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Current Editor: Dr. Robert T. Howell
Volume 34, Number 2
Winter 1997

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Qualitative Research Methodologies

"Anything that exists exists in a certain quantity and can be measured." While Thorndike's statement from 1904 appears to be fairly innocent and direct, it staked an important philosophical position that has persisted in social science research throughout most of this century. During this period, educational and other social science researchers have attempted, with moderate degrees of success, to devise and refine methods of measurement that would provide for precision akin to that achieved in the physical sciences. We recognize this paradigm as scientific positivism. During the past several decades, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s, naturalistic inquiry (or qualitative research) has gained considerable acceptance. Nevertheless, the debate between quantitative and qualitative methodologies, as competing positions, persists. It is important to recognize the limitations of viewing quantitative and qualitative methods as completely different or competing approaches. As Rizo (1991) has observed, "it is simply a truism to state that these dichotomous, used stereotypes have dominated too long the comparative discussion between alternative educational research strategies. The complexity and subtlety of different approaches is reduced to simplistic and rigid polar positions" (p. 10).

The history of research in the social sciences is an interesting and sometimes contentious one. For example, in 1927, William F. Ogburn successfully lobbied to have Lord Kelvin's motto: "When you cannot measure, your knowledge is meager and unsatisfactory" prominently and permanently carved onto the face of the University of Chicago's social science research building. Distinguished faculty of the day were purported to have muttered "And if you cannot measure, measure it anyhow" and "if you can measure your knowledge will still be meager and unsatisfactory" (Bulmer, 1995, p. 184). Actually, the qualitative-quantitative dichotomy dates back as early as the 17th century where "quantitativists" were characterized by some as "vulgar statisticians" (Lazarsfeld, 1970, p. 99). In the 19th century positivists such as Mill and Comte and naturalists such as Dilthey and Windelband framed the agenda in terms of "sciences of the spirit vs. sciences of nature" and "explanation vs. understanding." More recently, Gage (1989) presented the debate between qualitative and quantitative methodologies in terms of contrasting paradigms with his reference to "paradigm wars."

What does all of this have to do with industrial and technical teacher educational research? One of the trends that I have observed over the past decade has been the growing use of and interest in qualitative research methodologies in educational research. In a growing number of research universities, "stats sequences" are being recast more broadly to include a wider variety of research methodologies, including those grounded in naturalistic paradigms. These include historical research, ethnographic studies, and other forms of participant observation (e.g., case studies, interviews, etc.). This trend is also becoming increasingly apparent in the types of manuscripts that are being submitted to the Journal of Industrial Teacher Education. While this trend is certainly welcome, it does pose some challenges for the editor and review board. Qualitative manuscripts require a different type of research expertise, both to conduct and to review. For example, the majority of the JITE review board is more familiar with quantitative research methods. Also, qualitative methodologies typically require additional space to accommodate the need to describe procedures and findings in sufficient depth. Writing styles and organizational patterns also tend to be somewhat different.

Sutton (1993) has developed a useful conceptual framework for describing and guiding the development of qualitative research. The categories can also inform the types of problems and issues inherent in industrial and technical teacher education.


One of the keys to in-depth understanding of complex situations is an involvement with context. While quantitative methodologies have, among other things, the advantages of objectivity and generalizability, there are levels of understanding that simply cannot be attained apart from intensive involvement with people, institutions, and situations. Industrial and technical teacher education could benefit from research embedded in a rich understanding of the complexities of the various contexts with which we interact.


A primary goal of research is to achieve understanding, and then to develop models that approximate "truth" and "reality." This poses serious challenges to social science researchers since truth and reality tend to be socially constructed. In other words, what is meaningful, true, and real to one in some situations may not be so for others. As Sutton (1993) has observed, the complex, diverse and changing nature of human behavior tends to resist the development of universally applicable models. Qualitative methods, appropriately applied, provide a means of gaining a sympathetic understanding of the complexities of human motivation and social interaction.


This dimension acknowledges the ambiguous and relativistic nature of social science research. Research that is based in practice typically leads to multiple, contrasting, and even contradictory interpretations because the situations and observers are unique. The notion of a single, objective, context-free "standard of truth" yields to an "analytical environment sympathetic to a pluralism of research findings and a flexible standard of what we accept as the truth" (Sutton, 1993, p. 422).


The final dimension (and perhaps the most difficult) has to do with the role of writing in qualitative research. In its simplest form, research involves careful observation and clear reporting. Cast more broadly, research can appropriately be viewed as a rich combination of observation, conceptualization, creativity, and communication. Quantitative methodologies tend to function within well-established procedural guidelines and analytical procedures. By contrast, qualitative research tends to rely more heavily on the ability of the researcher to facilitate what is essentially a three-way communication process among "human subjects, the researcher, and the researcher's audience" (Sutton, 1993, p. 426). This places a major burden on the communication and writing processes.

Implications for JITE

As we increasingly explore the challenges and opportunities associated with conducting qualitative research, it will be important to consider several points. Qualitative research methodologies will prompt many of us to rethink some basic assumptions about such things as the nature and role of research, truth, and theory. We will be challenged to extend and develop some new writing, communication, and organizational skills. Many of us will be required to retool our research skills. University reward structures will need to allow for the time, resources, and energy required to intensively engage in authentic and applied contexts. Journal editors will need to learn how to provide guidance and maintain flexibility within the constraints of page limits, the expertise of review panels, and the interests of the readers. I welcome these challenges and believe that they are good for the profession.

In This Issue

This issue contains four feature articles. Theodore Lewis employees a qualitative approach to explore the impact of the infusion of computer-based technologies into the pre-press aspect of the printing industry. In the second article, Joseph R. Cash, Michael B. Behrmann, Ronald W. Stadt, and Harry M. Daniels report the results of an exploratory study of the effectiveness of cognitive apprenticeship techniques in a college-level, automotive technology program. Third, Richard E. Satchwell explores the value of using functional flow diagrams in enhancing electronic systems understanding. In the final article, Karen H. Jones, Myra Womble, and Cynthia Searcy survey urban students' perceptions of the value of their T&I courses.

The At Issue section contains an essay by Jeffrey W. Flesher outlining an alternative framework within which to formulate research agendas. The Under Review section contains a review of Daniel Seymour's Once Upon a Campus: Lessons for Improving Quality and Productivity by Teresa Hall. The issue concludes with the Bits and Pieces section containing information about submitting manuscripts to JITE, how to become a member of NAITTE, and ordering various NAITTE publications.



Gage, N. L. (1989). The paradigm wars and their aftermath: A "historical" sketch of research on teaching since 1989. Educational Researcher, 18(7), 4-10.

Rizo, F. M. (1991). The controversy about quantification in social research: An extension of Gage's "historical sketch." Educational Researcher, 20(9), 9-12.

Sutton, B. (1993). The rationale for qualitative research: A review of principles and theoretical foundations. Library Quarterly, 63(4), 411-430.

Lazarsfeld, P. F. (1970). Notes on the history of quantification in sociology: Trends, sources and problems. Isis, 52.

Reference Citation: Custer, R. L. (1996). Qualitative research methodologies. Journal of Industrial Teacher Education, 34(2), 3-6.

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