Becker’s The Epistemology of Qualitative Research [Tamar]

The author starts with trying to inform the reader that this paper is not a “sermon” (p.2) instead, “it will talk about how ethnographers have produced credible, believable results, especially those results which have continued to command respect and belief” (p. 2).

Why Do We Think There’s a Difference?

The author tries to describe the differences between qualitative and quantitative research methods. The main difference the author says is that they try to use different ways of reaching generalizations regarding social life. The quantitative research looks for numerical differences between groups that can explain why certain groups are the way they are and what those difference can lead to.

The fieldworker on the other hand tries to understand the individual or individuals involved in certain activities and does not try to prove specific relationships between different things. Another difference between the two methods is the fact that the fieldworker gets a lot more information than the qualitative surveyor whether he/she wants it or not. Fieldworkers have no way of keeping themselves from receiving data and they can get more information which might be important to them if they keep entering everything into field notes.

Many Ethnographies

The author explains that ethnographers or fieldworkers are not all the same and says that he will focus on some of the older methods like participant observation and unstructured interviewing.

The Actor’s Point of View: Accuracy

Ethnographers according to the author try to understand the “actor’s” point of view which means they try to see and understand what the “subject” or the person or people they are observing is feeling and thinking. There is a danger that fieldworkers can fall into when they try to think they know why someone did something instead of observing the person to see exactly why they are doing something.

The Everyday World: Making Room for the Unanticipated

The author explains that we do things based on what we think others will do in reaction to what we do. He writes “this is the notion of the everyday world as the world people actually act in every day, the ordinary world in which the things we are interested in understanding actually go on.” (p. 7)

Full Description, Thick Description: Watching the Margins

Geertz has instilled in ethnographers the idea that they should have a lot of details and full descriptions but the author suggests that instead of including every detail and description, the ethnographer should look for the information that is relevant and important.


The author concludes with the assertion that even though qualitative and quantitative methods are different and the researchers might use different methods, they aren’t really that different. In fact, he writes that the only difference is “they really just work in different situations and ask different questions.


Questions 1: Why do you think the author disagrees with Geertz and says that ethnographers should concentrate on the relevant and important information not everything?

Question 2: Do you agree that qualitative and quantitative methods are not really that different? Why?

Question 3: Do you agree with the author that people do things because of the reaction they expect from others?

Question 4: What stood out to you as the most important concept in this article and why?


13 thoughts on “Becker’s The Epistemology of Qualitative Research [Tamar]

  1. I think that the author disagrees with Geertz and says that ethnographers should concentrate on the relevant and important information instead of everything to help give the ethnographers a concentrated focus. I feel that there are both pros and cons to this. By focusing on relevant and important information, ethnographers can more efficiently documents important events. However, sometimes the events that are viewed to be not as relevant end up providing information that is more beneficial that the focus.

    I believe that there are differences between qualitative and quantitative research. To me, quantitative data provides more numerical differences and are therefore more exact. However, qualitative data provides the reasons and the “feelings” behind the numbers that are often more important for understanding the numerical data.

    Although there are always exceptions, I do agree that often times people do things because of the reaction that they expect from others. These reactions can be both positive and negative but in turn often influence our next steps.

    The difference of opinions on how quantitative and qualitative data are or are not related stood out to me the most. I wonder if the perspective that the ethnographer takes, in turn, has an impact on their research outcomes.

    • Hello Anna,

      Thanks for your comments. I personally think that the ethnographers perspective does impact their research and thus change the outcome of the research to a point.
      Yes, sometimes the reaction we expect might even be negative but we still try to get that reaction for one reason or another. It is kind of like what Shakespeare wrote “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” so in a sense, we are acting and reacting to what other people do.

  2. I agree with Geertz when he says that ethnographers should concentrate on the relevant and important information instead of on everything. When these researchers are in the field they receive data even when they are not really trying to collect data. I’m thinking of a participant observer who lives with a tribe of people with whom he or she is studying. Every moment of the day data is coming into the researchers view. An experienced ethnographer, I would assume, would try to take in as much as they could initially, but over time would understand and see the things that are relevant and important and be able to discard the things that are not.

    I agree that qualitative and quantitative methods are not really that different in that they will never be able to tell the entire story. Though both are great ways of trying to understand the what’s and whys of life, they can never explain every human behavior and situation. In this way, they are similar.

    I agree that that people often do things because of the reaction they expect from others? In this way, I think longer research periods will bring about better results. Dr. Mullooly spoke about video- taping a class for a year. The first few weeks, the data was useless; however, as time went by, the kids (forgot) and began acting like typical kids again. In this way, he was able to collect good data and analyze the results.

    The thing that stood out about the reading was that it was extremely difficult to understand. I did, however, benefit from the concepts of thick description, and trying to understand events and behaviors by putting oneself in another’s shoes (the Actor’s point of view).

    Thanks Tamar!

    • Jeremy:
      Even though field work can produce an enormous amount of data, I agree with Geetz that a thick description should be provided. What is unimportant to one research may be the ideal information to another. Who is to know at the time? This is not to say that researchers cannot draw conclusions and themes from their data to enhance their research conclusions as Becker suggests; however, I think it is obligitory of an ethnographer to provide all the information available as a gift to the greater research society.

    • Hello Jeremy,

      I agree that this was a dificult article to read and it had me confused.
      I like how you tied in what Dr. Mullooly said in class with this discussion. Yes, the students were reacting in a certain way because they knew they were being recorded but as soon as they forgot that, they started to act in a normal way instead of reacting to the fact that they were being video taped.


    • I also feel that extended periods of research often displays more authentic results. I think that it is natural for participants to forget that they are being recorded or observed. With this they often become more comfortable in the setting and show their “true” self. I see this particularly in my students’ reactions when guests, district administrators, or board members come into my classroom. Since these individuals rarely visit my students sometimes display behaviors that are not typical. However, the same students act “normal” when my principal comes into my room because they are use to seeing her daily for classroom visits.

  3. I have been thinking about the answer to question number two since I really began work with quantitative and qualitative measures because–and I’m sure I’m not alone here…I hope–at times I would get confused as to which I was trying to do, or which would be better for a given situation. In fact, I can agree that there are differences in methodology because quantitative methods require quantification and numeric value and qualitative methods need qualification. However, I can also understand how a quantifiable number can represent the qualification of a response. Using a Likert scale can show true, accurate, measurable data that can represent how someone feels about something. I think the difference comes mainly in the transmission of the truth to us. So, yes, there are differences. The similarities come when we look at why the data was collected and what will be done with it once it is realized.

    As far as if people do things to get a reaction or because of the reaction they get, I would have to argue for the most part, not really. There are people I know who behave this way particularly often, but overall the people I’m associated with are more-so not as concerned with the reaction and more concerned with whether they have been heard and what they have done/said have been accepted. In those where this is more common, it is interesting that they seem to have more propensity to stretch the truth for effect (hyperbole), lie, disagree just to disagree, and utilize reactions to chose next moves/motives/words (manipulation). In reflection, there may be more positive times to chose these behaviors for stronger communication and such, but overall I don’t think it is the way our minds work. Instead–and I’d argue there is a difference–of doing things to get a reaction, people seem to do things to gain acceptance.

    Just my two cents. Thanks for the summary!

  4. Q2/Q4: The concept that stood out to me the most is that quantitative and qualitative methods really seem to be not that different. In fact, in my view their differences seem to compliment each other in many respects. While quantitative methods focus on reliability and validity with the data, qualitative methods focus on the observable data. Both are trying to give explanations and answers to their research questions, which require the researcher to summarize or synthesize the data accurately and apply what is gleaned from it. Using both types of data analysis seem to be an ideal way to compare the different results. Sometimes the results compliment each other, sometimes they may bring up another explanation. Whichever the case, it seems to be richer research in the end.

    • Hello Becky,

      Yes, it seems that you would get the most information if you used both methods. I also think though that sometimes one method might get in the way of the other. Imagine sending out a survey and then doind a focus group with questions that are based only on what you got from the surveys. In this case, I think the survey is impacting the focus group in a negative way.


  5. I do think that quantitative and qualitative methods are different and at the same time they are the same. Both are searching for answers to questions. The difference I see is that qualitative methods seem to be more flexible, they allow for a person to go into the research with no questions, or to go in with questions and have those be changed because of what is observed. I am not saying that quantitative methods don’t allow a researcher to be flexible, but it seems that because qualitative methods allow for a more in depth and simultaneously wide look at the situation or unit being observed a researcher can learn more about the research and a more rapid manner because he/she is embedded within the unit of study.

    I think the combination of both methods are what strenghthens the research because it allows a researcher to have some concrete data and at the same time some explanation to the concrete data which is provided through qualitative methods. Sometimes I think, and this might not be completely accurate, but I see quantitative methods as helping to come up with the answers to the ‘what’ questions while qualitative methods provide more of the reasoning and answer the ‘why’ questions a bit better.

    • Hello Gabriel,

      Yes, having both methods seems to be the best course of action. In both types of research, the researcher is looking for answers, the only difference is the type of answers they are looking for and it helps to have the numbers and the reasons behind the numbers to really understand what is going on.

  6. In response to the second question:Do you agree that qualitative and quantitative methods are not really that different? Why? I do agree that they are really not different. Both require the researcher to interpret. Quantitative methods uses interpretive measures on the front end by deciding which questions to ask, how to ask the questions, how many questions to ask, and so forth. Qualitative methods uses interpretive measures on the back end by deciding which data is relevant. Furthermore, the researchers in both methods make judgements on the importance of information but at different points of the study. The similarities far out weight the differences.

  7. I agree with some of my colleagues in that Geertz is trying to have the ethnographer focus on the intended purpose rather than everything. One can lose sight of what their intended purpose is in the field. I find it could be beneficial to be a blank slate and just record everything, without an intended purpose. I think it would be hard to do, but one could gather more raw material.
    Qualitative and quantitative methods can both be pointed in the same direction and attempting to gather the same data, but because of their design they have the potential to collect different information on the same topic. (Variance) I do believe often times people conduct themselves in order to receive a reaction. It is human nature. The section that resonated with me was the topic of the similarity in qualitative and quantitative methods because I am still deciding on a topic and trying to figure out what design method I will use. I tend to lean towards mixed methods at this time. But, more reading and thinking on my part. lol

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