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Brief Glossary:
Theories and Terms
used in Qualitative Research

prepared by John Schostak

This brief glossary has been prepared as a summary introduction to some of the key terms and perspectives employed in contemporary debate - links are made to more substantial discussions. It is divided into:

The key terms and theories are arranged alphabetically. This introduction is not in any way exhaustive and should be used only as a guide to further reading.


at its most general discourse refers to 'talk', the ways in which people account for their experience. Discourse analysis is an interdisciplinary perspective of relatively recent origin (from about the 1960s) but having its roots in the ancient studies of rhetoric. The term discourse can be applied not only to talk but also to texts. It is useful to distinguish between language and discourse at this point.
can be crudely imagined in terms of the dictionary of words that composes it (the lexicon) together with the rules (grammar) through which words are selected and combined for use in actual utterances or textual productions. This gives two dimensions: the paradigmatic and the syntagmatic.
The paradigmatic can be imagined as like a menu of possible choices between words that can be used to fit a slot in a given sentence. The syntagmatic consists of the actual words chosen from the menu. Language is thus not just the total set of all words but consists also of the rules, codes and conventions through which those words may be combined to form meaningful units, such as phrases and sentences. Language is learnt socially.
It is through language that objects are distinguished from each other, world views and a sense of self is constructed. When language is used in this way, 'language systems and social conditions meet' (Hartley 1982: 6). Discourse is socially and historically produced. Discourses are produced around every kind of social activity. There are the discourses of academic activity, the discourses of the family, domesticity or of the gang.
The distinction between discourse and language can be illustrated through the following diagram:

In constructing a sentence to describe the action of attacking say a village then a paradigmatic choice exists by which to label the attackers. If the attackers are considered heroes on the side of revolution then they may be called 'freedom fighters'. On the other side, the choice may be 'terrorists'. The resulting sentence is the 'syntagm', the actual choice of words. A similar range of choices exists for each other slot in the sentence.
Forbidden discourse
refers to a 'structure which inserts itself into, or twists the routine discourses of business and domestic life to repress, inhibit, cover over or subliminally suggest something other than what is apparently being presented' (Schostak 1993):
Foucault (1981:52-3) made specific reference to the forbidden discourse as referring to political and sexual discourses. More fundamentally, he argued that
... discourse is not simply that which manifests (or hides) desire - it is also the object of desire; and since, as history constantly teaches us, discourse is not simply that which translates struggles or systems of domination, but is the thing for which and by which there is struggle, discourse is the power which is to be seized.
The forbidden discourse as I use it, refers then to a structure which inserts itself into, or twists the routine discourses of business and domestic life to repress, inhibit, cover over or subliminally suggest something other than what is apparently being presented. Education is central to the recovery and the analysis of the contents and processes of the forbidden. As such it is a meta-discourse, a discourse about all possible discourses. The forbidden discourse is an inherent potential in all possible discourses; an 'underside' to be recovered through analysis of the historical and social structures which erect taboos, the dark places, silences. Through the perspective of education a study of contemporary Western discourses can be made which provides a source of resistance against reductive and censorial thought and action. Through the study of the images and myths of contemporary culture it explores what can and cannot be said, what can and cannot be shown, what can and cannot be done.
Further methodological developments in relation to 'stealth' discourse architectures can be seen in Schostak 2002.


Grounded theory
provides an attempt to identify how non-trivial theory and generalisations can be made through qualitative research. The approach inverts traditional quantitative approaches by grounding theory in accounts and observations of everyday life rather than in the imagination of the speculative theorist who develops the theory first and then seeks ways of testing it empirically. (Glaser and Strauss 1967)
is the process by which external patterns of behaviour, value systems and beliefs and images are incorporated into the internal structures of the self/psyche.
is a process of naming, or categorising individuals and things. In deviance theory, labelling theory proposes that acts are deviant only because someone or some group defines them as such. Deviance is therefore socially constructed through a process of categorisation and the responses which people make to being labelled, and in turn the responses made to these responses. After a period of time individuals construct their identities in relation to the labels.
this refers to the position that an individual occupies within a given social structure or system. Individuals can play many different roles according to context, some of these may be formally set up in an institution, or they may be informally ascribed or embraced. Role theory tends to fit well within structuralist perspectives, emphasising system rather than individual. However, they have also found a place within the dramaturgical (see for example Goffman; or Eric Berne's Games People Play - transactional analysis) perspectives deriving from symbolic interactionism.
Social construction of ....
this phrase is used to indicate that 'facts' are not so much given, or 'natural' but are the product of human acts of interpretation, judgment, negotiation. Hence, one talks of the social construction of reality or of the social construction of illness, or of the patient and so on. This indicates that reality, illness, or patients are not simply unambiguous 'givens' but have been accomplished through the work of human beings in interaction with each other to give meaning to their everyday experience. Different groups will have different ideas concerning what counts as reality, illness, etc.
Following de Saussure, the sign is composed of two parts: the signifier and the signified.
refers to the 'mark', sound or gesture (i.e., the material content of the sign) which is arbitrarily associated with the meaning content of the sign.
refers to the conceptual object or idea that is associated with the signifier of the sign. This idea may in turn refer to a real or imaginary object.
the process through which individuals are inducted into membership of groups whereby they come to accept as normal (or internalise )the values and conduct of the group and take on identities appropriate to the group. Perspectives which stress socialisation have often been criticised as adopting an overly passive view of people.
refer to generalised images whereby all individual features which contradict the typified images/ideas are suppressed. Stereotypical images are gross overgeneralisations and are often used in acts of suppression.
Goffman used the term to refer to situations of 'spoiled identity'. It is as a result of the labelling process. The problem for the individual stigmatised is how to construct a sense of identity in a situation where he or she is labelled as inferior in some way.
this is a process of varying one's perspective on a given object in order to identify what remains constant, or is common to all the different perspectives. Typically it involves setting the perspectives of different people into relation with each other in order to find out whether they talk about a given object in similar ways, and to see whether they act in similar ways towards a given object. Thus, concerning the nature of 'illness' one may triangulate the ideas of doctors, nurses and patients. Or, one may stay with particular groups (say doctors) in order to triangulate their beliefs with their actions, or simply to triangulate beliefs across the whole community of doctors to see how generalisable their concepts and beliefs concerning illness are.
this refers to the process through which social phenomena are formed into patterns and generalised. The emphasis is upon identifying what is common to a range of expressions, conducts or events. It reduces the individuality of phenomena to a set of common characteristics.


Theoretical perspectives

Discourse analysis
see discourse (under Terms)
Ethnomethodology, Phenomenology, Symbolic interactionism
these perspectives focus upon the sense making activities of social actors. They seek to describe the taken-for-granted structures of everyday life in order to analyse the social construction of reality for individuals, groups, sub-cultures, cultures. The 'self' is seen as being socially constructed rather than 'innate'.

can be seen as a further variant of the phenomenological approach. Rather than 'suspension' it talks of 'bracketing' (also a phenomenological term). Its focus has typically been upon the everyday taken-for-granted 'rational accounting practices' of social actors. That is to say, it focuses upon how social actors make sense of, and rationally account for their behaviours and for their experience. Rationality is seen as a social construction. One form of ethnomethodology deriving from Harold Garfinkel seeks to 'make trouble' as a method by which to disclose the tacit or hidden structures of social life. By disturbing the flow of social interaction, the rules which are transgressed are made visible.
deriving from the work of Alfred Schutz focused attention upon the structures of everyday life. It drew heavily on the work of George Herbert Mead. Its theoretical advance was to insist upon the researcher suspending his or her research/theoretical interests in the social world being studied. Through this act of suspension, the research was to generate descriptions of the social world rather than test theories. It led to a 'grounded theory' approach (Glaser and Strauss).
Symbolic interactionism
George Herbert Mead, as the initiator of the approach, saw the self as being composed of two parts: the 'I' and the 'me'. The 'I' is the natural, spontaneous unsocialised side of the self. The 'me' is generated through how 'significant others' respond to, and interpret the expressions of the 'I'. By internalising the ways the significant others respond towards the self, the self constructs it's socialised sense of self, the 'me'. By over emphasising the role of the 'me' and neglecting the role of the 'I', symbolic interactionism has often presented an 'over socialised' view of people. Charles Horton Cooley added to the concept of the self, through his theory of the 'looking glass self'. The metaphor of the looking glass expresses the passive nature of the development of the self and its dependence upon images of the self reflected by the expressions of others. A particularly vicious form of the 'looking glass self' is expressed in R. D. Laing's 'mirroring strategy' which is employed to deny the experience of the other.
is something of an umbrella term which basically points to those largely rational views of the world inaugurated in the 18th and 19th centuries and into the early 20th century. It is associated with the rise of the market economy, urbanisation and articulated the belief that society and human behaviour could be subjected to scientific analysis and that science would ultimately solve the major problems (material and social) of the world. Both capitalism and communism were products of this way of thinking. They can be seen as providing 'master narratives' about the world, that is, there is the belief that ultimately (with sufficient research and scientific development) they could explain the world in its totality.
is a term applied to those perspectives which emphasise the quantitative over the qualitative. Positivism considers that if it exists, then it can be measured. It assumes that reality is 'given' to the senses so that one has only to 'look and see'. It does not accept the extreme position of the social construction of reality. It does accept bias and error but assumes that this is the result of 'subjectivity'. If 'subjectivity' can be excluded then reality will appear in an objective form that can be measured and described.
quantitative perspectives seek measurement as the basis for forming generalisations concerning social reality. They have often been criticised on the grounds of holding a naive view of what counts as reality, emphasising empirical 'givens' over the social construction of experience. They have also been criticised for glossing over the complexities of social reality by using crude tools of data gathering, such as questionnaires which do not allow for differences in interpretation, misreading, or simply ask the wrong questions. Moreover, they tend to emphasise stasis as opposed to process, the general as opposed to the individual. Qualitative perspectives emphasise 'meaning' and seek to uncover the complexities of social interaction in the generation of 'world views'. That is, qualitative perspectives commonly focus upon the constructed nature of social reality. They focus upon process. They have often been criticised for not being able to form generalisations, and for researching the trivial.
postmodernism takes a skeptical attitude towards 'master narratives' (see modernism). The term post-modernism implies that it is still framed within the achievements and structures of modernism but does not view them in the same way as the modernists. For post-modernists the focus is not upon total systems but rather upon a proliferation of alternative communities of faith, belief and tradition. There is thus a fragmentation. This fragmentation co-exists within a global network of information systems and multi-national organisations. Post-modernism is associated with the mid- to late 20th century developments in global information systems and networks. It is characterised by a lack of hierarchies. In its pessimistic strand, it is nihilistic believing that no one set of values is any better than any other. There is no longer any preference to be given to the original over the copy. In its optimistic versions, post-modernist visions open up onto a virtually infinite panorama of possibilities. The human mind is at last liberated from the constraints of tradition, belief, faith in order to explore the furthermost horizons of human development.
Realist analysis:
Realism analyses social life in terms of an interaction between three interdependent 'levels':

  1. structures of ideas/concepts - vocabulary used to articulate a particular philosophy, belief, world view

  2. conduct/behaviour patterns - learnt patterns of behaviour, patterns of discourse.

  3. the material structures or infra-structure of social life (including mechanisms and procedures): e.g., tools, buildings, patterns of organisational structure (hierarchical, democratic structures of roles etc), the legal, political, economic, welfare systems etc.


is the study of signs and the processes of making meaning and in producing a meaningful world. It has the object of describing signs in operation as a system. It also has the object of describing and analysing the articulation of signs in practice. It therefore analyses the discourse practices and strategies available to people in given contexts by which they set into circulation the key images, ideas, and symbols through which identities and objects are created and reproduced.
this perspective focuses upon systems. One object is defined in terms of its relations to, or functions for another object. A 'son' makes sense only within a system which has a concept of 'father of...', 'mother of..', 'son of...' and hence 'family'. The kinship structure is a paradigm case of structuralist perspectives. Language too is a paradigm case. The object is to describe the operation of the system, identifying the function of the different entities which make up the system, and the rules which keep the system in operation. As such, it tends to lose sight of people as living actors.

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Cooley, C. H. (1956) Social Organisation, Free Press

Garfinkel, H. (1967) Studies in Ethnomethodology, Prentice-Hall

Glaser, B. G. and Strauss, A. L. (1967) The Discovery of Grounded Theory. Strategies for Qualitative Research, Aldine: Atherton

Goffman, E. (1961) Asylums, New York, Anchor

Goffman, E. (1970) Strategic Interaction, Oxford, Basil Blackwell.

Hartley, J. (1982) Understanding News, London and New York, Methuen.

Laing, R. D. (1976 edition) The Politics of the Family, and other essays, Harmondsworth, Penguin.

Mead, G. H. (1934) Mind, Self and Society, University of Chicago Press

Saussure, de F. (1960) Course in General Linguistics, London: Owen

Schostak, J. F. (1993 ) Dirty Marks: The Education of Self, Media and Popular Culture, Pluto Press, London

Schostak, J.F. (2002) Understanding, Designing and Conducting Qualitative Research in Education. Framing the Project. Open University Press

Schutz, A. (1976) The Phenomenology of the Social World, tr. G. Walsh and F. Lehnert, London: Heineman

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