Wainwright, D. 1997. “Can Sociological Research Be Qualitative, Critical, AND Valid?”

Wainwright, David. 1997. “Can Sociological Research Be Qualitative, Critical, and Valid?” The Qualitative Report 3(2).

Qualitative accepted when submitted to positivist understandings of reliability and validity, but how does this impact ethnographic data collection and roots in phenomenology and technique of critiquing discourse? Can qualitative be critical and valid at the same time?

Inherent to qualitative research, subjective beliefs of participants supersede theoretical orientations of researcher. “While the researcher may have a theoretical interest in being there, exactly what concepts are important, how they are or are not related, and what, therefore, is problematic should remain open and subject to refinement and definition based on what the researcher is able to uncover and observe” (Jorgensen 1989, 18).

“The interactionist takes his job to be the documentation of the social worlds that constitute a society. He methodically plots the connections between communication, meaning, symbolism, and action. He would claim that there is little profit in imposing alien interpretative schemes on a world: people do not build their lives on the logic of sociology or the sensibilities of foreign groups. They have their own methods of doing things together.” (Downes and Rock 1982, p. 143) – in this “pure form” (as well as positivistic qualitative research) this presents problems: lack of contextualization, merely descriptive, focuses on the experience of consciousness rather than formation, uncritical eye to statements and beliefs of informants with little attention to epistemes or power OR seeing lived experience as a means to validate pre-existing social theory OR that we derive social theory from people and place sociologist as a member of an unreciprocal relationship where people don’t receive much (or receive too much) from being studied.

Discussion of Hegelian roots of dialectical and critical inquiry – Notes that application of dialectical logic helps us realize and contextualize historical and cultural impacts created over generations, and how we apply. Knowledge as always historically-specific, where some truth will more adequately represent reality more than others; choosing between truths does not necessarily mean relativist epistemology.

Critiques of categories can help create new interpretation (or re-consolidation) of categories, as well as demonstrating location within structural networks. Relationship between theory and practice as non-uni-linear; derives validity from active involvement in political struggle.  Dialectic of informing, being informed by.

“As such, critical ethnography entails a constant inter-weaving of inductive and deductive logic. The researcher does not set out to test a pre-conceived hypothesis, nor is an entirely open-ended approach adopted, instead the researcher begins by observing the field of study, both as a participant observer and as a reviewer of academic literature. From the synthesis of these sources a research agenda emerges that can be pursued, again, by a mixture of observation and theoretical work.”

Reflexivity not as means of demonstrating validity, but how to manage dialectic between observation and theory, which becomes valid to self.  More concern with validity than reliability (is it representative of the wider population?) – because qualitative sites are often site-specific, and non-generalizeable – can data be validly collected, at a site that represents such phenomena to be studied – demanded reflexivity at managing the imperfections of even the most “ideal sites”.

Researcher should not impose information that interrupts or impacts testimony – research involving secrets or high-rapports may not be desirable, as it impacts validity.  Managing relationships with informants: “front end management” – cannot be prescribed, as it is different in every site/situation.

Are pre-conceived interview schedules unacceptable? “…the interviewers have already predicted, in detail, what is relevant and meaningful to their respondents about the research topic; and in doing this they have significantly prestructured the direction of enquiry within their own frame of reference in ways that give little time and space for their respondents to elaborate their own” (Jones 1985, p. 46).  Critical ethnography, however, must have more focused observation – pre-participant observations prior to interviewing.

Fielding (1993) approach to data analysis: fieldnote transcripts à categories and patterns (themes) à make or cut up data (kx^code) à construct outline (resequence) .  Pile-building and vertical, chronological interpretations (Harvey 1990).

Critical flaw: “The various forms of ethnography, through which attempts are made to describe social processes, share a single defect. The critical reader is forced to ponder whether the researcher has selected only those fragments of data which support his argument” (Silverman 1985, p. 140) – here, Silverman argues that count-based analyses (kx^ integration of quantitative ‘legitimacy’?) – Wainwright notes that this application of quantitative validity to qualitative practices is inappropriate.  Will multiple-reader analyses come out with similar, “more valid” conclusions? No!

Types of presentation of ethnographic research write-ups:

  • Natural history (different stages of research process, chronological) – considered the most problematic- almost dishonest in presenting information similar to quantitative and scientific methods — seeing that qualitative research is never linear, neither the report should be
  • Chronology (development of phenomenon, rather than research process)
  • Narrowing and expanding the focus (analysis shifts between observation and analysis)
  • Separation of narration and analysis (data presented first before interpretations)

Critical ethnographers often reject generalizability, seeing the world in a state of flux and thus ungeneralizable.  Thick description aids in this, and not only describes state of observation, but social contexts and structures that are interpreted.


Downes, D. and P. Rock. 1982. Understanding Deviance: A Guide to the Sociology of Crime and Rule Breaking. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fielding, N. 1993. “Ethnography.” In N. Gilbert (ed.) Researching Social Life. Pp. 154-171. London: Sage.

Harvey, L. 1990. Critical Social Research. London: Unwin Hyman.

Jones, S. 1985. “The Analysis of Depth Interviews.” In R. Walker (ed.) Applied Quantitative Research. Pp. 56-70. Aldershot (Hants.): Gower.

Jorgenson, D.L. 1989. Participant Observation: A Methodology for Human Studies. London: Sage.

Silverman, D. 1985. Qualitative Methodology and Sociology. Aldershot (Hants.): Gower.


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