Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Qualitative Studies in Special Education

Academic journal article Exceptional Children

Qualitative Studies in Special Education

Article excerpt

Qualitative research in the social sciences has risen to prominence in recent years. Although there may be an impression that qualitative research is new to special education, its history can be traced back almost two centuries. Certainly, at present, the qualitative studies genre is broad, complex, and growing; hence, settling on one definition is difficult. A definition that we believe is flexible enough to be inclusive is that qualitative research is a systematic approach to under standing qualities, or the essential nature, of a phenomenon within a particular context. We begin with the assertion that qualitative designs do produce science-based evidence that can inform policy and practice in special education, and we further claim that, similar to the other research genres covered in this special issue of Exceptional Children, qualitative research involves

* Empiricism--knowledge derived from sense experience and/or careful observation.

* Knowledge production--about perspectives, settings, and techniques.

* Particular research skills and tools--systematic use of certain qualitative methods.

* Production of scientific evidence valid information about the physical, material, and social worlds.

* Coherent articulation of results--papers presenting qualitative studies establish the purpose and usefulness of findings as well as their implications for the field.

In this article, after clarifying the goals and nature of qualitative research, we support the previous claims by providing an overview of some prominent studies that have contributed to understanding people with disabilities and characteristics of services developed to meet their needs. Next, we delineate techniques that can be used to ensure that qualitative research is credible. We then present quality indicators that qualitative researchers need to address to make sure our work meets high scholarly standards. Finally, we include an overview of the ways three recent qualitative studies do provide evidence that can be used to inform policy and practice.


Qualitative research can be done for a multitude of purposes, however, these might be condensed to fit under the National Research Council's categories of producing descriptive or procedural knowledge; that is, answering questions about "what is happening?" and "why or how it is happening?" (Shavelson & Towne, 2002, p. 99). Descriptive information from qualitative studies leads to an understanding of individuals with disabilities, their families, and those who work with them. Qualitative studies explore attitudes, opinions, and beliefs of a number of parties involved in special education as well as the general public, and examine personal reactions to special education contexts and teaching strategies. Descriptions about settings conducive to productive learning outcomes or life circumstances also are of value. Qualitative designs can trace and document certain teaching and learning effects. They can explore the nature and extent to which a practice has a constructive impact on individuals with disabilities, their families, or on settings where they tend to work, reside, or be educated.


Qualitative research is an umbrella category that encompasses various kinds of studies. The terms used by qualitative researchers often depend on our fields or which "how to" books guide our studies. Confusion about qualitative work is partly due to the fact that qualitative approaches developed somewhat simultaneously in separate fields (e.g., symbolic interaction in psychology, phenomenology in philosophy, discourse analysis and interpretive work in cultural studies, conversation analysis in sociology and sociolinguistics, ethnography in anthropology, naturalistic inquiry in education, life story and oral history in history and folklore). As the boundaries between disciplines blur, we have come to realize that distinctive terms have similar meanings. …

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