Epistemological Perspectives In Qualitative Research

Qualitative research provides a wealth of information, often in a natural environment, void of manipulation, to produce organic results (Merriam, 2009). The information gathered may be used to enhance quantitative results or it may be used to increase background knowledge that would otherwise be difficult to collect through quantitative designs (Muntaner & Gómez, 2003). The benefits of using qualitative data may best be understood by examining the underlying philosophical views, particularly from an epistemological perspective, as the nature of knowledge is characterized and classified by purpose and design. In doing so, “it allows us our insight and our blindness, and on a primary level cuts our research into what is acceptable and unacceptable” (Tennis, 2008, p. 104).

Merriam (2009) identifies four primary epistemological perspectives including positivist/postpositivist, interpretive/constructivist, critical, and postmodern/poststructural. The positivist/postpositivist approach is designed to observe and measure reality, while an interpretive/constuctivist approach is designed to study the multiple realities, descriptions, and experiences of populations (Merriam, 2009). A critical approach is designed to empower and identify emancipatory information, while a postmodern/poststructural approach deconstructs previous truths and rationales (Merriam, 2009). This paper will examine two studies as examples of an interpretive and critical perspective.

An Interpretive Approach

A qualitative study was conducted to explore the physical, psychological, and sociological factors associated with menopause in women who were seeking medical advice for the first time for climacteric symptoms (Lindh‐Åstrand, Hoffmann, Hammar, & Kjellgren, 2007). The study aimed to describe the differences in women’s perceptions of menopausal symptoms and the transitional process using a phenomenogaphical approach (Marton, 1981). This method consists of a series of steps that categorize and compare responses, providing commonalities for analyzing and labelling (Lindh‐Åstrand et al., 2007).

The study included 20 women between the ages of 44 and 59 in various stages of menopause. A face-to-face interview was conducted by a nurse at an outpatient clinic using open-ended questions that allowed women to describe the physical and psychological aspects of climacteric symptoms and menopause as a transitional stage of life(Lindh‐Åstrand et al., 2007). For example, one question asked was “What does the climacteric period mean to you?” ((Lindh‐Åstrand et al., 2007, p. 511). Each interview was 30-60 minutes and included an audio tape and transcription analyzed by two investigators (Lindh‐Åstrand et al., 2007).

This study exemplifies an epistemological perspective that is interpretive/constructive, as the primary objective was to gather information from the interviewee's worldview. The open-ended questions had no right or wrong answer, but rather, provided a framework for the descriptive process. To further understand and interpret the responses, the audio recording provided contextual pauses and interviewer responses(Lindh‐Åstrand et al., 2007). The results were categorized with key descriptions of climacteric symptoms and perceptions of the menopausal process identified using an exploratory approach.

A Critical Approach

The second study combined quantitative and qualitative research to examine the psychological effects, and resulting personal sense of empowerment, in older adults who developed computer and Internet skills through a specified training program (Shapira, Barak, & Gal, 2007). The benefits of learning a new skill, combined with decreased social isolation were examined as a means of changing the environment often associated with aging. The cultural context provided a framework for identifying characteristics of change that may provide increased quality of life for older adults.

Two sample groups of men and women, ages 70-93, were created. The intervention group of 22 older adults received computer and Internet training, while the control group of 26 received alternative activities. The 15 week study included pretest and post test questionnaires that measured health-related behaviors, life satisfaction, depressive moods, loneliness, and quality of life (Shapira et al., 2007). The study included semi-structured follow up interviews to to examine the psychological affects associated with learning a new skill that improves interconnectivity for older adults.

This study exemplifies a critical perspective, as one of the study’s primary objectives was to empower older adults through skill enhancement and social connectivity(Shapira et al., 2007). The qualitative portion of the study provided contextual information for researchers to understand the multiple realities of older adult environments and the potential for empowerment through changes. Further informal follow up was included for several months to gather additional information. It was determined that the group receiving the intervention continued to use their newly developed skills (Shapira et al., 2007).


The two studies highlight the importance of qualitative research in providing rich, contextual information that often can not be collected in quantitative research designs. An epistemological perspective provides a framework for predicting, describing, empowering, and deconstructing population-specific worldviews, increasing the base of knowledge that leads to enhanced understanding of the purpose behind qualitative research (Merriam, 2009). Greater understanding and insight can be developed using this emic approach, with applications across a wide field of studies.



Lindh‐Åstrand, L., Hoffmann, M., Hammar, M., & Kjellgren, K. I. (2007). Women's conception of the menopausal transition–a qualitative study. Journal of clinical nursing16(3), 509-517.

Marton, F. (1981). Phenomenography—describing conceptions of the world around us. Instructional science10(2), 177-200.

Merriam, S. B. (2009). Qualitative research: A guide to design and implementation. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Muntaner, C., & Gómez, M. B. (2003). Qualitative and quantitative research in social epidemiology: is complementarity the only issue?. Gaceta Sanitaria17, 53-57.

Shapira, N., Barak, A., & Gal, I. (2007). Promoting older adults’ well-being through Internet training and use. Aging and mental health, 11(5), 477-484.

Tennis, J. T. (2008). Epistemology, theory, and methodology in knowledge organization: toward a classification, metatheory, and research framework. Knowledge organization35(2/3), 102-112.