Qualitative Research, History of

Sharon Lockyer. Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods. Editor: Lisa M Given. Sage Publications, 2008.

Qualitative research has a long and vibrant history in the social sciences, health sciences, and humanities. Qualitative research has meant different things at different times across its history. The development of qualitative research has been heavily influenced by the variety of subdisciplines. Although the work for the Chicago School in America in the 1920s and 1930s highlighted the central role of qualitative research in social research, a range of other disciplines was also responsible for the rise and continued development of qualitative approaches, including history, medicine, nursing, social work, and communications. Subdisciplines of social sciences, health sciences, and humanities, including cultural anthropology, symbolic interactionism, Marxism, ethnomethodology, phenomenology, feminism, cultural studies, and postmodernism, each with its own theoretical leanings, its own conception of reality, and its own methodological preferences, have played significant roles in the continued development of qualitative research. Despite their differing theoretical assumptions and methodological preferences, these disciplines and subdisciplines are united in their reasons for employing qualitative research—to identify, analyze, and understand patterned behaviors and social processes.

Vidich and Lyman’s History of Qualitative Research

Although some historical accounts have taken as their starting point the development of qualitative research in the beginning of the 20th century, for example, Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln’s “Seven Moments of Qualitative Research,” other accounts begin their analysis with the development of qualitative approaches in the 17th century. In their now classic historical account of qualitative research, Arthur J. Vidich and Stanford M. Lyman split the history of qualitative research used by sociologists and anthropologists in ethnographic research into a series of interconnected stages. This continuum begins with initial encounters by early ethnographers and ends with the unique theoretical and practical considerations characterizing contemporary qualitative research.

Early Ethnography

The beginnings of qualitative research, according to Vidich and Lyman, are located in the work of early ethnographers during the 17th century. Qualitative research during this period involved the Western researcher observing the customs, practices, and behaviors of “primitive” societies, to understand the other. During this period, the other was often regarded as a non-White person living in a society considered less civilized than the society to which the observer belonged. Such interest in “primitive people” was exacerbated by the problems experienced by explorers during the 15th and 16th centuries when attempting to account for people they discovered in the New World. Difficulties occurred when explorers attempted to explain the existence of such groups according to received biblical accounts and explanations regarding the history of geography and the origin of humankind. Acknowledging racial and cultural diversity and the limitations of religious (i.e., Christian) teachings to account for this diversity, early ethnographers sought to locate such diversity into new theories of racial and cultural historical origins.

Colonial Ethnography

Qualitative research during this second phase (17th to the 19th century) was regarded in terms of colonial ethnography. During this period, ethnographic descriptions and analyses, written by Western explorers, missionaries, and colonial administrators, were deposited in church archives and/or local and national archives. Many of these early writings sought to civilize the world. These accounts are regarded by some contemporary ethnographers as biased, and attempts are made to separate more recent ethnographies from earlier Western reports. Colonial administrators, fostering a type of colonial pluralism, created a new type of anthropology, which did not focus on natives and their social processes, and highlighted the positive preservation effects of indirect rule. This period would later shift in emphasis to encapsulate Auguste Comte’s comparative method and theories surrounding the social evolution of culture and civilization. These evolutionary theories led to the creation of a cultural classification system handbook to guide the ethnographers’ observations and provide the basis for the classification of traits. Ethnographic findings based on this classification of cultural traits were housed in the Human Relations Area Files at Yale University. The two main themes of this period—colonial ethnography and evolutionary schemes and cultural traits—were challenged by decolonization movements in Africa and Asia and critiques of ideas related to the primitive. This phase saw the introduction of news terms such as underdeveloped and third world. Research opportunities available to the ethno graphic researcher decreased dramatically as ethnographers were regarded as partially responsible for the underdeveloped nature of third world countries. Ethnographers thus turned their attention to linguistic analysis, American society, and the files based at Yale University.

Ethnography of the American Indian as Other

During this next phase (late 19th to early 20th century), American ethnographers focused on American Indians, who were still regarded as primitive and as representing a specific other. These others were researched to shed light on prehistoric times. This period also saw a shift in the perspective of ethnographers, from ethnographies written by missionaries to those written exclusively by anthropologists, for example, those writing after the creation of the ethnology section of the Smithsonian Institution or for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

Ethnography of the Civic Other

During the early 20th century and up to the 1960s, the religious beliefs, practices, and customs of Black, Asian, and European immigrants who had arrived on American soil during the early days of industrialization were a source of worry for White American citizens who were concerned with the future development of the American Protestant society. Initial efforts to preach a social gospel in the settlement houses were hindered by the sheer number of new urban inhabitants. In order to deal with these increasing numbers and to identify the numbers of each denomination, nationality, and race, statistical surveys were implemented. The desire to incorporate immigrant groups into existing Protestant communities resulted in the first qualitative community analysis by W. E. B. Du-Bois—The Philadelphia Negro. Interviewing 5000 Black immigrants, the researcher sought to boost the status of Black immigrants through the Quaker community in which they were located. Church-led and corporate-sponsored community studies and ethnographies of the ethnic other exploded during this period. It was during this period that ethnography and qualitative research were professionalized. Through the work of the University of Chicago’s Department of Sociology, ethnography was recognized as a particular method of social research. Community studies were conducted by those connected to the Chicago School, including Robert Park, Robert Redfield, and William Foote Whyte, among others. However, Chicago School sociologists soon discarded any Christian or religious research impetus, celebrated heterogeneous communities, and conducted research driven by a humanistic moral agenda. Using qualitative and sometimes quantitative methods, Park provided accounts of large American urban communities that were created toward the end of the 19th century and developed assimilation theories and race relations cycles. Due to the methodological tools used by Foote Whyte in his account of Italian Americans in Boston in Street Corner Society, this period also saw the introduction of participant observation as an appropriate qualitative research technique.

Ethnography of Assimilation

Debating and challenging the processes of assimilation and amalgamation, post-1960s (1950-1980) ethnographies and ethnographers included Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans seeking to take control of the study of their own groups. Attention shifted away from how to measure assimilation and acculturation, as identified by Park in the earlier phase, toward a consideration of a range of other topics, including the importance of individual character.

Ethnography Today

As with other areas of the social sciences, health sciences, and humanities, qualitative research from the mid-1980s onward was influenced by poststructuralism and postmodernism. Assumptions regarding the role of the observer and the observed that underpinned many of the qualitative approaches during the above periods were challenged from the mid-1980s. In many contemporary ethnographies, the researcher is not regarded simply as an observer of history, for he or she plays a significant role in the creation of history. Reflective practice plays a fundamental role in postmodern ethnography as the researcher reflects and critiques his or her personal engagement with the research topic and subject. Some postmodern ethnographers have extended their focus of analysis of lived experience to representations of real life in, for example, media images. Contemporary modes of representing qualitative data include drama and poetry or presentation of unedited extracts of talk without commentary to remove the presence of the author.

The historical analysis developed by Vidich and Lyman suggests that the history of qualitative research is based on the ways in which researchers have defined social research in terms of their values, hopes, religious beliefs and political and/or professional ideologies. Over the centuries covered by this historical account, qualitative research has been released from the ideologies that focused the attention of early ethnographers. Qualitative research has flourished since the 17th century, and points of view, the reasons for conducting qualitative research, and subjects for study have broadened. Whereas the historical analysis offered by Vidich and Lyman is a comprehensive and detailed account covering four hundred years, other historical accounts have been written covering substantially shorter periods in history.

Denzin and Lincoln’s Seven Moments of Qualitative Research

The historical analysis offered by Denzin and Lincoln focuses on the developments in qualitative research from the 20th century onwards. Their analysis identifies seven moments in the development of qualitative research. These seven historical moments can be viewed as supplementing the developmental periods identified by Vidich and Lyman.

Traditional Period

During the first moment (1900-1950), which corresponds with Vidich and Lyman’s second and third phases, qualitative researchers sought to provide valid and objective accounts of the alien “other”. Qualitative research involved the researcher entering the field and then returning with observations and comments about strange societies and peoples. Some scholars, such as Renato Rosaldo, describe the qualitative researcher during this period as the lone ethnographer. The lone ethnographer was committed to objectivism, imperialism, monumentalism, and the timeless nature of the societies studied. Influential figures in this period include Bronislaw Malinowski and Margaret Mead. Although the image of the lone ethnographer represented the beginnings of classic ethnography, this image is not applicable to contemporary ethnography. Some contemporary qualitative research does, however, reflect the view that the researcher is capable of constructing theories about the societies and peoples studied, a view that was evident during this first moment.

Modernist Age

The second moment (1950-1970), dubbed the golden age of qualitative research, saw a shift toward making qualitative methods as rigorous as quantitative approaches. This shift is evident in Harold S. Becker, Blanche Greer, Everett C. Hughes, and Anselm L. Strauss’s Boys in White. Subjects explored during this moment included deviance and social control in specific settings, such as classrooms, and in society more generally. New interpretive theories (such as ethnomethodology and feminism) and a shift to giving the underclass a voice and presence also characterized this moment. This golden age drew to a close toward the end of the 1960s with the publication of Barney G. Glaser and Anselm L. Strauss’s The Discovery of Grounded Theory.

Blurred Genres

This moment (1970-1986) is characterized by pluralism, open-endedness, and interpretive approaches, or what Denzin and Lincoln refer to as genre diaspora. During the third moment, the qualitative researcher had a wealth of methods and theories to choose from—from semiotics to neo-Marxist theory, and from critical theory to postpositivism. Disciplinary boundaries between the social sciences and humanities became blurred as social scientists employed theories, methods, and concepts previously the preserve of humanities. Ethical and political considerations in social research came to the forefront, as did a range of data collection and analysis techniques (from personal experience to documentary methods) and different strategies for reporting research findings (from case studies to biographical research). Further, possibilities were provided with the introduction of computers in assisting data analysis. The researcher’s presence in the research text was also questioned and problematized during this period through the writings of Clifford Geertz, among others.

Crisis of Representation Period

As a consequence of the blurred genres period, the fourth moment (1986-1990) witnessed an increase in reflexive research practice. Research led by feminist and racial and ethnic concerns gathered momentum during this period. The crisis of representation occurred as a result of these new research trends destabilizing the assumptions that had previously underpinned qualitative research. The researcher’s ability to capture social experiences was questioned due to the view that such experience is created in the very act of writing the research text. Further, long-entrenched views of the most appropriate ways in which to evaluate qualitative research were destabilized through problematizing concepts such as validity and objectivity.

Postmodern Period

The fifth moment (1990-1995) attempted to address the crises characterizing the previous period. Innovative approaches to ethnographic writing were introduced, and the perception of the distant observer was eroded. Situation-specific and localized theories replaced grand theories and narratives.

Postexperimental Period

The trends occurring in the postmodern period continue in the postexperimental period (1995-2000) through the use of poetry, drama, and multimedia techniques in ethnographic writings.

The Future

New researchers across a number of disciplines are continuing the more reflexive and interpretive approach to qualitative research.

Although Denzin and Lincoln separate the history of qualitative research into these seven linear moments, the moments are not isolated and unitary but are interconnected. Earlier moments influence later moments, and some of the trends and beliefs of earlier moments are evident in later periods. Movement through the seven moments illustrates how qualitative research is no longer bound by an objective positivist perspective and how contemporary qualitative researchers have a wide range of methods, theories, and paradigms from which to choose.

Qualitative Debates in German-Speaking Areas

The forementioned historical analyses have largely focused on the development of qualitative research in Anglophone countries. However, methodological developments in European countries, for example, Germany, have been particularly significant in the continual development of qualitative research. During the 1960s, American sociological critique concentrated on quantitative social research and quantitative techniques. German methodological discussions later took up such critiques in the 1970s. American methodological debates resonated in German-speaking areas as a number of influential American methodological texts (on ethnomethodology and symbolic interactionism) and critiques from the mid- 1960s were translated and imported, making them available for German methodological debates.

German methodological discussions during the 1960s, according to Uwe Flick, placed fair treatment of research participants and objects at the forefront of methodological discussions, argued for research openness and flexibility, and called for a delay of any theoretical creation or development until the end of the research process when research participants and objects would demonstrate their “true colors.”

From the end of the 1970s, methodological debates broadened out and lost their dependency on the translation and import of American texts. The role and position of interviews in empirical research dominated methodological debates during this time.

From the beginning of the 1980s, German methodological literature and methodological development focused on two specific qualitative approaches—the narrative interview and objective hermeneutics. In his review of German methodological literature, Flick observes that from the middle of the 1980s concerns surrounding the validity and generalizability of qualitative findings and their presentation dominated German methodological debates, and, more recently, textbooks have been published on the history of qualitative research in German-speaking locations.

Other Important Historical Developments

Reflecting wider sociopolitical developments and feelings, based on distrust of authority and control, and on a celebration of individualism and personal freedom, qualitative research has experienced a renaissance since the 1960s (in the United States) and 1970s (in German-speaking countries). The second half of the 20th century saw an increase in the amount and strength of criticisms directed toward positivism, which until then had dominated social research. These nonpositivist or antipositivist attitudes resonated from a variety of subdisciplines, including cultural anthropology, symbolic interactionism, Marxism, ethnomethodology, phenomenology, feminism, cultural studies, and postmodernism. Critiques of positivism included attacks on the manner in which the methods used in the natural sciences were incorporated into social research, the ways in which reality was conceived and identified, the relationships between the researcher and the researched, the manner in which research was designed and executed, and the methods of data collection and data analysis employed. Positivist social theory and social research lost momentum and popularity as a result of such critiques.

Another increasingly prominent discussion evident in some social sciences, health sciences, and humanities methodological literature from the mid-1970s centered on the use of mixed methods. Advocating methodological pluralism, some researchers, such as Abbas Tashakkori and Charles Teddlie, argue for mixed method or multimethod approaches, including within-method and between-method mixing. Instead of taking a philosophical approach to methodology, mixed methodologies are often employed by pragmatic researchers who allow the nature of the research problem to dictate the methods employed for each research study. Although traditional stereotypes and assumptions about distinctions between quantitative and qualitative research have not been fully removed, for some scholars, such as Clive Seale, recent debates over mixed methods suggest that the future lies in dropping the terms “qualitative” or “quantitative,” research so that it is referred to simply as research.

A Note on the Limits of Historical Accounts

Historical accounts that navigate and review past events are often criticized for their artificiality, and their content depends on the authors’ methodological preferences, interpretations, and experiences. Although such limitations are recognized, these limitations should not detract from the importance or significance of historical accounts in contributing to our understanding of the development of qualitative research.