of naming, organizing, and knowing, continued to be a major feature of the work of many early scientists, for whom the practice of science was largely a program of labeling and ordering the natural world.

Essentialism and the Human Sciences

The search to understand, predict, and control the essential properties of the world continued throughout the 18th and 19th centuries and played a major role in driving the industrial revolution in Europe. However, a different focus of essentialism emerged toward the end of the 19th century when the scientific gaze turned back inward toward people themselves as subjects of study rather than as the dispassionate and disinterested objects that conducted the study. Prior to this reflexive turn, the scientist as the observer and experimenter stood largely outside of that which was being observed and experimented on. As Foucault noted, classical rationalism accorded humans a privileged objective position in ordering and making sense of the world, but the person was not recognized as a potential subject of this scientific study. The shift in focus to conduct research into the essence of what it is to be human ushered in the “human sciences,” such as sociology and psychology, during the latter part of the 19th century.

This particular focus of essentialism is known as “humanism,” which argues that humans in general can be defined in terms of a core “human nature” that is common to all. By conducting research into human nature, the behavior of people could be understood, predicted, and controlled. The method of the early human scientists, such as Émile Durkheim and John Stuart Mill, was to imitate the scientific rationale and methods of physics and chemistry in the hope of reproducing their successes. Thus, the person became both the subject of study and the object that studied, resulting in a form of “objective subjectivity,” an attempt at a quantitative study of self and others from an objective and impartial perspective. However, a number of philosophers and sociologists, such as Wilhelm Dilthey and Max Weber, argued that such an objective “scientific” approach was untenable and pressed for a qualitative approach that went beyond a scientific explanation (Erklären) to accomplish something that Weber argued is never attainable in the natural sciences, namely, the subjective understanding (Verstehen) of the action of the component individuals.

This call for an “insider” subjective understanding of the essential nature of the person to counter the “outsider” objective explanations derived from the methodologies of the physical sciences was taken up by, among others, Edmund Husserl, who proposed a phenomenological philosophy as a “viewing of essences.” Although Husserl’s approach to phenomenology began as a descriptive subjective psychology, he later developed it as a form of transcendental idealism where all meanings and essences are already embedded somehow in what he referred to as the “transcendental ego.” Idealists hold that reality “takes place” within individual consciousness; therefore, the project of transcendental phenomenology, as devised by Husserl, was to suspend all empirically derived assumptions about things in the world so as to arrive at an inner understanding of their essential nature. The suspension of experiential knowledge (epoché), therefore, results in a reduction down to the “pure phenomenon” or “absolute data” of an experience that somehow contains the “intrinsic character” or essence of the thing in question. What remains is “pure subjectivity” or the essence of our sense data stripped of all prior assumptions and beliefs.

In many ways, the aim of Husserl’s subjectivity is an extension of Hume’s empiricism and has parallels with the scientific ideal of objectivity—to see things as they really are, to uncover their essential nature. Furthermore, although Husserl’s position is intensely subjective, it is not solipsistic. Whatever it is possible for one person to intuit through this phenomenological reduction is also open to everyone else. This point is of utmost importance to qualitative researchers because it suggests the possibility of a scientific method for the subjective study of essence. There are clear similarities here with Plato’s forms (although Husserl rejected this comparison); each posits a transcendental “world” of pure phenomena, each suggests a method by which individuals can gain access to these essences, and each recasts epistemology as a branch of ontology. The difference is that whereas Plato located the essential forms outside of the person (indeed, outside of the physical and temporal world), Husserl regarded essences as buried deep in the individual’s psyche. Ultimately, then, phenomenology is a way of “essential seeing” (Wesenserschauung); it is an empirical science rather than an a priori recollection.

Although transcendental phenomenology has its roots in philosophy and descriptive psychology, it was enthusiastically adopted and adapted by qualitative social researchers during the last quarter of the 20th century. The various attempts to employ what was originally an intensely subjective and introspective method of empirical reduction to the study of other people cannot help but undermine Husserl’s original project. First, the object of study inevitably shifted from the “inner” experiences of the investigator to those of the subjects (or, more accurately, the objects) of investigation. Second, when phenomenology is employed as a social research method, reduction or bracketing operates on the verbal accounts of those experiences as told by the objects of the study rather than directly on the experiences themselves. This has prompted a number of critics to point out that phenomenological reduction has been misunderstood and misapplied by most qualitative researchers. Whereas Husserl wished to reduce sense data themselves to their pure and uncontaminated essential form, most phenomenological researchers accept without question the experiences of the objects of their research and instead apply reduction to their own perceptions of the research objects’ reported accounts of their experiences. This, claim the critics, is not phenomenological reduction as Husserl advocated; rather, it is merely a form of positivist objectivity disguised as subjective social science.

An Essentialist Paradigm of Qualitative Research

Although phenomenology might be regarded as the foundation, or even as the essence, of essentialist research, its influence has spread from simply a method for doing research to encompass a broad and mainstream paradigm of qualitative research. This general essentialist influence is particularly apparent in the way many qualitative researchers think and write about issues such as validity, generalizability, and reliability.

If validity is taken broadly to be a concern with the truth claims of research findings, then essentialist researchers will begin from the assumption that the essential nature or truth is somehow and somewhere lodged in every single example of the object of their inquiry. This belief in a common essence is held not only for external objects and internal concepts but also for the experiences of individuals. For example, the transcendental phenomenologist might elicit the “lived experiences” of a number of individual respondents, but the aim will be to arrive at common themes and categories to answer the question posed by Denise Polit and Cheryl Tatano Beck in 2005, “What is the essence of this phenomenon as experienced by these people?” (p. 219).

Research (in keeping with the Platonic view), therefore, is a process of uncovering that truth or essence, of recovery or discovery, of what is already there. The aim of the researcher is to reveal the essence of the object of inquiry (whether an external object, an internal concept, or a personal experience) without contaminating the truth by imposing his or her own preconceptions, which are put in “brackets” for the duration of the study. This objective subjectivity is usually achieved by the research community agreeing on an appropriate method and following it rigidly with a minimum of deviation. For essentialist researchers, therefore, validity is closely connected with rigor because rigorous adherence to a predetermined method offers the best hope of producing research findings that are uncontaminated by the views or influence of the researcher. Rigor is monitored in essentialist research by the careful documentation of the procedures followed by the researcher (sometimes referred to as an “audit trail”), often in conjunction with a research diary in which any indiscretions and deviations are presented and accounted for.

The essentialist paradigm also influences decisions about the selection of research informants or respondents. Unlike most quantitative researchers, for whom sample selection is an issue of statistical generalization, and nonessentialist qualitative researchers, for whom generalizations can be made only on a case-by-case basis, essentialist researchers argue that all cases of a particular phenomenon will contain the essence or truth of the object of inquiry. The researcher, therefore, is free to make a purposive selection of respondents based on criteria such as the breadth and depth of their experience of the relevant phenomenon and their ability to articulate this experience. For the essentialist researcher, therefore, sample size is determined by the number of respondents required to fully uncover the essence of the object of inquiry rather than by considerations of representation of some wider population. The essentialist researcher is able to make an analytic generalization from one or more discrete cases to a theory or other universal statement, much as a natural scientist can test and confirm a theory from a single observation. In an ideal situation, one very experienced and articulate respondent will suffice, but in practice data collection continues until no new information is forthcoming, at which point saturation is said to have occurred.

Multiple respondents are also necessary to satisfy the criterion of reliability or trustworthiness. Essentialist researchers in search of the stable essence of their object of inquiry would expect to uncover very similar facets of the same unchanging truth of the matter regardless of when and by whom the study was conducted. Therefore, reliability (the degree of trust placed in the accuracy and consistency of the findings) can be tested and confirmed by repeating the data collection method at varying times and with different researchers and respondents. Similarly, essentialists would claim to be able to confirm the accuracy with which they had collected their data by returning the raw data for checking by the respondents and returning the analyzed data to the respondents or to another researcher for confirmation of the themes and categories. The assumption behind these checking techniques is that the essence of the object of inquiry remains unchanged over time and fluctuating circumstances and that this essence, in the form of themes and categories, will be perceived in much the same way by whoever analyzes the data.

Although essentialist philosophy has exerted a significant influence over the development of many of the key concepts and practices of qualitative research, it should be noted that some researchers adopt a nonessentialist approach founded on a substantially different set of assumptions.