(Becker) The epistemology of qualitative research [Jojo]

Becker, H. S. (1990). The epistemology of qualitative research. S.l.: Howard S. Becker.

Becker poses that in social science it’s unavoidable to compare the epistemological questions of “qualitative-ethnographic” and “quantitative-survey” methods. While both approaches aim to research how society works, it is the method to which is the debate.

Conference organizers posed the question “What’s the epistemology of qualitative research?” The author believes that the similarities of the quantitative and qualitative research are more important and relevant than its differences. Both methods overlap on one another implicitly and explicitly.

Characteristically, qualitative epistemology concerns itself with the “oughts” <subjective>rather than the “is’s”<concrete>.  It has been viewed as a negative discipline for it is what you do if you do not want your activity to merit the title of science.

Becker points out that his paper is not about how one should or shouldn’t do science it will, “talk about how ethnographers have produced credible, believable results, especially those which have continued to command respect and belief”(p2).

Is There A Difference?

Difference 1:

Quantitative epistemology researchers view their results in terms of numerical differences in groups to explain the relationship.

Qualitative epistemologists view the relationships in terms of the system. Who are the people? What were their relationships before, during and after event?

Difference 2:

Quantitative epistemology research data gathering is more concrete. No big surprises from data unless there are some open ended questions. Overall, you know in advance the information you will be able to attain.

Qualitative epistemologists are immersed in the data. In the field, it’s a lived experience where variables and ideas are continually added to their models.

Becker acknowledges the view of the actor as a qualitative ethnographer. This is “Taking the Point of View of the other”. It is the ability of the researcher to become the participant in order to describe the experience of whom they are observing. Accuracy is crucial as the actor. If not done properly, attributes of the research will be implied or guessed upon which is a disservice to the people they are studying. Misinterpretations of people’s experience are common but “don’t make up what you could find out” (Lieberson 1992).

Furthermore, ethnographers feel as if they getting closer to the lived experience by in situ the virtue of observing behavior. This is the notion of how people interact in the real world even though they know they are being observed.

The experience of in situ provides a detailed bank of data to draw from. Ethnographers pride themselves on providing dense, detailed descriptions of social life known as “thick” (Geertz 1974). This is an attempt to reproduce the “lived experience”. Rather, a full approach is taken where photos, audio and video recording add better clarity to the lived experience more than “thick” detailed approach. Thick and Full are both good approaches but “breadth” is a better goal as it finds out something about every topic and gives you a broader picture.

Becker concludes, “that qualitative and quantitative methods seem to have different philosophies of science but they really just work in different situations and ask different questions”


  1. Which do you think warrants more scientific merit Qualitative Ethnography or Quantitative Ethnography?
  2. Are qualitative and quantitative methods really that different? Why?
  3.   How would you define the “oughts” and the “is’s”? Provide one example of each.
  4. In terms of thick, full or breadth, does one method truly supersede another?

6 thoughts on “(Becker) The epistemology of qualitative research [Jojo]

  1. Qualitative ethnography and quantitative ethnology are both methods of research dependent on the skills of the researcher. Although both methods can gather data that lead to informed decision making, neither can fully conform to the definitions of scientific research that require control groups, randomized sampling, and random selection. Merit of the research method should lie in the overall merit of the research design.

    • Nan- I agree with all of the responses in regards to how one research method does not over shadow another. Becker in the beginning and end essentially states that they both are relevant means to conduct resreach. The paper poses that if you want true meaning of a lived experience, quantitative methids do not tell the whole story. Weighted equally, qualitative methods can tell the “story” incorrectly if the interpretations of data are not properly translated. The epitemology of qualitative research goes deeper in the in the lives of its participants, It’s implementation is based off the research design.

  2. To answer your first question, I don’t think you can really definitively state which method exhibits more scientific merit; additionally, the two complement each other in many ways. Qualitative research can be used to explain differences found using quantitative research, and qualitative studies may find patterns and explanations that warrant quantitative research.

    Finally, as discussed two weeks ago, qualitative research often may be coded quantitatively, and quantitative research often gives numeric measurement to opinions and responses that are less concrete than assumed.

  3. The scientific method is usually defined as:
    1. Define a question
    2. Gather information and resources
    3. Form a hypothesis
    4. Test the hypothesis
    5. Analyze the data
    6. Interpret the data (create new hypothesis)
    7. Retest

    It depends on how strictly you define “science”. One of the hallmarks of hard sciences is that the test parameters and variables are strictly defined, so that other researchers can reproduce the results.

    If the focus is more of the first six steps then it both qualitative and quantitative methods meet the requirements. in the social sciences it is nearly impossible to get truly repeatable results, because it is impossible to remove all extraneous factors from an experiment. In light of this I would argue that they are of equal merit, and which should be used is determined by the research question.

  4. I don’t think one could argue which type of ethnography research has more merit overall, because the situation dictates what is needed for each specific research topic/question. In ethnographical research, the researcher should be entering a setting/situation without looking for something specific, but instead immersing themselves in the setting and learning about the problems through patterns in the data AND a detailed description of the problem. These two methods are different in their approach, but the outcomes are the same. Both methods look for significant patterns to define and describe a conclusion to a problem.

  5. I don’t know if this qualifies as an example of “ought’s” and “is’s” but…thinking about the book, “My Freshman Year” the author discusses how the university thought freshman “ought” to behave in developing community on the campus. However, the reality of how they created their sense of community just “is” and the “is” is different from the “ought”. So much so that the university finally gave up on the Freshman Year Experience as they had designed it. I think when dealing with “ought’s” the researcher has to be very aware of biases.

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