Musings on interpretivism

Something happened at my children’s school the other day that prompted me to muse again about interpretivism. It doesn’t matter what exactly the incident was, but let’s say that it was something as simple as a teacher asking some pupils to keep the noise down during a group task. How many different ways are there to interpret this event? 

Just from the perspective of the children who were approached, there are many ways in which this could be interpreted. 

  1. We were being noisy and the teacher asked us to be quiet. 
  1. We were being noisy and the teacher told us to be quiet. 
  1. We were being noisy and the teacher shouted at us to be quiet. 
  1. We were being noisy and the teacher shouted at us to shut up. 
  1. The teacher told us to be quiet and we weren’t even being noisy. 
  1. The teacher shouted at us for no reason. 
  1. We weren’t doing anything wrong and the teacher picked on us. 
  1. My friends/people on my table were being noisy, not me, but the teacher shouted at all of us. 
  1. Everyone was being noisy but the teacher only asked our table to be quiet. 

These nine viewpoints clearly aren’t exhaustive, but there are subtle differences between being asked, told or shouted at to be quiet or to shut up. The perception of what ‘noisy’ means is contextual and personal. The perspectives are full of emotion. They are human. 

Add to this the perspective of the teacher, which could be: 

  1. I looked over at the noisy table and raised my eyebrows. 
  1. I looked over at the noisy table, put my fingers to my lips and said ‘shh’. 
  1. I asked the children on the noisy table to lower the volume and we had a joke about it. 
  1. I asked the children on the noisy table to keep the volume down and had to raise my voice to be heard. 
  1. I told the children to calm down as they were arguing loudly. 
  1. I had already asked this group to keep the noise down but they were still noisy so I had to tell them again to keep it down. 

Again, this list of six perspectives is not exhaustive. And, again, the description of the incident relies on one person’s memory and their interpretation of the event.  

Finally, add the perspectives of the other children in the classroom, which would be far too many to list here but could range from not even knowing that the incident had taken place to being shocked that the teacher shouted suddenly and scared them. 

Now imagine that the incident was a lot more complex than a teacher asking a group of children to be quiet, not all the respondents were there for the whole of the incident, the incident was some time ago so memories may have faded, other experiences might have affected how people felt about the incident, some people prefer not to talk about it at all…  

But that’s how people are and that’s how life is. It’s complex and unpredictable and difficult to interpret. This is why qualitative research is complex and difficult and why interpretivism is an important philosophical position for researchers. 

Interpretivists believe that reality is subjective and is made up of multiple perspectives, as shown in the example above, thereby being socially constructed. Research participants’ responses are inevitably personal, informed by their values and beliefs, possibly emotional rather than rational, subject to memories fading or cheating, value-laden and potentially biased. Not only are the research participants interpreting the world when they take part, but the researcher must also interpret what the participants say. This adds a further level of complexity to the research and means the researcher must be super careful to avoid bias wherever possible. Frankly, it’s a minefield. Even as an interpretivist myself, I can see why some researchers prefer the black and white of positivism. I am constantly dealing in many shades of grey and maybes, rather than the certainty of black and white, yes and no. 

There are ways, of course, of reducing the potential bias. And interpretivism is not always looking for definitive answers. Interpretivists find themes and issues in their research data – the participants’ responses may not be identical, but they may raise the same points and cover the same issues, leading to the formation of themes. It is then the richness of the examples given by participants – in their own words, with their own perspectives and full of their own emotional understanding – that provides the researcher with the supporting evidence for the themes and issues identified. This is why I enjoy interpretivist research – it uses real people’s stories, ideas, evaluations, perceptions, thoughts, comments and judgements and embraces them in all their humanity to find answers to research problems or identify ways of working or being. For me, despite its challenges, this is much more interesting than a yes or no. 

But does this help us to work out exactly what happened in that classroom? With multiple views you may reach a point at which a theme or idea will arise that is more common than others and you may be able to form a conclusion that this is likely to be what actually happened. But without video evidence you might never be certain. And even video evidence has its drawbacks. But that’s for musing on another time. 

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