Qualitative Inquiry and the Debate Between Hermeneutics and Critical Theory

Qualitative Inquiry

The concept of “paradigm” is a challenging one for qualitative researchers across health and social science disciplines, as it has been taken up in discussions of applied qualitative inquiry in a variety of ways (Eckberg & Hill, 1979; Guba & Lincoln, 1994; Masterson, 1970). 

The term paradigm as originally used by Thomas Kuhn (1962) has been classified into three primary levels, roughly corresponding to (a) broad metaphysical beliefs about reality and truth, (b) disciplinary practices that are accepted by and define a community, and (c) conceptual or practical accomplishments of a scientific community (Eckberg & Hill, 1979; Masterson, 1970). 

Notwithstanding Kuhn’s own resistance to the usage of “paradigm” in the broadest metaphysical sense (Eckberg & Hill, 1979), it is, nonetheless, this philosophical belief-encompassing sense of the term that has come to be seen as central to understanding one’s orientation to inquiry and to the world (Morgan, 2007). 

Indeed, Guba and Lincoln (1994) defined the term paradigm in relation to qualitative research as “a set of basic beliefs (or metaphysics) that deals with ultimates or first principles” (p. 200, emphasis in original), justifying the centrality of metaphysical and philosophical discussions to subsequent debates about quality in qualitative health research. 

Although we hold in question whether paradigms necessarily deal with “ultimates or first principles,” for the sake of this article, we take a “paradigm” to be a collection of relatively enduring philosophical beliefs about knowledge and the physical and social world(s) that are tacitly held by every individual (including researchers). 

We say “relatively” enduring because we believe that these collections of beliefs are subject to evolution and change based on the ways in which we are oriented to the world around us. What we read and experience, who we talk to, the questions we ask, and above all, whether we are open to pitting and pursuing new philosophical insights that depart from our own existing beliefs (Davies et al., 2004) can potentially lead to a deeper and more flexible under- standing of what constitutes excellent research.

Throughout this article, we question the nature of qualitative health researchers’ philosophical beliefs how they are justified and how they might be understood to impact qualitative inquiry with the hope that exploring these paradigmatic issues will help to provide insight into how and why we judge the quality of qualitative health research.

Paradigmatic Coherence in Qualitative Research 

In one of their seminal discussions of the impact of paradigmatic beliefs on the conduct of the social inquiry, Guba and Lincoln (1994) suggested that paradigms operate by determining “what falls within and outside of the limits of legitimate inquiry” for a particular researcher (p. 108). 

The “inside versus outside” metaphor illustrates a central feature of Guba and Lincoln’s version of the paradigm concept that strict boundaries exist between paradigms rendering each one incommensurable with any other (Morgan, 2007). 

According to this position, the quality of qualitative inquiry is to be judged only within the boundaries of the paradigm in which it is situated, as the transfer of indicators of quality between paradigms is considered to reflect a misunderstanding of incommensurability and the paradigm concept (Guba & Lincoln, 1994). 

In this view, quality in qualitative inquiry is to be understood within each paradigm individually as the strongest possible resonance between study procedures and the paradigmatic beliefs that inform the way the study is done (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005; Guba & Lincoln, 1994; Holloway & Todres, 2003; Seale, 1999).

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