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Focus On Basics

Volume 1, Issue A :: February 1997

Research with Words: Qualitative Inquiry

by Glynda Hull
In the last two decades, educational research has undergone a slow sea change as qualitative studies have gradually come into their own. Once rare, once reviled as unscientific or merely journalistic or too personal, or biased or just "soft," such educational research now abounds in books, journals, and conferences, garnering at last considerable interest, respect, and even funding. The great strength of qualitative research is its "naturalism," its intimacy with real people in real situations, its concern for understanding human beings as they act in the course of their daily lives.

Qualitative researchers want to enter the worlds of the people they study, get to know them, and ultimately represent and interpret these worlds. It follows that qualitative writing tends to be rich with quotation, description, and narration, as researchers attempt to capture conversations, experiences, perspectives, voices, and meanings. This is research, it could be said, with words instead of numbers.

Although such research is wonderfully various, hailing from disparate disciplines and methodological traditions, qualitative researchers and the projects they undertake have some things in common. Qualitative researchers typically examine a small number of sites, situations, or people, and they usually do so over an extended period of time -- weeks, months, or years. They gather their data by using themselves as instruments -- observing, participating, interviewing. Although they formulate research questions to guide their inquiry, they expect their questions to change or sharpen as the study progresses. Qualitative researchers are interested in understanding the world from participants' frames of reference. Indeed, they want to take context fully into account, and to consider as well their own biases in their research. They assume reality to be multiple and shifting, and they see all inquiry as value laden and ideological.


Here is a voice from a qualitative study carried out in a village in Bangladesh. This is Ruma, for whom learning to sign her name had exceptional personal and pragmatic significance: "It took me almost a month to learn to write my name," she told the researcher, also a woman and a native of Bangladesh. "Everyday I would practice and learn a little. Sometimes my husband would show me. I couldn't do it at first. He even slapped me one time because I couldn't do it. After that I was determined that I wouldn't be hit again just because I couldn't sign my name. I must learn and I have."

Ruma, like other impoverished women in her village, had been extended credit with no collateral required by the Grameen Bank. The women used their loans to improve their families' economic lots -- to purchase a milk cow, for example, or to open a small shop. These modest economic opportunities had important educational and personal byproducts, the researcher learned, as she spent almost a year in the field -- observing bank meetings and training sessions, interacting with the women in their homes, and taking part in the community's religious festivals and wedding celebrations. Although the Grameen Bank did not offer literacy classes per se or claim universal literacy as one of its objectives, the researcher discovered that being a member of the bank entailed literacy-related activities. In fact, after being initiated into bank-related activities, even those women who, like Ruma, were classified as illiterate, began to engage in different kinds of literacy practices and to display a certain facility with print. Participation in the loan program changed individual lives, the researcher discovered, providing women with a source of income and transforming their ways of thinking about themselves and their relationships with others, even as the patriarchal power structures of the society itself remained intact. In this male-dominated culture, women's activities were limited, yet the researcher demonstrated how women who participated in banking activities nonetheless gained more of a voice and sense of value. Remember Ruma.1

This project on the Grameen Bank is an example of qualitative research in the tradition of ethnography; it relies substantially on the data collection method called "participant observation," and it takes as its broad goal the portraiture of the culture of a social group. I find this kind of research especially compelling because it struggles hard to be comprehensive, to provide a detailed and sufficiently complex accounting of individuals, activities, and relationships -- to weave a tapestry, so to speak. But there are other forms of qualitative research besides full-scale ethnographies that can shed helpful light on adult learning. Perhaps most common is the case study, a detailed examination of a particular event or a single person or one setting.

One type of case study is historical and traces an organization's development over time. Debby D'Amico and Emily Schnee recently constructed such a case study about a federally-funded workplace literacy demonstration project in New York City. They focused on the way the project evolved over four years, paying special attention to the relationships among instruction, employment, English language fluency, and immigration status.2

Other case studies focus on what can be learned from observations of and participation in organizations; the researcher's focus might be on a particular place in an organization like a school or on particular people or particular activities. A number of years ago, Hannah (Arlene) Fingeret evaluated North Carolina's Adult Basic Education Program by constructing this kind of case study interviewing stakeholders and observing at program sites (Final Report of the North Carolina Statewide ABE Evaluation Project, 1985). Judy Kalman's research at the Plaza de Santo Domingo in Mexico City provides another example of an observational case study. Kalman was interested in studying reading and writing for everyday purposes and therefore chose to observe the public scribes who set up their small desks and ancient typewriters at the Plaza and are hired by clients to read and write a large variety of documents.3 A third example is the comparative case study of two workplaces in the Silicon Valley of northern California that I recently carried out. Using a variety of ethnographic methods, my colleagues and I hoped to identify the literacy related practices of changing workplaces and to document how a largely immigrant workforce coped with and experienced them.4


Most generally speaking, the purpose of qualitative research is to understand human experience to reveal both the processes by which people construct meaning about their worlds and to report what those meanings are. But what particular kinds of information can qualitative studies offer literacy specialists and adult educators?

Such research can reveal how people experience educational activities like literacy classes or work related education programs -- what they value, what they reject, what they learn, how they change. Thereby the studies can tell us something about how and why such programs succeed and fail. This kind of research can also document and characterize the diversity and complexity of literacy activities as they occur in school, work, and daily life, as well as the incentives and disincentives that people perceive for developing and exercising literacy abilities. Thereby we can more fully appreciate the nature of the literacy practices we are attempting to teach. And such studies can introduce us to situations from the points of view of varied participants, bringing to the fore individual perspectives, histories, and proclivities, as well as structures of power that influence what people learn and are able to do. Thereby we can place literacy learning properly in broader historical, sociocultural, and political milieus, learning how learning is influenced by forces outside the classroom.

One practical application of qualitative research in adult education is in the evaluation of programs and the assessment of learner progress. While standardized tests like the TABE can be a quick and cost-effective source of quantitative data related to reading achievement, qualitative research can provide information about actual events in classrooms and communities, data which allow alternate, more comprehensive, arguably more accurate accounts of and explanations for student performance. Qualitative and quantitative research are indeed based on different assumptions, and of late there has been a growing disenchantment with the exclusive reliance on quantitative methods in educational research, particularly in testing. This is not to say, however, that qualitative and quantitative methods are pure oil and water, never mixing. Some researchers design studies which employ both but for different purposes. It is possible, for example, to use ethnographic methods to understand why two variables are statistically related in a correlational study -- say, socio-economic status and reading ability; sometimes a large scale survey provides the backdrop for a case study; and open-ended interviews are a typical part of the design process for formal questionnaires.

It's also important to note what qualitative research isn't good for and won't do. Qualitative data are obviously not amenable to quantification and thus won't satisfy those who want findings based on numerical data and reports of statistical significance. Nor are findings from qualitative research generalizable from one setting to another without comparable research elsewhere. There are also weighty practical disadvantages to qualitative inquiry. It is extremely labor intensive in terms of data collection, and the analysis of a wealth of qualitative data can be a daunting and poorly lit endeavor, since there is much disagreement over analytic methods.


All research is supposed to protect the people who are studied -- to inform them of its risks, to shield their identities, to uphold any contracts or agreements about the nature and conduct of the study. This of course holds for qualitative research, too, but in some ways the stakes here are higher and the course more arduous. Particularly in the 60's, certain traditions of qualitative research took as their focus the experiences of oppressed peoples and as their purpose giving voice to the downtrodden or neglected. While such a perspective certainly doesn't characterize all contemporary qualitative research on literacy and adult education, it is worth noting that adults who are learning to read or to improve their literacy skills may be more vulnerable in some ways than comparable others. This vulnerability may result, not just from illiteracy, but from being poor or a recent immigrant or female or a frontline worker, and it requires of researchers that they take special care.

In quantitative studies, researchers typically have little contact with their subjects; the nature of the research might call simply for the administration of a questionnaire or the limited contact needed to direct participation in an experiment. But carrying out qualitative research often means getting to know people, gaining their trust, sometimes even forming long-term friendships. And for many qualitative researchers this process is filled with ethical land mines. To take a common dilemma, a researcher's reason for forming a relationship with a person in a study is to gain information and understanding, and that goal is always at the back of the researcher's mind. But participants in a qualitative study may develop very different goals of their own: to talk to someone who has such an unparalleled interest in listening, to gain an advocate or an assistant, to grow in status by association with the project. Different views about the nature of the study and the nature of the relationship between researcher and participant may result in feelings of duplicity and betrayal.

However, one of the strengths of qualitative research today, and one of its greatest challenges, is the attempt to rethink the relationships that researchers build with the participants in their studies. Recent feminist researchers, in particular, have emphasized the need for non-exploitive relationships and for cooperation and collaboration. Similarly, "action" research invites those once considered "subjects" to become partners in the inquiry process, actors who contribute to setting goals, carrying out the study, and interpreting and representing its findings. Indeed, the whole question of representation is up for grabs, as qualitative researchers from a variety of traditions attempt to question the once taken for granted process of writing about others. Here is a stark illustration of such dilemmas. In an essay about her oral history research with Brazilian women, Daphne Patai describes the afternoon she spent in the home of a very poor woman in Recife, who insisted that the researcher who had come to interview her eat what was apparently the last remaining food in her house, a piece of cake. Patai asks in the title of her essay, "Who should eat the last piece of cake?" and uses this encounter to rethink the obligations of researchers and their relationships with and responsibilities toward the people who figure in their qualitative research.5

Judging the Stories

What should readers look for in good qualitative research?


Many adult educators have had students who are reminiscent of Ruma, who have struggled to beat the odds and who can say with pride, "I must learn and I have." Surely the joy of teaching adults comes from moments like this, when despite the terrible complexities and challenges of adulthood, there is transcendence. What I most admire about excellent qualitative research on adult learning is its enormous potential to capture, represent, and explain such moments, and its equal potential to bring home to us what is still awry. In this way qualitative research can inspire us to action -- to teach better, to imagine more helpful research, to do what we can to make our institutions more responsive. As of yet, qualitative research on adult learning is relatively rare, despite the fact that qualitative inquiry in general is on the rise. My best hope for this article, then, is that it will encourage adult educators to call for, participate in, learn from, and carry out qualitative inquiry or research with words.


1 Sharmin Khan, Banking on Women: Learning, Literacy, and Human Development in the Grameen Bank, Bangladesh. Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation. (University of California, Berkeley, 1994).
2 Debby D'Amico and Emily Schnee, "'It Changed Something Inside of Me'" in Glynda Hull, Changing Work, Changing Workers, (SUNY Press, forthcoming).
3 Judy Kalman, The Literacy Link: A Study of Scribes and Clients in Mexico, (Hampton Press, forthcoming).
4 Glynda Hull, Mark Jury, Oren Ziv, and Mira Katz, Changing Work, Changing Literacy? A Study of Skill Requirements and Development in a Traditional and Restructured Workplace. (Berkeley, CA: National Center for Research in Vocational Education, 1996).
5 Daphne Patai, "Who Should Eat the Last Piece of Cake?" The International Journal of Oral History, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1987, pp. 527.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL