Doing Research about Education

By Geoffrey Walford | Go to book overview

10

The Profession of a 'Methodological Purist'?

Martyn Hammersley

During the past ten years I have been engaged in a methodological investigation of the standards by which social and educational research ought to be assessed. In this chapter I will sketch the origins of this work, the course it has taken, and the reaction to it of some fellow researchers. In particular, I will address the criticism that the approach I have adopted amounts to 'methodological purism'.


Clarifying Standards and the Process of Assessment

My current preoccupation with methodology probably stems, in large part, from involvement in an Open University course in that area during the late 1970s (Open University, 1979). As the only qualitative researcher on the central course team, I found myself having to defend my approach in discussions with sceptical colleagues. Working on this course forced me to think much more carefully than I had done before about methodological issues. And one of the effects was that I came to realize that the assumptions on which I had previously relied were not as compelling as I had once thought. In particular, I concluded that the criticisms directed at quantitative research by qualitative researchers often apply just as powerfully to their own work; and that some of these, if taken to their logical conclusions, undermine all research. Equally important, I recognized that many of the criticisms directed at qualitative research had considerable force, and that the usual defences against them were problematic. 1

One focus of these methodological reflections concerned the capacity of qualitative research to produce theory. Emphasis on theory as a goal has been very common, often being used by qualitative researchers as a defence against criticism that their findings are not generalizable. However, looking carefully at a range of qualitative work led me to conclude that there was little sign of systematic pursuit of theory. While analytic induction and grounded theorizing were frequently appealed to in the literature as ethnographic strategies for theory development and testing, there were very few examples of their explicit and thoroughgoing application. 2

At this point an opportunity arose to explore what was involved in developing and testing theory through qualitative research, in the form of a research

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