Methodological Issues in the Study of Social Problems

Norman K Denzin & Yvonna S Lincoln. Handbook of Social Problems: A Comparative International Perspective. Editor: George Ritzer. Sage Publication. 2004.

Given that the logic of privatization… shapes archetypes of citizenship, [and] manages our perceptions of what constitute the “good society” … it stands to reason that new ethnographic research approaches must take global capitalism not as an end point of analysis, but as a starting point.

~ (Kincheloe and McLaren 2000:304)

My abhorrence of neoliberalism helps to explain my legitimate anger when I speak of the injustices to which the ragpickers among humanity are condemned. It also explains my total lack of interest in any pretension of impartiality. I am not impartial, or objective…. [This] does not prevent me from holding always a rigorously ethical position.

~ (Freire 1998:22)

Our discussion of the methodological issues involved in the study of social problems and deviance moves in four directions at the same time. We first locate ourselves within social problems theory. We then offer a brief history of the field of qualitative inquiry and its relationship to the study of social problems. A sequence of historical moments is presented. These moments are connected to capitalism’s three major phases in the twentieth century (Jameson 1991:400-12). Third, we identify five basic methodological and paradigmatic approaches to social problems inquiry—positivism, postpositivism, critical theory, constructivism, and participatory models (Guba and Lincoln 2000:164). We briefly compare and contrast these frameworks in terms of their ontologies, epistemologies, and methodological stances. We move, fourth, to the present, analyzing a set of recurring methodological, moral, and ethical issues in social problems inquiry, including the crises of representation, legitimation, vocality, and ethics.

In our discussion, we borrow from Kong, Mahoney, and Plummer (2002:244), who speak of queering the interview, of deconstructing the intertextual discourses that surround the use of the interview as a research tool in the study of same-sex experiences. In queering social problems inquiry, we, like Kong, Mahoney, and Plummer, challenge traditional methodological approaches to the study of deviance. At the same time, drawing on critical race theory, we want to bring race and gender into this discourse. We believe that the methodological tools of the social sciences create racialized, gendered subjects. These subjects are frequently racialized and gendered, sometimes made deviant, as they are being defined through the eyes of the white male researcher (Dunbar, Rodriguez, and Parker 2002:284).

In advancing our position, we see ourselves “working the hyphens,” that is, reinventing spaces and places between self and other in social problems and deviance research (Fine 1994:71). In working the hyphens, we want to self-consciously unpack “notions of scientific neutrality, universal truths, and researcher dispassion” (Fine 1994:70-1). We invite readers to imagine how traditional models of social problems inquiry can be unsettled, challenged, asking how “we can braid critical and contextual struggle back into our texts” (Fine 1994:71). With Fine, we want to challenge the “complicity of researchers in the construction of [deviant] others” (p. 71). We want to imagine transgressive possibilities, asking how interpretive inquiry can advance the goals of radical democracy, goals that apply equally to all persons, regardless of handicap, sexual orientation, race, gender, class, or ethnicity. We begin with traditions, history, and definitions.


Within the sociological community there is a long and distinguished tradition involving the critical, qualitative study of social problems and deviance (Conrad 1997; Gubrium and Holstein 2002:10; Nichols 2003). A commitment to ethnographic field methods, including interviewing, participant observation, life story and oral history construction, is a basic focus of this tradition (Becker 1970:107; Denzin 2001:x). In sociology, the work of the “Chicago School” in the 1920s and 1930s firmly established this connection between deviance and life history, ethnographic, and case study methodology (Becker 1970). In anthropology, during the same time period, Boas, Mead, Bennedict, Bateson, Evans-Pritchard, Radcliffe-Brown, and Malinowski charted the outlines of the fieldwork method, wherein the observer went to a foreign setting to study the customs and habits of another society and culture (see Rosaldo 1989:25-45 for a critique of this tradition).

Within the critical, social science community there is an equally complex tradition that locates the study of deviance and social problems in the complex moral, cultural, economic, and political apparatuses of the neoliberal capitalist state and its systems of citizenship and governmentality (Gubrium and Holstein 2002:8). From this vantage point, deviance and social problems exemplify issues involving the regulation of persons and their morality (Conrad 1997:39).

Our chapter is informed by these two traditions, and two others as well. In The Sociological Imagination, C. Wright Mills (1959) challenged scholars in the human disciplines to develop a point of view and a methodological attitude that would allow them to examine how the private troubles of individuals, which occur within the immediate world of experience, are connected to public issues and the public responses to these troubles (see also Agger 2000:265; Lemert 1997:161). Mills’s sociological imagination was biographical, interactional, and historical. For him social problems always occurred within a specific historical and ideological moment. Mills wanted to bend the structures of capitalism to the ideologies of radical democracy (Agger 2000:265; Lemert 1997:161). We build on Mills.

Finally, we draw on recent developments within the field of qualitative inquiry. Over the last three decades there has been an explosion in the field of qualitative research. Critical qualitative inquiry is part of that explosion. Indeed it is part of a larger reformist movement that began in the 1960s (Denzin and Lincoln 2000a:x; Schwandt 2000:189). The interpretive and critical paradigms, in their several forms, are central to this movement, as are complex epistemological and ethical criticisms of traditional social science research.

Some term this the seventh moment of inquiry (Denzin and Lincoln 2000b:2, 12; see below). This is a period of ferment and explosion. It is defined by breaks from the past, a focus on previously silenced voices, a turn to performance texts, and a concern with moral discourse, with critical conversations about democracy, race, gender, class, nation, freedom, and community (Lincoln and Denzin 2000:1048).

In the seventh moment, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, there is a pressing demand to show how the practices of critical, interpretive qualitative research can help change the world in positive ways. It is necessary to examine new ways of making the practices of critical qualitative inquiry central to the workings of a free democratic society. These are some of the issues that we attempt to address in this chapter.

History and Definitional Issues

Qualitative research is a field of inquiry in its own right. It cross-cuts disciplines, fields, and subject matter. A complex, interconnected family of terms, concepts, and assumptions surround the term. These include the traditions associated with positivism, poststructuralism, and the many qualitative research perspectives/lenses, and the methods connected to cultural and interpretive studies.

In North America, qualitative research operates in a complex historical field that cross-cuts seven historical moments. These seven moments overlap and simultaneously operate in the present. We define them as the traditional (1900-1950); the modernist, or golden age (1950-1970); blurred genres (1970-1986); the crisis of representation (1986-1990); postmodern, a period of experimental and new ethnographies (1990-1995); postexperimental inquiry (1995-2000); and the future, which is now (2000-). The future, the seventh moment, is concerned with moral discourse, with a reunion of science and art, with the development of sacred textualities. The seventh moment asks that the social sciences and the humanities become sites for critical conversations about democracy, race, gender, class, nation, freedom, and community.

Successive waves of epistemological theorizing move across these seven moments. The traditional period is associated with the positivist, foundational paradigms. The modernist or golden age and blurred genres moments are connected to the appearance of postpositivist arguments. At the same time, a variety of new interpretive, qualitative perspectives were taken up, including hermeneutics, structuralism, semiotics, phenomenology, cultural studies, and feminism. In the blurred genre phase, the humanities became central resources for critical, interpretive theory, and the qualitative research project broadly conceived. The researcher became a bricoleur learning how to borrow from many different disciplines.

The blurred genres phase produced the next stage, the crisis of representation. Here researchers struggled with how to locate themselves and their subjects in reflexive texts (Bruner 1993; Clough 1998). A kind of methodological diaspora took place, a two-way exodus. Humanists migrated to the social sciences, searching for new social theory, new ways to study popular culture and its local, ethno-graphic contexts. Social scientists turned to the humanities, hoping to learn how to do complex structural and poststructural readings of social texts. The line between a text and a context blurred. In the postmodern, experimental moment, researchers continued to move away from foundational, and quasi-foundational, criteria (Schwandt 1996). Alternative evaluative criteria were sought: those that were evocative, moral, critical, and based on local understandings (Lincoln 2000).

North Americans are not the only scholars struggling to create postcolonial, nonessentialist, feminist, dialogic, performance texts; texts informed by the rhetorical, narrative turn in the human disciplines (Delamont, Coffey, and Atkinson 2000). This international work troubles the traditional distinctions between science, the humanities, rhetoric, literature, facts, and fictions. As Atkinson and Hammersley (1994) observe, this discourse recognizes “the literary antecedents of the ethnographic text, and affirms the essential dialectic” (p. 255) underlying these aesthetic and humanistic moves.

Moreover, this literature is reflexively situated in multiple, historical, and national contexts. It is clear that America’s history with qualitative inquiry cannot be generalized to the rest of the world (Atkinson, Coffey, and Delamont 2001). Nor do all researchers embrace a politicized, cultural studies agenda that demands that interpretive texts advance issues surrounding social justice and racial equality.

Lopez (1998) observes that “there is a large-scale social movement of anticolonialist discourse” (p. 226), and this movement is evident in the emergence of African American, Chicano, Native American, Aboriginal, and Maori standpoint theories. These theories question the epistemologies of Western science that are used to validate knowledge about indigenous peoples. Maori scholar Russell Bishop (1998) presents a participatory and participant perspective (Tillman 1998:221) that values an embodied and moral commitment to the research community one is working with. This research is characterized by the absence of a need to be in control (Bishop 1998:203; Heshusius 1994). Such a commitment reflects a desire to be connected to and to be a part of a moral community. The goal is compassionate understanding (Heshusius 1994).

These understandings are only beginning to enter the literature on social problems. As they do, a blurring of the spaces between the hyphens that join researchers and those studied occurs. Definitions of social problems are thereby made more problematic.

Queering Social Problems Inquiry

In the context of discussing the study of same-sex experience, Kong et al. (2002) present compelling historical evidence to support the conclusion that “the sensibilities of interviewing are altered with the changing social phenomena that constitute ‘the interviewee’” (p. 240, italics in original). Reviewing the interviewing of gays in North America and Europe over the past 100 years, they trace a movement from a “highly positivist mode of research through one where the boundaries become weaker, and on to a situation where interviewing has been partially deconstructed” (p. 240).

They distinguish three historical moments, traditional, modernizing, and postmodern. Their analysis contrasts the three periods in terms of assumptions about interviewers, gays, lesbians, questions asked, approaches taken, wider cultural discourses, and politics. In the traditional period, interviewers are presumed to be objective and heterosexual, closeted in the modern period, and out in the postmodern moment. Same-sex experiences are approached clinically, in terms of pathologies in the traditional period, while they are normalized in the postmodern period, where disease discourses give way to talk of liberation, politics, and postmodern ethics.

Kong et al. (2002:254) offer three conclusions relevant to our arguments in this chapter. Interviewing gays and lesbians today is very different from interviewing them at the end of the nineteenth century. With the arrival of postmodern understandings, new forms of interviewing and new kinds of findings and understandings are appearing. A form of reflexive, radical historicity should now be a part of all interpretive inquiry. Equally important, any form of inquiry, such as the interview, is itself a cultural form, in which questions and answers become self-validating.

Reading History

We draw several conclusions from this brief history, noting that it is, like all histories, somewhat arbitrary. First, each of the earlier historical moments is still operating in the present, either as legacy, or as a set of practices that researchers continue to follow or argue against. The multiple, and fractured, histories of qualitative research now make it possible for any given researcher to attach a project to a canonical text from any of the above-described historical moments. Multiple criteria of evaluation compete for attention in this field. Second, an embarrassment of choices now characterizes the field of qualitative research. There have never been so many paradigms, strategies of inquiry, or methods of analysis to draw upon and utilize. Third, we are in a moment of discovery and rediscovery, as new ways of looking, interpreting, arguing, and writing are debated and discussed. Fourth, the qualitative research act can no longer be viewed from within a neutral, or objective, positivist perspective. Class, race, gender, national origin, language, and ethnicity shape the process of inquiry, making research a multicultural, pluricultural, and sometimes multilingual process.

Qualitative Research as Process

Any definition of qualitative research must work within this complex historical field. Qualitative research means different things in each of these moments. Nonetheless, an initial, generic definition can be offered.

Qualitative research is multimethod in focus, involving an interpretive, naturalistic approach to its subject matter. This means that qualitative researchers study things in their natural settings, attempting to make sense of, or interpret, these things in terms of the meanings people bring to them. Qualitative research involves the studied use and collection of a variety of empirical materials—case study, personal experience, introspection, life story, interview, observational, historical, interactional, and visual texts as well as material objects—which describe routine and problematic moments and meanings in individuals’ lives.

Three interconnected, generic activities define the qualitative research process. They go by a variety of different labels, including theory, method and analysis, ontology, epistemology, and methodology. Behind these three terms stands the personal biography of the gendered researcher who speaks from a particular class, racial, cultural, and ethnic community perspective. The gendered, multiculturally situated researcher approaches the world with a set of ideas, a framework (theory, ontology), which specifies a set of questions (epistemology), which are then examined (methodology, analysis) in specific ways. That is, empirical materials bearing on the question are collected and then analyzed and written about. Every researcher speaks from within a distinct interpretive community, which configures, in its special way, the multicultural, gendered components of the research act. This community has its own historical research traditions, which constitute a distinct point of view. This perspective leads the researcher to adopt particular views of The Other who is studied. At the same time, the politics and the ethics of research must also be considered, for these concerns permeate every phase of the research process.

Resistances to Qualitative Studies

The academic and disciplinary resistances to qualitative research illustrate the politics embedded in this field of discourse. The challenges to qualitative research are many. Qualitative researchers are called journalists, or soft scientists. Their work is termed unscientific, or only exploratory, or entirely personal and full of bias. It is called criticism and not theory, or it is interpreted politically, as a disguised version of Marxism, or humanism (see Huber 1995; also Denzin 1997:258-61 for a review).

These resistances reflect an uneasy awareness that its traditions commit one to a critique of the positivist or postpositivist project. But the positivist resistance to qualitative research goes beyond the “ever-present desire to maintain a distinction between hard science and soft scholarship” (Carey 1989:99). The positive sciences (physics, chemistry, economics, and psychology, for example) are often seen as the crowning achievements of Western civilization, and in their practices it is assumed that “truth” can transcend opinion and personal bias (Carey 1989:99). Qualitative research is seen as an assault on this tradition, whose adherents often retreat into a “value-free objectivist science” (Carey 1989:104) model to defend their position. They seldom attempt to make explicit, and critique, the “moral and political commitments in their own contingent work” (Carey 1989:104).

Positivists further allege that the so-called new experimental qualitative researchers write fiction, not science, and that they have no way of verifying their truth statements. Ethnographic poetry, and fiction, signal the death of empirical science, and there is little to be gained by attempting to engage in moral criticism. These critics presume a stable, unchanging reality that can be studied with the empirical methods of objective social science. The province of qualitative research, accordingly, is the world of lived experience, for this is where individual belief and action intersect with culture. Under this model, there is no preoccupation with discourse and method as material interpretive practices that constitute representation and description. Thus is the textual, narrative turn rejected by the positivists.

The opposition to positive science by the post-positivists, and the poststructuralists, is seen, then, as an attack on reason and truth. At the same time, the positive science attack on qualitative research is regarded as an attempt to legislate one version of truth over another.

This complex political terrain defines the many traditions and strands of qualitative research: the British and its presence in other national contexts; the American pragmatic, naturalistic, and interpretive traditions in sociology, anthropology, communications, and education; the German and French phenomenological, hermeneutic, semiotic, Marxist, structural, and poststructural perspectives; feminist studies, African American studies, Latino studies, queer studies, studies of indigenous and aboriginal cultures. The politics of qualitative research create a tension that informs each of the above traditions. This tension itself is constantly being reexamined and interrogated, as qualitative research confronts a changing historical world, new intellectual positions, and its own institutional and academic conditions.

We turn now to a brief discussion of the major differences between qualitative and quantitative approaches to research.

Qualitative versus Quantitative Research

The word qualitative implies an emphasis on processes, and meanings, that are not rigorously examined, or measured (if measured at all), in terms of quantity, amount, intensity, or frequency. Qualitative researchers stress the socially constructed nature of reality, the intimate relationship between the researcher and what is studied, and the situational constraints that shape inquiry. Such researchers emphasize the value-laden nature of inquiry. They seek answers to questions that stress how social experience is created and given meaning. In contrast, quantitative studies emphasize the measurement and analysis of causal relationships between variables, not processes. Proponents claim that their work is done from within a value-free framework.

Research Styles: Doing the Same Things Differently?

Of course, both qualitative and quantitative researchers “think they know something about society worth telling to others, and they use a variety of forms, media and means to communicate their ideas and findings” (Becker 1986:122). Qualitative research differs from quantitative research in five significant ways (Becker 1996). These points of difference turn on different ways of addressing the same set of issues.

1. Uses of positivism and postpositivism. First, both perspectives are shaped by the positivist and postpositivist traditions in the physical and social sciences. These two positive science traditions hold to naive and critical realist positions concerning reality and its perception. In the positivist version, it is contended that there is a reality out there to be studied, captured, and understood, while the post-positivists argue that reality can never be fully apprehended, only approximated (Guba 1990:22). Postpositivism relies on multiple methods as a way of capturing as much of reality as possible. At the same time, emphasis is placed on the discovery and verification of theories. Traditional evaluation criteria like internal and external validity are stressed, as is the use of qualitative procedures that lend themselves to structured (sometimes statistical) analysis.

Historically, qualitative research was defined within the positivist paradigm, where qualitative researchers attempted to do good positivist research with less rigorous methods and procedures. Some midcentury qualitative researchers (Becker et al. 1961) reported participant observations findings in terms of quasistatistics. As recently as 1999 (Strauss and Corbin 1999), two leaders of the grounded theory approach to qualitative research attempted to modify the usual canons of good (positivistic) science to fit their own postpositivist conception of rigorous research.

Flick (1998:2-3) usefully summarizes the differences between these two approaches to inquiry. He observes that the quantitative approach has been used for purposes of isolating “causes and effects, … operationalizing theoretical relations,… [and] measuring and… quantifying phenomena,… allowing the generalization of finding” (p. 3). But today, doubt is cast on such projects: “Rapid social change and the resulting diversification of life worlds are increasingly confronting social researchers with new social contexts and perspectives, … traditional deductive methodologies … are failing,… thus research is increasingly forced to make use of inductive strategies instead of starting from theories and testing them…. [K]nowledge and practice are studied as local knowledge and practice” (p. 2).

2. Acceptance of postmodern sensibilities. The use of quantitative, positivist methods and assumptions has been rejected by a new generation of qualitative researchers who are attached to post-structural, postmodern sensibilities. These researchers argue that positivist methods are but one way of telling a story about society or the social world. They may be no better, or no worse, than any other method; they just tell a different kind of story.

This tolerant view is not shared by everyone. Many members of the critical theory, constructivist, poststructural, and postmodern schools of thought reject positivist and postpositivist criteria when evaluating their own work. They see these criteria as being irrelevant to their work, and contend that it reproduces only a certain kind of science—a science that silences too many voices. These researchers seek alternative methods for evaluating their work, including verisimilitude, emotionality, personal responsibility, an ethic of caring, political praxis, multivoiced texts, dialogues with subjects, and so on.

3. Capturing the individual’s point of view. Both qualitative and quantitative researchers are concerned about the individual’s point of view. However, qualitative investigators think they can get closer to the actor’s perspective by detailed interviewing and observation. They argue that quantitative researchers are seldom able to capture the subject’s perspective because they have to rely on more remote, inferential empirical materials.

4. Examining the constraints of everyday life. Qualitative researchers are more likely to confront and come up against the constraints of the everyday social world. They see this world in action and embed their findings in it. Quantitative researchers abstract from this world and seldom study it directly. They seek a nomothetic or etic science based on probabilities derived from the study of large numbers of randomly selected cases. These kinds of statements stand above and outside the constraints of everyday life. Qualitative researchers, on the other hand, are committed to an emic, ideographic, case-based position, which directs their attention to the specifics of particular cases.

5. Securing rich descriptions. Qualitative researchers believe that rich descriptions of the social world are valuable, while quantitative researchers, with their etic, nomothetic commitments, are less concerned with such detail. They are deliberately unconcerned with such descriptions because such detail interrupts the process of developing generalizations.

These five points of difference described above (uses of positivism, postmodernism, capturing the individual’s point of view, examining the constraints of everyday life, securing thick descriptions) reflect commitments to different styles of research, different epistemologies, and different forms of representation. Each work tradition is governed by a different set of genres, each has its own classics, its own preferred forms of representation, interpretation, and textual evaluation. Qualitative researchers use ethnographic prose, historical narratives, first-person accounts, still photographs, life history, fictionalized facts, and biographical and autobiographical materials, among others. Quantitative researchers use mathematical models, statistical tables, and graphs, and usually write in an impersonal, third-person prose.

Working the Hyphen—The Other as Research Subject

From its turn-of-the-century birth in modern, interpretive form, qualitative research has been haunted by a double-faced ghost. On the one hand, qualitative researchers have assumed that qualified, competent observers could with objectivity, clarity, and precision report on their own observations of the social world, including the experiences of others. Second, researchers have held to the belief in a real subject, or real individual, who is present in the world and able, in some form, to report on his or her experiences. So armed, the researchers could blend their own observations with the self-reports provided by subjects through interviews, life story, personal experience, and case study documents.

These two beliefs have led qualitative researchers across disciplines to seek a method that would allow them to record their own observations accurately while also uncovering the meanings their subjects brought to their life experiences. This method would rely upon the subjective verbal and written expressions of meaning given by the individuals studied, these expressions being windows into the inner life of the person. Since Dilthey ([1900] 1976), this search for a method has led to a perennial focus in the human disciplines on qualitative, interpretive methods.

Recently, as noted above, this position and its beliefs have come under assault. Poststructuralists and postmodernists have contributed to the understanding that there is no clear window into the inner life of an individual. Any gaze is always filtered through the lenses of language, gender, social class, race, and ethnicity. There are no objective observations, only observations socially situated in the co-created or temporally conjoined worlds of the observer and the observed. Research participants, or individuals, are seldom able to give full explanations of their actions or intentions; all they can offer are accounts, or stories, about what they did and why. No single method can grasp the subtle variations in ongoing human experience. Consequently, qualitative researchers deploy a wide range of interconnected interpretive methods, always seeking better ways to make more understandable the worlds of experience that have been studied.

Interpretive Paradigms

All qualitative researchers are philosophers in that “universal sense in which all human beings…are guided by highly abstract principles” (Bateson 1972:320). These principles combine beliefs about ontology (What kind of being is the human being? What is the nature of reality?), epistemology (What is the relationship between the inquirer and the known?), and methodology (How do we know the world, or gain knowledge of it?) (see Guba and Lincoln 2000). These beliefs shape how the qualitative researcher sees the world and acts in it. The researcher is “bound within a net of epistemological and ontological premises which—regardless of ultimate truth or falsity—become partially self-validating” (Bateson 1972:314).

The net that contains the researcher’s epistemological, ontological, and methodological premises may be termed a paradigm (Guba 1990:17), or interpretive framework, a “basic set of beliefs that guides action” (Guba 1990:17). All research is interpretive, and guided by a set of beliefs and feelings about the world and how it should be understood and studied. These beliefs may be taken for granted, only assumed, while others are highly problematic and controversial. Each interpretive paradigm makes particular demands on the researcher, including the questions that are asked and the interpretations that are brought to them.

At the most general level, four major interpretive paradigms structure qualitative research: positivist and postpositivist, constructivist-interpretive, critical (Marxist, emancipatory), and feminist-poststructural. These four abstract paradigms become more complicated at the level of concrete specific interpretive communities. At this level, it is possible to identify not only the constructivist but also multiple versions of feminism (Afrocentric and poststructural), as well as specific ethnic, Marxist, and cultural studies paradigms.

The positivist and postpositivist paradigms work from within a realist and critical realist ontology, objective epistemologies, and rely upon experimental, quasiexperimental, survey, and rigorously defined qualitative methodologies (see Atkinson et al. 2001; Becker 1996; Becker et al. 1961). The constructivist paradigm assumes a relativist ontology (there are multiple realities), a subjectivist epistemology (knower and subject co-create understandings), and a naturalistic (in the natural world) set of methodological procedures (Guba and Lincoln 2000; Schwandt 1996). Findings are usually presented in terms of the criteria of grounded theory. Terms like credibility, transferability, dependability, and confirmability replace the usual positivist criteria of internal and external validity, reliability, and objectivity.

Feminist, ethnic, Marxist, cultural studies, and queer theory models privilege a materialist-realist ontology, that is, the real world makes a material difference in terms of race, class, and gender (Guba and Lincoln 2000; Olesen 2000). Subjectivist epistemologies and naturalistic methodologies (usually ethnographies) are also employed. Empirical materials and theoretical arguments are evaluated in terms of their emancipatory implications. Criteria from gender and racial communities (e.g., African American) may be applied (emotionality and feeling, caring, personal accountability, dialogue). Poststructural feminist theories emphasize problems with the social text, its logic, and its inability to ever fully represent the world of lived experience (Clough 1998; Fine 1994; Gergen and Gergen 2000; Olesen 2000; Richardson 2000). Positivist and post-positivist criteria of evaluation are replaced by other terms, including the reflexive, multivoiced text that is grounded in the experiences of oppressed people.

The cultural studies and queer theory paradigms are multifocused, with many different strands drawing from Marxism and feminism and the postmodern sensibility (Agger 2000; Kong et al. 2002). There is a tension between a humanistic cultural studies that stresses lived experiences, and a more structural cultural studies project that stresses the structural and material determinants (race, class, gender) of experience. The cultural studies and queer theory paradigms use methods strategically, that is, as resources for understanding and for producing resistances to local structures of domination. Such scholars may do close textual readings and discourse analysis of cultural texts, as well as local ethnographies, open-ended interviewing, and participant observation. The focus is on how race, class, and gender are produced and enacted in historically specific situations.

Bridging the Historical Moments: Into the Present

Two theses have organized our discussion to this point. First, in its relationship to the field of social problems inquiry, the history of qualitative research is defined more by breaks and ruptures than by a clear, evolutionary, progressive movement from one stage to the next. These breaks and ruptures move in cycles and phases, so that what is passe today may be in vogue a decade from now. Just as the postmodern, for example, reacts to the modern, someday there may well be a neomodern phase that extols Malinowski and the Chicago school and finds the current post-structural, postmodern moment abhorrent.

Our second assumption builds on the tensions that now define qualitative social problems research. There is an elusive center to this contradictory, tension-riddled enterprise, which seems to be moving further and further away from grand narratives and single, overarching ontological, epistemological, and methodological paradigms. This center lies in the humanistic commitment of the researcher to always study the world from the perspective of the interacting individual. From this simple commitment flows the liberal and radical politics of qualitative social problems research. Action, feminist, clinical, constructionist, ethnic, critical, and cultural studies researchers are all united on this point. They all share the belief that a politics of liberation must always begin with the perspective, desires, and dreams of those individuals and groups who have been oppressed by the larger ideological, economic, and political forces of a society, or a historical moment.

This commitment defines an ever-present, but always shifting center in the discourses of qualitative research. The center shifts and moves, as new, previously oppressed, or silenced voices enter the discourse. Thus, for example, feminists and ethnic researchers have articulated their own relationship to the postpositivist and critical paradigms. These new articulations then refocus and redefine previous ontologies, epistemologies, and methodologies, including positivism and postpositivism.

These two theses suggest that only the broad outlines of the future can be predicted, as the field confronts and continues to define itself in the face of four fundamental issues.

The first and second issues are what we have called the crises of representation and legitimation. These two crises speak, respectively, to the other and their representations in our texts and to the authority we claim for our texts and for ourselves, as social scientists and authors. Third, there is the continued emergence of a cacophony of voices speaking with varying agendas from specific gender, race, class and ethnic, and third world perspectives.

Fourth, throughout its history, qualitative social problems research has been defined in terms of shifting scientific, moral, sacred, and religious discourses. Since the Enlightenment, science and religion have been separated, but only at the ideological level, for in practice religion and the sacred have constantly informed science and the scientific project. The divisions between these two systems of meaning are becoming more and more blurred. Critics increasingly see science from within a magical, shamanistic framework (Rosaldo 1989:219). Others are moving science away from its empiricist foundations and closer to a critical, interpretive project that stresses morals and moral standards of evaluation (Clough 1998:136-7; Schwandt 2002: 39-58, 137-70).

Three understandings shape the present moment:

  1. The qualitative researcher is not an objective, authoritative, politically neutral observer standing outside and above the text (Bruner 1993:1);
  2. The qualitative researcher is “historically positioned and locally situated [as] an all-too-human [observer] of the human condition” (Bruner 1993:1);
  3. Meaning is “radically plural, always open, and… there is politics in every account” (Bruner 1993:1).

The problems of representation and legitimation flow from these three understandings.

The Crisis of Representation

As indicated, this crisis asks the questions, “Who is The Other? Can we ever hope to speak authentically of the experience of The Other, or An Other? And if not, how do we create a social science that includes The Other?” The short answer to these questions is that we move to including The Other in the larger research processes that we have developed. For some (Kincheloe and McLaren 2000), this means participatory, or collaborative, research and evaluation efforts. These activities can occur in a variety of institutional sites, including clinical, educational, and social welfare settings.

For still others (Bishop 1998; Heshusius 1994), it means a form of liberatory investigation wherein The Others are trained to engage in their own social and historical interrogative efforts, and then are assisted in devising answers to questions of historical and contemporary oppression, which are rooted in the values and cultural artifacts that characterize their communities.

For still other social scientists (Dunbar et al. 2002; Richardson 2000), it means becoming coauthors in narrative adventures. And for still others, it means constructing what are called “experimental,” or “messy,” texts, where multiple voices speak, often in conflict, and where readers are left to sort out which experiences speak to their personal lives (Denzin 1997). For still others, it means presenting to the inquiry and policy community a series of autohistories, personal narratives, lived experiences, poetic representations, and sometimes fictive or fictional texts, which allow The Other to speak for herself or himself. The inquirer or evaluator becomes merely the connection between the field text, the research text, and the consuming community in making certain that such voices are heard (Atkinson and Hamersley 1994; Bruner 1993; Delamont et al. 2000). Sometimes, increasingly, it is The Institutionalized Other who speaks, especially as The Other gains access to the knowledge-producing corridors of power and achieves entrée into the particular group of elites known as intellectuals and academics or faculty.

The point is that both The Other and more mainstream social scientists recognize that there is no such thing as unadulterated truth, that speaking from a faculty, an institution of higher education, or a corporate perspective automatically means that one speaks from a privileged and powerful vantage point—and that this vantage point is one to which many do not have access, either by dint of social station or education.

Judith Stacey (1988) speaks of the difficulties involved in representing the experiences of The Other about whom texts are written. Writing from a feminist perspective, she argues that a major contradiction exists in this project, despite the desire to engage in egalitarian research characterized by authenticity, reciprocity, and trust. This is so because actual differences of power, knowledge, and structural mobility still exist in the researcher-subject relationship. The subject is always at grave risk of manipulation and betrayal by the ethnographer (p. 23). In addition, there is the crucial fact that the final product is too often that of the researcher, no matter how much it has been modified or influenced by the subject. Thus, even when research is written from the perspective of The Other, for example, women writing about women, the women doing the writing may “unwittingly preserve the dominant power relations that they explicitly aim to overcome” (Bruner 1993:23).

The Author’s Place in the Text

The feminist solution clarifies the issue of the author’s place in the interpretations that are written. This problem is directly connected to the problem of representation. It is often phrased in terms of a false dichotomy, that is, “the extent to which the personal self should have a place in the scientific scholarly text” (Bruner 1993:2). This false division between the personal and the ethnographic self rests on the assumption that it is possible to write a text that does not bear the traces of its author. Of course, this is incorrect. All texts are personal statements.

The correct phrasing of this issue turns on the amount of the personal, subjective, poetic self that is in fact openly given in the text. Bruner (1993) phrases the problem this way: “The danger is putting the personal self so deeply back into the text that it completely dominates, so that the work becomes narcissistic and egotistical. No one is advocating ethnographic self-indulgence” (p. 6). The goal is to openly return the author to the text in a way that does “not squeeze out the object of study” (p. 6).

Stacey (1988) reviews the many ways to openly return the author to the qualitative research text. Fictional narratives of the self may be written (Bruner 1993). Performance texts can be produced (Denzin 1997). Dramatic readings can be given. Field interviews can be transformed into poetic texts, and poetry, and short stories and plays can be written (Richardson 2000). The author can engage in a dialogue with those studied. The author may write through a narrator, “directly as a character… or through multiple characters, or one character may speak in many voices, or the writer may come in and then go out of the [text]” (Bruner 1993:6).

The Crisis of Legitimation

It is clear that critical race theory, queer theory, and feminist arguments are moving further and further away from postpositivist models of validity and textual authority. This is the crisis of legitimation that follows the collapse of foundational epistemologies. This so-called crisis arose when anthropologists and other social scientists addressed the authority of the text. By the authority of the text we reference the claim any text makes to being accurate, true, and complete. At the same time, the authority of the author is called into question. Is a text faithful to the context and the individuals it is supposed to represent? Does the text have the right to assert that it is a report to the larger world that addresses not only the researcher’s interests but also the interests of those studied.

This is not an illegitimate set of questions, and it affects all of us and the work that we do. And while many social scientists might enter the question from different angles, these twin crises are confronted by everyone.

The Crisis of Vocality: New and Old Voices Coping with the Present

A variety of new and old voices, critical theorists, feminists, and ethnic scholars, have also entered the present situation, offering solutions to the crises and problems that have been identified above. The move is toward pluralism, and many social scientists now recognize that no picture is ever complete, that what is needed is many perspectives, many voices, before we can achieve deep understandings of social phenomena, and before we can assert that a narrative is complete.

The modernist dream of a Grand or Master Narrative is now a dead project. The postmodern era is defined, in part, by the belief that there is no single umbrella in the history of the world that might incorporate and represent fairly the dreams, aspirations, and experiences of all peoples.

Critical Theorists

The critical theorists, from the Frankfurt, to the Annales, world-systems, and participatory action research schools, continue to be a major presence in qualitative research, and they occupy a central place in social problems theory (Kincheloe and McLaren 2000). The critique and concern of the critical theorists has been an effort to design a pedagogy of resistance within communities of differences. The pedagogy of resistance, of taking back “voice,” of reclaiming narrative for one’s own rather than adapting to the narratives of a dominant majority, was most explicitly laid out by Paolo Freire working with adults in Brazil. His work is echoed most faithfully by a group of activist priests and scholars who are exploring what is called “liberation theology”—the joining of the Catholic Church to egalitarian ends for the purposes of overturning oppression and achieving social justice through empowerment of the marginalized, the poor, the nameless, the voiceless. Their program is nothing less than the radical restructuring of society toward the ends of reclaiming historic cultural legacies, social justice, the redistribution of power, and the achievement of truly democratic societies.

Feminist Researchers

Poststructural feminists urge the abandonment of any distinction between empirical science and social criticism (Clough 1998; Olesen 2000). That is, they seek a morally informed social criticism that is not committed to the traditional concerns or criteria of empirical science. This traditional science, they argue, rests a considerable amount of its authority on the ability to make public what has traditionally been understood to be private (Clough 1998:137). Feminists dispute this distinction. They urge a social criticism that takes back from science the traditional authority to inscribe and create subjects within the boundaries and frameworks of an objective social science. This social criticism “gives up on data collection and instead offers rereadings of representations in every form of information processing, empirical science, literature, film, television, and computer simulation” (Clough 1998:137).

Feminist philosophers (Fine 1994) note distinct problems with several of the scientific method’s most basic premises: the idea that scientific objectivity is possible, the effect that that mandate for objectivity has on the subjects of research, and the possibility of conducting an unbiased science at all on behalf of the targets, subjects, and participants of our research. Liberation and feminist theologians are central to this new discourse. They ask hard questions, including “Where and what are the places of women, persons of color, the poor, the homeless, and the hungry in the church, in science, in art, and literature?”

Critical Race and Queer Theory Scholars

There is yet another group of concerned scholars determining the course of qualitative social problems research: they are critical race and queer theory scholars who examine the question of whether history has deliberately silenced, or misrepresented, them and their cultures (Dunbar et al. 2002; Kong et al. 2002).

This new generation of scholars, many of them persons of color, challenge both historical and contemporary social scientists on the accuracy, veracity, and authenticity of the latter’s work, contending that no picture can be considered final when the perspectives and narratives of so many are missing, distorted, or self-serving to dominant majority interests. The result of such challenges has been twofold: one, the reconsideration of the Western canon, and two, the increase in the number of historical and scientific works that recognize and reconstruct the perspectives of those whose perspectives and constructions have been for so long missing.

Thus have we written the present. It is a messy moment, full of multiple voices, experimental texts, breaks, ruptures, crises of legitimation and representation, self-critique, new moral discourses, and technologies. We venture now into the future, attempting to inscribe and describe the possibilities of this seventh moment.

Back to the Future

Recent understandings in the social sciences (Schwandt 2000, 2002) now convince us that there is no “God’s-eye view”; there is no “voice from nowhere,” no “voice from everywhere.” It is not that we might elect to engage in work that is postmodern. Rather, it is that we have inherited a postmodern world, and there is no going back. We do not “choose” to be postmodern. The historical moment has chosen us.

The implications of this understanding, of this resituating of the argument, are enormous. We have come and gone in the “great Paradigm wars.” The wars are over. While we were fighting, the boundaries and borders over which we were fighting were redrawn until they were meaningless. We are not free to “choose” postmodernism. It is the historical moment when the modernist epoch ends: contingent, pluralistic, ambiguous, freed (or jettisoned) from the certainties of yesterday, decentered, noisy with previously unheard voices.

Mary Gergen and Ken Gergen (2000) argue that we are already in the post “post” period—post post-structuralism, post postmodernism, an age of reconstruction. What this means for interpretive, ethnographic practices is still not clear. But it is certain that things will never again be the same. We are in a new age where multivoiced texts, cultural criticism, and postexperimental works will become more common, as will more reflexive forms of fieldwork, analysis, and intertextual representation.

Another way, then, of describing this moment in time and space is to paraphrase Thomas Berry (1978), who commented that “we are between stories. The Old Story will no longer do, and we know that it is inadequate. But the New Story is not yet in place” (p. 33). And so we look for the pieces of the Story, the ways of telling it, and the elements that will make it whole, but it hasn’t come to us yet. So we are now the ultimate bricoleurs, trying to cobble together a story that we are beginning to suspect will never enjoy the unity, the smoothness, the wholeness that the Old Story had. As we assemble different pieces of the Story, our bricolage begins to take not one, but many shapes.

Slowly it dawns on us that there may not be one future, one “moment,” but rather many; not one “voice,” but polyvocality; not one story, but many tales, dramas, pieces of fiction, fables, memories, histories, autobiographies, poems, and other texts to inform our sense of liveways, to extend our understandings of The Other, to provide us with the material for “cultural critique.” The modernist project has bent and is breaking under the weight of postmodern resistance to its narratives, to what Berry calls “the Old Story.”

The press for a civic social science remains. We want a civic sociology—by which is meant fieldwork located not only in sociology, but rather an extended, enriched, cultivated social science embracing all the disciplines. Such a project characterizes a whole new generation of qualitative researchers: educationists, sociologists, political scientists, clinical practitioners in psychology and medicine, nurses, communications and media specialists, cultural studies workers, and a score of other assorted disciplines.

The moral imperatives of such work cannot be ignored. We have several generations of work in social science that has not only not solved serious human problems, but many times has only worsened the plight of those we studied. Beyond morality is something equally important; the mandates for such work come from our own sense of the human community. A detached social science frequently serves only those with the means, the social designation, and the intellectual capital to keep themselves detached. We face a choice, in the seventh moment, of declaring ourselves committed to detachment, or in solidarity with the human community. We come to know, and we come to exist meaningfully, only in community. We have the opportunity to rejoin that community as its resident intellectuals and change agents.

An interesting, and significant, concomitant to expressions of interest in a civic social science is the implied end of the commitment to the Enlightenment dualism of means and ends. We are emerging from many moments in social science where ends and means have been carefully, objectively, separated. The implications of a civic social science are far more than human solidarity. Such a social science also signals the dying of the means-ends dualism. In a civic social science, the ends of ethnography—strong, just, egalitarian communities—are reconciled with the means for achieving those ends. In the seventh moment, the means (methods) of social science are developed, refined, and cherished for their contributions to communities characterized by respectful and loving difference, social justice, and equal access to material, social, educational, and cultural capital (the ends of ethnography). Methods vie among themselves not for experimental robustness, but rather for vitality and vigor in illuminating the ways to achieve profound understanding of how we can create human flourishing.

We are also seeing an emerging dialogue around what paradigms mean, and how we learn to trust their results (Lincoln 2002). The vast array of methods, paradigms, and proposals for trustworthiness has the power to blind us to the fact that many individuals and paradigm adherents, working from very different embarkation points, have arrived at destinations quite similar. The feminists, for example, with their critical emphasis on women’s ways of knowing, share many understandings with the race and ethnic theorists, who likewise argue that non-dominant, subaltern ways of knowing, while different from majority, academic, or conventional scientific epistemologies, have much to offer in our understanding of the vast array and variety of human social life. Critical theorists and those who work with life history and testimonio forms intuitively understand that the epistemological is political, and each has similar proposals for how we might view validity, and therefore the “truth” of any account.

As a consequence, we have before us the possibility of entering into more meaningful dialogue with each other, not about how we can create a new metaparadigm, but rather about the similarities we are uncovering in our work. We see many affinities and parallels emerging from methodological reflections on fieldwork under way. If a seventh moment is yet to be charted, such dialogues among paradigm and methodological adherents might well be undertaken.

One final characteristic that marks this moment is the activity and ferment between margins and center. What was center is now decentered; what was margin and border is now taking center stage. The staggering array of new materials, new resources, new stories, new critiques, new methods, new epistemological proposals, new forms of validity, new textual improvisations, new performed interpretations all demonstrate an undeniably new, if shifting, center to this work. What was marked formerly by the firm and rigid shapes of a Eurocentric geometry is now the fluid, shape-shifting image of chemical flux and transformation, of the symbolic dream-times of non-European and indigenous cultures, as margins move to the center, the center moves to the margins, and the whole is reconstituted again in some new form. The whole concept of center and margins is being transfigured by methods, methodologies, research practices, and epistemologies scarcely dreamed of a generation ago.

And as we wait, we remember that our most powerful effects as storytellers come when we expose the cultural plots and the cultural practices that guide our writing hands. These practices and plots lead us to see coherence where there is none, or to create meaning without an understanding of the broader structures that tell us to tell things in a particular way. Erasing the boundaries between self, other, and history, we seek to learn how to tell new stories, stories no longer contained within or confined to the tales of the past. And so we embark together on a new project, a project with its own as yet not fully understood cultural plots and cultural practices.

And what remains, throughout, will be the steady but always changing commitment of all qualitative social problems researchers—the commitment, that is, to study human experience and its problems from the ground up, from the point of interacting individuals who together and alone make and live histories that have been handed down to them from the ghosts of the past.