Early Childhood Education

Qualitative Research


Qualitative research is empirically based inquiry through which researchers seek to understand the perspectives of human actors in social settings. Research is empirically based when data are collected and analyzed systematically. Data for qualitative studies usually include transcribed interviews, field notes from observations, and unobtrusively collected evidence such as documents and artifacts. Qualitative data analysis is inductive and interpretive in nature, and findings are grounded in the data that generated them. Understanding how individuals make sense of the natural contexts in which they operate every day is the aim of qualitative research, so studies are undertaken in natural settings, and capturing perspectives on the contexts in which participants act is essential to the research process.

Characteristics that distinguish qualitative from quantitative research include the following:

• Natural Settings—Qualitative researchers study social phenomena as they occur in everyday life because they believe human behavior cannot be understood outside the contexts of its natural occurrence.

• Participants’ Perspectives—Describing the insider perspectives of actors in specific social settings is a primary concern of qualitative researchers.

• Researcher as Instrument—The principal data of qualitative studies are gathered directly by researchers themselves.

• Extended Engagement—Spending long periods of direct engagement in the contexts in which social phenomena are enacted is important to understanding participant perspectives.

• Centrality of Meaning—Understanding the meanings that individuals use to negotiate their social surroundings is an essential element of qualitative work.

• Complexity—Qualitative researchers assume that social settings are unique, dynamic, and complex, and they resist approaches that reduce complex settings to isolated variables.

• Subjectivity—Qualitative work is interested in inner states at the core of human activity, and bringing these inner states to light requires the application of researchers’ subjective judgment.

• Flexible Design—Because the act of doing qualitative research often leads researchers in directions they did not anticipate, research questions, methods, and analysis procedures are sometimes altered as research designs are implemented.

• Reflexivity—Qualitative researchers acknowledge that they are part of the worlds they study, so systematically monitoring their influence and bracketing their biases is part of their research responsibility (Hatch and Barclay-McLaughlin, 2006). While the use of qualitative methods is relatively new in applied fields such as education and early childhood education, the foundations of qualitative research were established in disciplines such as anthropology and sociology beginning in the early 1900s. Early anthropological work was characterized by ethnographic studies of “primitive” cultures in faraway places. Qualitative sociologists of the same period (many of whom were associated with “Chicago Sociology” at the University of Chicago) studied life experiences of working-class and poor immigrants in urban centers in the United States. Early qualitative studies in education settings were begun in the 1960s, mostly by sociologists and anthropologists interested in studying the social contexts of education.

Qualitative studies that focused on contexts involving young children began to be published in the 1980s. Early examples done in the United States include Corsaro’s (1985) sociological analysis of peer culture in a preschool and Lubeck’s (1985) comparison of how cultural values were transmitted in a Head Start serving African American children and a preschool program for white students. An important early childhood qualitative study in the United Kingdom was Pollard’s (1985) examination of children’s experience of primary schooling, and Davies’ (1982) study of children’s social interaction in classrooms and on playgrounds was an early qualitative study completed in Australia.

Given some shared foundations and overarching characteristics, many different approaches to doing qualitative research have evolved over the past four decades. Some of the approaches that have been used in qualitative early childhood studies are outlined below:

Ethnographies: Ethnography is a particular kind of qualitative research that seeks to describe culture or parts of culture from the point of view of cultural insiders. Ethnographers employ interviewing, observation, and artifact collection as their primary data collection techniques. Ethnography is the classic form of qualitative research that was developed by anthropologists who spend extended periods of time doing fieldwork within cultural groups. Contemporary ethnographers often study subcultures, communities, or classrooms, but their goals remain consistent with those of classic fieldworkers.

Participant Observation Studies: Participant observation studies use the same data collection tools as ethnographies, but they are not ethnographies because participant observation studies are much narrower in scope and usually involve less time in the field. Participant observation studies place researchers in social settings, but they do not have the broad purpose of capturing all of the cultural knowledge that insiders use to make sense of those settings. Researchers using this framework enter research settings with specific interests and specific questions in mind, and these interests and questions concentrate their studies in ways that ethnographers do not.

Interview Studies: While it is often a part of participant observation research, interviewing can be the primary data collection strategy in a qualitative project. Qualitative researchers utilize special interview strategies that are different in nature from interviews done in quantitative studies. Qualitative interviewers create a special kind of speech event during which they ask open-ended questions, encourage informants to explain their unique perspectives on the issues at hand, and listen intently for special language and other clues that reveal meaning structures informants use to understand their worlds.

Grounded Theory Studies: In The Discovery of Grounded Theory, Glaser and Strauss (1967) outlined a model that serves as a guide for collecting and analyzing qualitative data in rigorous, systematic, and disciplined ways. Grounded theory studies generate theories inductively derived from careful analysis of qualitative data. Vital to these procedures is the notion of constant comparison, through which researchers engage in detailed analytic processes that require repeated confirmations of potential explanatory patterns of meaning discovered in the data.

Narrative Studies: Narrative research is focused on gathering and interpreting the stories that people use to describe their lives. Different types of narrative studies include life histories, life story research, biography, personal experience methods, oral history, and narrative inquiry. All are based on the notion that humans make sense of their lives through story. Clandinin and Connelly (1994) identify the following methods for generating the data of narrative studies: oral history; annals and chronicles; family stories; photographs, memory boxes, and other personal/family artifacts; research interviews; journals; autobiographical writing; letters; conversations; and field notes and other stories from the field.

Case Studies: Researchers from many disciplines and many paradigms (qualitative and quantitative) call their work case studies. Qualitative case studies are a special kind of research that investigates a contextualized phenomenon within specified boundaries. Merriam (1988) offers examples of such bounded phenomena in education: “a program, an event, a person, a process, an institution, or a social group” (p. 13). Data collection and analysis procedures parallel those of other qualitative approaches. It is their focus on bounded systems that makes qualitative case studies different.

Those who hold traditional views of what constitutes research see limitations in the application of qualitative methods in early childhood education or other social science fields. These critics believe that any form of research should be measured against the tenets of quantitative approaches in terms of validity, reliability, and generalizability. They argue that the small samples in most qualitative studies, the subjective nature of data collection and analysis, and the lack of controlled variables make qualitative findings idiosyncratic, subject to researcher bias, and impossible to replicate. Qualitative researchers counter that the assumptions at the base of their research approaches are fundamentally different from those of quantitative methods, that different does not mean inferior, and that the worth of qualitative findings should be judged using criteria developed within qualitative research paradigms (Hatch, 2002).

Proponents argue that the strengths of early childhood qualitative research include its ability to reveal the experiences of those who live in the contexts in which early education and care happen. They claim that high quality qualitative studies provide vivid portraits of the how life unfolds in early childhood contexts. And, they say that qualitative approaches make possible an enriched understanding of the behaviors of actors as they negotiate the meaning structures of the settings that define early childhood. Qualitative researchers believe their contributions to early childhood theory, practice, and policy formation are at least as valuable as those of quantitative researchers.

Further Readings: Clandinin, D. J., and F. M. Connelly (1994). Personal experience methods. In N. K. Denzin and Y. S. Lincoln, eds., Handbook of qualitative research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 413-427; Corsaro, W. A. (1985). Friendship and peer culture in the early years. Norwood, NJ: Ablex; Davies, B. (1982). Life in the classroom and playground: The accounts of primary school children. London: Routledge; Glaser, B. G., and A. L. Strauss (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. Mill Valley, CA: Sociology Press; Hatch, J. A. (2002). Doing qualitative research in education settings. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press; Hatch, J. A., and G. Barclay-McLaughlin (2006). Qualitative research: Paradigms and possibilities. In B. Spodek and O. Saracho, eds., Handbook of research on the education of young children. 2nd ed. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 497-514; Lubeck, S. (1985). Sandbox society: Early education in black and white America. London: Falmer; Merriam, S. B. (1988). Case study research in education: A qualitative approach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass; Pollard, A. (1985). The social world of the primary school. London: Cassell.

J. Amos Hatch