Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

More Discipline(s) with Qualitative Methods

Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

More Discipline(s) with Qualitative Methods

Article excerpt


This paper shows how I use scholarship from many disciplines to teach qualitative methods in sociology. Incorporating work from other disciplines into the course helps students become better researchers and better sociology students. On the surface, the latter may seem counterintuitive, but ideas and practices from outside of sociology and its curriculum reinforce some ideas as effectively as ideas from within the discipline. Moreover, when students learn the value of other disciplines to sociology, they also learn what sociology offers in return.

The greatest challenge in teaching qualitative methods in sociology is deceptively complex: teachers must find an appropriate balance between teaching qualitative research methods and teaching sociology. Sociology's own pedagogical literature offers little help in managing the dilemmas of teaching qualitative methods in sociology. For example, the last set of syllabi and course materials was published nearly twenty years ago (Stoddart 1986). Moreover, as Clark and Lang find, "Teaching Sociology published only six articles in the 1990s that addressed teaching qualitative research methods" (2002:349). The largest measures of success include students being able to evaluate literature, collect relevant data, analyze it, and write it, even when these seem to be ideals as much as goals (Berg 2004; Miles and Huberman 1994; Snyder 1995; Warren and Kramer 2005). Reaching these goals becomes problematic when the focus of the course becomes too focused on either qualitative methods or sociology.

This challenge stems from debates that define qualitative research and sociology, respectively. Many scholars position qualitative research in holistic terms, defined by the commonalities of methodology rather than disciplinary boundaries (Cisneros-Puebla, Faus, and Mey 2004), while, conversely, disciplinary knowledge, regardless of methodological approach, is definitive to many sociologists. The consequent tensions can lead instructors to face either the obfuscation of unresolved epistemological concerns or the willful ignorance of the boundaries that academic debates have created. Either choice burdens undergraduate learning with a false dichotomy. In teaching qualitative sociological methods, my solution to the dilemma of facing two competing approaches is to confront them in a spirit of mutual enrichment, rather than mutual exclusion.

As a stand-alone paradigm, qualitative research unifies scholarship across diverse and divergent disciplines, including sociology, anthropology (Geertz 1973), psychology (Gergen 1994), business (Siegel, Shelton, and Omer 1994), advertising (Shields1997), information science (Dervin and Clark 1999) education (Kramp 2004), and health sciences (Eakin and Mykhalovskiy 2004). Disciplinary knowledge has become "conceptual lenses" (Adams 2004:29) from which analysts confront data, and is more catholic that exclusive. Even those who choose to ignore the postmodern challenge to disciplinary boundaries will find that methodological epistemology usurps disciplinary boundaries, particularly in the social sciences. Most notably, grounded theory approaches (Corbin And Strauss 1990; Glaser 1992; Glaser and Strauss 1967) place a premium on proper technique in developing theory, rather than specifically locating the knowledge within a disciplinary framework. These conditions can create difficulty when designing a qualitative research class that is distinctly sociological.

The somewhat antagonistic relationship of method and discipline is especially problematic in sociology, which has a unique shared history with qualitative methods. Beginning with Weber's work to define the discipline (Runciman 1978), debates about qualitative methods have been debates about growing sociology. Most notably, urban ethnography (Vidich and Lyman 2000), in-depth interviewing (Bentley and Hughes 1956), and, somewhat ironically, grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss 1967) are products of distinctly sociological inquiry. …

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