(Lancy) Studying children and schools: Qualitative research traditions [Lurena]

Lancy, D. F. (2001). Studying children and schools: Qualitative research traditions. Prospect Heights, Ill: Waveland Press.

Executive Summary: The author’s intent is to introduce prospective qualitative researchers [anthropologists] to the broad base of empirical research literature that has yielded important results employing qualitative methods to portray or account for differences in the development and academic achievement of children from cultural, societal, and personal perspectives – within the larger arena of conversations of empirical, educational research on children and schools usually thought to be the sole provenance of quantitative psychologists and sociologists who are using more rigorous, experimental aka “quantitative” research methods for answering their theoretical, “cause-effect” questions. 

In Chapter 1, Lancy first compares and contrasts the different ways of thinking about and conducting qualitative versus quantitative research studies.  He characterizes qualitative studies as naturalistic, context-specific, non-invasive, descriptively-repeatable narratives, captured by observing and discovering phenomenological and subjective realities common to a small sample or group, that are important for the variables, hypotheses or early “natural history” stage of information they provide, either for others who may wish to emulate the particular cases in a similar context, study their generality in other contexts, test the hypotheses that follow from them more experimentally-independent of context.  Finally, he notes that the understanding of whether something is or is not qualitative research depends upon whether one is discussing it as 1) a particular method such as the case study approach or a combination or “triangulation” of methods , 2) a particular technique and principal source of data, such as an open-ended interview, non-participatory or participatory observations, or artifacts collected in field work, or 3) a qualitative tradition or paradigm which may define itself as exclusively subjective, such as the phenomenological paradigm.

In Chapters 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 Lancy discusses differences in the traditions and usefulness of qualitative research conducted in the fields of anthropology, sociology and psychology.

  • His goal in Chapter 2 is for the reader to come away with a feel for the accomplishments of qualitative research in education anthropology, with an emphasis on the theme of enculturation in schools as a major vehicle for transmitting cultural beliefs and practices from generation to generation, or as they affect the transitions of one culture into others.  He notes that the principal method of anthropologists is ethnography, defined as a description of a particular culture (an historically developed and patterned way of life) of a particular group – an entity or integrated whole that is 1) derived and inferred from descriptions of their beliefs, established inter-relationships between persons and groups, their material goods and technologies, 2) described and documented in sufficient detail so as to be replicable, and yet 3) not sacrificing the validity of an accurate description of the culture in all of its nuances, “somehow [making] the familiar strange,” as in the difference between the web of a garden spider and that of a black widow.
  • In Chapter 3, he notes that the sociological tradition differs from that of anthropology by its concern with how the hierarchical levels of a known society come into being [with a broad base of sociological theories and evidence accounting for them], resulting in an interlocking set of investigative questions that blur distinctions between the qualitative and quantitative research methods that are needed. He elucidates representative examples of important research conducted in order to 1) quantitatively investigate predictions of sociological outcomes made by different models, 2) qualitatively and quantitatively investigate the interactions between multiple factors in producing sociological outcomes, or 3) qualitatively investigate the role that parents, students and teachers play in creating sociological or educational-significant outcomes within particular school settings.
  • In Chapter 4, the author notes that a major qualitative research method used within the field of psychology is ethology – the naturalistic study of certain animal behaviors, those that can be described and portrayed as having a proximal cause or trigger that elicits or releases it, have an identifiable function that evolved to help the animal survive and reproduce, and which develops over time in the life cycle of the animal.  Side note: A major limitation of the ethological approach as defined by Lorenz and Tinbergen is its origins from descriptions of the biological function of behaviors that best represent the mostly hard-wired behaviors of animals ranging from ant, termite, or honey-bee colonies to the more reflexive “lower-brain” or easily “programmable” behaviors of imprinting or stimulus-response reinforcement in pigeons, rats, dogs and chimpanzees. It should be noted also that the case study method has been important in the development of Piaget’s theory of the stages of cognitive development in children, and in making cross-case comparisons of successes in school-improvement programs.
  • In Chapter 5, Lancy reviews important qualitative research results stemming from the use of different types of case study methods (single case, cross-case), making the point that case studies have been used more commonly in anthropological traditions, but advocating their greater use in the fields of sociology and educational psychology, along with more quantitative survey or experimental methods, or as evaluative information that may be vital in meeting professional responsibilities, such as altering educational policies, programs, and practices, or affecting school board, teacher, parent, and community decision-making.


  • In Chapter 6, he discusses personal accounts as being different from other types of qualitative research reports in the social sciences because of their phenomenological focus on a specific person’s personal life, views, or accomplishments, rather than for their generality as cases across persons, or as an instantiation of a more general conclusion or expected outcome.

Discussion Questions:

  1. When a problem has been identified, the research must select a suitable tool or method to investigate it.  Under what circumstances would it be appropriate to choose qualitative methods and how does this relate to your area of interest?
  2. Some argue that there is significant difference between qualitative and quantitative data. After all, qualitative data typically consists of words while quantitative data consists of numbers.  But, if all qualitative data can be coded as numbers, are they really all that different?  No matter your answer, please explain why or how you arrived at that conclusion.
  3. How does understanding human behavior relate to qualitative research?
  4. What type of research question would best be answered through a case study approach?
  5. Why study personal accounts?  Why would one want to review such a body of literature in the first place?  How should one go about conducting an analysis and synthesis of personal accounts?


8 thoughts on “(Lancy) Studying children and schools: Qualitative research traditions [Lurena]

  1. Studying personal accounts gives a perspective of an issue over a period of time. Quantitative data can be collected at distinct points of time, but may not measure the impact an issue has on individuals. Qualitative data can provide insight into how individuals respond to the instruments used to collect quantitative data. In our summer research project with International students, we heard students say that culturally they could not express a lack of satisfaction with their experiences as a student to anyone in authority. Yet in the same interview, they would strongly express dissatisfaction with some aspects of their experience. The quantitative survey data had not captured the same depth of responses as the qualitative semi-structured interviews. So although we had a quantitative number of student satisfaction, it was hearing from the students that helped us understand the student perspective on the issues they faced. The personal accounts with support from other case studies provided the information needed to make recommendations.

    • I agree. sometimes when people see quantitative surveys it is easier to respond with what they have been told, or indoctrinated with. Qualitative research allows the researcher to dig down, asking why they believe something, and potentially find that the subject really thinks something different.

      This directly relates to my dissertation in that I want to see what skills are really important, and how they can be conveyed to persons doing the hiring. The subject may not be familiar with anything other than traditional formal methods of learning and credentialing. This would create an automatic response that they is the best way in a survey. Through an interview and teasing out what they are really looking for, and asking ways they check for knowledge or skills I may get different responses.

  2. Nan, that is a great example of the importance of understanding personal accounts. I often refer to this as learning another person’s “language.” We all have life experiences that influence not only the way we think, but our actions as well. If you had depended solely on the quantitative outcomes from a survey, it would have been limited in scope and ultimately not reflective of the true nature of what was going on with the international students’ experiences at Fresno State. Taking on the perspective of another can be challenging – not unlike learning a new foreign language. But, the value added to one’s research is undeniable.

  3. I believe that there really is a lot of cross over between qualitative and quantitative both in the research and analysis phases.

    Quantitative research using surveys typically asks subjects to rate items on a subjective scale (qualitative).

    Qualitative analysis uses the frequency of topics (quantitative).

  4. There are definitely times when qualitative studies are preferable over qualitative studies. In instances where items in question are difficult to measure using numbers, descriptions become much more powerful ways of “quantifying” the information. I have always been very interested in student’s self perceptions in school, and while there are instruments that measure School safety, these same instruments often do little to describe how the students see themselves in the school.
    In variations of my future dissertation I have thought about different ideas, which include case studies as the basis for the research. These types of questions have varied, but basically look at how a student’s view of themselves can change with social emotional support.

  5. The argument that there is parity between qualitative data that is coded into numbers (1, 2, 3) and numbers representative of a scale of a single factor is simply confounding a symbol representative of a category with a symbol representative of a quantity (one of degree, scale, size). Qualitative data that has been recoded is purely nominal and and has nothing whatsoever to do with quantity.

  6. Simplisticly, If you wanted to know who liked or disliked chocolate ice cream, quantitative measures can provide you the answer by coding yes or no. Similarly qualitive research would ask “why” or have an open ended response that is more subjective. Both methods will give you an answer but it is the depth of knowledge the researcher needs to determine.

  7. Understanding human behavior relates to qualitative data because humans cannot be quantified. Humans and the related behavior are complex. It is possible that today when I take a survey that asks for quantifiable information, my answers may (and often do) differ from what I might have said yesterday or may indicate tomorrow. The reason for this variance is that I am influenced each day by many things and may “feel” a certain way today but not tomorrow. Some quantitative data won’t change (perhaps) but when trying to understand behavior, this must be taken into consideration. Today I may believe that all is well with me and that I am in control of my destiny, but tomorrow I might encounter something that disturbs that sense of self confidence and may now believe that I am not in control. Other influences abound; perhaps I was raised by a single mother or a single father, maybe I experienced trauma early in my life and therefore do not trust others, etc. These types of differences can only be determined based on a qualitative study.
    As Jo Jo said above, “…it is the depth of knowledge the researcher needs to determine.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.