The Stories Choose to Tell: Fulfilling the Promise of Qualitative Research for Special Education

By Pugach, Marleen C. | Exceptional Children, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

The Stories Choose to Tell: Fulfilling the Promise of Qualitative Research for Special Education


Pugach, Marleen C., Exceptional Children


Stories represent a journey into the realm of practical ethics" (Witherell & Noddings, 1991, p. 4)

It is often by telling stories that educators, as well as the public at large, have come to understand the needs of persons with disabilities. In fact, it would not be unreasonable to say that the power of individual stories of persons with disabilities--and the struggles they have endured--undergirds the advocacy that continues to serve the field of special education so well in achieving the current level of rights those with disabilities enjoy. Story by story, or as Noddings and Witherell (1991) write, "working case by case, we can build impressive arguments that something is wrong, or that something works, or that something comes in infinite varieties" (p. 280), and in so doing, move people to action. Stories readily connect us to individuals whose life situations represent ethical or moral or political struggles about which we are enjoined to take a stand. Told well, according to Barone (1990), good stories "are located in that imaginary space where a seriously deficient here-and-now meets a desirable, but possible, future" (p. 311). In fact, it is often the stories that stay with us as the kernel of our commitments to action.

In the world of educational research, it is typically through qualitative methodology that such stories are told. These stories are anchored in real, local meaning and experience and, over the last several decades, have earned an increasingly legitimate place in scholars' study of educational phenomena. With its advent, emphasis is placed on understanding the complexity of a given situation and enabling a fuller consideration of the phenomenon under study. The three fundamental data collection methods in qualitative research so well known to scholars who practice it--namely, (a) interview, (b) participant observation, and (c) document analysis--provide multiple data sources for the telling of what we may call disciplined stories. In contrast to spinning a yarn or relating a personal situation, disciplined stories are products of systematic planning and careful hours and months and years in the field; researchers who tell them well follow the tenets of good research in order to produce credible, trustworthy findings (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). The requirement for an extensive description of context, of people's perceptions of the phenomenon under consideration, of related events over time, of systematic methods for the coding, analysis, and interpretation of data, should result in the classic "rich, thick description," as Geertz (1973) describes it, which is often the grist for profound insights about the individuals or situations at hand. The telling of disciplined stories, it seems, has found a permanent place in the practice of educational research.

As recently as 1992, however, when qualitative methodology had already gained considerable strength among educational researchers as a whole, Bogdan and Lutfiyya (1992) noted that special education professionals in general and researchers in particular were still not familiar with qualitative research and had not conducted studies based in this paradigm. In their analysis, they argued that resistance to qualitative research was covert rather than overt (Bogdan & Lutfiyya). Still later, in 1997, Brantlinger noted that "in contrast to the deep analysis, theory building, and varied epistemologies and designs included in many education journals and conferences, most special education publications and organizations seem philosophically and methodologically conservative" (p. 430). As a general trend, it is fair to say that relative to the larger world of educational research, where for some time now the qualitative paradigm has been accepted as a legitimate means of conducting empirical, scholarly inquiry, special education has come to accept and undertake the practice of qualitative research methodology only rather belatedly. …

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