You are on page 1of 9

1 1.

Key traditions, trends and concepts Davis believes that the use of qualitative research methods in the applied linguistics field is shrouded in debate, misunderstanding and confusion (p.427). She attributes this ambiguity to three interconnected issues surrounding qualitative research: research traditions, definitions of research, and qualitative research theory and methods. The author documents how the various research movements within this field have developed separately and without unity. The three contrasting research traditions she discusses are second language acquisition, ethnography of communication and sociolinguistics. Second language acquisition (SLA) researchers view SLA as a mental process and have adopted their technique and philosophy from social sciences and above all, cognitive psychology. The SLA community relies heavily on a linguistic notion of meaning and believes that the mind imposes structure on thoughts and languages. SLA research is based on a logical-positivist approach aimed at generalisability and reliable, hard data (p.426). Davis states that in the 1970s, linguistic anthropologists began to challenge the predominance of the SLA approach. They began to view culture as an integral part of language acquisition, as opposed to the total dependence on Chomskyan psychological models. Hymes' concept of communicative competence espouses that speakers of a language have to possess more than grammatical competence to communicate effectively in a language. The difference in approach and methods by SLA researchers and the linguistic anthropologists has widened the divide between researchers in the field partly because of the difference in their worldviews. While the mainstream SLA are positivists, the linguistic anthropologists are constructivists. Some of the research methodology she cites that are used by researchers in this field are lengthy longitudinal case studies and ethnographic studies.

2 Sociolinguistics is interdisciplinary in nature and utilises concepts and research techniques from areas such as linguistics, sociology and anthropology. Davis believes the confusion in the SLA field has been compounded because sociolinguistics researchers not only tend to extend the findings and concepts from other disciplines to applied linguistics but also employ mixed method approach. They utilise methods from scientific disciplines and conduct research from an empirical and statistical perspective when examining speech acts for example. Furthermore, ethnographic scholars have had little influence on SLA and have contributed little insight as they tend to research and publish outside the SLA and ESL fields. The author points out that until SLA researchers overcome their key points of contention regarding the philosophical nature behind SLA research and research traditions, they will face many challenges utilising qualitative research because SLA researchers are confused over what constitutes a mentalist-based, socially-situated, quantitative, or qualitative study" (p.431).


Core debates The diverse and competing traditions have led to numerous debates. The first issue

she raises is over the definition of qualitative research. Davis believes that the predominance of the mentalists traditions has resulted in a limited and narrow view of what constitutes a qualitative study. She notes that many SLA researchers like Larsen and Freeman have oversimplified qualitative studies to mean being devoid of any quantification and experimental techniques. This has served to reinforce the confusion and ambiguity by sending a false signal that unless the research study includes quantitative research, the contribution to understanding SLA processes is insignificant and not comprehensive or rigorous enough. Davis believes that SLA is adopting more qualitative methods because of the ascendancy of

3 social constructivism and socio-cultural approaches. The author believes that interpretive qualitative research is in fact a viable alternative where mental processes are not unimportant, but they are situated in a larger sociocultural context that is equally important (p.432). Davis suggests one way to distinguish between interpretive and ethnographic approach is by understanding that the former focuses on the co-construction of meaning within a particular social setting like a classroom while the later focuses on the shared meaning of a particular social or cultural group. Furthermore, Davis believes that qualitative research has been sidelined and often criticized because of confusion over definitions and studies that have demonstrated no theoretical foundation. She highlights that some SLA researchers have used qualitative research interchangeably and as an equivalent for interpretive qualitative research. Secondly some SLA researchers have not clearly discriminated between qualitative techniques and qualitative method and have been equating technique with method. Davis points out that qualitative research is a broader term that refers to a study process that investigates a social human problem where the researcher conducts the study from a positivist and etic perspective. Interpretive qualitative research on the other hand uses thick description, emic, holistic and semiotic approach which according to Watson-Gegeo (1992) quoted in Davis means taking into account all relevant and theoretically salient micro and macro contextual influences that stand in a systematic relationship to the behaviour or events one is attempting to explain (p.434). Davis concludes that qualitative research may or may not be interpretive depending upon the philosophical assumptions of the researcher. Whether qualitative research can be regarded as interpretive, depends very much upon the underlying philosophical assumptions of the researcher. The philosophical position used does not dictate

4 which specific research method can be used. She emphasizes that method is crucially linked to the kind of research question or problem under investigation. To avoid confusion she proposes researchers simply state what they are doing along with the main philosophical, theoretical and methodological considerations involved in the research approach being utilised (p.435). The mistake of equating technique with method has resulted in two problems in the field. Firstly, she is critical of the mixed method approach. According to Davis some researchers assume that a qualitative study that employs a quantitative technique can be regarded as a combined quantitative and qualitative study. Davis argues that a postpositivist philosophical paradigm, or worldview, should be combined only with quantitative methods and that a constructivist worldview should be combined only with qualitative methods. The author highlights that studies that encompasses both qualitative and quantitative methods successfully, do so as they tend to use each method independently. Secondly, the mistake of equating technique with method has called the legitimacy of qualitative research into question. She states that to gain or maintain legitimacy within the applied linguistics field, not only must qualitative studies meet the specific requirements of the approach used, but they must offer recognizable contribution to the field (p.436).


Role of theory in research Given the variability in what the philosophical nature and scope behind SLA research

traditions are, it is not surprising then that the differing opinions would extend to the role of theory in research. Davis believes that researchers bring particular theoretical and experiential frames of reference to the research task (p.436) and that research cannot be conducted without an underlying theory or model. Creswell (2009) agrees with this view as

5 well but he points out that there are instances, for example in phenomenology, where qualitative studies do not utilise any explicit theory. Researchers who utilise this approach would tend to offer a holistic view of data rather than a condensed view (p.64). Davis also believes determining the theoretical guiding principles at the beginning of the study provides a framework for the investigation (p.439) which will then influence the research questions, the research analysis, and the interpretation of findings. On the other hand, Creswell (2009) believes that the use of theory is dependent on the type of research design undertaken (p.65). In the case of mixed methods research, researchers are at liberty to test theories and generate them. Hence in studies where the objective is to verify or test theory, Creswell believes the theoretical framework should be identified and discussed early as it serves as a theoretical lens or perspective to guide the study (p.66). In studies aiming at grounded theory, for example, theory and theoretical beliefs arise from findings and so is placed at the end (p.63). Thus, different theories provide different lenses through which to analyse research problems. Davis outlines three theories in her essay namely the personal theory, the social theory and the grounded theory. The author states that all researchers bring their our own personal theories and perspectives to their studies. Hence researchers need to be aware and concerned about the effect their subjectivity will have on the data they produce. Davis discusses the trustworthiness criterion of Lincoln and Guba (1985) such as member checks, debriefings by peers and the use of reflexive journals (p.109). Another way Davis suggests guarding against researcher's bias is by developing partnerships between researchers from both within and outside the culture or social situation under investigation (p.437). Davis believes that all researchers are implicitly influenced by the grand theories from the beginning of their study. She discusses the two grand theories ideational and

6 materialistic - that are used in studies in social change. The author believes that neither approach answers all problems; individual researchers choose one of the two approaches to suit their training, personality, and specific needs or questions of interest. The author believes that the grounded theory is a rigorous process for theory building that gives researchers the chance to theorise from evidence existing in the data. Davis believes grounded theory helps to connect a study by describing the relationships among the various parts, and it provides a theoretical model for subsequent studies (p.440). She also supposes interpretive qualitative research to be cyclical in nature and in a process of continual refinement. Davis contends that qualitative researchers should refrain from stating fixed hypotheses. In direct contrast to an experimental research, the qualitative researcher is involved in speculation while looking for meaning in data; this speculation will ultimately progress to the researcher making new observations, undertaking new interviews, and observing deeper for new patterns to emerge. In this process, the study's internal theory begins to be grounded in the data obtained (p.445).


The coming of age of interpretive research Davis believes that research paradigms should not be seen as competing with each

other, but instead are useful for different purposes. In spite of the many challenges facing researchers in the use of qualitative research in SLA, she believes that qualitative research has come of age as a result of the emergence of a qualitative research tradition as opposed to, presumably, the first coming of age being represented by quantitative research tradition. Davis believes that qualitative research can match up to the most rigorous quantitative research. She notes that qualitative research has shown greater pluralism and rigour as evident in the various qualitative articles she cites. She also notes that the development of

7 criteria for exemplary qualitative research and reporting has led to better qualitative research studies and research programmes. To ensure a rigorous qualitative study, Davis states that all researchers must be concerned with preventing subjects from being harmed, protecting their anonymity and privacy, not deceiving them, and securing their informed consent. She also recommends that researchers conduct their studies in good faith and that the research should be worthwhile. Because the researcher is indebted to the participants, Davis also encourages reciprocity which could take the form of assistance to the community at large, tutoring or providing feedback. However she cautions that reciprocity should fit within the constraints of research and personal ethics, and within the framework of maintaining one's role as a researcher. For researchers conducting qualitative studies, credibility depends on the ability and effort of the researcher. Davis states that for credibility to be established, the observations should be intense and the researcher should commit extensive time in the field. Secondly, by utilising the triangulation procedure, researchers can be assured that their study is clear and true.

Limits of interpretive research Qualitative research is often criticized for lacking in generalisability. Many critics believe that qualitative methods tend to generate large amounts of detailed information about a small number of settings. Davis counters this criticism by highlighting that the advantage of the grounded theory is that it allows researchers to utilize and test it in areas outside of the original study. However, in order to showcase the contextual similarities, the onus is on the researcher to gather the necessary empirical evidence.

8 Also, because of the subjective nature and emic perspective of interpretive research, researchers can bias the design of a study which can enter into data collection and interpretation. Another limitation is that design or measurement bias can be caused if the theory in the study has not been properly defined. Also, over-claiming and false assumptions about behaviour patterns can occur with too little data.


Fitting quantitative research into Davis' arguments Some researchers especially pragmatics believe that quantitative studies can solidify

and provide greater legitimacy in the field of linguistics knowledge regarding second language acquisition as they are able to harness the strengths of both qualitative and quantitative research. Mixed methods approaches use both quantitative and qualitative methods of research inquiry either in sequential order (interviews then survey) or concurrently (triangulation of data through multiple sources). As Green et al. (1989) sums up, using both forms of data in a mixed methods approach, for example, allows researchers to simultaneously generalize results from a sample to a population and to gain a deeper understanding of the phenomenon of interest. It also allows researchers to test theoretical models and to modify them based on participant feedback. Results of precise, instrumentbased measurements maybe augmented by contextual, field-based information. Also the use of both quantitative and qualitative methods means that results from one method can be used to elaborate on results from the other method (p.256).


Creswell, J. W. (2009). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches (3rd ed.). Los Angles: Sage. Davis, K.A. (1995). Qualitative theory and methods in applied linguistics research. TESOL Quarterly, 29, 427-453. Greene, J. C., Caracelli, V. J., & Graham, W. F. (1989). Toward a conceptual framework for mixed-method evaluation designs. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 11, 255274. Lincoln, Y. S., & Guba, E. G. (1985). Naturalistic inquiry. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage. Watson-Gegeo, K. A (1992). Thick explanation in the ethnographic study of child socialization: A longitudinal study of problem of schooling for Kwarae (Solomon Islands) children. New Directions for Child Development, 58, 51-66.