Qualitative inquiry has been a part of psychology since its inception as an academic discipline (Wertz, 2014). Qualitative inquiry began to solidify as a form of scientific investigation between the 1960s and 1980s, and subsequently began diversifying, spreading, and integrating in the field in the 1990s and early 2000s (Wertz, 2014). In recent years, the ascension of qualitative research in psychology has continued, has received growing acceptance, has increased in use, and has garnered more institutional support. This rise yields both opportunities and challenges. Although emerging qualitative researchers will enter a field with more resources, guidance, and avenues for publication, they will face limited opportunities for the kind of training needed to prepare them for the unique and arduous demands of qualitative research and teaching. Thus, many of us who are committed to meeting the educational challenges posed by this moment have begun envisioning ways to prepare future qualitative researchers for increasingly substantive and creative contributions to their areas of inquiry, as well as to the field of qualitative inquiry. In this paper, after framing the opportunities and challenges posed by the ascension of qualitative research in psychology, we present several guiding principles for programs of study, and a new program for doctoral training built on those principles.
The rise of qualitative inquiry in psychology
The history of methods and methodology within the field of psychology is marked by dynamism and contestation (Brown, Pryiomka, & Clegg, 2020; Pryiomka & Clegg, 2020). For most of the 20th century, much of the research that we might describe as qualitative was conducted with little attention to and/or articulation of method (Wertz, 2014). For some of these methodological pioneers, their efforts were met with criticism and ostracism (Head, Quigua, & Clegg, 2019). While debate and contestation persist, qualitative research has emerged, become solidified, and gained acceptance within psychology over the last several decades (Wertz, 2014).
In recent years, the increasing institutionalization of qualitative research in psychology is indicative of its continued ascent within the field. For example, The Society of Qualitative Inquiry in Psychology (SQIP) became a section of Division 5 of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2011. More recently, the Association of European Qualitative Researchers in Psychology (EQuiP) was formed between 2018 and 2019. The rise of these organizations follows in the wake of Qualitative Methods in Psychology (QMiP), which was formed in 2005, and as of 2019, stands as the largest section of the British Psychological Society (Riley, et al., 2019). Each of these organizations have established annual research conferences, and in so doing, add to an impressive list of scholarly gatherings focused on qualitative research (e.g., the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry, The Qualitative Report conference). Moreover, building upon an expansive array of resources, various major publications such as the APA journal Qualitative Psychology , the five-volume collection Qualitative Research in Psychology (Gough, 2014), and the 34-chapter Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research in Psychology (2nd edition; Willig & Stainton Rogers, 2017) have been produced in the last decade. Such institutional solidification is reflective of the growing commitment to qualitative inquiry.
Beyond the emergent institutional infrastructure are other signs of this ascension. In examining the shifting regulatory landscape, we can identify multiple indicators of the growing acceptance of qualitative research. The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), for example, has called for increased financial support and training opportunities for qualitative research (Lamont & White, 2010). Within psychology, the APA's Commission on Accreditation has endorsed instruction in qualitative methods as a requirement for programmatic accreditation (APA, 2015). Such calls have not gone unheeded. The APA Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major: Version 2.0 (APA, 2016) includes learning outcomes involving qualitative research. Similarly, the BPS has included the teaching of qualitative methods in their subject benchmarks for accredited undergraduate programs (Riley et al., 2019). The macro-level accommodation for qualitative inquiry is perhaps most evident in the 2020 revision of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association , which includes sections on the presentation of qualitative research. Clearly, the formal inclusion of qualitative research within the field of psychology is taking place.
Qualitative inquiry's growing acceptance and inclusion are seemingly in accord with its increasing popularity among psychologists. In the words of Madill and Gough (2008), there has been a “surge in popularity of qualitative methods in psychology” (p. 254). Indeed, numerous scholars have noted the increasing popularity of qualitative research in psychology (e.g., Hansen, et al., 2005; Ponterrotto, 2010). Both the use of qualitative approaches and the publication of qualitative studies have been steadily rising in recent years (Hays et al., 2016; Levitt et al., 2018). One notable example of the emerging field's popularity is the fact that a recent article on qualitative reporting standards (Levitt et al., 2018) was the most downloaded article of all APA-published journals in 2018 and the most cited article in American Psychologist in 2019. Such examples signal the impressive rise of a field that, until relative recently, existed only at the margins of academic psychology (Wertz, 2014).
Not surprisingly, this ascension is reflected in changing curricular offerings. Qualitative coursework is becoming more common (Ponterotto, 2005; Rennie, 2004), and there has been marginal growth in the number of programs requiring qualitative courses (Rubin et al., 2017). Such curricular expansion seems to be in accord with student demand. Anecdotally, many of us who teach qualitative research courses find that students are hungry for such coursework and for research opportunities where they can apply knowledge developed in those courses. More concretely, student membership in SQIP, which has increased 15% over the past five years and currently stands at 25% of the society's total membership (A. Bland, personal communication, December 27, 2020), suggests that students are indeed interested in qualitative inquiry. Although qualitative research seems to be ascending in a variety of ways, graduate-level training opportunities for emerging psychologists are relatively few (Ponterotto, 2005: Harper, 2012; Povee & Roberts, 2014). This problem is being addressed by a diverse range of qualitative researchers, scholars, and teachers who are currently working to establish formal pathways for educating emerging qualitative researchers (e.g., concentrations, endorsements, certificate programs). Though exciting to those of us who see the purpose of and need for such pathways, this moment does pose challenges—from the structural to the conceptual—that warrant serious attention.
Identifying obstacles to qualitative research education
According to a recent study of graduate-level qualitative methods education (Rubin et al., 2017), the rise of qualitative inquiry is coupled with lingering uncertainty, an unclear trajectory, and a range of entrenched dilemmas. On the one hand, opportunities for qualitative education are rising, and students afforded those opportunities tend to use qualitative approaches in their dissertations; on the other hand, expanding qualitative education is impeded by a variety of factors. Those factors include a lack of university level support for qualitative research, faculty's undervaluing of qualitative approaches, a lack of trained faculty to teach qualitative courses, and the fact that those few faculty have expertise in a very few qualitative methodologies.
These challenges speak to the existing structural barriers to creating pathways for more formalized qualitative research education. Indeed, the current opportunities for graduate-level qualitative education are limited (Ponterrotto, 2005), not effectively integrated into curricula (Clarke & Braun, 2013), or adapted for curricula of subdisciplines (Rubin et al., 2017). Because overcoming such institutional challenges will play a significant role in students' inclinations to study, use, and, eventually teach, qualitative research methods (Rubin et al., 2017), those committed to establishing more formalized pathways for qualitative education will need to engage in numerous arduous tasks such as advocating for and initiating curricular changes, developing programs that fit within existing disciplinary structures, and cultivating buy-in amongst a plurality of constituents. Certainly, these are not easy tasks.
The structural impediments and the effort required to bring about institutional change pose challenges that occur in parallel to the conceptual hurdles that we must also address. While a concerted effort to make space for qualitative educational pathways is needed, improving qualitative research practice and pedagogy requires further elaborating the diversity of approaches and considering the best ways to teach qualitative methodologies as more than procedures—that is, as ways of knowing and doing that, for most students, are not familiar as science. Indeed, scholars highlight diverse goals, methods, and procedures (Gergen, 2014; Levitt et al., 2017). Some scholars go even further to highlight the array of often disharmonious epistemological, ontological, and methodological perspectives (Guba & Lincoln, 2011). Some have attempted to navigate and articulate the precarious boundary between the shared and diverse meanings and methods of qualitative inquiry (e.g. Guba & Lincoln, 2011; Levitt et al., 2017). In tension with such calls, however, is the ongoing need to establish qualitative inquiry as a somehow unitary approach. Pursuing complexity while aware of such obstacles, can, we think, serve as the foundation for increasingly fruitful education in qualitative inquiry.
Envisioning a more formalized pathway to qualitative training, we join the calls for pluralistic approaches to methodological education (Gibson & Sullivan, 2018; Gough & Lyons, 2016; Haverkamp, Morrow, & Ponterotto, 2005), for open dialogue about the aims of psychological inquiry, and for advocating for methodological pluralism in achieving these goals within U.S. psychology (Rubin et al., 2017). Rather than reducing qualitative research to one position, we imagine an educational pathway in which students learn to negotiate and expand taxonomies, transcend established hierarchies, draw on innovative approaches, and cultivate creative methodological solutions.
Such a challenging project will likely be amplified once subsumed into discussions about institutional matters such as credit allotment, coursework allocation, capstone project requirements, and faculty hiring. Addressing these challenges is far beyond the scope of this paper and will likely need to occur by a variety of actors, across institutions, over a prolonged period. As a step in this direction, we will highlight some principles that can guide us as we work toward creating curricula and discuss how those principles are manifesting in a recently established qualitative research concentration at the Graduate Center of The City University of New York.
(Some) guiding principles for qualitative research education
With qualitative research taking a foothold in mainstream psychology and in social science more broadly, the current moment requires creating guiding principles that can inform the development of pathways to qualitative education, can adapt to the pluralistic and dynamic nature of the field, and can fit into distinct pedagogical programs. Thus, such principles need to hold the general (the broad expectations for formal and recognizable education in qualitative inquiry) and the specific (particular foci of developing pathway programs) in delicate tension. Attending to this tension signifies an acknowledgement of the complexity and diversity of qualitative research methodologies. Moreover, this endeavor entails not only attention to the guiding epistemologies and ontologies that weave throughout all phases of research but also to the wide array of aims, positions, ethical commitments, designs, questions, data collection strategies, and analytic methods creating diversity within the field. Toward this goal, we present the following principles for qualitative research as a possible foundation for future pathway programs. These principles are deliberately few, as we seek insights to nurture the complexity of qualitative research. This involves managing the tension between identifying principles for organizing pedagogical programs while avoiding reductions wrought, for example, by prescribing the evaluation criteria for one approach to multiple (often incongruous) approaches.
Emphasizing the diversity of qualitative methodologies
With qualitative inquiry on the rise and the development of pathway programs in the works, we recognize the need to provide educational opportunities that help students develop a familiarity with a diverse range of qualitative approaches and an appreciation for the affordances and consequences that stem from their methodological choices. Students are often drawn to qualitative studies for scientific and ethical reasons, such as to explore underexamined phenomena, to inductively and/or abductively examine meaning construction, to privilege previously under-represented perspectives around an issue. In establishing qualitative pathways, it is important to develop curricula that support their varied interests but also highlight the complexity of the undertaking, such as acknowledging the conceptual in the methodological and the methodological in the conceptual.
We recognize that qualitative inquiries call up diverse ethics, epistemologies, research designs, questions, analyses, and findings. We aim to deepen qualitative research programs with curricula that reveal how apparently disharmonious or even competing qualitative approaches might be studied and applied to improve students' understanding of the field and to help them read and design qualitative research as a process of knowledge-building with relevant values, concepts, protocols, and attendant strategies. In so doing, we recognize the challenge of advancing a formal educational pathway that avoids the reduction of qualitative inquiry to a unitary approach, to a mere antonym of quantitative research, and/or to a codification of method(s).
In this process of studying different qualitative methodologies with different faculty who use the approaches in their own work and with their advisees, students will interact with case examples, practice applying different methods to their own projects, which will help them avoid the need to make methodological choices based on preference from among a list of methods or from among a few that have been highlighted locally. With courses that focus on diverse qualitative strategies, students will, ideally, develop the knowledge and experience for making nuanced decisions in terms of foundational issues such as researcher priorities and commitments (e.g., ethical, political), the goals of their research (e.g., to inform policy, to broaden or challenge extant theory), their ability to address those goals via distinct forms of knowledge-building (e.g., to describe, to illustrate, to generate), and the need to conduct research activities (e.g., design, analysis) in a way that is consistent with these conceptual foundations. To facilitate such complex negotiation, a dialogical and contrapuntal approach to promoting epistemological diversity is needed (Methebane & Sekudi, 2018), an approach that does not smooth over methodological disharmonies or reify dominant perspectives but rather engenders an open, critical, and creative educational framework for generating multiple routes to knowledge generation (Daiute, 2011; 2014). Such an approach allows students to negotiate existing perspectives and approaches as they draw from and cultivate a coherent system of epistemic values (see Osbeck, 2019), which better prepares them to situate their research in extant practices, establish and state a personal-professional stance, coherently enact this stance when developing and conducting research, and competently present their work to diverse audiences.
This kind of knowledges comes inductively and deductively by student participation in a range of diverse courses so that they may immerse in and follow through with a specific methodology, which allows for comparison across approaches that may seem/sound similar. Students who take multiple courses with a variety of faculty can follow through consistently on the rationale, epistemology, and details of a specific qualitative method because they've compared and learned how it works in a semester long class, read many examples, and done the same for another method. Ultimately, what students ideally gain from a pluralistic approach would be informed self-determination over their research. Such self-determination is wrought of confronting tensions between a comparative overview and immersion in a range of specific qualitative methodologies to develop knowledge for selecting among them for different research purposes and resources.
Acknowledging the role of researcher
In developing curricula that supports students' negotiation of a diverse array of qualitative approaches, we not only aim to help them to navigate the complexity inherent in research and to prepare them to understand their position within the field but also to help them recognize and articulate their role in the research process. Such recognition entails that they not only see themselves as an engineer but also as an active participant who is inherently embedded in the research. Reflexivity has become an essential dimension of qualitative research—one that is now expected for publishing qualitative reports (Levitt et al., 2017). Reflexivity is a murky and multi-faceted construct (Finlay, 2002), and by facilitating students' negotiation of their role in the research process, we aim to encourage their responsibility and expertise. In so doing, we are helping them cultivate a more defensible philosophical/methodological position (see Finlay, 2002) but also to “own,” articulate and justify the wide array of choices that must be made throughout the research process.
Maintaining consistency across the project
Facilitating students' understanding of their role in research engenders epistemological consistency so that they are prepared to identify potential gaps in the research, such as between theory and practice, between ethical commitment and method, between analysis and research claims. Such critical reflection allows researchers to account for, minimize, and/or rectify inconsistency as they work to enact a coherent set of epistemic values within a research report. Facilitating students' development of coherent epistemological/methodological approach can help them develop a set of cohesive norms and practices that bind research projects, and accordingly, provide for consistency, comparability, and methodological legitimacy (Osbeck, 2019).
In facilitating students' negotiation of a diverse array of approaches, helping them establish a reflexive stance, and helping them cultivate cohesive research projects, we endeavor to help them be competent researchers and to produce compelling and impactful research. We do so out of a sense of ethical and pedagogical obligation to our students and because we recognize an emergent need for more thoughtful and systematic qualitative educational pathways. All too often, we witness our students undermine promising research projects by committing – seemingly without much forethought or justification—to an investigatory approach (usually some unarticulated plan for identifying themes) that is incongruent with their stated theoretical perspective, their espoused commitment to participants, and/or their goals for the research. This common occurrence is usually a harbinger of an unsuccessful research project, and more broadly, an indication that students need an educational pathway capable of preparing them for the many complexities, challenges, and choices inherent in qualitative research. The principles we have presented signify, we think, a step in that direction.
A foundational case: a critical qualitative research concentration
As an illustration of these principles in practice, we present an in-process Concentration on Qualitative Research Methods that is being developed by the PhD Programs in Psychology and Social Welfare at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Guided by a Coordinating Committee consisting of approximately five faculty members and four students, “(t) he purpose of this concentration is to provide students with instruction and practice across a range of rigorous qualitative research methods that they can use in their independent research projects and/or broaden their expertise on research methods for subsequent research.” (Qualitative Research Methods Concentration Proposal, 2020, March). To meet these goals, the concentration is structured around the following elements: an overview three-credit proseminar course titled “Conceptual and Methodological Foundations of Qualitative Research,” at least three additional three-credit electives focused on specific qualitative research methodologies, and a final research presentation delivered to faculty, students, and members of relevant public-facing communities. By the time that students present at the yearly qualitative research festival, they will be able to distinguish qualitative research approaches, not just in terms of theoretical claims, but also in terms of implicit epistemological foundations, methodological entailments, and possible contributions as relevant to different projects. Students who successfully complete these requirements will have the certification listed on their transcripts.
The structure of this concentration enacts the previously discussed guiding principles for qualitative pathway programs in a way that supports the unique foci of the hosting graduate programs. The critical/social justice orientation of the CUNY programs supporting this concentration emphasize highlighting under-represented voices (such as minorities in a practice or culture), under-exposed voices (such as those in power), and alterative and/or decolonial ways of identifying meaning. Thus, interrogating and explicating the epistemology, goals, and questions of research/research practices are of primary importance in the curriculum. While engaging in coursework and project development, students practice critically examining epistemologies and methodological consequences of diverse research practices, which provides them with criteria for designing qualitative inquiry as integrated theory and method. In so doing, students grapple with questions that are foundational to the programs' orientation: Why do research? What is the knowledge I am seeking? How will I do that consistently and ethically with others who care? and, What will my contribution be?
To uphold structural agreements that ensure accessibility of courses to the students, uptake for the faculty offerings, and diversity for student cohorts across their course-taking years, we plan the electives three years ahead, with non-overlapping courses in any single semester, and in different time slots. This requires extensive faculty collaboration and checking in, rather than any top-down or digital monitoring. For example, in the first three years of the concentration, students select from the following courses, which faculty had previously committed to teach: Critical Methods ; Listening Guide/Advanced Listening Guide ; Critical Discourse Theory and Analysis ; Using Archives in Social Justice Research, Narrative Inquiry ; Doing Visual Methods ; Study of Lives ; Feminist Ethnography ; and Critical Virtual Remote Ethnography .
In an era of budgetary restraints and shrinking seats for graduate students, this concentration needed to be developed in a way that maximized existing resources and minimized competition with existing programs. Within CUNY, many faculty have been teaching an array of qualitative research courses, which lessened some institutional impediments, such as needing to seek additional funding.
In addition to the factors that are particular to this institution/concentration, there are more ubiquitous considerations that must be addressed by others pursuing qualitative pathway programs, such as articulating the value of such a program to a wide range of faculty who may be unfamiliar with and/or opposed to qualitative inquiry. In this regard, we hope that this paper can be useful for justifying the need for such pathway programs that adhere to guiding principles and allow for programmatic specificity.
For those of us who are attuned to the field of qualitative inquiry, it seems evident that we are at an important moment. While the field has ascended in a variety of ways, this rise poses both challenges and opportunities. While recognizing the gravity of this moment, we offer this paper as an attempt to spark discussion, facilitate partnerships, and hopefully move towards a future in which students can pursue a specialized education in qualitative research that holds the general and the specific in a respectful tension. Our prediction is that, like the qualitative concentration at the CUNY Graduate Center, other qualitative education pathway programs—with their own unique foci—will emerge and that the collective success of these programs will largely depend on the extent that we navigate the tension between the general and the specific with diligence, care, a sense of mutual collaboration.