Is David Silverman Right? Are philosophical concepts moot points for qualitative researchers? I think not.

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Back in 2006, in his book Interpreting Qualitative Data, David Silverman argued that foundational philosophical concepts of qualitative research were unhelpful as they were unnecessary for the empirical task at hand. To quote, he says “I have lost count of the run of the mill qualitative research papers I have come across which find it necessary to define their work in terms of obscure philosophical positions such as phenomenology or hermeneutics. You will not find either of these terms in the glossary of this book for one simple reason. In my view, you do not need to understand these terms in order to carry out good qualitative research. Indeed, if you try to understand them, my guess is that you will not emerge from the library for many years” (2006, p. 7). While he might have a point, it is easy to go down a philosophical rabbit hole, let me tell you why you should steer clear of this advice.

From my perspective, there is no such thing (or should be no such thing) as purely empirical qualitative research – especially in the social sciences. A researcher does not create knowledge by merely recounting observation and experience, observations and experiences must also be interpreted, and this interpretation is critical to the production of meaning. Precisely the subjectivity of the social world and the nature of qualitative research being interpretive makes the philosophical concepts Silverman discredits as unnecessary, all the more necessary!

Because social reality is quite subjective, qualitative researchers are part and parcel of the research project, and cannot completely objectively separate themselves from their data. This is a hard truth qualitative researchers should recognize. However, of course social science researchers can (and should) make efforts to limit their subjectivity throughout the research project…and this is where self-reflection and theory grounded in phenomenology and hermeneutics comes in. Phenomenology sets the scene for thinking about qualitative research as an anti-positivist practice by emphazising it’s interpretive nature and the many influences on the construction of meaning, while hermeneutics provides the theory and method for interpreting the social world.

Because I view the social world as quite subjective, and social science research as largely an interpretive practice, my research is quite unstructured and inductive in nature, and throughout my research I will be prioritizing processes of reflection. Knowing that I play a role in the construction of my interpretations means that descriptions of why I made interpretations, and in what context, forms a part of my data. This also allows me to self-check for biases. In the dissemination of my findings, I will be equally reflective. I find it entertaining that Silverman complains about research papers defining their work in philosophical positions. To me, such information is necessary for the interpretation of a piece. As a reader, I engage in a process of interpreting the interpreter of the research. As such, in order to understand the piece, and make fair and informed judgements, I need information on the epistemological and ontological position of the researcher.

As you may have gathered, Silverman and I disagree from epistemological and ontological positions (the slides below from the University of Amsterdam Qualitative Research Methods MOOC provide a good overview of the different types of positions out there). Silverman leans more towards natural science methods as appropriate for the creation of social knowledge, and upholds a researchers ability to objectively study the social world. I on the other hand, view social science research as an inherently interpretive practice, and perceive social reality to be continually evolving by, and amongst social actors. By saying he cares little about phenomenology and hermeneutics, Silverman is merely asserting and rejecting certain epistemological and ontological positions.

Without an understanding (or at least an awareness) of the hermeneutic-phenomenological tradition, social scientists are at risk of blindly subscribing to positivist leaning schools of thought. While to each their own, all researchers should be aware of the different approaches in their field of study. Not only for the sake of knowledge of topics of debate, but also so that they can carve out for themselves what type of research approach best suits their topic and interest. Alan Bryman’s popular textbook  “Social Research Methods” provides a comprehensive overview of the different approaches. I recommend all new social researchers grab a copy.

– Robyn Waite (Oct. 26, 2016)

Slides are from Week One of the University of Amsterdam Qualitative Research Methods MOOC . This is a really great and FREE online course – I highly recommend it.

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