Doing interpretive research

Course summary

This five-day interactive workshop provides an opportunity to explore how a heightened attentiveness to the theory and nuts-and-bolts practice of doing interpretivist research can enhance your own work. The workshop focuses on a few elements of interpretivist research that tend to be particularly challenging: understanding and enacting interpretivism’s distinctive ontological and epistemological presuppositions, making interpretivist research intelligible and persuasive to non-interpretivist audiences, working with concepts, casing and comparing, and integrating reflexivity (with special attention to positionality and ethics) into each stage of the research process.

The workshop is designed for participants who are already familiar with the fundamentals of interpretivist methodology and are undertaking research projects that draw upon interpretivist methodology and/or employ interpretivist methods. Capped at an enrollment of 12, the workshop will engage intensively with your projects. Indeed, we will spend each afternoon collaboratively workshopping those projects.

The starting point of the workshop is a recognition that research rooted in interpretivist methodology is animated by ontological and epistemological premises that differ from those more common to positivist methodology. Scholars working within the positivist tradition tend to enact a realist ontology (a presupposition that the social world is made up of entities that have a real, brute existence) and objectivist epistemology (a presupposition that the social world can be objectively and neutrally observed). Interpretivist scholars, in contrast, typically enact a constructivist ontology (a presupposition that the social world is made up of culturally-mediated social facts) and intersubjectivist epistemology (a presupposition that knowledge of the social world is co-produced by the researcher and researched and thus always situated). The divergent ontological and epistemological starting points of positivist and interpretivist logics of inquiry have consequences for how research is conceived, conducted, and presented. This workshop delves into a handful of consequences that tend to be most challenging for interpretivist researchers and explores how they can be navigated in interpretivist research generally and in your research projects specifically.

Format and activities

The workshop will meet six hours per day, from 9.00-12:00 and 13:00-16:00 approximately.. The morning sessions will be devoted to the topic of the day and will mix occasional short lectures, group exercises, discussion of assigned readings, and working through the theoretical and practical issues raised by the lectures, exercises, readings, and discussions. In each afternoon session, we will apply what we learned in the morning session to your own research projects. Afternoon activities will include the completion of Google-doc worksheets, small-group work, and whole-group reflection and problem-solving.

The topics for each day are as follows:

Monday: Minding methodology. What is distinctive about interpretivist methodology? What are its ontological and epistemological foundations? How can you present your interpretivist work to non-interpretivist audiences in a way that makes it intelligible and persuasive?

Tuesday: Working with concepts. What does it mean to work with concepts in an interpretivist way? What is the difference between the interpretivist elucidation of concepts and the positivist reconstruction of concepts? What are the various strategies of elucidation and which might be most relevant to your own work?

Wednesday: Casing and comparing. What is the difference between realist case selection and nominalist casing? What is the difference between juxtapositional and perspectival comparison? Which of these strategies are consistent with interpretivist methodology and how can you deploy them effectively in your own research?

Thursday: Reflexivity. What is reflexivity and why is it important to interpretivist research? What are the different ways in which reflexivity can be enacted? How can it be enacted at each stage of the research process? How might reflexivity be most gainfully integrated into your own research?

Friday: Positionality, power, and ethics. What is positionality and why does interpretivist reflexivity demand attention to it? How does positionality shape the knowledge generated by research and structure how power is exercised in and through research? How does positionality inflect the ethical dilemmas that an interpretivist researcher must negotiate? What are the implications of all these questions for your own research?

To prepare for each day’s topic, you will complete, prior to class, 60 to 100 pages of reading and comment on them using Perusall. Perusall is a social e-reader that makes possible the collaborative annotation of readings. Using Perusall will contribute to our workshop by stimulating reading-focused discussion and drawing attention to passages we need to spend more time thinking through.

Prerequisites and requirements

  • You must already be familiar with the fundamentals of interpretivist methodology and undertaking a project (PhD, postdoc, or other research) that draws upon interpretivist methodology and/or employs interpretivist methods. If you are unsure whether you meet these requirements, don’t hesitate to email me (frederic@umass.edu) so that we can determine together whether the workshop is appropriate for your needs.
  • One month prior to the start of the course you will need to submit a 20- to 40-page piece of research that you are interested in workshopping. The piece of research might be a paper-in-progress, dissertation prospectus, grant proposal, dissertation chapter, article manuscript, or excerpt from a book manuscript.
  • You will need a Wi-Fi enabled laptop, access to Wi-Fi outside of workshop hours (to access Perusall), and an ability to work in Google Docs.

Preparatory work

Three weeks prior to the start of the course, you will be receiving the research submitted by the other workshop participants. You are expected to read all of it before the workshop begins.

About the instructor

Frederic Schaffer is a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA, where he teaches comparative politics. He is the author of articles, chapters, and books on comparing, elucidating concepts, interpretivist interviewing, interpretive methods, translating democracy, vote buying, and electoral reform. He is the current chair of the Interpretive Methodologies and Methods group of the American Political Science Association and past chair of the Committee on Concepts and Methods of the International Political Science Association. He has taught courses on interpretivist methods at ECPR, the Institute of Qualitative and Multimethod Research, and workshops in both Europe and the United States.

Course readings (subject to modest revision)

  • Becker, Howard S. 1967. “Whose Side Are We On?” Social Problems 14,3: 239-47.
  • Beach, Derek, and Jonas Gejl Kaas. 2020. “The Great Divides: Incommensurability, the Impossibility of Mixed-Methodology, and What to Do about It.” International Studies Review 22,2: 214-35.
  • Bevir, Mark, and Jason Blakely. 2018. Interpretive Social Science: An Anti-Naturalist Approach. New York: Oxford (selections).
  • Ellis, Carolyn, Christine E. Kiesinger, and Lisa M. Tillmann-Healy. 1997. “Interactive Interviewing: Talking about Emotional Issues.” In Reflexivity and Voice edited by Rosanna Hertz. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 119-49.
  • Finlay, Linda. 2002. “‘Outing’ the Researcher: The Provenance, Process, and Practice of Reflexivity.” Qualitative Health Research 12,4: 531-45.
  • Huggins, Martha K., Mika Haritos-Fatouros, and Philip G. Zimbardo. 2002. Violence Workers: Police Torturers and Murderers Reconstruct Brazilian Atrocities. Berkeley: University of California Press (selections).
  • Krystalli, Roxani C. 2021. “Narrating Victimhood: Dilemmas and (In)dignities.” International Feminist Journal of Politics 23,1: 125-46.
  • Pachirat, Timothy. 2009. “The Political in Political Ethnography: Dispatches from the Kill Floor.” In Political Ethnography: What Immersion Contributes to the Study of Power edited by Edward Schatz. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 143-61.
  • Schaffer, Frederic Charles. 2016. Elucidating Social Science Concepts: An Interpretivist Guide. New York: Routledge (selections).
  • Schaffer, Frederic Charles. 2021. “Two Ways to Compare.” In Rethinking Comparison: Innovative Methods for Qualitative Political Inquiry edited by Erica S. Smith and Nicholas Rush Smith (New York: Cambridge University Press), 47-63.
  • Schwartz-Shea, Peregrine and Dvora Yanow. 2012. Interpretive Research Design: Concepts and Processes. New York: Routledge (selections).
  • Soss, Joe. 2021. “On Casing a Study versus Studying a Case.” In Rethinking Comparison: Innovative Methods for Qualitative Political Inquiry edited by Erica S. Smith and Nicholas Rush Smith (New York: Cambridge University Press): 84-106
  • Walsh, Russell. 2003. “The Methods of Reflexivity.” The Humanistic Psychologist 31: 51-66.