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Educational Research Basics by Del Siegle

Qualitative research.

Although researchers in anthropology and sociology have used the approach known as qualitative research  for a century, the term was not used in the social sciences until the late 1960s. The term qualitative research is used as an umbrella term to refer to several research strategies. Five common types of qualitative research are grounded theory , ethnographic , narrative research , case studies , and phenomenology.

It is unfair to judge qualitative research by a quantitative research paradigm, just as it is unfair to judge quantitative research from the qualitative research paradigm .

“Qualitative researchers seek to make sense of personal stories and the ways in which they intersect” (Glesne & Peshkin, 1992). As one qualitative researcher noted, “I knew that I was not at home in the world of numbers long before I realized that I was at home in the world of words.”

The data collected in qualitative research has been termed “soft”, “that is, rich in description of people, places, and conversations, and not easily handled by statistical procedures.” Researchers do not approach their research with specific questions to answer or hypotheses to test. They are concerned with understanding behavior from the subject’s own frame of reference. Qualitative researcher believe that “multiple ways of interpreting experiences are available to each of us through interacting with others, and that it is the meaning of our experiences that constitutes reality. Reality, consequently,  is ‘socially constructed'” (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992).

Data is usually collected through sustained contact with people in the settings where they normally spend their time. Participant observations and in-depth interviewing are the two most common ways to collect data. “The researcher enters the world of the people he or she plans to study, gets to know, be known, and trusted by them, and systematically keeps a detailed written record of what is heard and observed. This material is supplemented by other data such as [artifacts], school memos and records, newspaper articles, and photographs” (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992).

Rather than test theories, qualitative researchers often inductively analyze their data and develop theories through a process that Strauss called ” developing grounded theory “. They use purposive sampling to select the people they study. Subjects are selected because of who they are and what they know, rather than by chance.

Some key terms:

Access to a group is often made possible by a gate keeper . The gate keeper is the person who helps you gain access to the people you wish to study. In a school setting it might be a principal.

Most qualitative studies involve at least one key informant . The key informant knows the inside scoop and can point you to other people who have valuable information. The “key informant” is not necessarily the same as the gate keeper. A custodian might be a good key informant to understanding faculty interactions. The process of one subject recommending that you talk with another subject is called “ snowballing .”

Qualitative researchers use rich-thick description when they write their research reports. Unlike quantitative research where the researcher wished to generalize his or her findings beyond the sample from whom the data was drawn, qualitative researcher provide rich-thick descriptions for their readers and let their readers determine if the situation described in the qualitative study applies to the reader’s situation. Qualitative researchers do not use the terms validity and reliability. Instead they are concerned about the trustworthiness of their research.

Qualitative researchers often begin their interviews with grand tour questions . Grand tour questions are open ended questions that allow the interviewee to set the direction of the interview. The interviewer then follows the leads that the interviewee provides. The interviewer can always return to his or her preplanned interview questions after the leads have been followed.

Qualitative researchers continue to collect data until they reach a point of data saturation . Data saturation occurs when the researcher is no longer hearing or seeing new information. Unlike quantitative researchers who wait until the end of the study to analyze their data, qualitative researcher analyze their data throughout their study.

Note:   It is beyond the scope of this course to provide an extensive overview of qualitative research. Our purpose is to make you aware of this research option, and hopefully help you develop an appreciation of it. Qualitative research has become a popular research procedure in education.

Del Siegle, PhD [email protected] www.delsiegle.info

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  • What Is Qualitative Research? | Methods & Examples

What Is Qualitative Research? | Methods & Examples

Published on June 19, 2020 by Pritha Bhandari . Revised on June 22, 2023.

Qualitative research involves collecting and analyzing non-numerical data (e.g., text, video, or audio) to understand concepts, opinions, or experiences. It can be used to gather in-depth insights into a problem or generate new ideas for research.

Qualitative research is the opposite of quantitative research , which involves collecting and analyzing numerical data for statistical analysis.

Qualitative research is commonly used in the humanities and social sciences, in subjects such as anthropology, sociology, education, health sciences, history, etc.

  • How does social media shape body image in teenagers?
  • How do children and adults interpret healthy eating in the UK?
  • What factors influence employee retention in a large organization?
  • How is anxiety experienced around the world?
  • How can teachers integrate social issues into science curriculums?

Table of contents

Approaches to qualitative research, qualitative research methods, qualitative data analysis, advantages of qualitative research, disadvantages of qualitative research, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about qualitative research.

Qualitative research is used to understand how people experience the world. While there are many approaches to qualitative research, they tend to be flexible and focus on retaining rich meaning when interpreting data.

Common approaches include grounded theory, ethnography , action research , phenomenological research, and narrative research. They share some similarities, but emphasize different aims and perspectives.

Qualitative research approaches
Approach What does it involve?
Grounded theory Researchers collect rich data on a topic of interest and develop theories .
Researchers immerse themselves in groups or organizations to understand their cultures.
Action research Researchers and participants collaboratively link theory to practice to drive social change.
Phenomenological research Researchers investigate a phenomenon or event by describing and interpreting participants’ lived experiences.
Narrative research Researchers examine how stories are told to understand how participants perceive and make sense of their experiences.

Note that qualitative research is at risk for certain research biases including the Hawthorne effect , observer bias , recall bias , and social desirability bias . While not always totally avoidable, awareness of potential biases as you collect and analyze your data can prevent them from impacting your work too much.

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Each of the research approaches involve using one or more data collection methods . These are some of the most common qualitative methods:

  • Observations: recording what you have seen, heard, or encountered in detailed field notes.
  • Interviews:  personally asking people questions in one-on-one conversations.
  • Focus groups: asking questions and generating discussion among a group of people.
  • Surveys : distributing questionnaires with open-ended questions.
  • Secondary research: collecting existing data in the form of texts, images, audio or video recordings, etc.
  • You take field notes with observations and reflect on your own experiences of the company culture.
  • You distribute open-ended surveys to employees across all the company’s offices by email to find out if the culture varies across locations.
  • You conduct in-depth interviews with employees in your office to learn about their experiences and perspectives in greater detail.

Qualitative researchers often consider themselves “instruments” in research because all observations, interpretations and analyses are filtered through their own personal lens.

For this reason, when writing up your methodology for qualitative research, it’s important to reflect on your approach and to thoroughly explain the choices you made in collecting and analyzing the data.

Qualitative data can take the form of texts, photos, videos and audio. For example, you might be working with interview transcripts, survey responses, fieldnotes, or recordings from natural settings.

Most types of qualitative data analysis share the same five steps:

  • Prepare and organize your data. This may mean transcribing interviews or typing up fieldnotes.
  • Review and explore your data. Examine the data for patterns or repeated ideas that emerge.
  • Develop a data coding system. Based on your initial ideas, establish a set of codes that you can apply to categorize your data.
  • Assign codes to the data. For example, in qualitative survey analysis, this may mean going through each participant’s responses and tagging them with codes in a spreadsheet. As you go through your data, you can create new codes to add to your system if necessary.
  • Identify recurring themes. Link codes together into cohesive, overarching themes.

There are several specific approaches to analyzing qualitative data. Although these methods share similar processes, they emphasize different concepts.

Qualitative data analysis
Approach When to use Example
To describe and categorize common words, phrases, and ideas in qualitative data. A market researcher could perform content analysis to find out what kind of language is used in descriptions of therapeutic apps.
To identify and interpret patterns and themes in qualitative data. A psychologist could apply thematic analysis to travel blogs to explore how tourism shapes self-identity.
To examine the content, structure, and design of texts. A media researcher could use textual analysis to understand how news coverage of celebrities has changed in the past decade.
To study communication and how language is used to achieve effects in specific contexts. A political scientist could use discourse analysis to study how politicians generate trust in election campaigns.

Qualitative research often tries to preserve the voice and perspective of participants and can be adjusted as new research questions arise. Qualitative research is good for:

  • Flexibility

The data collection and analysis process can be adapted as new ideas or patterns emerge. They are not rigidly decided beforehand.

  • Natural settings

Data collection occurs in real-world contexts or in naturalistic ways.

  • Meaningful insights

Detailed descriptions of people’s experiences, feelings and perceptions can be used in designing, testing or improving systems or products.

  • Generation of new ideas

Open-ended responses mean that researchers can uncover novel problems or opportunities that they wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.

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Researchers must consider practical and theoretical limitations in analyzing and interpreting their data. Qualitative research suffers from:

  • Unreliability

The real-world setting often makes qualitative research unreliable because of uncontrolled factors that affect the data.

  • Subjectivity

Due to the researcher’s primary role in analyzing and interpreting data, qualitative research cannot be replicated . The researcher decides what is important and what is irrelevant in data analysis, so interpretations of the same data can vary greatly.

  • Limited generalizability

Small samples are often used to gather detailed data about specific contexts. Despite rigorous analysis procedures, it is difficult to draw generalizable conclusions because the data may be biased and unrepresentative of the wider population .

  • Labor-intensive

Although software can be used to manage and record large amounts of text, data analysis often has to be checked or performed manually.

If you want to know more about statistics , methodology , or research bias , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

  • Chi square goodness of fit test
  • Degrees of freedom
  • Null hypothesis
  • Discourse analysis
  • Control groups
  • Mixed methods research
  • Non-probability sampling
  • Quantitative research
  • Inclusion and exclusion criteria

Research bias

  • Rosenthal effect
  • Implicit bias
  • Cognitive bias
  • Selection bias
  • Negativity bias
  • Status quo bias

Quantitative research deals with numbers and statistics, while qualitative research deals with words and meanings.

Quantitative methods allow you to systematically measure variables and test hypotheses . Qualitative methods allow you to explore concepts and experiences in more detail.

There are five common approaches to qualitative research :

  • Grounded theory involves collecting data in order to develop new theories.
  • Ethnography involves immersing yourself in a group or organization to understand its culture.
  • Narrative research involves interpreting stories to understand how people make sense of their experiences and perceptions.
  • Phenomenological research involves investigating phenomena through people’s lived experiences.
  • Action research links theory and practice in several cycles to drive innovative changes.

Data collection is the systematic process by which observations or measurements are gathered in research. It is used in many different contexts by academics, governments, businesses, and other organizations.

There are various approaches to qualitative data analysis , but they all share five steps in common:

  • Prepare and organize your data.
  • Review and explore your data.
  • Develop a data coding system.
  • Assign codes to the data.
  • Identify recurring themes.

The specifics of each step depend on the focus of the analysis. Some common approaches include textual analysis , thematic analysis , and discourse analysis .

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The Oxford Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods in Education

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The Oxford Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods in Education  

Edited by: george w. noblit.

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods in Education has brought together scholars from across the globe who use qualitative methods in their research to address the history, current uses, adaptations for specific knowledge domains and situations, and problematics that drive the methodology. This is the most comprehensive resource available on qualitative methods in education. For novice researchers, the Encyclopedia enables a broad view of the methods and how to enact them in the studies that early-career researchers may wish to conduct. For the experienced researcher, the range of approaches and adaptations covered enables the development of sophisticated methodological designs. For those who are qualitative research methodologists, this book reveals where the methodology has come from and where it is going. Methodologists can use these volumes to discern where new ideas and practices are needed, and provide the bases for new methodological works. For those who teach these methods, the Encyclopedia is an invaluable compendium that can be tapped for inclusion in courses and to enable the instructor to be able to quickly respond to specific student needs with high-quality methodological resources.

Bibliographic Information

Affiliations are at time of print publication..

George W. Noblit is Joseph R. Neikirk Distinguished Professor of Sociology of Education (Emeritus) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the recipient of lifetime achievement award (2019) and the Mentoring Award (2017) from Division G of AERA, and the Mary Ann Raywid Award from the Society of Professors of Education (2016). He is an internationally known qualitative research methodologist. He has several books on qualitative methods including: Cultural Constructions of Identity: Meta-ethnography and theory (Oxford University Press, 2018, co-edited with Luis Urrieta, Jr.); Postcritical Ethnography (Hampton Press, 2004, co-edited with Susana Y. Flores and Enrique G. Murillo, Jr.); Particularities (Peter Lang, 1999); and Meta-Ethnography (Sage, 1988, co-authored with R. Dwight Hare). He is the founding editor in chief of the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education.

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Actor–network theory, a history of qualitative research in education in china, anarchy and qualitative methods, anthropology and education in argentina, anthropology and research methodology, archives and qualitative research in education (from foucault and bourdieu’s approaches), arts-based action research in the north, arts-based research, autoethnography, biographical approaches in education, biographical approaches in education in germany, black feminist thought and qualitative research in education, classification process of languages in schools, collaboration in educational ethnography in latin america, comparative case study methodology and teacher education, comparative case study research, complexity theory as a guide to qualitative methodology in teacher education, critical discourse analysis and information and communication technology in education, critical perspectives on evaluative research on educational technology policies in latin america, front matter, publishing information, editorial board, about the oxford research encyclopedia of education, topical outline of articles, directory of contributors.

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Qualitative vs. Quantitative Research: Comparing the Methods and Strategies for Education Research

A woman sits at a library table with stacks of books and a laptop.

No matter the field of study, all research can be divided into two distinct methodologies: qualitative and quantitative research. Both methodologies offer education researchers important insights.

Education research assesses problems in policy, practices, and curriculum design, and it helps administrators identify solutions. Researchers can conduct small-scale studies to learn more about topics related to instruction or larger-scale ones to gain insight into school systems and investigate how to improve student outcomes.

Education research often relies on the quantitative methodology. Quantitative research in education provides numerical data that can prove or disprove a theory, and administrators can easily share the number-based results with other schools and districts. And while the research may speak to a relatively small sample size, educators and researchers can scale the results from quantifiable data to predict outcomes in larger student populations and groups.

Qualitative vs. Quantitative Research in Education: Definitions

Although there are many overlaps in the objectives of qualitative and quantitative research in education, researchers must understand the fundamental functions of each methodology in order to design and carry out an impactful research study. In addition, they must understand the differences that set qualitative and quantitative research apart in order to determine which methodology is better suited to specific education research topics.

Generate Hypotheses with Qualitative Research

Qualitative research focuses on thoughts, concepts, or experiences. The data collected often comes in narrative form and concentrates on unearthing insights that can lead to testable hypotheses. Educators use qualitative research in a study’s exploratory stages to uncover patterns or new angles.

Form Strong Conclusions with Quantitative Research

Quantitative research in education and other fields of inquiry is expressed in numbers and measurements. This type of research aims to find data to confirm or test a hypothesis.

Differences in Data Collection Methods

Keeping in mind the main distinction in qualitative vs. quantitative research—gathering descriptive information as opposed to numerical data—it stands to reason that there are different ways to acquire data for each research methodology. While certain approaches do overlap, the way researchers apply these collection techniques depends on their goal.

Interviews, for example, are common in both modes of research. An interview with students that features open-ended questions intended to reveal ideas and beliefs around attendance will provide qualitative data. This data may reveal a problem among students, such as a lack of access to transportation, that schools can help address.

An interview can also include questions posed to receive numerical answers. A case in point: how many days a week do students have trouble getting to school, and of those days, how often is a transportation-related issue the cause? In this example, qualitative and quantitative methodologies can lead to similar conclusions, but the research will differ in intent, design, and form.

Taking a look at behavioral observation, another common method used for both qualitative and quantitative research, qualitative data may consider a variety of factors, such as facial expressions, verbal responses, and body language.

On the other hand, a quantitative approach will create a coding scheme for certain predetermined behaviors and observe these in a quantifiable manner.

Qualitative Research Methods

  • Case Studies : Researchers conduct in-depth investigations into an individual, group, event, or community, typically gathering data through observation and interviews.
  • Focus Groups : A moderator (or researcher) guides conversation around a specific topic among a group of participants.
  • Ethnography : Researchers interact with and observe a specific societal or ethnic group in their real-life environment.
  • Interviews : Researchers ask participants questions to learn about their perspectives on a particular subject.

Quantitative Research Methods

  • Questionnaires and Surveys : Participants receive a list of questions, either closed-ended or multiple choice, which are directed around a particular topic.
  • Experiments : Researchers control and test variables to demonstrate cause-and-effect relationships.
  • Observations : Researchers look at quantifiable patterns and behavior.
  • Structured Interviews : Using a predetermined structure, researchers ask participants a fixed set of questions to acquire numerical data.

Choosing a Research Strategy

When choosing which research strategy to employ for a project or study, a number of considerations apply. One key piece of information to help determine whether to use a qualitative vs. quantitative research method is which phase of development the study is in.

For example, if a project is in its early stages and requires more research to find a testable hypothesis, qualitative research methods might prove most helpful. On the other hand, if the research team has already established a hypothesis or theory, quantitative research methods will provide data that can validate the theory or refine it for further testing.

It’s also important to understand a project’s research goals. For instance, do researchers aim to produce findings that reveal how to best encourage student engagement in math? Or is the goal to determine how many students are passing geometry? These two scenarios require distinct sets of data, which will determine the best methodology to employ.

In some situations, studies will benefit from a mixed-methods approach. Using the goals in the above example, one set of data could find the percentage of students passing geometry, which would be quantitative. The research team could also lead a focus group with the students achieving success to discuss which techniques and teaching practices they find most helpful, which would produce qualitative data.

Learn How to Put Education Research into Action

Those with an interest in learning how to harness research to develop innovative ideas to improve education systems may want to consider pursuing a doctoral degree. American University’s School of Education online offers a Doctor of Education (EdD) in Education Policy and Leadership that prepares future educators, school administrators, and other education professionals to become leaders who effect positive changes in schools. Courses such as Applied Research Methods I: Enacting Critical Research provides students with the techniques and research skills needed to begin conducting research exploring new ways to enhance education. Learn more about American’ University’s EdD in Education Policy and Leadership .

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Qualitative research in education : Background information

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  • SAGE researchmethods SAGE Research Methods is a tool created to help researchers, faculty and students with their research projects. Users can explore methods concepts to help them design research projects, understand particular methods or identify a new method, conduct their research, and write up their findings. Since SAGE Research Methods focuses on methodology rather than disciplines, it can be used across the social sciences, health sciences, and other areas of research.
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Qualitative Research in Education

Qualitative Research in Education

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The fourth edition of this reader-friendly book offers an accessible introduction to conducting qualitative research in education. The text begins with an introduction to the history, context, and traditions of qualitative research, and then walks readers step-by-step through the research process. Lichtman outlines research planning and design, as well as the methodologies, techniques, and strategies to help researchers make the best use of their qualitative investigation. Throughout, chapters touch on important issues that impact this research process such as ethics and subjectivity and making use of technology.

The fourth edition has been thoroughly revised and updated featuring new examples, an increased focus on virtual and digital data collection, and the latest approaches to qualitative research.

Written in a practical, conversational style and full of real-world scenarios drawn from across education, this book is a practical compendium on qualitative research in education ideal for graduate and advanced undergraduate research methods courses and early career researchers alike.

Hear  Marilyn discuss what inspired her to write this fourth edition and what readers can expect. In this podcast episode of The Qualitative Report, she discusses the various types of qualitative research and what defines quality and rigor as well as current issues in education and how qualitative research methods can be used to address them. Finally, she shares her thoughts about technology and the future of qualitative research.


Chapter | 10  pages, introduction, part i | 112  pages, traditions, theory, and practice, chapter 12chapter 1 | 26  pages, overview of the field, chapter chapter 2 | 25  pages, learning how to be a qualitative researcher, chapter chapter 3 | 28  pages, ethical issues in qualitative research, chapter chapter 4 | 16  pages, reflexivity and subjectivity, chapter chapter 5 | 15  pages, philosophy, theory, theories, and frameworks, part ii | 120  pages, planning your research, chapter 124chapter 6 | 16  pages, identifying research areas, topics, and main question, chapter chapter 7 | 18  pages, role and function of a review of research, chapter chapter 8 | 16  pages, using social media, technology, and the internet, chapter chapter 9 | 38  pages, designing your research: part 1, chapter chapter 10 | 30  pages, designing your research: part 2, part iii | 112  pages, collecting, organizing, and communicating, chapter 244chapter 11 | 23  pages, judging and evaluating, chapter chapter 12 | 31  pages, gathering data (interviews, observations, documents, other), chapter chapter 13 | 24  pages, making meaning from your data, chapter chapter 14 | 23  pages, communicating and connecting, chapter chapter 15 | 9  pages, thinking about the future.

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Article contents

Feminist theory and its use in qualitative research in education.

  • Emily Freeman Emily Freeman University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190264093.013.1193
  • Published online: 28 August 2019

Feminist theory rose in prominence in educational research during the 1980s and experienced a resurgence in popularity during the late 1990s−2010s. Standpoint epistemologies, intersectionality, and feminist poststructuralism are the most prevalent theories, but feminist researchers often work across feminist theoretical thought. Feminist qualitative research in education encompasses a myriad of methods and methodologies, but projects share a commitment to feminist ethics and theories. Among the commitments are the understanding that knowledge is situated in the subjectivities and lived experiences of both researcher and participants and research is deeply reflexive. Feminist theory informs both research questions and the methodology of a project in addition to serving as a foundation for analysis. The goals of feminist educational research include dismantling systems of oppression, highlighting gender-based disparities, and seeking new ways of constructing knowledge.

  • feminist theories
  • qualitative research
  • educational research
  • positionality
  • methodology


Feminist qualitative research begins with the understanding that all knowledge is situated in the bodies and subjectivities of people, particularly women and historically marginalized groups. Donna Haraway ( 1988 ) wrote,

I am arguing for politics and epistemologies of location, position, and situating, where partiality and not universality is the condition of being heard to make rational knowledge claims. These are claims on people’s lives I’m arguing for the view from a body, always a complex, contradictory, structuring, and structured body, versus the view from above, from nowhere, from simplicity. Only the god trick is forbidden. . . . Feminism is about a critical vision consequent upon a critical positioning in unhomogeneous gendered social space. (p. 589)

By arguing that “politics and epistemologies” are always interpretive and partial, Haraway offered feminist qualitative researchers in education a way to understand all research as potentially political and always interpretive and partial. Because all humans bring their own histories, biases, and subjectivities with them to a research space or project, it is naïve to think that the written product of research could ever be considered neutral, but what does research with a strong commitment to feminism look like in the context of education?

Writing specifically about the ways researchers of both genders can use feminist ethnographic methods while conducting research on schools and schooling, Levinson ( 1998 ) stated, “I define feminist ethnography as intensive qualitative research, aimed toward the description and analysis of the gendered construction and representation of experience, which is informed by a political and intellectual commitment to the empowerment of women and the creation of more equitable arrangements between and among specific, culturally defined genders” (p. 339). The core of Levinson’s definition is helpful for understanding the ways that feminist educational anthropologists engage with schools as gendered and political constructs and the larger questions of feminist qualitative research in education. His message also extends to other forms of feminist qualitative research. By focusing on description, analysis, and representation of gendered constructs, educational researchers can move beyond simple binary analyses to more nuanced understandings of the myriad ways gender operates within educational contexts.

Feminist qualitative research spans the range of qualitative methodologies, but much early research emerged out of the feminist postmodern turn in anthropology (Behar & Gordon, 1995 ), which was a response to male anthropologists who ignored the gendered implications of ethnographic research (e.g., Clifford & Marcus, 1986 ). Historically, most of the work on feminist education was conducted in the 1980s and 1990s, with a resurgence in the late 2010s (Culley & Portuges, 1985 ; DuBois, Kelly, Kennedy, Korsmeyer, & Robinson, 1985 ; Gottesman, 2016 ; Maher & Tetreault, 1994 ; Thayer-Bacon, Stone, & Sprecher, 2013 ). Within this body of research, the majority focuses on higher education (Coffey & Delamont, 2000 ; Digiovanni & Liston, 2005 ; Diller, Houston, Morgan, & Ayim, 1996 ; Gabriel & Smithson, 1990 ; Mayberry & Rose, 1999 ). Even leading journals, such as Feminist Teacher ( 1984 −present), focus mostly on the challenges of teaching about and to women in higher education, although more scholarship on P–12 education has emerged in recent issues.

There is also a large collection of work on the links between gender, achievement, and self-esteem (American Association of University Women, 1992 , 1999 ; Digiovanni & Liston, 2005 ; Gilligan, 1982 ; Hancock, 1989 ; Jackson, Paechter, & Renold, 2010 ; National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education, 2002 ; Orenstein, 1994 ; Pipher, 1994 ; Sadker & Sadker, 1994 ). However, just because research examines gender does not mean that it is feminist. Simply using gender as a category of analysis does not mean the research project is informed by feminist theory, ethics, or methods, but it is often a starting point for researchers who are interested in the complex ways gender is constructed and the ways it operates in education.

This article examines the histories and theories of U.S.–based feminism, the tenets of feminist qualitative research and methodologies, examples of feminist qualitative studies, and the possibilities for feminist qualitative research in education to provide feminist educational researchers context and methods for engaging in transformative and subversive research. Each section provides a brief overview of the major concepts and conversations, along with examples from educational research to highlight the ways feminist theory has informed educational scholarship. Some examples are given limited attention and serve as entry points into a more detailed analysis of a few key examples. While there is a large body of non-Western feminist theory (e.g., the works of Lila Abu-Lughod, Sara Ahmed, Raewyn Connell, Saba Mahmood, Chandra Mohanty, and Gayatri Spivak), much of the educational research using feminist theory draws on Western feminist theory. This article focuses on U.S.–based research to show the ways that the utilization of feminist theory has changed since the 1980s.

Histories, Origins, and Theories of U.S.–Based Feminism

The normative historiography of feminist theory and activism in the United States is broken into three waves. First-wave feminism (1830s−1920s) primarily focused on women’s suffrage and women’s rights to legally exist in public spaces. During this time period, there were major schisms between feminist groups concerning abolition, rights for African American women, and the erasure of marginalized voices from larger feminist debates. The second wave (1960s and 1980s) worked to extend some of the rights won during the first wave. Activists of this time period focused on women’s rights to enter the workforce, sexual harassment, educational equality, and abortion rights. During this wave, colleges and universities started creating women’s studies departments and those scholars provided much of the theoretical work that informs feminist research and activism today. While there were major feminist victories during second-wave feminism, notably Title IX and Roe v. Wade , issues concerning the marginalization of race, sexual orientation, and gender identity led many feminists of color to separate from mainstream white feminist groups. The third wave (1990s to the present) is often characterized as the intersectional wave, as some feminist groups began utilizing Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality ( 1991 ) to understand that oppression operates via multiple categories (e.g., gender, race, class, age, ability) and that intersecting oppressions lead to different lived experiences.

Historians and scholars of feminism argue that dividing feminist activism into three waves flattens and erases the major contributions of women of color and gender-nonconforming people. Thompson ( 2002 ) called this history a history of hegemonic feminism and proposed that we look at the contributions of multiracial feminism when discussing history. Her work, along with that of Allen ( 1984 ) about the indigenous roots of U.S. feminism, raised many questions about the ways that feminism operates within the public and academic spheres. For those who wish to engage in feminist research, it is vital to spend time understanding the historical, theoretical, and political ways that feminism(s) can both liberate and oppress, depending on the scholar’s understandings of, and orientations to, feminist projects.

Standpoint Epistemology

Much of the theoretical work that informs feminist qualitative research today emerged out of second-wave feminist scholarship. Standpoint epistemology, according to Harding ( 1991 , 2004 ), posits that knowledge comes from one’s particular social location, that it is subjective, and the further one is from the hegemonic norm, the clearer one can see oppression. This was a major challenge to androcentric and Enlightenment theories of knowledge because standpoint theory acknowledges that there is no universal understanding of the world. This theory aligns with the second-wave feminist slogan, “The personal is political,” and advocates for a view of knowledge that is produced from the body.

Greene ( 1994 ) wrote from a feminist postmodernist epistemology and attacked Enlightenment thinking by using standpoint theory as her starting point. Her work serves as an example of one way that educational scholars can use standpoint theory in their work. She theorized encounters with “imaginative literature” to help educators conceptualize new ways of using reading and writing in the classroom and called for teachers to think of literature as “a harbinger of the possible.” (Greene, 1994 , p. 218). Greene wrote from an explicitly feminist perspective and moved beyond simple analyses of gender to a larger critique of the ways that knowledge is constructed in classrooms.


Crenshaw ( 1991 ) and Collins ( 2000 ) challenged and expanded standpoint theory to move it beyond an individual understanding of knowledge to a group-based theory of oppression. Their work, and that of other black and womanist feminists, opened up multiple spaces of possibility for feminist scholars and researchers because it challenged hegemonic feminist thought. For those interested in conducting feminist research in educational settings, their work is especially pertinent because they advocate for feminists to attend to all aspects of oppression rather than flattening them to one of simple gender-based oppression.

Haddix, McArthur, Muhammad, Price-Dennis, and Sealey-Ruiz ( 2016 ), all women-of-color feminist educators, wrote a provocateur piece in a special issue of English Education on black girls’ literacy. The four authors drew on black feminist thought and conducted a virtual kitchen-table conversation. By symbolically representing their conversations as one from the kitchen, this article pays homage to women-of-color feminism and pushes educators who read English Education to reconsider elements of their own subjectivities. Third-wave feminism and black feminism emphasize intersectionality, in that different demographic details like race, class, and gender are inextricably linked in power structures. Intersectionality is an important frame for educational research because identifying the unique experiences, realities, and narratives of those involved in educational systems can highlight the ways that power and oppression operate in society.

Feminist Poststructural Theory

Feminist poststructural theory has greatly informed many feminist projects in educational research. Deconstruction is

a critical practice that aims to ‘dismantle [ déconstruire ] the metaphysical and rhetorical structures that are at work, not in order to reject or discard them, but to reinscribe them in another way,’ (Derrida, quoted in Spivak, 1974 , p. lxxv). Thus, deconstruction is not about tearing down, but about looking at how a structure has been constructed, what holds it together, and what it produces. (St. Pierre, 2000 , p. 482)

Reality, subjectivity, knowledge, and truth are constructed through language and discourse (cultural practices, power relations, etc.), so truth is local and diverse, rather than a universal experience (St. Pierre, 2000 ). Feminist poststructuralist theory may be used to question structural inequality that is maintained in education through dominant discourses.

In Go Be a Writer! Expanding the Curricular Boundaries of Literacy Learning with Children , Kuby and Rucker ( 2016 ) explored early elementary literacy practices using poststructural and posthumanist theories. Their book drew on hours of classroom observations, student interviews and work, and their own musings on ways to de-standardize literacy instruction and curriculum. Through the process of pedagogical documentation, Kuby and Rucker drew on the works of Barad, Deleuze and Guattari, and Derrida to explore the ways they saw children engaging in what they call “literacy desiring(s).” One aim of the book is to find practical and applicable ways to “Disrupt literacy in ways that rewrite the curriculum, the interactions, and the power dynamics of the classroom even begetting a new kind of energy that spirals and bounces and explodes” (Kuby & Rucker, 2016 , p. 5). The second goal of their book is not only to understand what happened in Rucker’s classroom using the theories, but also to unbound the links between “teaching↔learning” (p. 202) and to write with the theories, rather than separating theory from the methodology and classroom enactments (p. 45) because “knowing/being/doing were not separate” (p. 28). This work engages with key tenets of feminist poststructuralist theory and adds to both the theoretical and pedagogical conversations about what counts as a literacy practice.

While the discussion in this section provides an overview of the histories and major feminist theories, it is by no means exhaustive. Scholars who wish to engage in feminist educational research need to spend time doing the work of understanding the various theories and trajectories that constitute feminist work so they are able to ground their projects and theories in a particular tradition that will inform the ethics and methods of research.

Tenets of Feminist Qualitative Research

Why engage in feminist qualitative research.

Evans and Spivak ( 2016 ) stated, “The only real and effective way you can sabotage something this way is when you are working intimately within it.” Feminist researchers are in the classroom and the academy, working intimately within curricular, pedagogical, and methodological constraints that serve neoliberal ideologies, so it is vital to better understand the ways that we can engage in affirmative sabotage to build a more just and equitable world. Spivak’s ( 2014 ) notion of affirmative sabotage has become a cornerstone for understanding feminist qualitative research and teaching. She borrowed and built on Gramsci’s role of the organic intellectual and stated that they/we need to engage in affirmative sabotage to transform the humanities.

I used the term “affirmative sabotage” to gloss on the usual meaning of sabotage: the deliberate ruining of the master’s machine from the inside. Affirmative sabotage doesn’t just ruin; the idea is of entering the discourse that you are criticizing fully, so that you can turn it around from inside. The only real and effective way you can sabotage something this way is when you are working intimately within it. (Evans & Spivak, 2016 )

While Spivak has been mostly concerned with literary education, her writings provide teachers and researchers numerous lines of inquiry into projects that can explode androcentric universal notions of knowledge and resist reproductive heteronormativity.

Spivak’s pedagogical musings center on deconstruction, primarily Derridean notions of deconstruction (Derrida, 2016 ; Jackson & Mazzei, 2012 ; Spivak, 2006 , 2009 , 2012 ) that seek to destabilize existing categories and to call into question previously unquestioned beliefs about the goals of education. Her works provide an excellent starting point for examining the links between feminism and educational research. The desire to create new worlds within classrooms, worlds that are fluid, interpretive, and inclusive in order to interrogate power structures, lies at the core of what it means to be a feminist education researcher. As researchers, we must seriously engage with feminist theory and include it in our research so that feminism is not seen as a dirty word, but as a movement/pedagogy/methodology that seeks the liberation of all (Davis, 2016 ).

Feminist research and feminist teaching are intrinsically linked. As Kerkhoff ( 2015 ) wrote, “Feminist pedagogy requires students to challenge the norms and to question whether existing practices privilege certain groups and marginalize others” (p. 444), and this is exactly what feminist educational research should do. Bailey ( 2001 ) called on teachers, particularly those who identify as feminists, to be activists, “The values of one’s teaching should not be separated sharply from the values one expresses outside the classroom, because teaching is not inherently pure or laboratory practice” (p. 126); however, we have to be careful not to glorify teachers as activists because that leads to the risk of misinterpreting actions. Bailey argued that teaching critical thinking is not enough if it is not coupled with curriculums and pedagogies that are antiheteronormative, antisexist, and antiracist. As Bailey warned, just using feminist theory or identifying as a feminist is not enough. It is very easy to use the language and theories of feminism without being actively feminist in one’s research. There are ethical and methodological issues that feminist scholars must consider when conducting research.

Feminist research requires one to discuss ethics, not as a bureaucratic move, but as a reflexive move that shows the researchers understand that, no matter how much they wish it didn’t, power always plays a role in the process. According to Davies ( 2014 ), “Ethics, as Barad defines it, is a matter of questioning what is being made to matter and how that mattering affects what it is possible to do and to think” (p. 11). In other words, ethics is what is made to matter in a particular time and place.

Davies ( 2016 ) extended her definition of ethics to the interactions one has with others.

This is not ethics as a matter of separate individuals following a set of rules. Ethical practice, as both Barad and Deleuze define it, requires thinking beyond the already known, being open in the moment of the encounter, pausing at the threshold and crossing over. Ethical practice is emergent in encounters with others, in emergent listening with others. It is a matter of questioning what is being made to matter and how that mattering affects what it is possible to do and to think. Ethics is emergent in the intra-active encounters in which knowing, being, and doing (epistemology, ontology, and ethics) are inextricably linked. (Barad, 2007 , p. 83)

The ethics of any project must be negotiated and contested before, during, and after the process of conducting research in conjunction with the participants. Feminist research is highly reflexive and should be conducted in ways that challenge power dynamics between individuals and social institutions. Educational researchers must heed the warning to avoid the “god-trick” (Haraway, 1988 ) and to continually question and re-question the ways we seek to define and present subjugated knowledge (Hesse-Biber, 2012 ).

Positionalities and Reflexivity

According to feminist ethnographer Noelle Stout, “Positionality isn’t meant to be a few sentences at the beginning of a work” (personal communication, April 5, 2016 ). In order to move to new ways of experiencing and studying the world, it is vital that scholars examine the ways that reflexivity and positionality are constructed. In a glorious footnote, Margery Wolf ( 1992 ) related reflexivity in anthropological writing to a bureaucratic procedure (p. 136), and that resonates with how positionality often operates in the field of education.

The current trend in educational research is to include a positionality statement that fixes the identity of the author in a particular place and time and is derived from feminist standpoint theory. Researchers should make their biases and the identities of the authors clear in a text, but there are serious issues with the way that positionality functions as a boundary around the authors. Examining how the researchers exert authority within a text allows the reader the opportunity to determine the intent and philosophy behind the text. If positionality were used in an embedded and reflexive manner, then educational research would be much richer and allow more nuanced views of schools, in addition to being more feminist in nature. The rest of this section briefly discussrs articles that engage with feminist ethics regarding researcher subjectivities and positionality, and two articles are examined in greater depth.

When looking for examples of research that includes deeply reflexive and embedded positionality, one finds that they mostly deal with issues of race, equity, and diversity. The highlighted articles provide examples of positionality statements that are deeply reflexive and represent the ways that feminist researchers can attend to the ethics of being part of a research project. These examples all come from feminist ethnographic projects, but they are applicable to a wide variety of feminist qualitative projects.

Martinez ( 2016 ) examined how research methods are or are not appropriate for specific contexts. Calderon ( 2016 ) examined autoethnography and the reproduction of “settler colonial understandings of marginalized communities” (p. 5). Similarly, Wissman, Staples, Vasudevan, and Nichols ( 2015 ) discussed how to research with adolescents through engaged participation and collaborative inquiry, and Ceglowski and Makovsky ( 2012 ) discussed the ways researchers can engage in duoethnography with young children.

Abajian ( 2016 ) uncovered the ways military recruiters operate in high schools and paid particular attention to the politics of remaining neutral while also working to subvert school militarization. She wrote,

Because of the sensitive and also controversial nature of my research, it was not possible to have a collaborative process with students, teachers, and parents. Purposefully intervening would have made documentation impossible because that would have (rightfully) aligned me with anti-war and counter-recruitment activists who were usually not welcomed on school campuses (Abajian & Guzman, 2013 ). It was difficult enough to find an administrator who gave me consent to conduct my research within her school, as I had explicitly stated in my participant recruitment letters and consent forms that I was going to research the promotion of post-secondary paths including the military. Hence, any purposeful intervention on my part would have resulted in the termination of my research project. At the same time, my documentation was, in essence, an intervention. I hoped that my presence as an observer positively shaped the context of my observation and also contributed to the larger struggle against the militarization of schools. (p. 26)

Her positionality played a vital role in the creation, implementation, and analysis of military recruitment, but it also forced her into unexpected silences in order to carry out her research. Abajian’s positionality statement brings up many questions about the ways researchers have to use or silence their positionality to further their research, especially if they are working in ostensibly “neutral” and “politically free” zones, such as schools. Her work drew on engaged anthropology (Low & Merry, 2010 ) and critical reflexivity (Duncan-Andrade & Morrell, 2008 ) to highlight how researchers’ subjectivities shape ethnographic projects. Questions of subjectivity and positionality in her work reflect the larger discourses around these topics in feminist theory and qualitative research.

Brown ( 2011 ) provided another example of embedded and reflexive positionality of the articles surveyed. Her entire study engaged with questions about how her positionality influenced the study during the field-work portion of her ethnography on how race and racism operate in ethnographic field-work. This excerpt from her study highlights how she conceived of positionality and how it informed her work and her process.

Next, I provide a brief overview of the research study from which this paper emerged and I follow this with a presentation of four, first-person narratives from key encounters I experienced while doing ethnographic field research. Each of these stories centres the role race played as I negotiated my multiple, complex positionality vis-á-vis different informants and participants in my study. These stories highlight the emotional pressures that race work has on the researcher and the research process, thus reaffirming why one needs to recognise the role race plays, and may play, in research prior to, during, and after conducting one’s study (Milner, 2007 ). I conclude by discussing the implications these insights have on preparing researchers of color to conduct cross-racial qualitative research. (Brown, 2011 , p. 98)

Brown centered the roles of race and subjectivity, both hers and her participants, by focusing her analysis on the four narratives. The researchers highlighted in this section thought deeply about the ethics of their projects and the ways that their positionality informed their choice of methods.

Methods and Challenges

Feminist qualitative research can take many forms, but the most common data collection methods include interviews, observations, and narrative or discourse analysis. For the purposes of this article, methods refer to the tools and techniques researchers use, while methodology refers to the larger philosophical and epistemological approaches to conducting research. It is also important to note that these are not fixed terms, and that there continues to be much debate about what constitutes feminist theory and feminist research methods among feminist qualitative researchers. This section discusses some of the tensions and constraints of using feminist theory in educational research.

Jackson and Mazzei ( 2012 ) called on researchers to think through their data with theory at all stages of the collection and analysis process. They also reminded us that all data collection is partial and informed by the researcher’s own beliefs (Koro-Ljungberg, Löytönen, & Tesar, 2017 ). Interviews are sites of power and critiques because they show the power of stories and serve as a method of worlding, the process of “making a world, turning insight into instrument, through and into a possible act of freedom” (Spivak, 2014 , p. xiii). Interviews allow researchers and participants ways to engage in new ways of understanding past experiences and connecting them to feminist theories. The narratives serve as data, but it is worth noting that the data collected from interviews are “partial, incomplete, and always being re-told and re-membered” (Jackson & Mazzei, 2012 , p. 3), much like the lived experiences of both researcher and participant.

Research, data collection, and interpretation are not neutral endeavors, particularly with interviews (Jackson & Mazzei, 2009 ; Mazzei, 2007 , 2013 ). Since education research emerged out of educational psychology (Lather, 1991 ; St. Pierre, 2016 ), historically there has been an emphasis on generalizability and positivist data collection methods. Most feminist research makes no claims of generalizability or truth; indeed, to do so would negate the hyperpersonal and particular nature of this type of research (Love, 2017 ). St. Pierre ( 2016 ) viewed the lack of generalizability as an asset of feminist and poststructural research, rather than a limitation, because it creates a space of resistance against positivist research methodologies.

Denzin and Giardina ( 2016 ) urged researchers to “consider an alternative mode of thinking about the critical turn in qualitative inquiry and posit the following suggestion: perhaps it is time we turned away from ‘methodology’ altogether ” (p. 5, italics original). Despite the contention over the term critical among some feminist scholars (e.g. Ellsworth, 1989 ), their suggestion is valid and has been picked up by feminist and poststructural scholars who examine the tensions between following a strict research method/ology and the theoretical systems out of which they operate because precision in method obscures the messy and human nature of research (Koro-Ljungberg, 2016 ; Koro-Ljungberg et al., 2017 ; Love, 2017 ; St. Pierre & Pillow, 2000 ). Feminist qualitative researchers should seek to complicate the question of what method and methodology mean when conducting feminist research (Lather, 1991 ), due to the feminist emphasis on reflexive and situated research methods (Hesse-Biber, 2012 ).

Examples of Feminist Qualitative Research in Education

A complete overview of the literature is not possible here, due to considerations of length, but the articles and books selected represent the various debates within feminist educational research. They also show how research preoccupations have changed over the course of feminist work in education. The literature review is divided into three broad categories: Power, canons, and gender; feminist pedagogies, curriculums, and classrooms; and teacher education, identities, and knowledge. Each section provides a broad overview of the literature to demonstrate the breadth of work using feminist theory, with some examples more deeply explicated to describe how feminist theories inform the scholarship.

Power, Canons, and Gender

The literature in this category contests disciplinary practices that are androcentric in both content and form, while asserting the value of using feminist knowledge to construct knowledge. The majority of the work was written in the 1980s and supported the creation of feminist ways of knowing, particularly via the creation of women’s studies programs or courses in existing departments that centered female voices and experiences.

Questioning the canon has long been a focus of feminist scholarship, as has the attempt to subvert its power in the disciplines. Bezucha ( 1985 ) focused on the ways that departments of history resist the inclusion of both women and feminism in the historical canon. Similarly, Miller ( 1985 ) discussed feminism as subversion when seeking to expand the canon of French literature in higher education.

Lauter and Dieterich ( 1972 ) examined a report by ERIC, “Women’s Place in Academe,” a collection of articles about the discrepancies by gender in jobs and tenure-track positions and the lack of inclusion of women authors in literature classes. They also found that women were relegated to “softer” disciplines and that feminist knowledge was not acknowledged as valid work. Culley and Portuges ( 1985 ) expanded the focus beyond disciplines to the larger structures of higher education and noted the varies ways that professors subvert from within their disciplines. DuBois et al. ( 1985 ) chronicled the development of feminist scholarship in the disciplines of anthropology, education, history, literature, and philosophy. They explained that the institutions of higher education often prevent feminist scholars from working across disciplines in an attempt to keep them separate. Raymond ( 1985 ) also critiqued the academy for not encouraging relationships across disciplines and offered the development of women’s, gender, and feminist studies as one solution to greater interdisciplinary work.

Parson ( 2016 ) examined the ways that STEM syllabi reinforce gendered norms in higher education. She specifically looked at eight syllabi from math, chemistry, biology, physics, and geology classes to determine how modal verbs showing stance, pronouns, intertextuality, interdiscursivity, and gender showed power relations in higher education. She framed the study through poststructuralist feminist critical discourse analysis to uncover “the ways that gendered practices that favor men are represented and replicated in the syllabus” (p. 103). She found that all the syllabi positioned knowledge as something that is, rather than something that can be co-constructed. Additionally, the syllabi also favored individual and masculine notions of what it means to learn by stressing the competitive and difficult nature of the classroom and content.

When reading newer work on feminism in higher education and the construction of knowledge, it is easy to feel that, while the conversations might have shifted somewhat, the challenge of conducting interdisciplinary feminist work in institutions of higher education remains as present as it was during the creation of women’s and gender studies departments. The articles all point to the fact that simply including women’s and marginalized voices in the academy does not erase or mitigate the larger issues of gender discrimination and androcentricity within the silos of the academy.

Feminist Pedagogies, Curricula, and Classrooms

This category of literature has many similarities to the previous one, but all the works focus more specifically on questions of curriculum and pedagogy. A review of the literature shows that the earliest conversations were about the role of women in academia and knowledge construction, and this selection builds on that work to emphasize the ways that feminism can influence the events within classes and expands the focus to more levels of education.

Rich ( 1985 ) explained that curriculum in higher education courses needs to validate gender identities while resisting patriarchal canons. Maher ( 1985 ) narrowed the focus to a critique of the lecture as a pedagogical technique that reinforces androcentric ways of learning and knowing. She called for classes in higher education to be “collaborative, cooperative, and interactive” (p. 30), a cry that still echoes across many college campuses today, especially from students in large lecture-based courses. Maher and Tetreault ( 1994 ) provided a collection of essays that are rooted in feminist classroom practice and moved from the classroom into theoretical possibilities for feminist education. Warren ( 1998 ) recommended using Peggy McIntosh’s five phases of curriculum development ( 1990 ) and extending it to include feminist pedagogies that challenge patriarchal ways of teaching. Exploring the relational encounters that exist in feminist classrooms, Sánchez-Pardo ( 2017 ) discussed the ethics of pedagogy as a politics of visibility and investigated the ways that democratic classrooms relate to feminist classrooms.

While all of the previously cited literature is U.S.–based, the next two works focus on the ways that feminist pedagogies and curriculum operate in a European context. Weiner ( 1994 ) used autobiography and narrative methodologies to provide an introduction to how feminism has influenced educational research and pedagogy in Britain. Revelles-Benavente and Ramos ( 2017 ) collected a series of studies about how situated feminist knowledge challenges the problems of neoliberal education across Europe. These two, among many European feminist works, demonstrate the range of scholarship and show the trans-Atlantic links between how feminism has been received in educational settings. However, much more work needs to be done in looking at the broader global context, and particularly by feminist scholars who come from non-Western contexts.

The following literature moves us into P–12 classrooms. DiGiovanni and Liston ( 2005 ) called for a new research agenda in K–5 education that explores the hidden curriculums surrounding gender and gender identity. One source of the hidden curriculum is classroom literature, which both Davies ( 2003 ) and Vandergrift ( 1995 ) discussed in their works. Davies ( 2003 ) used feminist ethnography to understand how children who were exposed to feminist picture books talked about gender and gender roles. Vandergrift ( 1995 ) presented a theoretical piece that explored the ways picture books reinforce or resist canons. She laid out a future research agenda using reader response theory to better comprehend how young children question gender in literature. Willinsky ( 1987 ) explored the ways that dictionary definitions reinforced constructions of gender. He looked at the definitions of the words clitoris, penis , and vagina in six school dictionaries and then compared them with A Feminist Dictionary to see how the definitions varied across texts. He found a stark difference in the treatment of the words vagina and penis ; definitions of the word vagina were treated as medical or anatomical and devoid of sexuality, while definitions of the term penis were linked to sex (p. 151).

Weisner ( 2004 ) addressed middle school classrooms and highlighted the various ways her school discouraged unconventional and feminist ways of teaching. She also brought up issues of silence, on the part of both teachers and students, regarding sexuality. By including students in the curriculum planning process, Weisner provided more possibilities for challenging power in classrooms. Wallace ( 1999 ) returned to the realm of higher education and pushed literature professors to expand pedagogy to be about more than just the texts that are read. She challenged the metaphoric dichotomy of classrooms as places of love or battlefields; in doing so, she “advocate[d] active ignorance and attention to resistances” (p. 194) as a method of subverting transference from students to teachers.

The works discussed in this section cover topics ranging from the place of women in curriculum to the gendered encounters teachers and students have with curriculums and pedagogies. They offer current feminist scholars many directions for future research, particularly in the arena of P–12 education.

Teacher Education, Identities, and Knowledge

The third subset of literature examines the ways that teachers exist in classrooms and some possibilities for feminist teacher education. The majority of the literature in this section starts from the premise that the teachers are engaged in feminist projects. The selections concerning teacher education offer critiques of existing heteropatriarchal normative teacher education and include possibilities for weaving feminism and feminist pedagogies into the education of preservice teachers.

Holzman ( 1986 ) explored the role of multicultural teaching and how it can challenge systematic oppression; however, she complicated the process with her personal narrative of being a lesbian and working to find a place within the school for her sexual identity. She questioned how teachers can protect their identities while also engaging in the fight for justice and equity. Hoffman ( 1985 ) discussed the ways teacher power operates in the classroom and how to balance the personal and political while still engaging in disciplinary curriculums. She contended that teachers can work from personal knowledge and connect it to the larger curricular concerns of their discipline. Golden ( 1998 ) used teacher narratives to unpack how teachers can become radicalized in the higher education classroom when faced with unrelenting patriarchal and heteronormative messages.

Extending this work, Bailey ( 2001 ) discussed teachers as activists within the classroom. She focused on three aspects of teaching: integrity with regard to relationships, course content, and teaching strategies. She concluded that teachers cannot separate their values from their profession. Simon ( 2007 ) conducted a case study of a secondary teacher and communities of inquiry to see how they impacted her work in the classroom. The teacher, Laura, explicitly tied her inquiry activities to activist teacher education and critical pedagogy, “For this study, inquiry is fundamental to critical pedagogy, shaped by power and ideology, relationships within and outside of the classroom, as well as teachers’ and students’ autochthonous histories and epistemologies” (Simon, 2007 , p. 47). Laura’s experiences during her teacher education program continued during her years in the classroom, leading her to create a larger activism-oriented teacher organization.

Collecting educational autobiographies from 17 college-level feminist professors, Maher and Tetreault ( 1994 ) worried that educators often conflated “the experience and values of white middle-class women like ourselves for gendered universals” (p. 15). They complicated the idea of a democratic feminist teacher, raised issues regarding the problematic ways hegemonic feminism flattens experience to that of just white women, and pushed feminist professors to pay particular attention to the intersections of race, class, gender, and sexuality when teaching.

Cheira ( 2017 ) called for gender-conscious teaching and literature-based teaching to confront the gender stereotypes she encountered in Portuguese secondary schools. Papoulis and Smith ( 1992 ) conducted summer sessions where teachers experienced writing activities they could teach their students. Conceptualized as an experiential professional development course, the article revolved around an incident where the seminar was reading Emily Dickinson and the men in the course asked the two female instructors why they had to read feminist literature and the conversations that arose. The stories the women told tie into Papoulis and Smith’s call for teacher educators to interrogate their underlying beliefs and ideologies about gender, race, and class, so they are able to foster communities of study that can purposefully and consciously address feminist inquiry.

McWilliam ( 1994 ) collected stories of preservice teachers in Australia to understand how feminism can influence teacher education. She explored how textual practices affect how preservice teachers understand teaching and their role. Robertson ( 1994 ) tackled the issue of teacher education and challenged teachers to move beyond the two metaphors of banking and midwifery when discussing feminist ways of teaching. She called for teacher educators to use feminist pedagogies within schools of education so that preservice teachers experience a feminist education. Maher and Rathbone ( 1986 ) explored the scholarship on women’s and girls’ educational experiences and used their findings to call for changes in teacher education. They argued that schools reinforce the notion that female qualities are inferior due to androcentric curriculums and ways of showing knowledge. Justice-oriented teacher education is a more recent iteration of this debate, and Jones and Hughes ( 2016 ) called for community-based practices to expand the traditional definitions of schooling and education. They called for preservice teachers to be conversant with, and open to, feminist storylines that defy existing gendered, raced, and classed stereotypes.

Bieler ( 2010 ) drew on feminist and critical definitions of dialogue (e.g., those by Bakhtin, Freire, Ellsworth, hooks, and Burbules) to reframe mentoring discourse in university supervision and dialogic praxis. She concluded by calling on university supervisors to change their methods of working with preservice teachers to “Explicitly and transparently cultivat[e] dialogic praxis-oriented mentoring relationships so that the newest members of our field can ‘feel their own strength at last,’ as Homer’s Telemachus aspired to do” (Bieler, 2010 , p. 422).

Johnson ( 2004 ) also examined the role of teacher educators, but she focused on the bodies and sexualities of preservice teachers. She explored the dynamics of sexual tension in secondary classrooms, the role of the body in teaching, and concerns about clothing when teaching. She explicitly worked to resist and undermine Cartesian dualities and, instead, explored the erotic power of teaching and seducing students into a love of subject matter. “But empowered women threaten the patriarchal structure of this society. Therefore, women have been acculturated to distrust erotic power” (Johnson, 2004 , p. 7). Like Bieler ( 2010 ), Johnson ( 2004 ) concluded that, “Teacher educators could play a role in creating a space within the larger framework of teacher education discourse such that bodily knowledge is considered along with pedagogical and content knowledge as a necessary component of teacher training and professional development” (p. 24). The articles about teacher education all sought to provoke questions about how we engage in the preparation and continuing development of educators.

Teacher identity and teacher education constitute how teachers construct knowledge, as both students and teachers. The works in this section raise issues of what identities are “acceptable” in the classroom, ways teachers and teacher educators can disrupt oppressive storylines and practices, and the challenges of utilizing feminist pedagogies without falling into hegemonic feminist practices.

Possibilities for Feminist Qualitative Research

Spivak ( 2012 ) believed that “gender is our first instrument of abstraction” (p. 30) and is often overlooked in a desire to understand political, curricular, or cultural moments. More work needs to be done to center gender and intersecting identities in educational research. One way is by using feminist qualitative methods. Classrooms and educational systems need to be examined through their gendered components, and the ways students operate within and negotiate systems of power and oppression need to be explored. We need to see if and how teachers are actively challenging patriarchal and heteronormative curriculums and to learn new methods for engaging in affirmative sabotage (Spivak, 2014 ). Given the historical emphasis on higher education, more work is needed regarding P–12 education, because it is in P–12 classrooms that affirmative sabotage may be the most necessary to subvert systems of oppression.

In order to engage in affirmative sabotage, it is vital that qualitative researchers who wish to use feminist theory spend time grappling with the complexity and multiplicity of feminist theory. It is only by doing this thought work that researchers will be able to understand the ongoing debates within feminist theory and to use it in a way that leads to a more equitable and just world. Simply using feminist theory because it may be trendy ignores the very real political nature of feminist activism. Researchers need to consider which theories they draw on and why they use those theories in their projects. One way of doing this is to explicitly think with theory (Jackson & Mazzei, 2012 ) at all stages of the research project and to consider which voices are being heard and which are being silenced (Gilligan, 2011 ; Spivak, 1988 ) in educational research. More consideration also needs to be given to non-U.S. and non-Western feminist theories and research to expand our understanding of education and schooling.

Paying close attention to feminist debates about method and methodology provides another possibility for qualitative research. The very process of challenging positivist research methods opens up new spaces and places for feminist qualitative research in education. It also allows researchers room to explore subjectivities that are often marginalized. When researchers engage in the deeply reflexive work that feminist research requires, it leads to acts of affirmative sabotage within the academy. These discussions create the spaces that lead to new visions and new worlds. Spivak ( 2006 ) once declared, “I am helpless before the fact that all my essays these days seem to end with projects for future work” (p. 35), but this is precisely the beauty of feminist qualitative research. We are setting ourselves and other feminist researchers up for future work, future questions, and actively changing the nature of qualitative research.


Dr. George Noblit provided the author with the opportunity to think deeply about qualitative methods and to write this article, for which the author is extremely grateful. Dr. Lynda Stone and Dr. Tanya Shields are thanked for encouraging the author’s passion for feminist theory and for providing many hours of fruitful conversation and book lists. A final thank you is owed to the author’s partner, Ben Skelton, for hours of listening to her talk about feminist methods, for always being a first reader, and for taking care of their infant while the author finished writing this article.

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Choosing a Qualitative Research Approach

Associated data.

Editor's Note: The online version of this article contains a list of further reading resources and the authors' professional information .

The Challenge

Educators often pose questions about qualitative research. For example, a program director might say: “I collect data from my residents about their learning experiences in a new longitudinal clinical rotation. If I want to know about their learning experiences, should I use qualitative methods? I have been told that there are many approaches from which to choose. Someone suggested that I use grounded theory, but how do I know this is the best approach? Are there others?”

What Is Known

Qualitative research is the systematic inquiry into social phenomena in natural settings. These phenomena can include, but are not limited to, how people experience aspects of their lives, how individuals and/or groups behave, how organizations function, and how interactions shape relationships. In qualitative research, the researcher is the main data collection instrument. The researcher examines why events occur, what happens, and what those events mean to the participants studied. 1 , 2

Qualitative research starts from a fundamentally different set of beliefs—or paradigms—than those that underpin quantitative research. Quantitative research is based on positivist beliefs that there is a singular reality that can be discovered with the appropriate experimental methods. Post-positivist researchers agree with the positivist paradigm, but believe that environmental and individual differences, such as the learning culture or the learners' capacity to learn, influence this reality, and that these differences are important. Constructivist researchers believe that there is no single reality, but that the researcher elicits participants' views of reality. 3 Qualitative research generally draws on post-positivist or constructivist beliefs.

Qualitative scholars develop their work from these beliefs—usually post-positivist or constructivist—using different approaches to conduct their research. In this Rip Out, we describe 3 different qualitative research approaches commonly used in medical education: grounded theory, ethnography, and phenomenology. Each acts as a pivotal frame that shapes the research question(s), the method(s) of data collection, and how data are analyzed. 4 , 5

Choosing a Qualitative Approach

Before engaging in any qualitative study, consider how your views about what is possible to study will affect your approach. Then select an appropriate approach within which to work. Alignment between the belief system underpinning the research approach, the research question, and the research approach itself is a prerequisite for rigorous qualitative research. To enhance the understanding of how different approaches frame qualitative research, we use this introductory challenge as an illustrative example.

The clinic rotation in a program director's training program was recently redesigned as a longitudinal clinical experience. Resident satisfaction with this rotation improved significantly following implementation of the new longitudinal experience. The program director wants to understand how the changes made in the clinic rotation translated into changes in learning experiences for the residents.

Qualitative research can support this program director's efforts. Qualitative research focuses on the events that transpire and on outcomes of those events from the perspectives of those involved. In this case, the program director can use qualitative research to understand the impact of the new clinic rotation on the learning experiences of residents. The next step is to decide which approach to use as a frame for the study.

The table lists the purpose of 3 commonly used approaches to frame qualitative research. For each frame, we provide an example of a research question that could direct the study and delineate what outcomes might be gained by using that particular approach.

Methodology Overview

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How You Can Start TODAY

  • 1 Examine the foundations of the existing literature: As part of the literature review, make note of what is known about the topic and which approaches have been used in prior studies. A decision should be made to determine the extent to which the new study is exploratory and the extent to which findings will advance what is already known about the topic.
  • 2 Find a qualitatively skilled collaborator: If you are interested in doing qualitative research, you should consult with a qualitative expert. Be prepared to talk to the qualitative scholar about what you would like to study and why . Furthermore, be ready to describe the literature to date on the topic (remember, you are asking for this person's expertise regarding qualitative approaches—he or she won't necessarily have content expertise). Qualitative research must be designed and conducted with rigor (rigor will be discussed in Rip Out No. 8 of this series). Input from a qualitative expert will ensure that rigor is employed from the study's inception.
  • 3 Consider the approach: With a literature review completed and a qualitatively skilled collaborator secured, it is time to decide which approach would be best suited to answering the research question. Questions to consider when weighing approaches might include the following:
  • • Will my findings contribute to the creation of a theoretical model to better understand the area of study? ( grounded theory )
  • • Will I need to spend an extended amount of time trying to understand the culture and process of a particular group of learners in their natural context? ( ethnography )
  • • Is there a particular phenomenon I want to better understand/describe? ( phenomenology )

What You Can Do LONG TERM

  • 1 Develop your qualitative research knowledge and skills : A basic qualitative research textbook is a valuable investment to learn about qualitative research (further reading is provided as online supplemental material). A novice qualitative researcher will also benefit from participating in a massive online open course or a mini-course (often offered by professional organizations or conferences) that provides an introduction to qualitative research. Most of all, collaborating with a qualitative researcher can provide the support necessary to design, execute, and report on the study.
  • 2 Undertake a pilot study: After learning about qualitative methodology, the next best way to gain expertise in qualitative research is to try it in a small scale pilot study with the support of a qualitative expert. Such application provides an appreciation for the thought processes that go into designing a study, analyzing the data, and reporting on the findings. Alternatively, if you have the opportunity to work on a study led by a qualitative expert, take it! The experience will provide invaluable opportunities for learning how to engage in qualitative research.

Supplementary Material

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the US government.

References and Resources for Further Reading


  1. Qualitative Research

    The term qualitative research is used as an umbrella term to refer to several research strategies. Five common types of qualitative research are grounded theory, ethnographic, narrative research, case studies, and phenomenology. It is unfair to judge qualitative research by a quantitative research paradigm, just as it is unfair to judge ...

  2. PDF Guidance Note on Qualitative Research in Education

    data.The guidance note is organized as follows: Section 1 aims to set a common understanding of what qualitative. esearch is and when it can provide the most value. It highlights the importance of b. transparent about the choice of a methodology. Section 2 outlines the process for the des.

  3. What Is Qualitative Research?

    Qualitative research involves collecting and analyzing non-numerical data (e.g., text, video, or audio) to understand concepts, opinions, or experiences. It can be used to gather in-depth insights into a problem or generate new ideas for research. Qualitative research is the opposite of quantitative research, which involves collecting and ...

  4. Planning Qualitative Research: Design and Decision Making for New

    While many books and articles guide various qualitative research methods and analyses, there is currently no concise resource that explains and differentiates among the most common qualitative approaches. We believe novice qualitative researchers, students planning the design of a qualitative study or taking an introductory qualitative research course, and faculty teaching such courses can ...

  5. Qualitative research in education : Background information

    Sara Delamont (Ed.) Publication Date: 2020. This updated second edition extends the discussions surrounding the key qualitative methods used in contemporary educational research. Featuring comprehensive coverage of research across all stages of education, it provides sophisticated and concise discussions on both the building blocks of the field ...

  6. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods in Education

    The Oxford Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods in Education provides a diverse overview of the wide variety of qualitative approaches to studying education, including ethnography, interviews, narrative, and case studies. These methods facilitate detailed description, interpretation, and critique that, in education, enable an ...

  7. Oxford Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods in Education

    99 entries. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research Methods in Education has brought together scholars from across the globe who use qualitative methods in their research to address the history, current uses, adaptations for specific knowledge domains and situations, and problematics that drive the methodology. This is the most comprehensive resource available on qualitative methods in ...

  8. Handbook of qualitative research in education, 2nd edition

    Handbook of qualitative research in education, 2nd edition edited by Michael R.M. Ward and Sara Delamont, 2020, 552 pp., ISBN 978 1 78897 714 2; the eBook version is priced from £22/$31 from Google Play, ebooks.com and other eBook vendors, while in print the book can be ordered from the Edward Elgar Publishing website

  9. What is qualitative research?: Educational Research and Evaluation: Vol

    Article PDFs can be printed. USD 235.00 Add to cart. * Local tax will be added as applicable. Qualitative research is an amorphous, multi-dimensional field which forbids any easy single definition or set of definitions. Indeed, the first 20 pages of this well-referenced volume indicate a sp...

  10. Qualitative Research in Education: The Origins, Debates, and Politics

    This article presents an overview and discussion of qualitative research in education by analyzing the roles of researchers, the history of the field, its use in policymaking, and its future influence on educational reform. The article begins by describing the unique position that qualitative educational researchers have in higher education, as ...

  11. Sage Research Methods

    Qualitative Research in Education presents a thorough explanation of the complexities of educational research and demonstrates the importance of placing this knowledge within cultural, linguistic and sociological contexts. It is an extremely informative text, which constitutes essential reading for those engaged in the research and analysis of ...

  12. What is Qualitative in Qualitative Research

    Qualitative research is multimethod in focus, involving an interpretative, naturalistic approach to its subject matter. This means that qualitative researchers study things in their natural settings, attempting to make sense of, or interpret, phenomena in terms of the meanings people bring to them.

  13. Qualitative vs. Quantitative Research: Comparing the Methods and

    Qualitative vs. Quantitative Research in Education: Definitions Although there are many overlaps in the objectives of qualitative and quantitative research in education, researchers must understand the fundamental functions of each methodology in order to design and carry out an impactful research study.

  14. PDF Qualitative Research

    definition offered by Nkwi, Nyamongo, and Ryan (2001, p. 1): "Qualitative research involves any research that uses data that do not indicate ordinal values." For these authors, the defining criterion is the type of data generated and/or used. In short, qualitative research involves collecting and/or working with text, images, or sounds.

  15. Definition

    Qualitative research is the naturalistic study of social meanings and processes, using interviews, observations, and the analysis of texts and images. In contrast to quantitative researchers, whose statistical methods enable broad generalizations about populations (for example, comparisons of the percentages of U.S. demographic groups who vote in particular ways), qualitative researchers use ...

  16. Sage Research Methods

    This accessible and practical book is a perfect quick guide for postgraduate researchers in education. Looking at the interdependence of teaching and research, the authors show that a critical and analytical exploration of policies and practices is a necessary part of what we mean by being a 'professional' in education.

  17. Qualitative research in education : Background information

    Sara Delamont (Ed.) Publication Date: 2020. This updated second edition extends the discussions surrounding the key qualitative methods used in contemporary educational research. Featuring comprehensive coverage of research across all stages of education, it provides sophisticated and concise discussions on both the building blocks of the field ...

  18. Qualitative Research in Education

    The fourth edition of this reader-friendly book offers an accessible introduction to conducting qualitative research in education. The text begins with an introduction to the history, context, and traditions of qualitative research, and then walks readers step-by-step through the research process. Lichtman outlines research planning and design ...

  19. Qualitative research

    Qualitative research is a type of research that aims to gather and analyse non-numerical (descriptive) data in order to gain an understanding of individuals' social reality, including understanding their attitudes, beliefs, and motivation. This type of research typically involves in-depth interviews, focus groups, or observations in order to collect data that is rich in detail and context.

  20. PDF Understanding and Using Trustworthiness in Qualitative Research

    Expanding Approaches for Research: derstanding and Using Trustworthiness in Qualitative ResearchBy Norman A. Stahl and James R. K. ngQualitative inquiry has recently experienced a burgeoning in the field of educational research. Qualitative research is uniquely positioned to provide researcher. with process-based, narrated, storied, data that ...

  21. PDF Qualitative Research for Education

    Foundations of Qualitative Research in Education 3 searcher enters the world of the people he or she plans to study, gets to know them and earns ... ethnomethodological, ecological, and descriptive. The exact use and definition of these terms, as well as words like fieldwork and qualitative research, varies from user to user and ...

  22. Feminist Theory and Its Use in Qualitative Research in Education

    Feminist qualitative research in education encompasses a myriad of methods and methodologies, but projects share a commitment to feminist ethics and theories. ... The core of Levinson's definition is helpful for understanding the ways that feminist educational anthropologists engage with schools as gendered and political constructs and the ...

  23. Choosing a Qualitative Research Approach

    In this Rip Out, we describe 3 different qualitative research approaches commonly used in medical education: grounded theory, ethnography, and phenomenology. Each acts as a pivotal frame that shapes the research question (s), the method (s) of data collection, and how data are analyzed. 4, 5. Go to:

  24. The role of data science and data analytics for innovation: a

    that applies qualitative, quantitative, statistical computational tools and methods to analyse data, gain insights, inform and support decision-making." (p. 51). This definition captures the contemporary understanding of the concepts data analytics, science, business analytics, big data; these terms ... Education and Research, 39(1), 93-112 ...