In Theoretical Frameworks in Qualitative Research , the authors provide extensive and practical coverage of theory and its role in qualitative research, a review of the literature that currently exists on theoretical frameworks, a clear and concise definition of what a theoretical framework is and how one goes about finding one, and real-world examples of theoretical frameworks effectively employed by some of the world's leading qualitative researchers. The book will be invaluable to students and researchers who want to find detailed examples of their design options and who are still working through the various frameworks they could employ.
In Theoretical Frameworks in Qualitative Research , the authors provide extensive and practical coverage of theory and its role in qualitative research, a review of the literature that currently exists on theoretical frameworks, a clear and concise definition of what a theoretical framework is and how one goes about finding one, and real-world examples of theoretical frameworks effectively employed by some of the world's leading qualitative researchers. The book will be invaluable to students and researchers who want to find detailed examples of their design options and who are still working through the various frameworks they could employ.
To the ongoing forum about the role of theory in qualitative research
List of Figures and Tables
Table I.1 Chapters in Theoretical Frameworks in Qualitative Research xxix Figure I.1 The building blocks of theory xv Figure I.2 Hierarchy of needs as used in Maslow's theory of motivation xvi Figure 3.1 The stage model of the policy process 56 Figure 8.1 The grid dimension of school culture 132 Figure 8.2 The group dimension of school culture 133 Figure 8.3 Types of social environments and their social games 135 Figure 9.1 Setting of the field for the writing of the first version of Social Studies in the New Zealand Curriculum (SSiNZC, 1994) 158 Figure 9.2 Setting of the field for the writing of the second version of Social Studies in the New Zealand Curriculum (SSiNZC, 1996) 160 Figure 9.3 Setting of the field for the writing of the final version of Social Studies in the New Zealand Curriculum (SSiNZC, 1997) 161 Figure 9.4 A generic diagram of a social field 164 Figure 9.5 Educational policy in New Zealand as a social field 167
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The idea for this book developed from our experiences as teachers of qualitative methods. Graduate students seemed to lack an understanding of the role of theory in qualitative research, specifically the use of a theoretical framework. Our students’ confusion was a reflection of the fact that discussions about qualitative research are not generally clear and precise about the use of theory in its development and conduct.
When we discussed theory and, in particular, theoretical frameworks, in our classes, students seemed puzzled and would ask a litany of questions: What is a theoretical framework? How do you find it? Where do you use it? What effect does it have on your research? Typical queries would include concerns like
- “How do I find something that fits what I'm doing?”
- “What happens if I can't find one?”
- “Does this mean I need to do another review of the literature?”
As students attempted to explore the literature on this topic to answer their questions, they reported finding competing conceptualizations of the relationship between theory and qualitative research in the literature as well as divergent definitions of what a theoretical framework is and how it is used. Unfortunately, our students were left with more questions than answers.
In January 2004, we shared our common experiences related to teaching qualitative methods. We both acknowledged that we had searched for a book that would clearly explicate these issues. This led us to begin a discussion about writing a book that would directly address the role of theory in qualitative research. We intensified our discussions as we carefully reviewed the literature and by February 2004, a proposal for the book was on its way to Sage. It seemed to be the likely publisher for such a book, because almost every book we had used in our qualitative research courses had been published by Sage.[Page x]
We were excited to receive a quick, positive response from Lisa Cuevas Shaw, Acquisitions Editor at Sage. We met with her in April during the American Educational Research Association (AERA) meeting in San Diego. During that breakfast meeting, she expressed great interest in the book and asked a series of important questions about the book proposal. It was obvious to us that she had done her homework. We left AERA and San Diego with the promise that Lisa would discuss this project with her editorial team and that we would consider the reviews she intended to solicit. These reviews proved to be helpful in revising the original book proposal.
Once Sage offered us a book contract, a “call for manuscripts” was widely issued. More than 90 submissions were received. As we carefully read through these submissions, we found that many of these proposals did not “fit” our definition of a theoretical framework (e.g., the purported theoretical framework was methodological or paradigmatic in nature) or did not provide evidence of any self-conscious understanding of the effect of the theoretical framework on the study conducted. After months of reading, e-mailing, and talking with potential contributors, we settled on the 10 proposals that are presented in this book.
The potential contributors were then asked to develop more complete drafts of their chapters, attending to questions we had posed to them. While in Montreal for the 2005 AERA meeting, we had our first opportunity to meet face-to-face with the authors and discuss the initial drafts of the chapters. We also presented comprehensive feedback to the selected contributors on their chapters. Not surprisingly, the authors did a fantastic job in discussing their research and the theoretical framework they used. But most of them had not revealed enough of the “behind-the-scenes” processes of working with a theoretical framework, of how the framework had affected specific aspects of their study. We wanted more of the researchers’ thoughts and actions exposed so that future qualitative researchers could get inside the heads of these researchers. The contributing authors then had 4 additional months to revise and resubmit their manuscripts. It is our hope that these normally tacit decisions and actions will provide both guides for the reader to follow and mental stimulation for imagining the pervasive effects of a theoretical framework on qualitative research.
We would be remiss if we did not thank Lisa Cuevas Shaw, Acquisitions Editor; Karen Wong, Editorial Assistant; Taryn Bigelow, Copy Editor; and Sanford Robinson, Project Editor, all at Sage, who guided us through this process and made a very difficult task seem relatively simple. Finally, we want to thank each of the contributing authors for allowing readers to see many of the aspects of the research process that are often hidden. It is our hope that [Page xi]this book will contribute in some special way to the ongoing dialogue about theory in qualitative research, and with and among those who teach it. This discussion about the role and place of theoretical frameworks in qualitative research is one that needs to take place.
Vincent A. Anfara, Jr.
Norma T. Mertz
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Students as well as experienced researchers who employ qualitative methods frequently have trouble identifying and using theoretical frameworks in their research. This trouble is typically centered on finding a theoretical framework and understanding its pervasive effects on the process of conducting qualitative research.
Currently, no comprehensive discussion of theoretical frameworks exists to assist those engaged in qualitative research. Therefore, our overarching goal is to provide a book that effectively explains, through discussion and example, what a theoretical framework is, how it is used in qualitative research, and the effects it has on the research process. In short, this is a guidebook into the mysteries of theoretical frameworks in qualitative research.
To begin our journey, we look at what theory is and review the literature that currently exists on the use of theory in qualitative research. Ongoing confusion about the use of theory and theoretical frameworks in qualitative research makes it all the more important to openly address this issue, look closely at what researchers do, and subject their use of theory to review by others. We, then, provide readers with the definition of theoretical frameworks that is used throughout this book and exemplified in Chapters 1 through 10. The contributors of these chapters focus on published research studies and address where and in what ways the theoretical framework affected their studies. We conclude this introduction with a discussion of the organization of the book and guidelines for readers to maximize its use.[Page xiv]What Is Theory?
Although Flinders and Mills (1993) argued that “precise definitions [of theory] are hard to come by” (p. xii), theory has been defined in a variety of ways by philosophers of science and scholars in the academic disciplines. Examples include Kerlinger (1986), who defined theory as “a set of interrelated constructs, definitions, and propositions that presents a systematic view of phenomena by specifying relations among variables, with the purpose of explaining and predicting phenomenon” (p. 9). In similar fashion, Argyris and Schon (1974) defined theory as “a set of interconnected propositions that have the same referent—the subject of the theory” (pp. 4-5), and LeCompte and Preissle (1993) stated that “theorizing is simply the cognitive process of discovering or manipulating abstract categories and the relationships among these categories” (p. 239). In a somewhat different vein, Strauss (1995) noted that theory provides a model or map of why the world is the way it is. He further explained that whereas theory is a simplification of the world, it nonetheless is aimed at clarifying and explaining some aspect of how the world works.
Discussing this myriad of definitions, Silver (1983) purported that formal definitions of theory rob it of its true beauty, its emotional significance, and its importance to everyday life. She defined theory as a unique way of perceiving reality, an expression of someone's profound insight into some aspect of nature, and a fresh and different perception of an aspect of the world.
Although we favor Silver's (1983) conceptualization of theory, it is evident from what she says that understanding theory and its relationship to the research process requires effort. To understand a theory is to travel into someone else's mind and become able to perceive reality as that person does. To understand a theory is to experience a shift in one's mental structure and discover a different way of thinking. To understand a theory is to feel some wonder that one never saw before what now seems to have been obvious all along. To understand theory, one needs to stretch one's mind to reach the theorist's meaning.The Building Blocks of Theory
In many discussions of theory (e.g., Babbie, 1986; Silver, 1983; J. Turner, 1974), important points are made about its components parts—the relationship of concepts, constructs, and propositions to theory. As one moves from concepts to the level of theory, there is also a movement from concrete experiences to a level of abstract description.[Page xv]Figure I.1 The building blocks of theory.
Working from the most concrete level of sensations and experiences, concepts are words that we assign to events. Concepts enable us to distinguish one event or sensation from another. Concepts also allow us to relate events in the past to ones in the present or future. Often these concepts will cluster and form a higher-order unit of thought known as a construct. Silver (1983) provides the example of IQ as a construct. This construct incorporates the concepts of age (the amount of time one has lived) and intelligence (the amount of knowledge one has).
Moving to the next level of abstraction we encounter propositions. Propositions are expressions of relationships among several constructs. Because propositions are new inventions, they must be carefully defined and explained to others. Because one proposition is usually insufficient to explain a new insight about an aspect of reality, researchers use a set of propositions that are logically related. It is this relationship of propositions that constitutes a theory. When we develop theory, we have completed a highly abstract thought process with ideas being removed in successive stages from the world of immediate experience and sensation. Even though abstract, theories are profoundly helpful for understanding the experienced world. To help understand the relationship between and among the building blocks of theory and to assist in comprehending the movement from concrete experience to abstract explanation, we offer Figure 1.1.Some Examples
Within the social sciences, one can find a multitude of efforts to describe, explain, or predict phenomena. The nature of theory (what it is and its component parts) might be clarified by reference to two particular theories that are familiar to most readers. Let us then briefly turn to the work of Abraham Maslow and Leon Festinger.[Page xvi]Figure I.2 Hierarchy of needs as used in Maslow's theory of motivation.
One of the most powerful ways of understanding human motivation was developed by Abraham Maslow (1954). According to Maslow, human beings have a variety of needs (concepts), some more fundamental than others. Maslow grouped these needs into five basic categories (constructs), arranged hierarchically from “lower” to “higher” (propositions). Lower needs dominate behavior when they are not satisfied. Higher needs become salient only after the lower needs have been satisfied. From these concepts, constructs, and propositions, Maslow concluded that behavior is an expression of one's drive to reduce deficiencies by gratifying the most salient type of needs (theory). This hierarchy is shown in Figure I.2.
As a second example, let us look at Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance. Published by Leon Festinger in 1957, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance has been one of the most influential and widely debated theories in social psychology. Festinger's theory begins with the beliefs one has about “the environment, about oneself, or about one's behavior” (1957, p. 3). These beliefs (concepts) are called cognitions, and the theory deals specifically with pairs of cognitions (constructs). Pairs of cognitions may relate to each other in relevant or irrelevant ways (propositions). Irrelevant pairs of cognitions “may simply have nothing to do with one another” (p. 11). Relevant pairs of cognitions may be either consonant or dissonant. Consonant cognitions occur [Page xvii]when elements of knowledge follow from one another. Dissonant cognitions occur when the obverse of one element follows from the other. For example, if a person knows that he or she is surrounded by only friends but feels afraid or threatened, a dissonant relationship between these two cognitive elements exists. This “uncomfortable feeling” motivates the individual to lessen or eliminate the dissonance. In stating his theory, Festinger wrote, “The presence of dissonance gives rise to pressures to reduce or eliminate the dissonance. The strength of the pressure to reduce the dissonance is a function of the magnitude of the dissonance” (p. 18).What Constitutes Good and Useful Theory?
McMillan and Schumacher (2001) discussed certain criteria that must be present for a theory to be useful in the development of scientific knowledge. A theory (1) should provide a simple explanation of the observed relations relevant to a phenomenon, (2) should be consistent with both the observed relations and an already established body of knowledge, (3) is considered a tentative explanation and should provide means for verification and revision, and (4) should stimulate further research in areas that need investigation. Agnew and Pyke (1969) recommended that good theory be (1) simple, (2) testable, (3) novel, (4) supportive of other theories, (5) internally consistent, and (6) predictive. Eisner (1993), however, framed it most cogently:
Theory attempts to satisfy the human need for scientific rationality by providing explanations that will meet that need. The adequacy of such explanations is tested not only by their appeal, their cogency, and their aesthetic quality, but by the extent to which they can be used to help us anticipate, if not control, the future. (p. vii)
A useful theory is one that tells an enlightening story about some phenomenon. It is a story that gives you new insights and broadens your understanding of the phenomenon.Theories in the Social and Natural Sciences
According to Langenbach, Vaughn, and Aagaard (1994), the social sciences have more theories than do the natural sciences, especially theories that compete with each other (e.g., McGregor's  Theory X and Theory Y). Agreeing with this notion, Alexander (1987) noted that the social sciences in contrast to the natural sciences will always be characterized by multiple theoretical orientations and will never achieve the degree of consensus about empirical referents or explanatory schemes characteristic of the natural [Page xviii]sciences. Indeed, because the natural sciences—physics and biology, for example—have few competing theories, disconfirming one and replacing it with another is a rather momentous event, an event Kuhn (1970) has termed a “paradigm shift.” In contrast, competing theories are common in the social sciences because the nature of the phenomena being studied allows for those phenomena to be viewed from multiple perspectives, or “lenses.” Each perspective could provide a reasoned and sensible explanation of the phenomenon being studied.
As an example, drawn from the discipline of psychology, consider the classical theories of play. Gilmore (1971) categorized them into the following areas: surplus energy theory, relaxation theory, recapitulation theory, and pre-exercise theory. Surplus energy theory posits that humans accumulate energy that must be released. Play uses the surplus energy the body does not need. According to relaxation theory, play allows people to build up energy that can be used later for the purposes of work. Recapitulation theory states that humans pass through stages that parallel phases in the development of the human race. Essentially, play helps to transcend the primitive stages of life. Finally, pre-exercise theory avers that play prepares children for their adult roles. During play, children rehearse the skills they will use as adults. Each of the theories may be a reasoned explanation of the phenomenon; none appear to disconfirm the others. All of them may coexist, providing different perspectives on play.
Theories in social science research exist at a variety of levels. The most common levels of theories in social science research include individual theories, organizational theories, group theories, and social theories (see Yin, 1994, pp. 29-30). Individual theories focus on the individual's development, cognitive behavior, personality, learning, and interpersonal interactions. Organizational theories focus on bureaucracies, institutions, organizational structures and functions, and effectiveness or excellence in organizational performance. Group theories deal with family issues, work teams, employer-employee relations, and interpersonal networks. Finally, social theories focus on group behavior, cultural institutions, urban development, and marketplace functions. These levels cut across social science disciplines and afford a myriad of theories at each level.
In social science research, theories are generally drawn from the various disciplines (e.g., political science, economics, anthropology, sociology, psychology). These disciplines provide a plethora of lenses for examining phenomena. Neophyte researchers often confine their consideration of theory to theories they have frequently encountered. In so doing, they may fail to uncover the wealth of theories in the various disciplines that might be efficacious. If properly used, these varied perspectives can tremendously enhance [Page xix]research. More than this, these “disciplines interact and mutually enrich each other” (Suppes, 1974, p. 56).
With a basic understanding of what theory is and some sense of the different ways in which theory is used in research in the natural and social sciences, let us now turn our attention to looking at what we know about the role of theory (specifically the use of theoretical frameworks) in qualitative research.A Review of the Literature on Theoretical Frameworks in Qualitative Research
Whereas there is little disagreement about the role and place of theory in quantitative research (Creswell, 1994, 2002), such is not the situation with respect to qualitative research. Indeed, there is neither consensus about its role in qualitative research, nor about what is being discussed. Much of what we credit as warranted knowledge about qualitative research comes through the relatively small, albeit growing numbers of textbooks in the field, materials widely used by teachers of research to prepare and mentor students and neophyte researchers. Examination of the most prominent of these materials for wisdom about the role of theory in qualitative research leaves the reader with one of three different understandings: first, that theory has little relationship to qualitative research (Best & Kahn, 2003; Gay & Airasian, 2003); second, that theory in qualitative research relates to the methodology the researcher chooses to use and the epistemologies underlying that methodology (Crotty, 1998; Denzin & Lincoln, 2003a, 2003b; Guba, 1990; Lincoln & Guba, 1985), and to a subset of this position, that it is related to some methodologies (Creswell, 1994, 1998, 2002; Gall, Borg, & Gall, 1996; Patton, 1990; Yin, 1993, 1994); and third, that theory in qualitative research is broader and more pervasive in its role than methodology (Bentz & Shapiro, 1998; Flinders & Mills, 1993; Garrison, 1988; Maxwell, 1996; Merriam, 1998; Miles & Huberman, 1994; Mills, 1993; Schram, 2003; Schwandt, 1993).
The categories of understandings are not exclusive, and authors may lean toward more than one position. For example, Broido and Manning (2002) situated the role of theory within methodological paradigms, yet they hinted at the notion that theory has a much wider role to play. Similarly, Merriam (2002) acknowledged the part methodology plays in the “theoretical stances” researchers take, while continuing to address what she perceived as the broader, deeper influence of theory on the research process. It is, however, these differences in emphasis about what theory refers to and is about that are a source of confusion for the student and neophyte researcher.[Page xx]Theory as Nearly Invisible
In a widely used textbook, Gay and Airasian (2003) do not discuss, nor even mention, theory in relation to qualitative research, although they noted that, “Some fundamental differences in how quantitative and qualitative research are conducted reflect their different perspectives on meaning and how one can approach it” (p. 9). Best and Kahn (2003) mentioned theory, but confined their discussion to defining it as “an attempt to develop a general explanation for some phenomenon … primarily concerned with explanation and therefore focus[ing] on determining cause-effect relationships” (p. 9), normally the province of quantitative research.
Several other authors give short shrift to discussions of theory in qualitative research, while acknowledging its relevance to a particular methodology. Gall, Borg, and Gall (1996) relegated the role of theory to its development or testing, identifying it as a type of research. Although most of their discussion of theory used examples drawn from quantitative research, they suggested it has some role in qualitative research. “Many qualitative studies are done to discover theory. The approach sometimes is called grounded theory because the researcher starts by collecting data then searches for theoretical constructs, themes, and patterns that are ‘grounded in the theory’” (p. 52).Theory as Related to Methodology
In sharp contrast to these works, where theory in relation to qualitative research is nonexistent or relatively modest, there is a substantive body of work that equates theory in qualitative research with the methodologies used in the conduct of the research and the epistemologies underlying these methods. These works are well-known, and largely written about qualitative research specifically, rather than about research in general. In earlier works by Lincoln and Guba (1985) and Guba (1990), they speak about paradigms as “what we think about the world” (Lincoln & Guba, 1985, p. 15), “basic belief systems … that have emerged as successors to conventional positivism” (Guba, 1990, p. 9), that is, postpositivism, critical theory, and constructivism. They speak about theories emerging from naturalistic inquiry, not framing it, and methods changing in the process of theory definition. Guba (1990), in particular, called on others to support the paradigm-methodology connection (Eisner, 1990; Schwandt, 1993), and concluded, “If inquiry is not value free, is not all inquiry ideological?” (Guba, 1990, p. 11) Interestingly enough in light of later works, Lincoln and Guba (1985) argued that “naturalistic inquiry is defined not at the level of methodology but at the level of paradigm. It is not crucial that naturalistic inquiry be carried out using qualitative [Page xxi]methods exclusively, or at all” (p. 250), clearly relating to methodology in relatively simple terms, quantitative and/or qualitative methods.
In later works, Denzin and Lincoln (2003a, 2003b) equated paradigms with theory and argued that these paradigms contain the researchers’ “epistemological, ontological and methodological premises” that guide the researchers’ actions (2003b, p. 33). These paradigms are identified as: positivism and postpositivism; interpretivism, constructivism, and hermeneutics; feminism(s); racialized discourses; critical theory and Marxist models; cultural studies models; and queer theory (Denzin & Lincoln, 2003a, p. 32). The way it works, according to Denzin and Lincoln (2003b), is that the researcher “approaches the world with a set of ideas, a framework (theory, ontology) that specifies a set of questions (epistemology) that he or she then examines in specific ways (methodology, analysis)” (p. 30). This is a clear linking of theory to methodologies; it also suggests, however, that the study is widely affected by the linkage. Interestingly enough, the authors advised that the qualitative researcher needs to become “bricoleur” (p. 6), taking on pieces of representations (paradigms, methods) to fit the situation. Clearly, paradigms and theories are something to be chosen by the researcher, and with those choices come guiding epistemologies.
In attempting to clarify the relationship among the elements identified by those relating methodological approaches and their genesis in and from philosophic orientations (called paradigms by Denzin and Lincoln, 2003b; theoretical traditions by Patton, 1990; theoretical stances by Merriam, 2002; and theoretical perspectives by Crotty, 1998), Crotty differentiated among epistemology, theoretical perspective, methodology, and method, although he held that they inform one another. For Crotty, theories of knowledge, or epistemologies (e.g., objectivism, constructionism, subjectivism), inform and are embedded in theoretical perspectives (e.g., postivism, interpretivism, critical inquiry, feminism, postmodernism). He claimed that “the philosophical stance inform[s] the methodology and thus provide[s] a context for the process and grounding its logic and criteria” (p. 3). Methodologies—which include a wide range of approaches, from experimental research and survey research, to ethnography, phenomenology, grounded theory, and heuristic inquiry, to action research, discourse analysis, and feminist standpoint research—constitute research designs that affect the choice of methods to be used, for example, observation, case study, statistical analysis, document analysis, and so on. In reality, Crotty framed the reader's understanding of the relationship the other way around, as he perceived that research is constructed from the methods “we propose to use,” to the methodology that “governs our choice and use of methods,” to the theoretical perspective that [Page xxii]“lies behind the methodology in question,” to the epistemology that “informs this theoretical perspective” (p. 2).
Yin (1994) argued that case study research, in contrast to other qualitative research designs like ethnography, requires identifying the theoretical perspective at the outset of the inquiry, since it affects the research questions, analysis, and interpretation of findings. In a sense, he argued, “the complete (case study) research design embodies a theory of what is being studied” (p. 28), drawn from the existing knowledge base. It is interesting to note that whereas Yin categorized case study as a research design on a par with ethnography and grounded theory, Crotty (1998) saw case study as a method to be used in realizing methodologies like ethnography and grounded theory.
Creswell (1994, 1998), too, posited the role of theory in qualitative research in relation to research designs (methodologies or theoretical perspectives in Crotty's categorization, 1998). In his earlier book, Creswell (1994) argued that the role of theory varies with the type of research design. In grounded theory, for example, theory is the outcome of the research. In phenomenology, “no preconceived notions, expectations or frameworks guide researchers” (p. 94). In “critical ethnographic” designs, that is, studies with “a critical theory component” (p. 94), one begins with a theory that “informs” the study, although Creswell did not specify what it informs in the study. Interestingly enough, in referring to ethnographic designs without a critical theory component (his designation), Creswell specified that theories might be drawn from “existing theories of culture” (p. 94), outside of methodological parameters, for example, social exchange theory. In referring to how these theories might inform the study, he indicated that they might “help shape the initial research questions” (p. 94). Having said this, however, Creswell argued that
In a qualitative study, one does not begin with a theory to test or verify. Instead, consistent with the inductive model of thinking, a theory may emerge during the data collection and analysis phase … or be used relatively late in the research process as a basis for comparison with other theories. (pp. 94-95)
Indeed, in depicting the research process for qualitative studies, the development of a theory or comparison with other theories comes after the gathering and analysis of data.
In a later book, devoted to distinguishing among five different “research traditions” in qualitative research—biography, phenomenology, grounded theory, ethnography, and case study—Creswell (1998) acknowledged that researchers bring paradigmatic assumptions (ontological, epistemological, axiological, rhetorical, and methodological) to the design of their studies, and [Page xxiii]may, in addition, bring ideological perspectives (postmodernism, critical theory, and feminism) that “might guide a study” (p. 78). Although he did not specify how the paradigmatic assumptions or ideological perspectives affect the various research designs (traditions), Creswell spoke to “another perspective” (p. 84), social science theories, which he referred to as a theoretical lens rather than as an ideological perspective, and how this lens affects each of the research traditions. He contended that with ethnography and phenomenology, the researcher brings “a strong orienting framework” (p. 86) to the research, whereas in grounded theory, “one collects and analyzes data before using theory” (p. 86). With biography and case study, a theoretical lens might or might not play a part, depending on the nature of the study and the disposition of the researcher.
Patton (1990) posited a set of “theoretical traditions” (a mixture of theoretical perspectives and methodologies in Crotty's  categorization): ethnography, phenomenology, heuristics, ethnomethodology, symbolic interactionism, ecological psychology, systems theory, chaos theory, hermeneutics, and orientational. Because these traditions derive from the social and behavioral science disciplines and the different questions central to these disciplines, Patton (1990) argued for the close link between theory and method, and perhaps more, in a clear, compelling way: “How you study the world determines what you learn about the world” (p. 67).Theory as More
As compelling as the work relating theory in qualitative research to methodologies and their underlying epistemologies is a body of work that, although not denying the influence of methodologies and their underlying epistemologies, suggests that the role of theory in qualitative research is more pervasive and influential than suggested by those who situate it methodologically. They contend that it plays a key role in framing and conducting almost every aspect of the study.
Merriam (1998) argued that “many believe mistakenly that theory has no place in a qualitative study. Actually, it would be difficult to imagine a study without a theoretical or conceptual framework” (p. 45). Referring to Becker (1993), Merriam emphasized that we would not know what to do in conducting our research without some theoretical framework to guide us, whether it is made explicit or not, and calls the theoretical framework “the structure, the scaffolding, the frame of your study” (p. 45). For Merriam, the theoretical framework is derived from the “concepts, terms, definitions, models and theories of a particular literature base and disciplinary orientation” (p. 46), and affects every aspect of the study, from determining how to [Page xxiv]frame the purpose and problem, to what to look at and for, to how we make sense of the data that are collected. She argued that the entire process is “theory-laden” (p. 48), and that every study has a theoretical framework.
Echoing Merriam (1998), Miles and Huberman (1994) spoke to what they considered to be the critical role theory plays in qualitative research. While admitting that “many social anthropologists and social phenomenologists consider social processes to be too complex, too relative, too elusive or too exotic to be approached with explicit conceptual frames,” they held that “any researcher, no matter how unstructured or inductive, comes to fieldwork with some orienting ideas” (p. 17). Without at least “some rudimentary conceptual framework” (p. 17), they argued, there would be no way to make reasoned decisions about what data to gather, about what; to determine what is important from among the welter of what is possible. The conceptual framework “can be rudimentary or elaborate, theory-driven or commonsensical, descriptive or causal” (p. 18), but it delineates the main things to be studied and the “presumed relationships among them” (p. 18). The conceptual framework is, according to Miles and Huberman, constructed from the theories and experiences the researcher brings to and draws upon in conceptualizing the study. These theories, implicit and explicit, include grand theories, like symbolic interactionism and “middle-range concepts such as culture” (p. 91), as well as “preconceptions, biases, values, frames, and rhetorical habits” (p. 91).
Maxwell (1996) saw the “conceptual context” as one of five components of the research design that connect and interact in a nonlinear, noncyclical fashion. The conceptual context contains the “goals, experiences, knowledge, assumptions, and theory you bring to the study and incorporate in the design” (p. 6). He argued that what the researcher “thinks is going on with the phenomena” (p. 4) is brought to the consideration and development of the study and influences not only the purposes of the study, but also “what literature, preliminary research and personal experience” (p. 4) the researcher draws on in conceptualizing the study.
In his book on Conceptualizing Qualitative Research (2003), Schram aligned the conceptual context of a study with theory, which he saw as extending “from formal explanatory axiom[s] …to tentative hunch[es] …to any general set of ideas that guide action” (p. 42). He contended that the researcher's perspective, fundamental beliefs, values, hunches, assumptions, and purposes for engaging in the study constitute “premises about the world and how it can be understood and studied” (p. 29), and play a “pervasive but subtle” role in directing the study. This role includes “how you engage with a preliminary sense of problem and purpose, how you portray your involvement with study participants, the way you define key concepts, how you address assumptions within your research questions” (p. 39), as well as [Page xxv]“deciding which of the things you see are legitimate and important to document” (p. 29).
Similarly, whereas Bentz and Shapiro (1998) acknowledged that there are “cultures of inquiry … general approaches to creating knowledge in the human and social sciences, each with its own model of what counts as knowledge, what it is for, and how it is produced” (p. 9), they contended, nevertheless, that
Research is always carried out by an individual with a life and a lifeworld … a personality, a social context, and various personal and practical challenges and conflicts, all of which affect the research, from the choice of a research question or topic, through the method used, to the reporting of the project's outcome. (p. 4)
Among the advocates of the position that the theoretical or conceptual framework in qualitative research is more than the methodologies and epistemologies underlying them, few are as vehement and articulate the position as cogently as Flinders and Mills (1993). In their book, Theory and Concepts in Qualitative Research, they addressed the issue directly. Flinders and Mills began by asserting that “Few of us now claim that we enter the field tabula rasa, unencumbered by notions of the phenomena we seek to understand” (p. xi). They argued that theory includes “any general set of ideas that guide action” (p. xii) and that theory profoundly affects the conduct of the research. “Theory is pragmatically bound up with the activities of planning a study, gaining entry into the field, recording observations, conducting interviews, sifting through documents, and writing up research” (p. xiv). Indeed, they affirmed a statement reputed to William James, “You can't pick up rocks in a field without a theory” (p. xii).
Arguing that atheoretical research is impossible, Schwandt, in Flinders and Mills (1993), contended that it is impossible to observe and describe “the way things really are, free of any prior conceptual scheme or theory … without some theory of what is relevant to observe, how what is to be observed is to be named, and so on” (p. 8). It is “prior theoretical commitments and conceptual schemes” (p. 9) that guide the inquiry, according to Schwandt.
Mills (1993) defined theory as an “analytical and interpretive framework that helps the researcher make sense of ‘what is going on in the social setting being studied’” (p. 103), and speaks about the implicit and explicit theories underlying the case that is the focus of his chapter—the beliefs, propositions, and theoretical conceptions that framed the study and its analysis, even though the theory was purported to be “emergent.” These theories, he argued, “provide the researcher with a framework for the problem and questions to be addressed in the study” (p. 114).[Page xxvi]Where Does That Leave Us?
Although this review of the literature on the role of theory in qualitative research is hardly exhaustive, it does provide a basis for considering where we are with respect to the role theory plays in qualitative research. Qualitative research has often been criticized for not being guided by theory in its development and conduct. Clearly, that is not the view shared by those who write about and guide neophyte researchers in doing qualitative research. Theory has a place, an unavoidable place for all but one or two of the authors we have reviewed, and plays a substantive role in the research process. For those writers for whom methodologies are primarily associated with the role of theory, the epistemologies underlying these methodologies as well as the methodologies themselves serve as lenses from and through which the researcher looks at the study. It is not just the choice of a methodology that affects the study. For those writers for whom theory affects studies in more ways than that, without speaking to the matter directly, they clearly imply that methodologies and their underlying epistemologies influence and guide the study theoretically. They do not stop there, however, but suggest that there is more that the researcher brings to the study, and it is all that the researcher brings, implicitly and explicitly, that affects all aspects of the study.
Whereas those who take either position perceive that one's theoretical framework profoundly affects the study, beyond casual mention of some of the aspects of a study affected by this framework by some authors, there is no clear delineation of what in a study is affected by the theoretical framework or how it is affected. Nor is there much discussion of the effect of implicit, unexamined perspectives, biases, and assumptions; of explicit theories that are brought to bear on one's study, for example, from the social sciences; or of the interaction of these and their effect on the study. For existing texts, consideration of theory and its effect on the study is but one aspect of a larger focus of the work. Thus, they provide neither the depth of understanding nor the specificity needed to explicate the topic. If one already understands, at some deep and intimate level, the role and place of a theoretical framework, then explanations are both understandable and confirmatory. One can put the disparate pieces together and fill in the blanks in the places they may not have mentioned. None of the texts, however, provide sufficient guidance to students, neophyte researchers, or those who may not already understand its role and place, to be able to “see” how theoretical frameworks affect research or to be able to fully and appropriately identify and apply a framework to their own research.
This, then, is the purpose of this book. But before we proceed with this guidance in the use of theoretical frameworks, it is necessary to provide a clear definition of what we mean by the term theoretical framework.[Page xxvii]A Definition of Theoretical Frameworks
We clearly situate our conception of the theoretical framework with those authors who see theory as “more than” (i.e., Flinders & Mills, 1993; Merriam, 1998; Miles & Huberman, 1994; Schram, 2003). Acknowledging that the term does not have a clear and consistent definition, we define theoretical frameworks as any empirical or quasi-empirical theory of social and/or psychological processes, at a variety of levels (e.g., grand, mid-range, and explanatory), that can be applied to the understanding of phenomena. This definition of theoretical frameworks excludes what Guba and Lincoln (1994) have called “paradigms” of social research (e.g., postpositivist, constructivist, critical, feminist). It also does not consider methodological issues or approaches to be synonymous with theoretical frameworks (e.g., narrative analysis, systems analysis, symbolic interactionism).
Examples of what we mean by theories that can be applied as “lenses” to study phenomena might include Vygotskian learning theory, micro-political theory, class reproduction theory, job choice theory, and social capital, as well as the theories employed by the researchers who have written Chapters 1 through 10 of this book. Theoretical frameworks they used include liminality (V. Turner, 1967, 1977), transformational learning theory (Merizow, 1991), the arena model of policy innovation (Mazzoni, 1991), and grief theory (Kubler-Ross, 1969), to name a few.
There are a large number and wide variety of theoretical frameworks available for qualitative researchers to consider. These frameworks originate in the many different fields of study and disciplines in the social and natural sciences. Thus, the well-read qualitative researcher is alert to theoretical frameworks in economics, sociology, political science, psychology, biology, physics, and anthropology, to name but a few. That same researcher is open to considering the applicability of these frameworks to the research problem chosen to study. It is, indeed, this diversity and richness of theoretical frameworks that allow us to see in new and different ways what seems to be ordinary and familiar.
As examples, Hoenack and Monk (1990) applied economic theory to a study of the costs and benefits of teacher evaluation systems in education. The economic aspects they addressed included production theory and efficiency, the economics of information, performance incentives, and the distributional effects of policy interventions. The use of this unusual theoretical framework in educational research allowed the authors to present a unique view of the phenomenon being studied. Pounder and Merrill (2001) used job choice theory (developed by Behling, Labovitz, & Gainer, 1968; and later adapted to an educational setting by Young, Rinehart, & Place, 1989) to examine potential [Page xxviii]candidates’ perceptions and job intentions with regard to the high school principalship.
In defining theoretical frameworks, we are cognizant that any framework or theory allows the researcher to “see” and understand certain aspects of the phenomenon being studied while concealing other aspects. No theory, or theoretical framework, provides a perfect explanation of what is being studied—a point we shall return to in the concluding chapter of this book.Organization of the Book
The chapters that follow (1 through 10) take you “behind the scenes” to examine the role of theoretical frameworks in qualitative research. They allow you to learn how these researchers found the theoretical framework they used in a particular study, and how it affected that study. The contributors take you on their journey in using the framework and in thinking about its applicability, providing sufficient detail to allow you to assess what they saw, against the published research study discussed and cited. These insights provide the reader with practical lessons drawn from real-world studies. These lessons concern not only the contributions of theory to qualitative research, but also the dilemmas and pitfalls that theory presents to researchers.
To allow the reader to compare and contrast responses across chapters, contributors were asked to address the following items (if relevant), in approximately this order:
- an overview of the study that formed the basis for the discussion of the theoretical framework used, including its purpose, research questions, methods employed, findings, and conclusions;
- a detailed description of the theoretical framework(s) used in the study and the discipline in which it/they originated;
- how the researcher found the theoretical framework and what convinced him or her that this was an appropriate framework to use;
- what effects the theoretical framework had on the research questions, the design of the study, and the analyses obtained;
- other conceptual frameworks considered and why they were used or discarded; and
- any additional issues the contributors wished to discuss in relation to the use of theory in their research.
The headings and subheadings in the chapters in this book correspond to the above items. As noted earlier, this structure was imposed to allow readers [Page xxix]to compare and contrast the responses of the various contributing chapter authors. Readers will note slight variations in the wording of some of the headings and subheadings, but the variations are slight and, more important, the content in each chapter addresses each of the six areas.
Table I.1 Chapters in Theoretical Frameworks in Qualitative Research Theoretical framework Field of study/discipline Focus of study Chapter number Culture(Goodenough) Cognitive anthropology Organizational change; culture of teachers Chapter 1 Transformational learning and adult development (Mezirow) Psychology HIV-positive young adults Chapter 2 Arena model of policy innovation (Mazzoni) Political science Passage of Ohio S.B. 140in 1989—comprehensive school reform Chapter 3 Liminality (Turner) Anthropology Experiences of university faculty with a college reorganization Chapter 4 Social identity theory and self-categorization theory (Hogg, Terry & White) Sociology/ organizational studies Experience of university faculty with a college reorganization Chapter 5 Chaos/complexity(Prigogine & Stengers) Physical and biological sciences Midlife transitions and resolution of midlife tasks for social workers Chapter 6 Grief model (Kubler-Ross) Psychology Educational reform/organizational change Chapter 7 Typology of grid and group (Douglas) Socialanthropology School culture Chapter 8 Habitus/field theory (Bourdieu) Sociology Curriculum development Chapter 9 Queer legal theory (Lugg) Law Historical analysis of schools Chapter 10
Table I.1 provides an overview of the theoretical frameworks used by the contributing authors, the fields from which they were taken, and the foci of the studies that employed them.[Page xxx]
The final chapter of the book is an analysis of Chapters 1 through 10. After carefully reading and reflecting on these chapters, we offer our readers a discussion of the salient points addressed by the authors. This discussion focuses on the relationship between theory and qualitative research, and offers readers a series of lessons learned as well as issues that need our attention.References(1969).The science game.Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall., &(1987).The centrality of the classics. In A. Giddens & J. Turner (Eds.), Social theory today (pp. 11–57).Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.(1974).Theory in practice: Increasing professional effectiveness.San Francisco: Jossey-Bass., &(1986).The practice of social research (4th ed.).Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.(1993).Theory: The necessary evil. In D. J. Flinders & G. E. Mills (Eds.), Theory and concepts in qualitative research: Perspectives from the field (pp. 218–230).New York: Teachers College Press.
Behling, O. Labovitz, G. Gainer, M. College recruiting: A theoretical base. Personnel Journal, 47 (1968). 13–19.(1998).Mindful inquiry in social research.Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage., &(2003).Research in education (9th ed.).Boston: Allyn & Bacon., & Broido, E. M. Manning, K. Philosophical foundations and current theoretical perspectives in qualitative research. Journal of College Student Development, 43 (4) (2002). 434–445.(1994).Research design.Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.(1998).Qualitative inquiry and research design.Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.(2002).Educational research.Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.(1998).The foundations of social research.London: Sage.Denzin, N. K., & Lincoln, Y. S. (Eds.). (2003a).Collecting and interpreting qualitative materials (2nd ed.).Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.(2003b).The landscape of qualitative research (2nd ed.).Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage., &(1990).The meaning of alternative paradigms for practice. In E. Guba (Ed.), The paradigm dialog (pp. 88–102).Newbury Park, CA: Sage.(1993).Foreword. In D. J. Flinders & G. E. Mills (Eds.), Theory and concepts in qualitative research: Perceptions from the field (pp. vii-ix).New York: Teachers College Press.[Page xxxi](1957).A theory of cognitive dissonance.Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson, & Company.Flinders, D. J., & Mills, G. E. (Eds.). (1993).Theory and concepts in qualitative research: Perceptions from the field.New York: Teachers College Press.(1996).Educational research. (6th ed.).New York: Longman., , & Garrison, J. The impossibility of atheoretical science. Journal of Educational Thought, 22 (1988). 21–26.(2003).Educational research (7th ed.).Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall., & Gilmore, J. The effectiveness of parental counseling with other modalities in the treatment of children with learning disabilities. Journal of Education, 154 (1971). 74–82.Guba, E. G. (Ed.). (1990).The paradigm dialog.Newbury Park, CA: Sage.(1994).Competing paradigms in qualitative research. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (pp. 105–117).Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage., &(1990).Economic aspects of teacher evaluation. In J. Millman & L. Darling-Hammond (Eds.), The new handbook of teacher evaluation (pp. 390—402).Newbury Park, CA: Sage., &(1986).Foundations of behavioral research (3rd ed.).New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.(1969).On death and dying.New York: Touchstone.(1970).The structure of scientific revolutions (2nd ed.).Chicago: University of Chicago Press.(1994).An introduction to educational research.Boston: Allyn & Bacon., , &(1993).Ethnography and qualitative design in educational research (2nd ed.).San Diego: Academic Press., &(1985).Naturalistic inquiry.Beverly Hills, CA: Sage., &(1954).Motivation and personality.New York: Harper & Row.(1996).Qualitative research design.Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Mazzoni, T. Analyzing state school policy making: An arena model. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 13 (1991). 115–138.(1960).The human side of enterprise.New York: McGraw-Hill.(2001).Research in education: A conceptual introduction (5th ed.).New York: Longman., &(1991).Transformative theory of adult learning.San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.(1998).Qualitative research and case study applications in education.San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Associates.(2002).Qualitative research in practice.San Francisco: Jossey-Bass., &(1994).Qualitative data analysis (2nd ed.).Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage., & [Page xxxii](1993).Levels of abstraction in a case study of educational change. In D. J. Flinders & G. E. Mills (Eds.), Theory and concepts in qualitative research: Perceptions from the field (pp. 103–116).New York: Teachers College Press.(1990).Qualitative evaluation and research methods (2nd ed.).Newbury Park, CA: Sage. Pounder, D. G. Merrill, R. J. Job desirability of the high school principal-ship: A job choice theory perspective. Educational Administration Quarterly, 37 (1) (2001). 27–57.(2003).Conceptualizing qualitative inquiry.Columbus, OH: Merrill Prentice Hall.(1993).Theory for the moral sciences. In D. J. Flinders & G. E. Mills (Eds.), Theory and concepts in qualitative research: Perceptions from the field (pp. 5–23).New York: Teachers College Press.(1983).Educational administration: Theoretical perspectives on practice and research.New York: Harper & Row.(1995).Qualitative analysis for social scientists.Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.(1974).The structure of scientific theories (2nd ed.).Urbana: University of Illinois Press.(1974).The structure of sociological theory.Homewood, IL: Dorsey.(1967).The forest of symbols.Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.(1977).Variations on a theme of liminality. In S. F. Moore & B. G. 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Conclusion: Coming Full Circle
Any serious consideration of research methods in social science runs squarely into basic issues of the relationship between theory and the research process. Whether one approaches the research process from a quantitative or qualitative perspective, theory has an important role to play. This book was designed to highlight that role, to step into the conceptual confusion and misunderstanding surrounding the nature and role of theory in qualitative research and to address, directly and by example, what a theoretical framework is, how it is used in qualitative research, and how it affects such research. The contributing authors provide accessible, understandable, self-conscious descriptions of the use of theoretical frameworks in a wide range of qualitative studies. In this way, they allow the reader to “see” con-textually how such frameworks are used, and to be able to then go to the published research on which the descriptions are based, to assess what has been said against what has been reported. It is clear from their descriptions, that theory makes an enormous difference in how we practice qualitative research.
We see the role of theory in qualitative research as basic, central, and foundational, whether consciously recognized or even identified. It influences the way the researcher approaches the study and pervades almost all aspects of the study. It is a “lens,” as two contributors (Harris, Chapter 8; Henstrand, Chapter 1) note, framing and shaping what the researcher looks at and includes, how the researcher thinks about the study and its conduct, and, in the end, how the researcher conducts the study. Other contributing authors used equally powerful metaphors to describe the role theory plays in qualitative research: a sieve (Fowler, Chapter 3), a roadmap (Kearney & Hyle, Chapter 7), and reconstructing a broken mirror (Lugg, Chapter 10). These [Page 190]metaphors are powerful devices for understanding the relationship of theory and research and providing insightful “ways of thinking” and “ways of seeing” (Morgan, 1986, p. 12). To greater and lesser extents, the contributing authors demonstrate the pervasive nature of theory in their qualitative research studies. Clearly, not every contributor speaks to the effect of the theory they used on every aspect of their study, but some do, and collectively, they make this pervasiveness evident.
Although an increasing number of educational researchers practice and/or are being trained in the use of qualitative methods, we are mindful that the role of theory in such research has long been denied or obscured. Indeed, if acknowledged, theory was perceived to be the product of qualitative research. We live now in a period characterized by the “loss of theoretical innocence” (Flinders & Mills, 1993, p. xi). Our faith in “immaculate perception,” as Flinders and Mills so eloquently put it, is on the wane. Qualitative researchers cannot opt out of attending to theory or of examining the role it plays in their research. Research cannot be conducted without the conscious or unconscious use of underlying theory (Broido & Manning, 2002; Papineau, 1979). Indeed, Garrison (1988) contends that those who claim to do atheoretical research do one of the following: hold the theories tacitly; hold them explicitly but do not make them public; or “pack structural concepts that properly belong to theory into their methodology where they are hidden from their view” (p. 24) and ours.
As suggested by the contributing authors, the role of theory in qualitative research extends beyond the confines of a particular study. It situates qualitative research clearly within the scholarly conversation, adds subtlety and complexity to what appear at first glance to be simple phenomena, and allows for building a repertoire of understandings, diverse perspectives, of the same phenomenon. Interestingly enough, this positions social science research more in line with research in the natural sciences. “Philosophers of science have repeatedly demonstrated that more than one theoretical construction can always be placed upon a given collection of data,” although noting that “the invention of alternates is just what scientists seldom undertake except during the pre-paradigm stage of their science's development and at very special occasions during its subsequent evolution” (Kuhn, 1970, p. 76).
Let us turn now to a discussion of what the contributors to this book offer readers in their quest to more fully understand the role of theory in qualitative research. This concluding discussion is structured around two questions posed in the introduction:
- How do I find a theoretical framework?
- What effects does it have on my research?
In addition to answering these questions, we offer some suggestions for accomplishing what has been discussed.How Do I Find a Theoretical Framework?
The problem of finding a theoretical framework is not confined to students or neophyte researchers. Even seasoned qualitative researchers have been known to have manuscripts returned to them with questions about the theoretical framework that guided their study. Students of qualitative research as well as experienced researchers sometimes find themselves at a loss in the process of selecting a theoretical framework. They often expect it to appear or to magically drop into their laps. Admittedly, finding a theoretical framework, especially one that works well for the phenomenon being studied, is not always an easy process. Although you may be lucky and find one quickly and painlessly, or even have one handed to you by a professor for your thesis or dissertation, the fact remains that in all likelihood you will have to actively search for a theoretical framework. No doubt, this pursuit will be characterized by much reading, possible discussion with colleagues, and finding, reflecting upon, and discarding several potential theoretical frameworks before one is finally chosen. And whereas some researchers use a particular theoretical framework for an extended period of time (Harris, Chapter 8; Merriam, Chapter 2), others change frameworks with each study undertaken.
In response to the dilemma of finding a theoretical framework, the contributing authors in this book offered a wide spectrum of “hows”—from total chance (Karpiak, Chapter 6), to a suggestion from a colleague (Mutch, Chapter 9), to putting two heads from two different fields together (Bettis & Mills, Chapter 4; Mills & Bettis, Chapter 5), to being well-read in education and other fields of study, for example, economics, political science, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and so on (Harris, Chapter 8). In short, there is no one tried and true way of finding a theoretical framework.
Many of the authors report that an “ah-ha” experience accompanied the finding of the theoretical framework they used—that it fit, made sense, and resonated with their thinking. They revealed that the theoretical framework they had found provided “ways of thinking” and “ways of seeing” (Morgan, 1986, p. 12) that unveiled understandings of the phenomena being studied in novel and interesting ways.
A good approach to beginning to find a theoretical framework might be to study a scholarly journal that requires its authors to identify the theoretical framework used. One journal that fits this criterion is Educational Administration Quarterly. If readers were to look at volume 37, issue 1, [Page 192]published in February 2001, for example, it is interesting to note that the Pounder and Merrill article uses job choice theory to study job desirability of the high school principalship; Ortiz applies the theory of social capital to interpret the careers of three Latina superintendents; Nestor-Baker and Hoy employ practical intelligence and tacit knowledge to study school superintendents; and Geijsel, Sleegers, Van den Berg, and Kelchtermans use professional development, decision making, and transformational leadership to analyze conditions that foster the implementation of large-scale innovation programs in schools. Each of these articles has a section entitled theoretical framework or conceptual framework, two phrases that are often used interchangeably, in which the researchers describe the theory they used. We encourage readers to spend some time looking at published research and identifying the theoretical frameworks used as a way to stimulate thinking about theories and their relationship to research projects.
Qualitative researchers are encouraged to be persistent in the search for theoretical frameworks and to think beyond the confines of their disciplinary focus. Consider how theories from economics, sociology, political science, anthropology, and other fields of study might thoughtfully be used to study phenomena in interesting and distinctive ways.What Effect Does the Theoretical Framework Have on My Research?
In discussing the effects of a theoretical framework on the research process, the contributors to this book offered interesting insights. A theoretical framework has the ability to (1) focus a study, (2) reveal and conceal meaning and understanding, (3) situate the research in a scholarly conversation and provide a vernacular, and (4) reveal its strengths and weaknesses.
Focus a Study. The ability of a theoretical framework to focus a study involves a number of issues. First, qualitative researchers often feel overwhelmed by the mountains of data (e.g., interview transcripts, documents, observation/ field notes) that can be collected. By acting as a “sieve” (Fowler, Chapter 3) or a “lens” (Harris, Chapter 8; Hendstrand, Chapter 1), the theoretical framework assists the researcher in the process of sorting through these data. Second, the theoretical framework “frames” every aspect of a study from the questions asked (Mutch, Chapter 9), to the sample selected (Merriam, Chapter 2), to the analysis derived (Hendstrand, Chapter 1; Merriam, Chapter 2). The concepts, constructs, and propositions that are part and parcel of a theory help the researcher in formulating these component parts of the research process. Third, qualitative researchers are keenly aware of the [Page 193]existence of subjectivity and bias in their research. The theoretical framework helps the researcher to control this subjectivity by the self-conscious revisiting of the theory and a concomitant awareness that one is using a particular perspective (Harris, Chapter 8; Hendstrand, Chapter 1). Fourth, the theoretical framework provides powerful concepts that may be used in the coding (Mills & Bettis, Chapter 5) and the analysis of the data (Merriam, Chapter 2).
The degree to which the contributing authors recognized and were able to write about the effects of the theoretical framework on their research varied. As stated earlier, we hold that every aspect of the qualitative research process—from the questions asked to the analysis of the data—is affected by the theoretical framework. It influences every choice we make during the research process and guides the researcher's thinking about the phenomenon under investigation. In short, the theoretical framework forces the researcher to be accountable to ensure that the methodology, the data, and the analysis are consistent with the theory.
In considering what advice might be useful, we encourage qualitative researchers to thoroughly understand the theoretical framework chosen to “frame” their study. Consider potential problems you might encounter in attempting to import and apply a theory from another field (e.g., economics, political science), in particular its applicability and fit. Investigate how other researchers have used the theory to see if and how it has been applied to research in your field. Be self-conscious about the ways the theoretical framework affects every aspect of the research process. Indeed, it might prove useful to document these effects in a journal kept during the research project.
Reveal and Conceal Meaning and Understanding. The contributing authors noted the ability of the theoretical framework to reveal and conceal meaning and understanding. As Eisner (1985) reminded us, “When you provide a window for looking at something, you also … provide something in the way of a wall (pp. 64-65). Although we acknowledge that theories can allow us to see familiar phenomena in novel ways, they can also blind us to aspects of the phenomena that are not part of the theory. As part of theory's ability to reveal and conceal, we are cognizant that a theoretical framework can distort the phenomena being studied by filtering out critical pieces of data (Lugg, Chapter 10).
Researchers need to recognize this characteristic of a theoretical framework and give serious thought to what is being concealed. This ability to reveal and conceal makes it all the more important for researchers to tell their readers, if possible, what is concealed. This is, after all, the essence of a study's delimitations. Although the choice of a theoretical framework clearly delimits a study, we have seen little recognition of this fact in theses and dissertations or in journal articles.[Page 194]
In the real world, few have time to engage in the following activities, but we feel it important to mention them nonetheless. Consider designing a study with one theoretical framework and then redesigning it using an alternative framework. What effect does this have on the questions asked? What effect might the differing frameworks have on the analysis derived? How will your data collection strategies change? A little more realistic exercise would involve getting a colleague to study the same phenomenon using a different framework (see Bettis & Mills, Chapter 4; Mills & Bettis, Chapter 5). Again, how did the different frameworks affect the research processes? One would imagine that the more “ways of thinking” and “ways of seeing” (Morgan, 1986, p. 12), that is, theoretical frameworks, that are employed in our attempts to understand some reality would ultimately bring us closer to an understanding of that reality, an ontological issue we do not want to debate at this time.
Situate the Research in a Scholarly Conversation and Provide a Vernacular. In the process of advancing knowledge, the theoretical framework allows researchers to situate their research and knowledge contributions in a scholarly conversation (Bettis & Mills, Chapter 4; Fowler, Chapter 3). It allows us to talk across disciplines (Hendstrand, Chapter 1) using the known and accepted language of the theory. It is this established language that assists in making meanings of the phenomena being studied explicit. The theoretical framework also provides convenient labels and categories that help in explaining and developing thick descriptions and a coherent analysis (Harris, Chapter 8).
In reflecting upon this effect of the theoretical framework, it is important for qualitative researchers to learn the language of the theory being used and to use it precisely and clearly. It is also necessary to make every attempt to state your contributions to the scholarly conversation without overreaching appropriate parameters—parameters that will be dictated by the data you have collected and the analysis you have formulated. Part of participating in this scholarly conversation and documenting your contribution involves looking carefully at the relationship between your study and the theory you have used. Does your research support the existing theory, does it advance the theory in some meaningful and important way (Fowler, Chapter 3), or does it refute the theory? These are important questions that should not be avoided in this discussion.
Reveal Its Strengths and Weaknesses. As the contributing authors reflected on the effects of the theoretical framework on their research, it became evident that no theoretical framework adequately describes or explains any phenomena (Fowler, Chapter 3; Merriam, Chapter 2). Some of the contributors [Page 195]expressed concern about the power of a theoretical framework to be too reductionistic, stripping the phenomenon of its complexity and interest (Mutch, Chapter 9), or too deterministic, forcing the researcher to “fit” the data into predetermined categories (Harris, Chapter 8). Indeed, others have been concerned about the power of the existing literature on a topic to be “ideologically hegemonic” (Becker, 1986), making it difficult to see phenomena in ways that are different from those that are prevalent in the literature. Other contributors to this book discussed the fact that strengths and weaknesses provide sufficient reason to employ multiple frameworks in one study (Kearney & Hyle, Chapter 7).
Researchers need to be prepared for the strengths and weaknesses being revealed during the process of conducting a research project. Questions will be raised that need to be addressed. Whereas the “fit” of the theoretical framework for a study may become evident, it may in fact become necessary to discard the theoretical framework and start the process of searching for a new one. Researchers need to be wary of dropping data in light of assessing the strengths and weaknesses of any theory. It could be these data that help in the advancement of the theory or in its being refuted.
The relationship between theory and qualitative research remains complicated. We hold it is impossible to observe and describe what happens in natural settings without some theory that guides the researcher in what is relevant to observe and what name to attach to what is happening. As noted by Schwandt (1993), the theory allows us to “enter the field with a theoretical language and attitude” (pp. 11-12). Qualitative forms of inquiry demand that theory (i.e., theoretical frameworks) be used with imagination and flexibility. As John Dewey (1934) noted, it is part of our need to reeducate our perceptions.References(1986).Writing for social scientists: How to start and finish your thesis, book, or article.Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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About the Editors
Vincent A. Anfara, Jr., is Associate Professor of Educational Administration and Supervision at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He received his PhD in educational administration from the University of New Orleans in 1995. Before entering the professoriate, he taught for 23 years in both middle and high schools in Louisiana and New Mexico. His research interests include middle school reform, leadership in middle schools, issues related to student achievement, and qualitative research methods. He is past President of the American Educational Research Association's Middle Level Education Research Special Interest Group and the Chair of the National Middle School Association's (NMSA) Research Advisory Board. His research has been published in Educational Researcher, Education and Urban Society, School Leadership, Leadership and Policy in Schools, and the NASSP Bulletin. His most recent books include From the Desk of the Middle School Principal: Leadership Responsive to the Needs of Young Adolescents (2002, Scarecrow Press) and The Encyclopedia of Middle Grades Education (2005, Information Age Publishing). He is the Series Editor of The Handbook of Research in Middle Level Education, copublished by Information Age Publishing and the NMSA.
Norma T. Mertz is Professor of Higher Education at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She received her EdD in curriculum and teaching from Teachers College, Columbia University, with a collateral in anthropology and education. Before becoming a faculty member in educational administration at The University of Tennessee, she prepared teachers to work in urban, inner-city schools in Michigan and New York City as an Assistant Professor at Eastern Michigan University and Hunter and Brooklyn Colleges; and was an Assistant Director of the Race Desegregation Assistance Center and Director of the Sex Equity Assistance Center. Her research centers on gender and leadership, mentoring, and organizational socialization, and has been published in Educational Administration Quarterly, Urban Education, Journal of School Leadership, Planning and Changing, and Communications of the ACM.
About the Contributors
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Pamela J. Bettis is Assistant Professor in the Cultural Studies and Social Thought in Education program at Washington State University. Her areas of research include the social context of education and how gender operates in schools. She is the coauthor of Cheerleader! An American Icon (2003) and Geographies of Girlhood: Identities In-Between and has had work published in Sociology of Education, Gender & Society, Educational Foundations, and Sex Education.
Frances C. Fowler was a classroom teacher and union leader in Tennessee before she received her PhD in educational administration from The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in 1990. In that same year, she accepted a position in the Department of Educational Leadership at Miami University of Ohio, where she is currently Professor and the Director of Graduate Studies for her department. She teaches courses about the politics of education and education policy and has published extensively in this area. Her textbook, Policy Studies for Educational Leaders: An Introduction, is in its second edition
Edward L. Harris has served as teacher, coach, and administrator in public and private schools as well as Associate Dean for the College of Education at Oklahoma State University. He earned a PhD in educational administration from Texas A&M University and currently holds the Williams Chair of Educational Leadership at Oklahoma State University. His research, teaching, and service activities focus on school culture and leadership. He is the author of Key Strategies to Improve Schools: How to Apply Them Contextually (2005).
Joyce L. Henstrand has been a language arts teacher, department chair, and high school principal. In her current role as Director of Instruction in the Reynolds School District in Fairview, Oregon, she focuses on improvement of instruction especially in reading and writing. She earned a BA in [Page 206]English literature at SUNY at Buffalo and a PhD in educational policy and management from the University of Oregon. Her case study described in this book was given the annual dissertation award by the American Education Research Association Division A in 1992.
Adrienne E. Hyle received her doctorate from Kansas State University in 1987 and began her faculty career at Oklahoma State University that same year. Her research interests include change and gender issues in K-through-20 educational settings. Theory has played a large part in the design and analysis of explorations in these settings, as well as in her students’ doctoral research. Current research interests include exploring our understandings of learning in cohort and off-site contexts.
Irene E. Karpiak is Associate Professor of Adult and Higher Education in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, University of Oklahoma. She teaches graduate-level courses on the adult learner, adult learning and development, transformative learning, and chaos and complexity in adult education. Her scholarly interests draw on qualitative, interpretive, and narrative methods. Her research into autobiography and the life stories of adult learners have enriched her understanding of learning, transition, and change, and have furthered her appreciation of the ways in which crises, crossroads, and chaos can further personal growth and transformation.
Kerri S. Kearney has a professional background in both education and corporate America and began her faculty career at Oklahoma State University in 2004. She holds an MBA in management and an EdD in educational administration. Her research interests focus on leadership and change across a variety of organizational and individual contexts. Current research interests include exploring the role of individually held values in leadership and the use of arts-based methodologies in qualitative research.
Catherine A. Lugg is Associate Professor of Education at the Graduate School of Education, Rutgers University, and serves as an Associate Director for Publishing, University Council for Educational Administration. She is also a Senior Associate Editor for the Journal of Gay and Lesbian Issues in Education. Recent publications include “One Nation Under God? Religion and the Politics of Education in a Post 9/11 America” in Educational Policy.
Sharan B. Merriam is Professor of Adult Education at the University of Georgia in Athens, where her responsibilities include teaching graduate courses in adult education and qualitative research methods, and supervising graduate student research. Merriam's research and writing activities have [Page 207]focused on the foundations of adult education, adult development, adult learning, and qualitative research methods. For 5 years, she was coeditor of Adult Education Quarterly, the major research and theory journal in adult education. She is a three-time winner of the prestigious Cyril O. Houle World Award for Literature in Adult Education. In 1999, she was a Senior Fulbright Scholar to Malaysia.
Michael R. Mills is Assistant Professor of Higher Education at the University of South Florida, where he teaches courses on the organization, administration, and finance of universities and colleges. His research and writing focus on the role of organizational culture, sensemaking, and identity in institutional responses to external stimulations such as policy changes. He earned his doctorate from the University of Michigan, his master's degree from the New School for Social Research, and his baccalaureate from Centre College. He had 10 years of experience in institutional research and academic administration before entering the professoriate.
Carol A. Mutch is currently an administrator at the Christchurch College of Education in Christchurch, New Zealand. She has oversight of research and postgraduate programs in teacher education. Her research interests relate to educational policy, curriculum development, and social education. Carol has recently published a research text, Doing Educational Research: A Practitioner's Guide to Getting Started (New Zealand Council for Educational Research Press, 2005), which aims to provide a step-by-step guide for teacher-researchers to make sense of and engage in research in their classrooms.