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What exactly is interpretive research and how is it conducted?

Interpretive research is not new, although you could be forgiven for believing that it is. It differs from other types of research because it uses inductive methods to discover what lies behind data. Rather than positivist research, which sets out to test a hypothesis, interpretive research begins with a set of data and having analysed this, the researcher tries to come up with a theory to explain areas of interest that can be observed in the data.

The data may be video recordings or tape recordings, with transcripts, the researcher’s notes taken during an observation, and field notes. If an interview with the researcher is recorded, the researcher’s notes, which can be interspersed with the actual recording, are highlighted, perhaps using a different font, so that they are clearly distinguished from the voice and words of the interviewee(s). The transcripts are, at first, the actual words of the participants in the observation or interview. Usually, the researcher will read the whole transcript and then edit it judiciously. However, sometimes editing is done during the first reading. Usually the researcher will remove the superfluous ‘umms’ ‘aahs’ and so on at this stage. In discourse analysis an example of qualitative research), these would be included in the transcript and would add to the analysis. The researcher engages others to check the transcript and the recording to ensure that nothing important has been left out.

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After the first analysis the data meaning units are extracted and commented on. These are units which would, when if taken out of context, still make sense to the reader. Often the meaning units are lengthy and will contain a number of various meanings. However, the longer the meaning unit, the clearer the context should be.

Generally, it is these meaning units that are analysed in interpretive research. They are coded and then categorised. Categories can be revised and changed to better reflect and accommodate the data.

The full transcripts and the recordings are all kept so that other researchers can have access to them and carry out their own studies to check the validity of the research.

Examples of interpretive research are

  • ethnography
  • action research
  • case study research
  • phenomenology

Ethnography is the study of people and their customs and culture, differences and habits. An early ethnographer was Margaret Mead the famous anthropologist who studied the people of Papua New Guinea, and. of course lived among them.

Having said this, the ethnographic study that is commonly cited is that of Jane Goodall, who studied the lives and habits of the primate living in the Gombe National Park in Tanzania. This classic study involved her observing their behaviours, how they interacted with each other and with her. She lived with the and shared their lives for several years. Her observations included the ways they found food and shelter, how they socialised, how they communicated, mated and so on.

To begin an action research cycle, a problem area must be diagnosed. Then a variety of ways of tackling the problem can be devised and tried, one at a time.

Action research is cyclical, with the planning stage coming first, followed by the action of the researcher in carrying out the plan (the action phase). The third stage is the observation stage and the fourth stage is that of reflection. After reflection should come learning, the final phase of the cycle.

In the learning phase, Then, after analysing the data, the cycle is repeated as many times as necessary for the researcher to be satisfied that the research has been completed, at least temporarily. Action research is ongoing, with the fourth reflective stage being very important as this, combined with learning leads to further research.

Phenomenology is both a philosophy and a research method. As the latter, it highlights the study of experiences as a way of coming to terms with, and studying, the reality of our society, particularly of our social world.

Case study research can be used by positivists and interpretive researchers, which make it unusual. The research in longitudinal, taking place over an extended period of time in several places. It can be used either to construct theories in interpretive research, or to test hypotheses in positivist research studies.

In case studies the researcher is neutral and a non-participant in the social action. In order to do this type of research the researcher needs keen observatory skills and multiple other abilities so that he or she can successfully analyse the data.

The German philosopher, Edmund Husserl (1859—1938) famously thought that our experiences are the source of all our knowledge. Phenomenology is all about systematic reflection and it analyses phenomena such as actions, perceptions and our judgment.

Through reflection and analysis, phenomenologists believe, we become able to appreciate and describe our social reality, by using the various points of view of all participants involved in a particular social action. It also aims to help us understand the symbolic or deep structure meanings that underpin our experiences.

Researchers adopting a phenomenological model have to be unbiased with no preconceived assumptions. Empathy is important so that the researcher can better understand the participant’s thought processes, feelings, and behaviour.

It may come as a surprise to many, but interpretive research has been around since the early part of 19th century. It is firmly rooted in the following disciplines: -

  • anthropology,
  • psychology,
  • sociology,
  • semiotics and
  • linguistics.

In other words, it is older than positivist research paradigms, which temporarily overtook interpretive research in the academic world. There was a renewed interest in this older discipline because positivist research seemed not to come up with new insights or knowledge. On the other hand, positivists feel that interpretive research is subjective, biased and unscientific. In an attempt to refute these accusations, more scientific methods of data collection, analysis and setting criteria were utilised. These were designed to ensure that the interpretation of the data was reliable and valid.

There are several differences which distinguish positivist research and interpretive research, which is rooted in the general assumption that social reality is subjective and not absolutely unique. Interpretive researchers believe that social reality is formed by people’s experiences and the society in which they live, in other words, ontology. They also believe that a study should take into account the socio-historical setting and reconcile the different subjective interpretations of the various participants, in other words epistemology.

  • interpretive researchers use theoretical sampling and determine whether or not respondents or sites fit into the phenomenon under scrutiny. Random sampling is usually used by positivists.
  • An interpretive researcher is able to use small samples and convenience samples. Positivists do not allow these to be used.
  • The role played by the researcher differs greatly between the two types of research. A positivist researcher will stand apart from the research context, but an interpretive one will play a specific role in the research process. For example, and ethnographer would be thought to be an important player in the social event, or situation being studied. The role of the researcher must be specified in the analysis of the data.
  • Interpretive analyses are holistic and firmly rooted in the specific context under study. Interpretive analysts, rather like discourse analysts, study signs, language and its various meanings.
  • Although statistics can be used in interpretive analyses, they do not rely heavily on them as do positivist analyses.
  • Data collection and the analysis of that data can go hand in hand. If, for example the data derives from an interview, the analyst can code it before moving on to another interview. This means that the analyst/interviewer can amend the interview questions in order to collect better data, if it is apparent that this is necessary. Positivists don’t change the questions so that validity and reliability are ensured.
  • Of necessity, social phenomena must be studied and observed in their natural environment. The social context and is important and whatever occurs must be viewed in terms of this. The events and happenings cannot be isolated from the context in which they occur. All interpretations have to be based in their socio-historical background. For the researcher, this means that observing the variables is crucial to a study. These should also be taken into account when the researcher tries to come up with plausible explanations for the phenomena that interests him or her.
  • Researchers are firmly rooted in the social context being studied and so are considered a crucial part of the data collection process. They need to use their powers of observation, the trust they have built up with the participants in the study, as well as their ability to extrapolate true and relevant information. Not only do researchers have to do these things, but they also need to use their knowledge of the social context, their own background knowledge experiences and insights to interpret data and the phenomena under scrutiny to interpret these accurately. The researcher also must be fully aware of his or her own biases and any preconceptions he or she had at the commencement of the study so that there is accuracy in the description of the social phenomena being studied.
  • The analysis must reflect the views, values, beliefs and practices of all the participants in the study. The interpretation should be carried out on two levels. The first one involves having empathy for the participants. The researcher needs to see the events that unfold through their eyes. The second level is to understand and give meaning to the various experiences of the participants so that a rich narrative, or thick description of the phenomena under investigation can accurately convey why the people under study behaved in the ways they did.
  • Everything needs to be documented, both the verbal and non-verbal (gestures, body language and facial expressions) language that the participants use. Analysing these components of communication is crucial to a thorough interpretive analysis. The analyst must take care to show the reader that the story embedded in the study is told by a person, not an insensitive, unfeeling machine. People’s emotions, feelings and experiences have to be portrayed so that readers can relate to them and understand them. The language used in these types of analysis is descriptive and imagery, metaphors and similes, figurative language can all be used in this kind of analysis. The researcher doesn’t have to lapse into stiff, formal, academic language.
  • An interpretive researcher has to be prepared to continue his or her study for a lengthy period of time so that the whole process and phenomena are captured. This involves him or her being totally immersed in the observation process. The aim of the researcher is to understand and appreciate the ever-changing social process being investigated as it develops over time.
  • The researcher doing an interpretive analysis of data must be very patient because the process is iterative. He or she has to constantly refer to notes, observations or transcripts, and then move on to their contexts (the whole social phenomena). There must eventually be a reconciliation between the text and context so that a theory can be constructed. This theory has to accommodate the different viewpoints and experiences of all the participants. This analysis has to continue until the researcher is satisfied that no more information can be gleaned.

Positivist research reduces and simplifies social reality, so that it fits neatly into laws and theories, whereas interpretive research tries to make sense of the different views of the participants in the study and social reality. It takes the context of the action into account and because of this reliance on context, the findings cannot be generalised or used with any reliability in other studies. Positivists and interpretive researchers are poles apart. The positivists ideas of reliability, dependability, credibility, confirmability or validity and transferability are not help as dear by interpretive analysts.

Dependability can be achieved in interpretive analyses if two or more researchers assess the same phenomenon or evidence independently and come to the same conclusions.

If readers find the inferences drawn in an interpretive study believable, then the study has credibility. This can also be accepted if the researcher spent an extended period in the field and can show data triangulation between subjects and/or data collection methods. All transcripts and recordings should be filed and analysed meticulously. If there can be an audit of the data done by an independent researcher or other suitably experienced academic, this can give credibility to the study.

If the interpretive researcher can provide thick descriptions of the context of the research, describe the context of the research in detail including his or her assumptions, the structures and processes embedded in the data, a reader can decide if the research can be transferred to other contexts.

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