Friday, December 16, 2016

Reading :: The Qualitative Manifesto

The Qualitative Manifesto: A Call to Arms
By Norman K. Denzin

I typically don't like manifestos. They tend to present highly contentious claims as, well, manifest. They signal an end to discussion and a call to action: it's time to stop debating and start acting (on my direction, the author implies). Denzin's manifesto is certainly that:
This book is an invitation and a call to arms. It is directed to all scholars who believe in the connection between critical inquiry and social justice. Our tent is large. There is room for everyone. Yet our international community of qualitative researchers is under attack from many different sides... (p.10).
As with most manifestos, the question is portrayed as a conflict and the addressees are cast as potentially powerful actors:
Postmodern democracy cannot succeed unless critical qualitative scholars are able to transcend the limitations and constraints of a lingering, politically conservative postpositivism. (p.14)
Denzin opposes the distinction between fiction and nonfiction texts (p.30), seeing truth in both. His latter chapters present his arguments, not in essay form, but in the form of one-act plays—dialogues between two speakers. (These speakers tend to affirm each other.) It's an unsettling device, at least for me—I prefer more disagreement and more wrestling with conflicts and tradeoffs. But then again, I don't like manifestos.

Most disturbing for me is Denzin's extended discussion of how to circumvent IRB regulations (Ch.5). He argues, sensibly, that the existing regulatory apparatus is flawed (p.73) and that they protect institutions rather than persons (p.74). So he exploited a hole in the system by characterizing his research as oral history, which is exempt (p.75). Unfortunately for him, oral histories were later excluded from exemption (p.77). "Townsend and Jones feel that the only solution is the one offered by the AAUP—full exemption, no provisos, no requirement of IRB approval of exemption! Clearly scholarly societies in the United States must organize around the AAUP recommendations" (p.78). This absolutist solution seems like a recipe for participant harm in the absence of some other well-promulgated and policed set of standards.

Overall, I thought this manifesto made for interesting reading. But the solutions seem too broad-brush for me to get behind it. If you're interested in manifestos, qualitative research, or the IRB, though, certainly pick this book up.

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