The Purity and Impurity of Paradigms

[Note: This is the manuscript of an article that appeared in 2015 in Qualitative Psychology, Vol. 2, No. 2, pp. 221-225. For details, including access to the final published article, see the bottom of this page.]

            I would like to thank the authors of the two commentaries for their interesting and incisive critiques.  It would be delightful to engage in an extended discussion of these issues, but recognizing the realities of the journal format, I will limit my response to the points they raise that I believe to be most central and important. 

            Both authors believe that qualitative research is too rich and heterogeneous to be contained within a single paradigm.  Gergen worries that an excessive preoccupation with logically ordering qualitative approaches and their relationship to other kinds of research could lead to an intellectual hegemony that might stifle the creativity of future researchers.  He reminds us that ambiguity is never entirely avoidable, and he urges us to encourage the widest possible range of innovation in research strategies.  At the same time, he sees connections across a wide range of qualitative approaches in the deep history of their genealogy, which he usefully traces back to the 19th Century notion of the Geisteswissenschaften, or human sciences.  Madill, too, fears the stifling effect of a single qualitative paradigm, especially if that paradigm is inordinately homogenized, disconnected from quantitative methods, and limited in scope.  She worries that such a paradigm would lead to an ideology of methodological purity that would oversimplify our understanding of qualitative research and, that—far from reducing the dominance of quantitative methodology—would further reinforce it.  However, while expressing strong reservations about the notion of a qualitative paradigm, both authors also concede some value to the paradigm concept.  Gergen confesses that he sometimes winces at paradigm clashes that leap from the pages of the psychological literature, and Madill acknowledges that a more restricted notion of the paradigm than the one I propose may help us understand how different methods are related to each other. 

            The fact that neither author can entirely let go of the paradigm concept is significant, and it exemplifies how difficult it is for even strong skeptics to completely abjure the notion of the paradigm.  More at issue, though, is whether this concept can meaningfully encompass qualitative research as a whole; so I will sketch some ways in which I think Gergen’s and Madill’s commentaries misunderstand and/or prematurely reject the possibility of a qualitative paradigm.

            First is the importance of exemplars.  Neither Gergen nor Madill focus a great deal of attention on the exemplar concept.  Yet this concept, which Kuhn called “the most novel and least understood aspect” of his analysis of paradigms (1962/1970, p. 187), is central to understanding both what a qualitative paradigm must be and why it need not, and in fact has not and will not, become a vehicle of ideological hegemony.  In unpacking this claim, it will be helpful to start by considering the analogous issue in quantitative research.  As I noted in my article, the quantitative literature is rife with authors extolling the importance of the controlled experiment and labeling it with the honorific of the “gold standard” of quantitative research.  How do Gergen and Madill understand the great esteem in which this particular research method, with its unique and powerful characteristics, is held?  I find no way to make sense of this high regard other than as the recognition, within the quantitative community, of the controlled experiment as the defining exemplar of the quantitative paradigm.  Indeed, true to Kuhn’s analysis of how scientific communities socialize novices into their dominant paradigms, examples of controlled experiments are featured prominently in virtually all textbooks of psychology. 

            Recognizing the controlled experiment as the quantitative exemplar, however, should not be confused with regarding it as a methodological requirement or test of membership in the quantitative paradigm.  Textbooks on quantitative research routinely recognize that controlled experiments, while constituting a theoretical ideal in certain respects, are neither feasible nor desirable in many contexts and that it is crucial to recognize the importance of many other kinds of quantitative research design (quasi-experiments, correlational studies, etc.).  Even simple demographic studies may encompass just exactly what is needed for some research purposes (e.g., epidemiological studies).  The quantitative paradigm, therefore, while oriented around the controlled experiment as the purest form of nomological knowledge-production, is not impoverished by the set of associations that order other quantitative methods in relation to this exemplar.  Quite the contrary, the paradigmatic structure of quantitative knowledge shows the coherence and the underlying logic of the awesome variety of quantitative research strategies that all contribute, directly or indirectly, to a larger project of knowledge-production:  the ability to operationally define, describe, predict, control, and explain the world in terms of lawful causal regularities. 

            Now if we recognize the logic and paradigmatic character of quantitative research—and I believe that the status and characteristics of the controlled experiment leave us little choice but to do so—what are the prospects for the parity of qualitative research if it is not understandable within its own governing paradigm—if, in Madill’s words (p. 218), we regard qualitative research as “too fragmented to be considered one paradigm”?  The larger research community will, quite understandably, attempt to assimilate qualitative methods into the quantitative paradigm—which will inevitably relegate them to the peripheries of that paradigm as the most preliminary and incomplete representatives of quantitative research.  Even more important than lack of parity, however, is that qualitative methods will be fundamentally misunderstood as producing knowledge that is useful only as a tentative first step to the acquisition of “true” (i.e. nomological) knowledge. 

            If, on the other hand, we do attempt to analyze qualitative approaches as constituting their own paradigm—with its own underlying coherence and its own kind of knowledge refinement—what kind of research method is a likely candidate to serve as its exemplar?  Madill seems to be skeptical of the exemplar concept in general, but she does offer (p. 217) two alternatives to the one I propose:  Braun and Clarke’s (2006) flexible thematic analysis, with its decision-point procedural, and Rennie’s (2007, 2012) methodological hermeneutics, which employs a variety of inferential and conceptual processes and validity enhancements.  While I find both of these approaches interesting, potentially useful, and very compatible with a qualitative research orientation, I question whether either of them qualifies as an exemplar as Kuhn (and I) understand the term.  They both appear to be, primarily, forms of data analysis.  But exemplars are defined less by data analysis than by data collection techniques that have been developed in real situations to solve real problems in the day-to-day material world—the “lifeworld,” to use Husserl’s evocative phrase.  I believe that the qualitative methods that constitute what I call “collaborative contextualized dialogue” fit this description better than either of Madill’s alternatives and most faithfully represent the kind of knowledge project—the exploration of personal and social meanings as subjects experience them—that gave rise to the qualitative research orientation and that still, I would argue, form its center of gravity. 

            It is useful here to consider Gergen’s invocation of the deep history of qualitative research and its character as what may be called “human science.”  While I did not use the phrase “human science” in my article, I would like to appropriate it now; for as long as the word “human” is not interpreted too naively and the word “science” is not interpreted too narrowly, I think this phrase accurately encompasses much of what I intend.  Gergen wonders why a qualitative researcher adopting my perspective would even wish to make knowledge claims at all; but I would argue that the kind of knowledge acquisition described by Dilthey and others begins to identify at least part of the knowledge production that I envision.  Madill, on the other hand, is not happy with the “human science” conception as she believes it excludes, for example, poststructuralist, feminist, and other critical research orientations that aim to dismantle culturally specific taken-for-granted notions of privileged subjectivity, social harmony, and naturally motivated self-actualization.  While it is certainly possible for naïve versions of human science to reinforce dominant cultural assumptions about benign social structure and the power of the “unitary rational subject” (to use Wendy Holloway’s apt designation), it need not do so; and I would argue that critical enterprises like the ones Madill worries about—far from being incompatible with human science, deeply understood—presuppose it.  For what sense can there be to challenging dehumanizing social and cultural forces if not to support the human subjects who are marginalized, disempowered, and abused by them?  I agree with Madill that qualitative research is not necessarily democratic and emancipatory; but I emphasize that qualitative research in general and collaborative contextualized dialogue in particular are uniquely positioned to invite and advance projects that aim to give voice to the disempowered in a democratic and emancipatory way.  All of this assumes that we recognize, along with Bakhtin, Bourdieu, Foucault, and others, that humanness can operate not only in obvious ways but also both above and below the level of the individual subject.  For example, Bourdieu’s (1992) concepts of “field” and “habitus” trace the ways in which dominant social structures are unconsciously and irresistibly incorporated into human subjects as prereflective thoughts, and even bodily reflexes.  Recognition of this complex determination gives us a much deeper understanding of subjects’ lives; and it also has methodological implications—for example, that we need to be sensitive to the kinds of pitfalls of collaborative work that Potter and Hepburn (2005) identify, as Madill rightly points out. 

            Another objection raised by both Gergen and Madill is to my apparent exclusion of textual analysis from the qualitative paradigm.  Some clarification is in order here.  While Gergen holds that my article does not mention meaning, this is not quite accurate, as it invokes it in a number of places.  However, the kind of meaning it highlights—the kind most closely associated with collaborative contextualized dialogue—is personal and social meaning, as opposed to textual meaning.  The distinction between these two types of meaning is not absolute, but it is nevertheless significant.  The hermeneutic tradition, which begins within the deep history cited by Gergen, arguably divides, early in the 20th Century, into two branches.  The first branch is the Verstehen tradition prominently exhibited by Dilthey, picked up by Weber, and elaborated in the traditions of phenomenology (Husserl), social phenomenology (Schutz), social constructionism (Berger and Luckmann), symbolic interactionism (Mead and Blumer), and by contemporary researchers who focus primarily on personal and social meanings.  For example, Rao (2006) looks at the personal significance of self-mutilation and Vinitzky-Seroussi (2000) analyzes the meanings of high school reunions for the identities of those who attend them.  This is the branch of the hermeneutic tradition that articulates the genesis and construction of meaning insofar as it gives guidance to individual lives and shapes societies and cultures; and it is this kind of meaning which collaborative contextualized dialogue aims to identify, clarify, critique, and support.  The second branch of the hermeneutic tradition is the one associated with text interpretation in the classic sense that regards the text as the primary object of study.  This branch is elaborated by Heidegger, Gadamer, literary critics like Barthes, and contemporary authors who apply textual analysis to artistic and literary productions and to various forms of social behaviors and communication.  For example, Levi-Strauss (1967) analyzes how the structures of myth intimate deep structures of human thought, Martin (1991) examines how medical texts reveal oppressive assumptions about gender, and Modell (1992) argues that personal stories told by birth-parents expose fundamental contradictions in cultural constructions of parenting.

              To be sure, the work of authors like Levi-Strauss, Martin, and Modell constitute social inquiry and can be recognized as qualitative in nature.  But can they be recognized as falling within the qualitative paradigm?  The answer is both yes and no, depending on how one defines the boundaries of a paradigm and how one conceptualizes the status of mixed methods research.  For I believe that textual analysis constructs a type of knowledge that arises, prototypically, from neither the qualitative nor the quantitative paradigm.  Instead, I would argue that it constitutes a third paradigm associated, originally and primarily, with the aesthetic analysis of creative works—that is, with artistic and literary criticism.  In its purest form, textual analysis involves treating the creative work as an autonomous object of research, one that can be studied in its own right for the production of aesthetic knowledge and appreciation.  Therefore, the core exemplars of this paradigm are those defined by what literary critics call a “close reading” of the text—the examination and analysis of the aesthetic properties of the creative work, independent of external considerations including authorship, social circumstances, historical conditions, etc. 

            Returning now to authors like Levi-Strauss, Martin, and Modell, who apply textual analysis to social issues and phenomena, I believe that these researchers are engaging in a form of mixed methods research—only in this case the paradigms that are being mixed are not qualitative research and quantitative research, but rather qualitative research and aesthetic textual analysis.  That is, techniques originally developed in the paradigm of artistic and literary criticism are being adapted and applied to the investigation of social issues and questions.  Therefore, in answer to the question of whether textual analyses in the social and psychological sphere belong to the qualitative paradigm, the answer is no, they don’t, if you choose to draw the boundary of a paradigm at the place where investigators attempt to refine the kind of knowledge the paradigm seeks by borrowing techniques from other paradigms—or yes, they do, if you include mixed methods investigations within it. 

            For my own part, I see no reason why paradigms cannot overlap, nor why we should restrict the definition of a paradigm to only its “pure” methodological forms.  Thus I hold that the qualitative paradigm includes not only the fully developed qualitative exemplars and the entire complement of their partial or incomplete versions and variations, but also all the combinations, blends, and incorporations of those (complete and incomplete) techniques with complete and incomplete techniques from other paradigms, both quantitative and aesthetic-textual.1  This does not mean, however, that “anything goes,” or that there is no separation between paradigms, or that there are no incommensurabilities in the ways in which paradigms may be combined.  To take the extreme case, for example, this does not entail that core exemplars from different paradigms can be combined in their original forms without throwing into question the fundamental characteristics of the kinds of knowledge they are likely to accumulate.  Thus, while I agree with Madill’s claim that specific techniques nested at the lowest level of a paradigm may—with appropriate alterations—contribute quite comfortably to paradigm integration, I disagree that this applies to paradigmatic exemplars.  For example, while knowledge from Fine’s (1983-1984) in-depth interview with Altamese Thomas might be used to predict or control Thomas’s behavior or the behavior of others like her, it is doubtful that the kind of prediction and control this enables will ever approximate the kind of nomological causal prediction and control envisioned within the quantitative paradigm.  The same may be said, conversely, for the prospects of ever truly understanding the nuances of personal meaning by purely experimental techniques.

            I conclude, therefore, that paradigms are both pure and impure.  They are pure in the sense that each paradigm is oriented around a specific kind of knowledge production which is most fully and purely exemplified in that paradigm’s core exemplars—be they the controlled experiments of the quantitative paradigm, the “close readings” of creative works within the paradigm of aesthetic textual analysis, or the collaborative contextualized dialogues of the qualitative paradigm.  But each paradigm comprises a much broader constellation of methods which includes not only those that derive directly or indirectly from that paradigm’s own exemplars but also those that are creatively synthesized from its own methods and the methods of other paradigms.  I hope that this will address at least some of the discomfort about the “purity” and “homogeneity” expressed by Gergen and Madill, and that it will also assuage some of their concerns about ideological hegemony.  At the same time, I believe that this analysis affords us the best way of understanding the parity of research methods associated with different paradigms in the fields of social inquiry.  


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            1To put this in a larger context, I suspect that some of our misunderstandings about paradigms may derive from the subject-object dualism that influences much of the discussion about “qualitative versus quantitative research.”  In contrast, the triadic epistemology advanced by C. S. Peirce (1958) and others (e.g. Habermas, 1968; 1984; Wheelwright, 1962), which emphasizes how subject, object and symbol interactively construct each other, seems to me to better accommodate the methods-mixing I am talking about here.  That is, the methods within the qualitative paradigm that derive most directly from collaborative contextualized dialogue and that aim primarily to construct personal and social meaning are concerned with our existence as subjective beings, while the critical perspective emphasized by Madill represents an adaptation, from the quantitative paradigm, of the notion of causal powers, retroductively understood, (see Bhaskar, 2008) to show the influence of the objective order on human experience, and the textual approaches raised by both Gergen and Madill use techniques pioneered in the paradigm of aesthetic analysis to reveal the ways in which human action may be understood as ultimately symbolic in nature. 


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