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Qualitative Psychology © 2014 American Psychological Association

2014, Vol. 1, No. 1, 49 – 60 2326-3598/14/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/qup0000002

Pursuing Excellence in Qualitative Inquiry

Kenneth J. Gergen
Swarthmore College

Psychological science is now in a period of major transition. After almost a century of


dominance by a foundational view of empirical science, a new pluralism is sweeping
the field. We witness the rapid and global expansion of perspectives, visions, and goals
of inquiry. Partly owing to the traditional distinction between quantitative and quali-
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tative research, these pluralistic pursuits are typically gathered under the qualitative
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umbrella. As I will first propose, the criteria of excellence applicable to traditional


empirical research are mistakenly applied to most forms of qualitative inquiry. Fur-
thermore, because of their differing ontologies, epistemologies, and aims of inquiry,
there are no adequate criteria of excellence applicable across the qualitative spectrum.
Thus explored is the emergence and sustainability of criteria within communities of
practice. Within such communities, criteria of excellence become evident. At the same
time, when criteria are solidified, their rigorous application is inimical to the well-being
of the field and its contributions to society. Discussions of excellence ultimately may
profit from an orientation of reflective pragmatism.

Keywords: evaluating qualitative research, reflective pragmatism, methodological pluralism

The field of psychology has slowly begun to methods have burgeoned, along with a spate of
participate in a momentous movement occur- new journals (Qualitative Psychology, Qualita-
ring within the social sciences more generally. tive Research in Psychology, Qualitative In-
Of special significance, we find a deterioration quiry, the Qualitative Report, Forum: Qualita-
in scientific foundationalism, an increased pres- tive Social Research). On the Internet, there are
ence of ethnic and minority voices in the social now over 12 million websites containing the
sciences, and an inability of traditional experi- phrase “narrative method” alone. In the British
mental methods to speak to pressing issues of Psychological Society, the Section on Qualita-
society. As a result, interest in nontraditional tive Methods in Psychology was instituted in
forms of inquiry has burgeoned. Owing to the 2005. At present, it is the largest sections in the
traditional distinction between quantitative and BPS.
qualitative research, such explorations are typ- Among the significant issues raised by this
ically—though misleadingly— gathered under expanding movement is the challenge of evalu-
the rubric of qualitative research. Only one in- ating the emerging forms of research. With the
dicator of the emerging sea-change is the phe- traditional animus toward qualitative inquiry in
nomenal success of Denzin and Lincoln’s scientific psychology, there is little in the way
(2011) pivotal volume, The Sage Handbook of of accumulated experience in carrying out and
Qualitative Research, first published in 1994. judging qualitative work. How can newcomers
So active and innovative is the field, that by
to such inquiry proceed if they cannot ascertain
2011 this work had gone through four new
what counts as “good work?” And how can
editions. Additional handbooks on practices of
journal editors and reviewers conduct responsi-
action research, feminist research, narrative in-
quiry, field research, interviewing, and mixed ble evaluations if the criteria for excellence are
obscure? As well, the range and variation in
practices of inquiry steadily expands. Thus,
even for seasoned qualitative researchers, the
route to excellence is seldom clear. For exam-
Correspondence concerning this article should be ad-
dressed to Kenneth J. Gergen, Department of Psychology,
ple, the practice of autoethnography was intro-
Swarthmore College, 500 College Ave, Swarthmore, PA duced into the social sciences less than 20 years
19086. E-mail: Kgergen1@swarthmore.edu ago. Yet, since its inception, scholars have now
49
50 GERGEN

added duo-autoethnography, collaborative auto- tainly many circumstances in which behavioral


ethnography, and performative autoethnogra- predictions may be useful. Predictions of vot-
phy to the resources for inquiry. With this up- ing, accident rates, employee turnover, domes-
heaval in research practices, how can the tic violence, community mental health needs,
experienced researcher—to say nothing of the and educational outcomes are illustrative.
aspiring researcher or responsible gatekeeper— Yet, not all forms of psychological inquiry
know how to proceed? By what criteria should share the goal of prediction and control. It is
policymakers or the public judge such research? precisely this presumption to which the great
Debate on criteria of excellence in qualitative bulk of qualitative inquiry forms a challenge.
research are longstanding, and with the recent There are, to be sure, many qualitative research-
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flourishing of new practices, there is intense ers who work within the empiricist tradition.
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dialogue across the social sciences (cf. Devers, Their aim, in this case, is not generally to verify
1999; Elliott, Fischer, & Rennie, 1999; Fossey, a hypothesis, but to supply insights from which
Harvey, McDermott, & Davidson, 2002; Ger- more testable propositions might emerge, or to
gen, & Gergen, 2000; Guba & Lincoln, 1994; enrich and expand upon bare-bones statistical
Horsburgh, 2003; Lietz & Zayas, 2010; Max- reports. The domain of mixed-methods research
well, 2011; Morse, 2003; Reicher, 2000; Jean- is illustrative. However, for a vast number in the
freau & Jack, 2010). Clearly, there are no fixed qualitative community the goals of inquiry dif-
answers to questions of evaluation, and ongoing fer substantially from those of the traditional
dialogue is essential. However, in what follows empiricist. These researchers may variously be
I will introduce a number of considerations that concerned with understanding others’ experi-
may serve for psychologists, in particular, as ences, reducing societal alienation, directly ef-
useful entries into this dialogue. First, it will be fecting social change, exposing conditions of
useful to consider the traditional notions of re- oppression, and more. In a Kuhnian (1962)
search methods in psychology and the problem- sense, the differing paradigms of research are
atic application of these ideas to the span of incommensurable. In such contexts, empiricist
emerging qualitative practices. From the plural- criteria of research excellence are either tangen-
ist mix of contemporary orientations to inquiry, tial or inapplicable.
I will then consider five approaches that offer It is in this latter context that many qualitative
illuminating contrasts, both with each other and researchers find the concept of research meth-
with traditional empiricist methods. This dis- ods alien. At the outset, the longstanding asso-
cussion will set the stage for a discussion of ciation of the concept with the positivist/
evaluation within communities of practice, empiricist program is problematic. Many
along with their potentials and limitations. qualitative researchers see their goals as differ-
ing from this program. Others reject the term
From Methodology to Practices of Inquiry method because of its restrictive power, sug-
gesting as it does a counterproductive disciplin-
Within the field of psychology, the concept of ing of inquiry. To cite but one example, by
“research methods” is tied to a positivist/ traditional standards the questions asked in a
empiricist vision of scientific truth. From this research interview should be standardized
standpoint, the objective tracing of cause and across all respondents, and responses submitted
effect relations among variables requires sys- to coding categories. In contrast, as Ruthellen
tematic and repeatable practices of research. Josselson (2013) proposes, the interview is a
Experimental methods offer the most sophisti- complex relational process and can unfold in
cated means of achieving the scientific goals of ways that either invite or suppress the respon-
prediction and control. A premium is thus dent’s offerings. With the interviewer’s keen
placed on valid and nuanced measurement, re- sensitivity to the relationship and a continuing
liability of observations, and statistical infer- flexibility, respondents may supply far richer
ence (see Shaughnessy, Zechmeister, & Zech- and more illuminating views than can ever be
meister, 2009). Putting aside the question of obtained through standardization. Further, for
“empirical truth,” most psychologists would qualitative researchers concerned with the com-
agree that empirically supported accounts of the plexities and nuances of human meaning, con-
world can have pragmatic utility. There are cer- trolled measurement is both obstructive and
EXCELLENCE IN QUALITATIVE INQUIRY 51

misleading in its outcomes. Required is a dy- can be objectively measured through standard-
namic process of interpretation, one that re- ized instruments, while phenomenologists be-
mains open, flexible, and empathic. Iconic is lieve that understanding another’s experiences
Gadamer’s (1975/2004) volume, Truth and necessitates a sophisticated and unfolding pro-
Method, a classic critique of systematizing and cess of interpretation. Both orientations are
standardizing practices of interpreting texts. For committed to value neutrality in their practices
many in the qualitative movement there is rea- of inquiry, but with a strong contrast in the
son for replacing “methods of research” with implicit ethics. While cognitive researchers set
“practices of inquiry.” out to verify abstract hypotheses—functioning
then at a distance from their subjects of study—
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Multiple Worlds of Inquiry phenomenologists are concerned with under-


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standing others’ experiences in their own


If there is one important hallmark of the terms—thus drawing themselves closer to their
qualitative movement in the social sciences it is subjects. It is partly for the latter reason that
the enormous range of available practices. As phenomenologists play a central role in the hu-
Wertz (2011) describes, pluralism is the prom- manist movement. In terms of their goals, phe-
inent characteristic of the qualitative commu- nomenologists resist the common pursuit of
nity in psychology. In effect, the qualitative prediction and control, in hopes of establishing
movement harbors not one, but multiple alter- genuine understanding between people. In ef-
natives to the empiricist concern with prediction fect, the ontologies, epistemologies, values, and
and control. Most important for the present ar- goals of these traditions are quite separate.
guments, these diverse aims are couched in
quite disparate epistemological, ontological, Discourse Analysis
and ideological assumptions. In what follows, I
briefly contrast five different orientations to the The study of discourse has expanded dramat-
aims of inquiry, and the range of assumptions ically in recent years (see, e.g., Schiffrin, Tan-
and values in which they are lodged. This will nen, & Hamilton, 2001; Johnstone, 2007; Gee,
set the stage for asking more explicitly about 2012), and important distinctions have emerged
criteria of excellence. among its many forms. Important distinctions
can be made, for example, among traditional
Phenomenology discourse analysis (focused on specific samples
of spoken or written discourse), critical dis-
While phenomenology was once a major fix- course analysis (with its expanded concern with
ture in psychological study, the advent of be- ideology and cultural context), and conversation
haviorism in the 1930s reduced its adherents to analysis (with its focus on interdependent pat-
a small but dedicated number. Because science terns of language use in conversations). Com-
should be concerned with observables, behav- mon to all these orientations, however, is an
iorist/empiricists reasoned, phenomenology’s ontology that differs dramatically from both
subject matter— human experience—was not phenomenology and cognitive psychology.
scientific. Yet, with the later success of the Whereas these orientations are typically viewed
cognitive revolution, psychology largely re- as dualist—with a firm distinction between in-
neged on its demands for an observable subject ner process and outward behavior—the dis-
matter. The door again opened to phenomenol- course analysis community generally avoids or
ogy. While sharing with cognitive psychology a is opposed to dualism. What lies “beneath” dis-
concern with internal processes, the phenome- course—whether meaning or cognitive pro-
nologist’s ontology is substantially different. cess—is irrelevant or misleading. Discourse
For phenomenologists, concrete experience of analysis is largely a child of the poststructural
the world is a reality that demands attention; for movement in the humanities and science, and
cognitive psychologists the ontological givens most of its practitioners have resultantly aban-
are the cognitive processes that supposedly give doned concern with the longstanding search for
rise to conscious experience. Experience itself those “inner” structures or processes that sup-
is a derivative or epiphenomenon. At the same posedly give rise to behavior. As the discourse
time, the cognitivist holds that internal process analyst might say, “Here we have people’s spo-
52 GERGEN

ken or written utterances; why should we pre- view narratives as expressions of cultural life.
sume they are the outcome of some form of These are only a few of the major ways in which
“inner utterance” (e.g., private meaning, cogni- an enormous array of scholars across the disci-
tive process)? Let us focus on the way the plines approach narrative inquiry (see, e.g.,
language itself functions in human action.” Clandinin, 2007; Riessman, 2007; Daiute,
Yet, even with the abandonment of dualism, 2014). Each approach is also accompanied by a
discourse analysts tend to split between two particular epistemology, relies on its own forms
orientations, the first of which carries with it and treatments of evidence, and attaches spe-
certain empiricist vestiges, and the latter of cific values to the outcomes of study.
which can be viewed as postmodern. In the For purposes of contrast with the preceding, I
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former case, the attempt is to “get it right” with will focus here only on the use of narrative for
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respect to the outcomes of analysis. Thus, for the illumination of cultural life. More specifi-
example, many are concerned with reliable cat- cally, narrative inquiry in this case brings into
egorization, sampling, and statistics. More in- public visibility the lives of the marginalized
terestingly, the postmodernists understand that and oppressed, and the otherwise invisible con-
discourse is a major means for constructing ditions in which they live. Such work enables
worlds of intelligibility. Indeed, this is the very the reader to understand their lives “from the
reason for studying discourse processes. How- inside,” reveals their problems and plights, and
ever, they also understand that their analyses are may indirectly encourage advocacy. This form
also discursive—shared ways of making sense of narrative study shares with phenomenology
of others’ discourse. In this case there is no the goal of illuminating personal experience,
“getting it right.” The analysis is itself a con- but it does not attempt to bracket researcher
struction. assumptions or values. Narrative researchers in
The critical discourse movement provides the this case begin with the assumption that expe-
most striking contrast with traditionalist empir- rience is largely structured by narratives, and
icists, inasmuch as many of its adherents not ideology provides the motivational basis for
only tend to be postmodern in temperament, but such work. Unlike discourse analysts, narrative
generally eschew value neutrality in their anal- researchers in this case view discourse as im-
ysis. Their aims are passionate, as they attempt portant only as it can reveal the experience of
to illuminate forms of public discourse they the individual. For example, Upegui-Hernandez
view as prejudicial, oppressive, unjust, or mis- (2012) uses interview data from Domenican and
leading. The general attempt of such inquiry is Colombian young adult children of immigrants,
not to establish what is ultimately true, either to explore the problems of living with multiple
about cognition, meaning, or discourse itself. cultural identities. Hammack and Cohler (2009)
Rather, the chief hope is to liberate the society contrast the challenges through recent history
from problematic forms of speaking and writ- faced by men in realizing a gay identity. Hal-
ing, and thus to bring about social change (see bertal and Koren (2006) provide insights into
Watkins & Shulman, 2010). For example, in issues of identity among gay Orthodox Jews.
Willig’s (1999) edited volume, Applied Dis- Such work effectively functions to reduce the
course Analysis, we find critical analyses of the distance from otherwise insulated or alienated
taken-for-granted assumptions in self-help liter- groups and to illuminate the individual and so-
ature, reproductive technologies, psychiatric ciocultural processes by which identity is con-
medication, and sex education. All of these ac- structed.
counts question the nature of these fields of
practice, but not one relies on formalized data Autoethnography
analysis.
Ethnographic research—with its aim of illu-
Narrative Study minating the cultural life of a given group of
people— has long been a fixture in the social
There are many who view narrative study as sciences. And, as psychologists have joined to-
a form of discourse analysis; others employ gether with anthropologists to create a field of
narrative analysis to illuminate the narrative psychological anthropology, such research is
character of personal meaning; and still others increasingly making its way into the field of
EXCELLENCE IN QUALITATIVE INQUIRY 53

psychology. However, with the more recent Action Research


emergence of autoethnography, the landscape
changes significantly. In autoethnographic in- Action research has played an active, if mi-
quiry, insights into the culture of interest are nor, role in psychology for over 50 years. In
provided by the first-hand experiences of a cul- recent years, however, action research has bur-
tural participant. Thus, for example, autoeth- geoned. In addition to such journals as Action
nographers have variously shared experiences Research, the International Journal of Action
of living with a dying spouse, performing as a Research, and Systemic and Action Research,
pole dancer, living with a debilitating illness, there is Reason and Bradbury’s (2008) Hand-
book of Action Research. In the main, action
being a parent of an asthmatic child, and so on
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researchers typically participate with groups or


(for a review, see, Jones, Adams, & Ellis, 2013).
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organizations to achieve social change. Often


While autoethnographic inquiry is not yet a this work is motivated by investments in equal-
fixture in psychology, I choose to include it ity or social justice. In this sense, unlike tradi-
here, both to illustrate the contrast in genres of tional empiricists, and sharing much with criti-
inquiry, and because it has moved with such cal discourse analysts, action researchers are
alacrity across the social sciences disciplines. avowedly value invested. Ideology is not an
In terms of underlying epistemology, this interference with objectivity; it is the raison
shift represent a major divergence from tra- d=être of research. Action research is also res-
ditional empiricism, and indeed, all the above onant with autoethnography in its attempt to
forms of qualitative inquiry. All these tradi- undermine the distance between the researcher
tions make a clear separation between the and those “under study.” The action orientation
observer and the observed, subject and object. differs dramatically from traditional empiricism
Yet, within broad sectors of the social sci- (and certain genres of qualitative inquiry), in
ences, such traditions have all become sus- one major respect. The empiricist project is
pect. How, it is asked, can any researcher based on the assumption of a stable world, that
legitimately describe, speak for, or legiti- is, a world of entities, structures or processes
mately characterize others? Don’t researchers about which increasing knowledge can be accu-
approach “the object” from a particular stand- mulated over time. The very concept of re-
point or tradition, steeped in their own values, search—to search and to search again—sustains
and limited by their own vocabulary of de- this vision. In contrast, action research is
scription and explanation? Does such study grounded in a vision of a fluid or impermanent
not discredit or eliminate the voices of those world. All patterns of action are subject to
under study, and worse still, claim its ac- change. Attempting to increase knowledge
counts are “objectively” superior? Faced with through repeated study is problematic. The
the prospects of becoming instruments of challenge is to directly change the world.
Western colonialism, such critiques have had In sum, I have offered here five alternatives
to the assumptions and aims of traditional em-
a major impact on anthropological research
piricist inquiry. Rather than testing hypotheses
(see, e.g., Marcus & Fischer, 1986). Autoeth-
for purposes of prediction and control, they
nography serves as a significant alternative, attempt to probe the structure of human mean-
as there is no subject/object split. The cultural ing, liberate the reader from oppressive conven-
participant provides first-hand insights into a tions, give voice to oppressed minorities, reveal
way of life, in his or her own terms. The goals forms of cultural life through personal revela-
of such inquiry echo certain aims of narrative tion, and actively change society. Each of these
research focused on cultural illumination. ends is linked to relevant ontologies, epistemol-
However, most autoethnography adds further ogies, and values. Further, these five forms of
dimension in its attempt to open a direct em- qualitative inquiry are only suggestive of the
pathic relationship with the reader. One broad array of practices currently in play within
doesn’t typically read autoethnography for in- the field. With sufficient time and space, atten-
formation, but is invited to “experience with” tion could also be directed to practices of por-
the writer, potentially a very powerful form of traiture (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis (1997),
edification. performative inquiry (Gergen & Gergen, 2012),
54 GERGEN

case study analysis (Gomm, Hammersley, & others by Martin Heidegger, and a third—and
Foster, 2000), archival research (Corti, 2004), by far the largest group—loosely equating phe-
focus groups (Fern, 2001), interviewing (Jossel- nomenology with the study of personal mean-
son, 2013), grounded theory methodology ing. There are subtle but significant differences
(Charmaz, 2005), arts-based research (Barone between the first two in terms of assumptions
& Eisner, 2012), oral history (Shapes, 2011), and practices. The third group simply uses phe-
and situational analysis (Clarke, 2005), among nomenology as a catchword for a large range of
many others. To be sure, there is some overlap practices that ostensibly seem to tap personal
in values and assumptions among these and meaning. For illustrative purposes, we may con-
other forms of inquiry. However, the above sider a significant aspect of Giorgi’s (2009)
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accounts usefully demonstrate the substantial descriptive phenomenological method. In most


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contrasts in assumptions and values extant forms of inquiry the theory (and possibly the
within psychology today. And by implication, ideology) of the researcher are of paramount
they demonstrate the problematics of asserting importance. In the empiricist case, the re-
univocal criteria of excellence across the range searcher begins with a hypothesis to test; the
of qualitative endeavors. culturally oriented narrative researcher will
seek a dominant narrative; and ideological com-
Excellence Within Communities of Practice mitments heavily color the practices of critical
discourse analysis and action research. How-
Once cognizant of the multiple ontologies, ever, Giorgi argues for a “bracketing” of all
epistemologies, purposes, and values at play preconceptions and values, with the researcher
within the qualitative arena, we can appreciate remaining fully open to the experiences being
the need for multiple orientations toward eval- communicated by the subject. Researcher’s de-
uation. It is useful here to draw from Lave and scriptive analysis should be driven insofar as
Wenger’s (1991) concept of communities of possible by the subject’s structures of meaning
practice. Such communities share a craft, in- alone. In terms of comparative criteria of excel-
cluding information, experiences, and a way of lence, the major point is that in descriptive
doing things. It is important that they also share phenomenology— unlike many other practi-
tacit knowledge, forms of understanding and ces— one’s analysis should be devoid of theo-
action that are unarticulated but essential for retical and ideological prefiguration. In addition
participation in the community (Davenport & to this essential criterion, also valued are anal-
Prusak, 2002). In this context, we see that all yses that focus on the individual’s experience as
forms of qualitative inquiry are typically the opposed to environmental influences, that inte-
outcome of negotiated agreements among par- grate disparate elements into a unified whole,
ticipants in a community. Thus, if prediction and that provide insights into a larger group of
and control are aims of inquiry, sophisticated which the individual is a representative.
participants within this community will readily
be able to identify qualities of excellence; sim- Discourse Analysis
ilarly for those involved in phenomenology, ac-
tion research, and so on. For illustrative pur- Given the enormous range in the goals and
poses, it is useful to touch on some of the styles of discourse analysis, it is futile to gen-
criteria of excellence often—though not al- erate criteria of excellence common to all. For
ways— employed within these various domains. comparative purposes, critical discourse analy-
Although there are overlapping concerns, the sis does offer interesting contrasts. Given that
following point to some of the important differ- its chief aim is liberation from convention, one
ences. of the most important criteria of excellence is
the rhetorical power of the critique. Is it obscure
Phenomenology or limpid in its prose, or is it capable of acti-
vating the reader’s sense of social justice? This
The field of phenomenology is scarcely uni- demand is closely linked to the interpretive
fied, and one must distinguish among at least plausibility of the analysis. While not relying on
three different orientations. There are research- numbers, samples, reliability, and so on, can the
ers strongly influenced by Edmund Husserl, analyst—like a good lawyer—make a case for
EXCELLENCE IN QUALITATIVE INQUIRY 55

his or her interpretation? It must also be recog- and similar to most qualitative arenas, the mul-
nized that the community of critical discourse tiple aims of inquiry favor different orientations
analysis is strongly liberal in political leaning. to standards of excellence. As we have seen, in
Thus favored will be analyses that focus on the case of research attempting to provide in-
dominance, suppression, and injustice (van sight into the lives of the oppressed or margin-
Dijk, 1993). alized, some of the criteria common to the pos-
There is a more interesting and subtle point to itivist/empiricist program are relevant. The lives
be made, relevant not only to discourse analysts of those researched should be reasonably repre-
but to virtually all research influenced by post- sentative of the groups they are supposed to
modern thought. One of the central outcomes of represent. Their stories, in whatever form at-
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postmodern theory is the destruction of the pic- tained, constitute evidence for the researcher’s
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ture theory of language, that is, the assumption generalizations. However, for narrative re-
that language can function as a picture (mirror searchers in this case, a significant ethical di-
or map) of the world as it is. Writ large, this is mension is added to what counts as good re-
to say that theory is not driven by observation, search (see especially Clandinin & Connelly,
and what we take to be scientific truth is the 2000). Excellence is typically achieved by
outcome of social conventions established showing respect or otherwise honoring the
among communities of scientists. For many, voice of those represented. In my view, this
this has meant replacing empiricist foundation- sense of respect reflects a more general human-
alism with a pragmatic view of science; the ist orientation to inquiry. In one notable case,
quest is not for Truth, but for useful outcomes for example, Lather and Smithies (1997) intro-
according to some set of values. This line of duced readers to the experiences of women liv-
reasoning has led to broad concern with the ing with HIV/AIDS. Rather than interviewing
assumption of scientific validity. If there is no and interpreting their accounts, the researchers
privileged relationship between theoretical con- simply included the women’s verbatim expres-
cepts or categories, and one’s observations, then sions in the volume. However, the pages of the
how can we speak of a scientific account as book were split in various ways so the authors
valid? There is no privileged language of rep- could also feature their own reflections. Further,
resentation, and thus whatever sense we have of to be responsible to their more traditional col-
validity must rely solely on social convention. leagues, the authors included still further sec-
On the one hand, this has meant active discus- tions that featured more formal theory and re-
sion of alternatives to the notion of objective search outcomes. In effect, research excellence
validity (see, e.g., Lather, 1989; Kvale, 1995). and humanist values were fully entwined.
Concepts such as interpretive validity, transfor-
mational, and catalytic validity, circulate Autoethnography
broadly within postmodern circles. Most impor-
tant for present purposes, in abandoning the Because most people feel they have interesting
concept of empirical validity, there is a resultant and important things to say about their lives, au-
resistance against traditional realist rhetoric in toethnographic explorations have rapidly multi-
describing one’s research outcomes. Such dis- plied. And because the practice is also relatively
course is both misleading and divisive. Thus, it new to the social sciences, the criteria of excel-
is a mark of excellence within various enclaves lence remain fluid. At the same time, critics have
of discourse analysis if the researcher includes relentlessly attacked autoethnography for its unre-
critical reflection on the constructed character of liability, personal biases, and lack of generalizabil-
his or her inquiry, and can locate means of ity. From the present standpoint such critiques are
inviting the reader into reflective dialogue on largely unwarranted, as they essentially reflect the
the practice of inquiry. assumptions and values of traditional empiricism.
The aim of autoethnography is not to test hypoth-
Narrative Inquiry eses or build laws of behavior, and its participants
actively eschew the empiricist assumption that
Criteria of narrative analysis have been observers are capable of unbiased accounts of the
widely discussed (see, e.g., Riessman, 2007; other. Most important for the autoethnographer,
Gubrium & Holstein, 2009; Bamberg, 2012), then, is to draw the reader into an ulterior form of
56 GERGEN

life, and to do so in a way that the reader can value neutrality, population sampling, and gen-
viscerally feel or identify with the author. Thus, in eralizability are simply irrelevant to most of the
the autoethnographic community a premium is practices discussed above. One could argue that
placed on the quality of writing, and its rhetorical such practices are therefore unscientific, but this
potential to draw the reader close. Good autoeth- would be to assume that the concept of science
nographic reporting differs from most forms of is by definition positivist. This would both deny
qualitative and quantitative research in its approx- the historical vicissitudes in the concept of sci-
imation to works of literature. Further, a value is ence (see, e.g., Danziger, 1990; Poovey, 1998),
typically placed on the ability of the writer to and the admission of theoretical physics into the
provide insights into the lives of a particular group halls of science.
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(i.e., being imprisoned, having an eating disorder), Postpositivist attempts to provide across-the-
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.

and to linking the life-experience account to board standards are more liberal, but continue to
broader theoretical issues. flounder under the weight of paradigm multi-
plicity. For example, the prominent postpositiv-
Action Research ist Johnny Saldaña (2011) lays out the criteria of
excellence he finds important across the full
For many action researchers, the act of sharing range of inquiry. As he proposes, all qualitative
knowledge through scholarly exposition is a sec- research should provide new knowledge (fresh
ondary concern. And, because the situations in insight, information, perspective), be relevant or
which action researchers are engaged are so var- applicable to people’s lives and practices, and
ied—sometimes dramatically so—it has been dif- be rigorous (thorough, scholarly, intellectually
ficult for the community to lay down hard and fast coherent). It is difficult to imagine a research
rules as to what counts as excellence. The success practice for which these would not be relevant
of any project, while valued by empiricist re- criteria of excellence. At the same time, how-
searchers in terms of statistical significance, does ever, one might be concerned with what count
not figure as a necessary criterion of excellence. as instantiations of excellence. What is new
For action researchers, “we learn by our failures.” knowledge for one community may be banal or
And, unlike empiricists, the ideological implica- trivial for another. Within the scholarly commu-
tions of the effort do make a difference. A project nity, research relevant to practices of health care
helping street people to organize, for example, would likely pass muster, while research speak-
would be valued in a way that helping insurance ing to issues of good grooming would not. And
salesmen to make more profit would not. For there are clearly limits to rigor: a report citing
action researchers, the orientation to representa- 20 scholarly articles would probably be pre-
tion also differs from many other qualitative ferred to one citing 200; a chatty narrative
scholars. Goals of verisimilitude, rhetorical would most likely be preferred to a report in the
power, empathy, and “writerliness” are overshad- style of analytic philosophy.
owed by the desire to share practices in a straight- Other Saldaña criteria are also compelling,
forward way. The primary aim is to show others but questionable when applied uniformly across
how they might proceed. Clarity in the service of communities of practice. While Saldaña cham-
social change is essential. pions research that respects participant voices,
critical discourse analysis is significant pre-
Criteria Beyond Community? cisely in its attempt to undermine dominant
discourses. And, while most qualitative re-
Attempts to generate general criteria of ex- searchers would agree with Saldaña’s emphasis
cellence flourish across the social sciences (cf. on pragmatic outcomes over theory (which he
Devers, 1999; Elliott et al., 1999; Fossey et al., finds “pretentious”), for many scholars the very
2002; Horsburgh, 2003; Lietz & Zayas, 2010; rationale for research lies in its relevance to a
Maxwell, 2011; Morse, 2003; Jeanfreau & Jack, theoretical framework. Other accounts run into
2010). By and large, such attempts fall into one similar problems of generalized prescriptions.
of two camps: positivist or postpositivist. As In their appraisal, Fossey et al. (2002) proclaim
previously argued, positivist criteria are largely that “central to good qualitative research is
inapplicable to many forms of qualitative in- whether the subjects’ subjective meanings, ac-
quiry. For example, criteria such as validity, tions, and social contexts, as understood by
EXCELLENCE IN QUALITATIVE INQUIRY 57

them, are illuminated” (p. 717). Many discourse justified in using the conventional criteria, and
researchers would indeed reject the presump- the academic system rewards those who remain
tion that subjective meanings can be illuminated within the community. Yet, it is precisely this
at all. Criteria of excellence may also shift and inertial movement and attendant self-satisfac-
develop as the dialogue of evaluation unfolds. tion that has—for decades—stunted the growth
For example, Frosh (2007) criticizes narrative and development of qualitative practices in psy-
research for producing integrated accounts of chology. So powerful was the grip of the em-
individual experience, thus failing to recognize piricist vision of psychology that qualitative
the polyvocality of the person, and suppressing inquiry was under threat of extinction.
the range of “that which could not be said.” It is the freedom from foundational con-
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Many within the postpositivist arena also em- straints that has sparked the explosion in qual-
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phasize the importance of reflexivity as a crite- itative initiatives in the social sciences more
rion of excellence. Yet, as Finlay (2002) points generally. With this freedom from foundations,
out, there are multiple forms of reflexivity, each researchers have generated an enormous range
of which has certain advantages and liabilities. of new research practices, thus enriching prodi-
In sum, there is good reason for caution in giously the potentials of the socials sciences.
establishing practice-wide criteria of excel- Recent entries into the domain of qualitative
lence. This is not, however, to plump for hard inquiry include critical arts-based research, eth-
and fast criteria that are practice-specific. Not nodrama, oral history, online ethnography, po-
only would this impede the kind of reflective etry, composite short stories, dialogue, and a
dialogue that will emerge from shifting views host of visual innovations. Further, with ex-
and values, but would also be injurious to the panding critiques of the Western values saturat-
development of new practices. I will visit this ing traditional research methods (see, e.g.,
topic momentarily. In my view, it may be most Smith, 1999), there is a mounting demand for
useful to the field to share a set of highly general including the world’s offerings of indigenous
criteria, minimally specifying the kinds of ac- methods into the social sciences. As Smith and
tivities honored within the broad spectrum of Deemer (2000) note in their essay on “The
qualitative inquiry. For example, does the re- Problem of Criteria in the Age of Relativism,”
search contribute further to our understanding, there are no rational foundations for exclusion.
is it linked to relevant dialogues in the field, is And as Correa (2013) underscores, practices of
it rigorous in design and implementation, and is inquiry also involve moral and political issues.
the writing coherent and understandable? Such Thus, summarily closing the door on any form
abstract criteria leave open the possibilities for of research practice would constitute an oppres-
multiple interpretations, specific to the various sive act. Opening a space for hybrids and inno-
traditions of practice. vations is essential. As Wenger, McDermott,
and Snyder (2002) propose, to retain their vi-
The Perils of Excellence brancy, communities of practice must evolve
with changing circumstances. Hard and fast
As I am proposing, the many disparate com- standards of excellence stifle the evolutionary
munities now contributing to the field of quali- process. In Andrew Sparkes’ (2002) words, one
tative inquiry each thrive on locally negotiated must resist the temptation to “seek universal
agreements concerning “good science.” In a foundational criteria, lest one form of dogma
sense, each constitutes a “discipline,” inasmuch simply replaces another” (p. 223).
as it drifts toward setting standards of practice
for its participants. And, while there is much to Toward a Reflective Pragmatism
be said for recognizing and systematizing crite-
ria of excellence, it is also important to recog- One limitation in the continuing discussion of
nize significant shortcomings. Most promi- research excellence is the focus on the practices
nently, in establishing disciplined practices, one of inquiry themselves. Indeed, the entirety of
also produces constraint. Courses in research the present analysis—focusing as it does on five
methods focus on the established practices, re- different practices—follows this tradition. I
searchers feel comfortable by participating in have also noted, however, that each practice is
the given conventions, journal reviewers feel linked to a particular set of goals—illuminating
58 GERGEN

experience, reducing social distance, direct so- struct a world in which certain classes of people
cial change—and the like. Such goals fall rather are valued over others. In other instances—
naturally from the ontologies, epistemologies, critical discourse analysis and action research—
and values implicit in the practices. In this the researcher’s values are transparent. If plu-
sense, by adding new practices of inquiry to the ralism is to flourish within the spectrum of
discipline, we add to its potential endeavors. qualitative inquiry, and if the field is to be
However, in thinking about research excellence responsive and responsible to the broader soci-
it is also useful to reverse the emphasis, begin- ety, reflection on the ideological and political
ning with the goals we might wish to accom- consequences of one’s goals and practices is
plish, and then asking about the practices of essential. In the choice and creation of practices,
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inquiry enabling these goals to be achieved. We we favor forms of life. Inquiry without reflec-
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have been victims, in this sense, of what Cham- tion on what is being favored and for whom is
berlain (2000) calls “methodolatry”, that is, the ultimately injurious to the profession and public
tendency to give primary attention to one’s alike.
methods of study over the ends one hopes to
achieve. Providential Practices of Evaluation
An opening to this reversal of emphasis is
found in Flick’s (2007) call for “method- Psychological science is now entering a pe-
appropriate criteria.” In asking whether the re- riod of major transition. We have experienced
search practice matches the goals of inquiry, the almost a century of dominance by a founda-
question of excellence in practice per se is di- tional view of empirical science. And, regard-
minished, and the assumptive background of the less of its foibles, this view did provide stable
practice becomes muted. We move, then to a and widely shared guidelines for excellence in
fully pragmatic orientation to inquiry. The chief inquiry. Such a view, however, could only be
question becomes, “what do you wish to accom- sustained through insularity. We now witness
plish?” With the goal of inquiry now salient, the rapid and global expansion of perspectives,
two issues of excellence follow. First, what visions, and goals of inquiry. And, with the
practice(s) will maximally enable the goal to be emergence of multiple new voices on the scien-
achieved—whether, for example, it is social tific scene— bearing different epistemologies,
critique, community organizing, or exploring ontologies, and values—the criteria for research
the effects of smoking on attention. Are there excellence become obscured. Drawing from the
multiple practices that may be deployed? preceding account, I offer the following conclu-
Would it be most useful to create a new prac- sions.
tice? In this case we would be less focused on –The wholesale application of empiricist cri-
whether the research were performed according teria of excellence to a vast range of practices
to a particular community’s standards, and most within the qualitative domain is unwarranted
concerned with if whether one’s practices— of and obfuscating. We confront in psychology
whatever sort— contributed to the outcome. If and the social sciences more generally, a wide
we come to view research practices in this way, spectrum of research paradigms, none of which
they would essentially become supportive re- possess rational or ideological grounds for
sources in the service of achieving one or more claiming superiority. The empiricist paradigm is
specific goals. What resources are needed to only one among many, with both potentials and
“make the case,” “change a school system,” limitations.
“predict a given activity,” and so on. Choices –Except at the most general level, we may
here can be both wise and foolish; a reflective properly abandon the quest for univocal criteria
pragmatism is essential. of research excellence. We should welcome
Yet, reflection on the means to an end is continuing dialogue on issues of excellence, but
insufficient. As the preceding analysis makes without attempting to legislate for all.
clear, all practices of inquiry carry with them –Criteria of excellence can be recognized
values. In their implementation we sustain these within separate research communities, and such
values. Such effects may be subtle, as in the criteria are linked to the specific conceptions
case of intelligence testing and DSM categori- and values shared within these communities.
zations. Both methods of measurement con- With community stability, criteria of excellence
EXCELLENCE IN QUALITATIVE INQUIRY 59

may become clear, and their application may be Davenport, T. H., & Prusak, L. (2000). Working
considered locally legitimate. knowledge: How organizations manage what they
–Community understandings are fragile; con- know (2nd ed). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business
ceptions and values evolve over time. Thus, School Press.
Denzin, N., & Lincoln, Y. (Eds.). (2011). The Sage
major criteria at one point in time may be mar- handbook of qualitative research (4th ed.). Thou-
ginal at another. Community borders are also sand Oaks, CA: Sage.
porous, so that new hybrids may emerge at any Devers, K. J. (1999). How will we know “good”
time. Criteria of excellence should remain open qualitative research when we see it? Beginning the
to continuous reflection. dialogue in health services research. Health Ser-
–As an approach to inquiry and evaluation, a vice Research, 34, 1153–1188.
This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.

reflective pragmatism may be optimal. Para- Elliott, R., Fischer, C. T., & Rennie, D. L. (1999).
This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers.

mount in this case is first the question of Evolving guidelines for publication of research
whether the supporting practices effectively studies in psychology and related fields. British
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