Interpretivism: Emergent (Exploratory) Research

Although the Hypothetico-deductive model describes an important way of doing research, by way of contrast (since not all sociologists believe the same things or do things in exactly the same way) we can look at an alternative “emergent (exploratory) research” model that can be closely associated with Interpretivist methodology.

In general, this type of model follows the same basic flow identified by Oberg (1999) – albeit with some significant design modifications – in that it involves:

  1. Planning:

A research issue is identified and a “research question” or “problem” takes shape. This may flow from background reading on the topic or the researcher may want to “come fresh” to the research to avoid being influenced by what others have said or written.

2a. Information Gathering:

Although the general research process here is superficially similar to that proposed in Popper’s Hypothetico-deductive model, major design differences are apparent in the way information is collected. For example, this type of research design is:

a. Non-linear – research is not a process that begins with a hypothesis and ends with it being confirmed or refuted. The objective is not to discover definitive answers to a question, issue or problem; rather, it is to explore issues from a variety of angles. Hence, the idea of this design being:

b. Exploratory: The objective is to explore whatever is being studied in all its facets – from the perspective and perception of the researcher to those of the people being researched.

c. Holistic: This approach involves collecting as much information as possible about whatever is being studied, for a couple of reasons. Firstly the researcher doesn’t try to prejudge what is or is not significant at this stage in the research. Secondly, by casting the research net far and wide the researcher involves and co-opts those being studied into the research process; they may, for example, suggest ideas and issues to study that may not have originally occurred to the researcher.

d. Goal-Free: For Lindauer (2005) one significant aspect of exploratory research is that “…research designs are goal-free as opposed to goals-based”. The latter is a defining feature of Positivist forms of research where the goal is to confirm or falsify a hypothesis. Interpretivist research design doesn’t involve defining in advance what the objective of such research will be; rather, the researcher is free to explore whatever they – or the people they’re studying – feel is important or interesting. As Lindauer notes these types of research designs are often “iterative, meaning that they take shape as data collection and analysis proceed”.

e. Evolutionary: This relates to the two previous ideas in the sense that research is relatively open-ended – the researcher may, for example, simply follow the leads suggested by the people being studied. Rather than following a pre-determined path, therefore, research design is fluid – it can expand and develop as and how the research situation demands (digging deeper into some areas while disregarding others, for example).

Thus, where the Hypothetico-deductive design framework is rigid, strong and directs the researcher, the reverse is true of exploratory designs – the design framework is flexible, loose and bends to take account of new research developments.

f. Active: Unlike “passive” research designs where the researcher has to carefully distance themselves from whatever is being researched in order to avoid biasing the research, this design generally encourages the active participation of the researcher. Researcher involvement with the people being studied is, consequently, high – they may, for example, live amongst the people being researched for months or even years in some (admittedly quite extreme) instances. Whyte (1943), for example, spent years living openly around the adolescent gang members he studied and Ray (1987) lived covertly for a time with a group of Australian environmentalists.

2b. Information Processing:

Data is analysed, although the researcher is not interested in testing hypotheses. Rather, an attempt may be made to categorise the data in various ways or sift and sort it into some form of descriptive narrative (story). Generally, however, data analysis is, according to Schultz et al (1996) something that happens throughout the research process, rather than simply being completed after data has been collected. This is significant for a couple of reasons:

Firstly this type of design involves a “positive feedback loop” between data collection and data analysis; in other words, when collected data is analysed (and with this type of design there is likely to be mountains of data) such analysis is used to inform further data collection – and further analysis (hence the idea of research “feeding back” into itself in a non-linear way).

Secondly one outcome of this process is that there is no requirement to collect data for the express purpose of proving or disproving something – data analysis, therefore, is both descriptive and multi-faceted (seen from different viewpoints – both that of the researcher and those of the researched).

  1. Evaluation:

Conclusions may be offered but it’s more likely that the reader will be left to draw their own conclusions from the research. This highlights a further difference in research design between Emergent and Hypothetico-deductive models; the latter, by definition and design, involves the researcher making judgments (about what to research, what data to collect and, ultimately, the status – valid or invalid – of the research hypothesis). The former, however, can be characterised as non-judgemental – the objective of the research is not to decide things like “truth” or “falsity”, “validity” or “invalidity”; rather it is to illuminate a particular issue, question or problem by studying it from a multitude of possible viewpoints. As Schwandt (2002) puts it, social research involves not so much a “problem to be solved…as a dilemma or mystery that requires interpretation and self-understanding”.

If you want to use a visual accompaniment to these notes try one of the following:

a. PowerPoint Presentation.

b. Filmed Presentation.

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