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Triangulation

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Since the late 1950s, educational researchers within and across different programs of research have developed strategies for exploring how and in what ways their findings for particular social phenomena are convergent, divergent, conflicting, or null through a process referred to as triangulation. Guided by their particular logic of inquiry, researchers across traditions engage in triangulation to make conceptually driven decisions about how to design, collect, analyze, interpret, and warrant claims about social, cultural, linguistic, psychological, and academic phenomena in education and other settings. In this entry, two telling cases are presented to make visible how triangulation, as a logic of inquiry, has been conceptualized by researchers within ongoing programs of research that differ in their goals, purposes, and theoretical groundings: multitrait/multimethod research processes and ethnographic and field-based qualitative research processes. These two telling cases are designed to make visible the ways in which data, theories, records, perspectives, methods, and/or levels of analytic scale are triangulated in the conduct of particular studies in different programs of research in education.

Telling Case 1: Multimethod and Multimeasure Research

In 1959, Donald T. Campbell and Donald W. Fiske introduced the concept of triangulation as critical for validating variables defined as constitutive of psychological traits of individuals through methods including pencil-and-paper tests, observations, and/or performance measures. They argued that researchers could confirm and/or disconfirm assumptions about the reality or validity of the phenomena being assessed by using a multitrait or multimethod approach that they called triangulation. Since that time, this argument has been expanded to include multimethod and multimeasure approaches to assessing or measuring educational traits or phenomena. Triangulation is undertaken to ensure that the result of the study is not dependent on characteristics of a single measure or of a measurement method.

Triangulation of constructs and/or traits is undertaken by constructing a statistical matrix consisting of a table of correlations in which the relationship within and across variables or constructs by methods is examined. This table provides a basis for facilitating and/or assessing the interpretation of convergent and discriminant validity of actions, which are assumed to reflect the traits or phenomena being assessed or measured. This process focuses on construct validity, by confirming the degree to which two measures of constructs that theoretically should be related are in fact related (convergent validity). Discriminant validity provides a basis for confirming that a particular test of a concept is not highly correlated with other tests designed to measure theoretically different concepts; that is, the two measures are unrelated.

In 2012, Robert Coe provided a summary of multiple forms of triangulation that are used to assess a broad range of quantitative forms of validity, including internal validity (causal relationship definitions), external validity (population and ecological), construct validity (causal), measurement forms of validity (e.g., face, content, criterion related, predictive, concurrent, and systemic), and construct validity (measurement—convergent, divergent, and factorial). In this program of research, triangulation is undertaken to validate constructs assessed by measurement instruments as well as the reliability of particular measurements and to construct warrants to confirm or disconfirm the validity of particular measures, instruments, evaluation processes, or relationships among variables. The logic in use used by the researcher to construct the claims based on this triangulation process provides a level of transparency for assessing the warrants of the interpretations and the conclusions drawn.

Telling Case 2: Ethnographic and Field-Based Qualitative Research

Telling Case 2 focuses on the role and nature of triangulation central to ethnographic and field-based educational research traditions grounded in advances since the 1960s in the social sciences. These traditions are influenced by philosophical turns (e.g., social, linguistic, and interactional) guiding conceptualizations of the nature of social reality. Central to these turns are conceptual arguments about the social construction of reality; that is, the ways that members of particular social groups, in particular social spaces, interactionally formulate and construct common knowledge, norms and expectations, roles and relationships, social identities, power relationships, and rights and obligations, among other social constructions that define what counts as members’ knowledge and actions in the everyday life in particular social groups.

Triangulation as a logic of inquiry within field-based and ethnographic research is undertaken within and across times and events, through a range of collection and analysis processes and methods: formal and informal interviewing, participant observation, artifact collection, video and audio recording, social and geographic mapping, and searches of archival/historical records. Such field methods are grounded in particular theoretical perspectives (e.g., anthropological theories of culture; sociological theories of social order and social accomplishment of everyday life; and linguistic/sociolinguistic/discourse theories of communication). These multiple collection and analysis processes are designed to minimize limits to certainty that what is observed and recorded is the phenomenon as experienced by members of the social group in classrooms and other social settings.

Martyn Hammersley and Paul Atkinson, building on initial arguments about what constitutes triangulation proposed by sociologist Norman Denzin, conceptualized for education research the following forms of triangulation and actions or foci that today continue to guide ethnographic and qualitative field-based research:

  • Data triangulation involves time, space, and persons
  • Investigator triangulation involves multiple researchers in an investigation
  • Theory triangulation involves using more than one theoretical scheme in the interpretation of the phenomenon
  • Methodological triangulation involves using more than one method to gather data, such as interviews, observations, questionnaires, and documents.

From this perspective, triangulation is an ongoing and complex process that seeks to confirm the warrants or claims about particular phenomena studied. It also seeks to confirm that the phenomenon recorded or observed by different investigators is the same phenomenon and to explore what the difference in observations makes in terms of what can be known through the particular observation and analyses. When observers do not agree, or record different phenomena, or wonder what is happening, as anthropologist Michael Agar argues, rich points (anchors) are constructed. Such rich points support investigation of the roots and pathways that led to the observed differences or point of challenge for the researcher.

In field-based and ethnographic studies, triangulation is part of an ongoing logic in use throughout a study in order to build warrants for the accounts of how the researcher’s decisions led to empirical evidence of the constitutive ways in which knowledge is socially constructed across times and events collectively and individually by participants. By triangulating theories, methods, data sources, and investigator actions and observations, the field-based/ethnographic researcher lays a foundation for uncovering unanticipated findings about the social construction of life in particular educational and social settings. Given the complex and multifaceted nature of triangulation processes, the field-based researcher not only reports the outcomes of these processes but also includes the basis of each form of triangulation and its relationship to the developing account being constructed. By tracing actors (individually and collectively) across times, events, and disciplinary areas within an educational context, the researcher makes transparent the ongoing process of triangulating theories, methods, data, investigator observations, and analysis processes and the iterative, recursive, and abductive nature of field-based research.

The ongoing triangulation processes enable the field-based researcher/ethnographer to identify the boundaries of units, the relationships among units of analysis, and the chains of actions and reasoning necessary to construct warranted accounts of the educational and social phenomena under study. By reporting the decision-making processes, the field-based researcher makes transparent the empirical basis of the ways that triangulation supports the construction of warranted accounts of such phenomena as the construction of multiple social identities, academic processes, and epistemic knowledge within and across disciplines (e.g., science, engineering and mathematics, literacy, history, and the arts), among other educational phenomena.

See also Convergence; Discriminant Function Analysis; Ethnography; Qualitative Data Analysis; Validity

Judith L. Green Monaliza M. Chian
10.4135/9781506326139.n711
Further Readings
Agar, M. (2006). Culture: Can you take it anywhere? International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 5(2), 116.
American Education Research Association. (2006). Standards for reporting on empirical social science research in AERA publications. Educational Researcher, 35(6), 3340. Retrieved from http://www.aera.net/Publications/Standards-for-Research-Conduct
Bloome, D., & Egan-Robertson, A. (1993). The social construction of intertextuality in classroom reading and writing lessons. Reading Research Quarterly, 28(4), 305333.
Campbell, D. T., & Fiske, D. W. (1959). Convergent and discriminant validation by the multitrait-multimethod matrix. Psychological Bulletin, 56(2), 81105.
Coe, R. (2012). Conducting your research. In J. Arthur, W. Waring, R. Coe, & L. V. Hedges (Eds.), Research methods & methodologies in education. (pp. 4152). London, UK: Sage.
Gee, J. P., & Green, J. L. (1998). Discourse analysis, learning, and social practice: A methodological study. Review of research in education, 23, 119169.
Hammersley, M., & Atkinson, P. (1991). Ethnography: Principles in practice (
3rd ed
.). New York, NY: Routledge.
Heap, J. L. (1995). The status of claims in “qualitative” research. Curriculum Inquiry, 25(3), 271292.
Krathwohl, D. R. (1993). Methods of educational and social science research: An integrated approach. London, UK: Longmans.
Mitchell, C. J. (1984). Typicality and the case study. In P. F. Ellen (Ed), Ethnographic research: A guide to general conduct (pp. 238241). New York, NY: Academic.
Patton, M. Q. (2002). Qualitative research and evaluation methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Strike, K. A. (1989). Liberal justice and the Marxist critique of education: A study of conflicting research programs. New York, NY: Routledge.
Walford, G. (Ed.). (2008). How to do educational ethnography. London, UK: Tufnell.

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