Moving beyond a Deficit Perspective with Qualitative Research Methods

By Anzul, Margaret; Evans, Judith F. et al. | Exceptional Children, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Moving beyond a Deficit Perspective with Qualitative Research Methods


Anzul, Margaret, Evans, Judith F., King, Rita, Tellier-Robinson, Dora, Exceptional Children


The past decade has seen far-reaching changes throughout the educational research community. Among these changes has been the increasing acceptance of new research paradigms, methods, and genres for the presentation of data. To spotlight only one example, within the past few years, articles have appeared in Educational Researcher that survey the controversies undergirding research paradigms over basic assumptions about how knowledge is produced (Popkewitz, 1997); that discuss the promise and perils of alternative forms of data representation (Eisner, 1997); and that ask the very basic question, "Why do educational research?" (Peterson, 1998). Many of the current questions and controversies in educational research revolve around discussions of theoretical positions that support either the quantitative or the qualitative research paradigms. Others debate the research methods and the kinds of implications for educational practices that derive from each paradigm. Examples of such discussions as they pertain to special education in particular may be found in the sections on "research practices" and "theoretical/philosophical orientations" in Stainback and Stainback's (1992) work.

In general, the domination of the experimental paradigm in educational research has resulted in a preponderance of studies done in controlled settings that usually bear little resemblance to the complexities and continually changing nature of "real life." Such research leads to a focus on isolated variables, usually highly discrete skills or behaviors, and the extent to which students do or do not exhibit them. Educational models are guided by research that focuses on deficits of students who, in an artificial setting, fail to meet predetermined standards for an isolated skill or characteristic. This deficit perspective has historically been prominent in special education programs (Trent, Artiles, & Englert, 1998). Individual Educational Programs (IEPs) are structured for students around lists of disabilities and ways in which each might be remediated. In the words of McDonald (1992), "the IEP ... tends to overspecify goals and objectives and is consequently reductive" (p. 125). All too often the talents and strengths of special education students are undetected or overlooked, and throughout the course of their educational careers, special education students are viewed more in terms of their specific weakness rather than their total personalities, talents, interests, or the ways in which they function in other settings.

Qualitative research characteristically yields multifaceted findings, and these are often beyond the original focus of a study. Participants may reveal unexpected abilities, strengths, and coping strategies when their performances are viewed in natural settings and authentic situations. In addition, they may reveal unanticipated points of view when they are encouraged to talk about their experiences in unstructured and open-ended conversations (Evans, 1998). Although the experimental paradigm has been predominant in educational research, qualitative research methods have gained increasing acceptance, particularly over the past 10 years. When Peterson (1998) challenged her colleagues about reasons for educational research in her work titled "Why do educational research? ... What good are we doing?" she presented narratives from her own experience and those of other researchers that led her to conclude that "we must sometimes reinvent our identities and our methods, our texts and contexts" (p. 4). Although Peterson has done quantitative research in the positivistic empirical mode, she expressed her growing appreciation for approaches to research that do not "emphasize failure and deficit but rather highlight successful practices" (p. 7). Contemporary trends in special education are reviewed by Trent et al. (1998) and in the end they advocate the use of qualitative methods of data collection and analysis to provide research that supports educators as they move from a preoccupation with deficits to programs that take into account student strengths. …

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