Issues In Educational Research Vol 2, No 1, 1992, 25-33.

Seek first to understand and then to be understood:
A qualitative research approach

Glenda Campbell-Evans
Edith Cowan University
It is suggested in this paper that it is important in the world of qualitative research to seek first to understand the research content and context and then to present this knowledge in a way that is easily understood by others. A project undertaken by a team of academics and practising school primary principals serves as an example of this two-stage qualitative approach. Through a process of facilitation and negotiation individuals came to a common understanding and description of principal practice. This research exemplifies the qualitative researcher's injunction of the need to understand from an 'insider' view and then to present this understanding to 'outsiders'.

The research domain holds an infinite number of issues and questions for exploration and provides a range of options concerning the nature and the means of research. This range of possibilities is sometimes confusing and usually complicated for the active as well as for the armchair researcher. Conflicting assumptions and methods contribute to the polarisation of perspectives which we have come to recognise as the quantitative-qualitative dichotomy.

It is not my intent to discuss the distinctions and attributes of the quantitative and qualitative options; that debate is well documented elsewhere (Firestone, 1987; Guba and Lincoln, 1982; Jacob, 1987; Smith, 1983). Rather, I aim to explore the importance of understanding in the qualitative research context. I will attempt to do so by addressing the concept of understanding as it applies to qualitative research and then by describing a research project by way of example.

The term qualitative is used throughout the research literature in more than one way: as a general descriptor and as a reference to specific techniques. The nature of the reference varies from author to author and this variety results in a tangle of meaning. Jacob (1988, p.16) argues, "that a major source of the confusion arises from discussing qualitative research as if it is one approach". She suggests that the discussion can be clarified by "recognising that qualitative research comes in many different varieties, which can be more clearly identified and understood by using the notion of research traditions". Jacob maintains that the confusion originates from using the term qualitative to name all naturalistic research even though "different authors, drawing from different traditions or trying to present a trans-tradition approach, have focused on different features" (p. 23). While Atkinson, Delamont and Hammersley (1988) also note "that many different types of research are conducted under the broad heading of qualitative methods", they prefer to refer to the differences as types of research, not traditions of research, because "in practice it is not possible to make hard and fast distinctions between different traditions" (p.235).

For the purposes of this paper, I use qualitative as Bogdan and Biklen (1982, p.2) suggest, "as an umbrella term to refer to several research strategies that share certain characteristics." These strategies are employed to collect data in order to understand the complexities and interrelationships of a situation. Research of this type according to Berg (1989, p.2) "refers to the meanings, concepts, definitions, characteristics, metaphors, symbols, and description of things." Qualitative researchers attend to the whole of the research situation and seek to understand how variables contribute to the research phenomenon. As Smith (1983, p.12) indicates:

To understand a particular action requires an understanding of the context within which it takes place, and to understand the context within which it takes place requires an understanding of the particular actions.
The way factors fit together in the natural setting is the focus of qualitative inquiry. This fit is seen to be more important and revealing than the role and influence of any single component.

Data collection and analysis of those data are interrelated processes. There is not a clearly identified 'end' to collection which signals a 'beginning' to analysis. Analysis, typically inductive, occurs as the nature of the phenomenon unfolds. Data are rich in description of people, places, events, and interactions. This reflects the qualitative concern for process as well as for outcomes. Bogdan and Biklen (1982, p.31) suggest that qualitative researchers "attempt to understand the meaning of events and interactions to ordinary people in particular situations."

The essence of qualitative research is to explore and understand a situation, issue, or question and to uncover the 'truth' of it. If research is a search for truth and truth in this domain is believed to be a constructed reality, then the interpretation of truth is determined, in part, by the researchers' view of the world. Ontological issues, such as what exists and in what ways, are central to the constitution of the world view, as are questions of epistemology: the nature of knowledge generation and acquisition. Because disposition to these important research underpinnings directly influences the nature and means of the research, it is important that they are made explicit. The research audience must have knowledge of the researcher's ideology in order to appraise the impact of the perspective on the research process. While the researcher 'seeks to understand', so does the consumer of the research - thus, the reader seeks to understand not only the research findings but also the research perspective.

Seek first to understand

It is possible to differentiate between types or paradigms of research by attending to purpose and perspective. That is, the research reflects and is determined by the purpose or the intent of the project and the perspective of the researcher. The situations identified as researchable and the specific questions stated are a reflection of researcher perspective. The researcher who asks questions in order to better describe and understand a phenomenon asks for a purpose and from a perspective.

Perspectives are the mental maps or mental models which help each of us make sense of the world. They are the frames we use to view the world. We carry a number of mental maps around with us and each is shaped by our knowledge, experience and values. As Smith (1983, p.10) suggests:

Our view of the world and our knowledge of it are inevitably based on our interests, values, dispositions, and so on. Because ... reality is to one degree or another mind dependent, we cannot "get outside ourselves" and conduct investigations divorced from our own particular place in the world.
Perspective defines what people consider to be important in their world and what makes that world function. Often we do not question or test our mental maps. We assume that the way we see things is the way others do, or should, see them. The more aware we are of our maps and how they came to be, the more able we are to take responsibility for our view and also to become more tolerant of the maps of others.

Figure-ground images serve as an example of how perspective influences what we see and/or accept. These images present different pictures to different observers. In the classic figure-ground, which displays simultaneous images of a young woman and an old woman, some viewers focus on the image of the old woman while others see the young. Those in each group can describe the image they saw and what they understood from that. Given time, individuals in either group may come to a better understanding of what the others saw, and may even increase their understanding of the picture presented to them - thus a sharing of mental maps. Qualitative research is about understanding - sometimes from your own point of view, sometimes from the perspective of someone else.

For the qualitative researcher, purpose and perspective are shaped by a perspective that reality is multi-faceted, intangible, divergent and holistic. More than one reality exists and the understanding of reality is that it is created as a product of one's mind. This nominalist position, as Burrell and Morgan (1979, p.4) propose, "revolves around the assumption that the social world external to individual cognition is made up of nothing more than names, concepts and labels which are used to structure reality." The individual does the structuring: there is no master plan. The social world, therefore, does not exist separate from the individual's appreciation of it. This leads to a research position which is value-bound. As Guba and Lincoln (1982, p.242) suggest:

Naturalists ... presuppose that inquiry is inevitably grounded in the value systems that characterise the inquirer, the respondent, the paradigm chosen, the methods selected, and the social and conceptual content.
The researcher and the research are inter-related.

In qualitative research there is strong regard for the research context, for the research process which transpires in situ, for the interactive role of the researcher, and for closeness to the phenomenon being investigated. Much of the research energy is expended in coming to terms with the nature and the essence of that phenomenon, seek first to understand.

The profile: The project

The purpose of the Principal Profile (CEL, 1991) project was two fold. First, it aimed to create an opportunity for participants to critically assess and refine their personal concept of excellence as applied to the role of the principal and to modify that understanding through critical dialogue with others: to think about what 'is' and what 'can be'. As participants we sought to understand - understand the role and our own meaning of excellence with respect to that role. Secondly, there was the intent to develop a resource document - a profile of the role, to structure and support the professional development of principals.

What is a profile and what purpose can it serve? According to Leithwood and Montgomery (1986, p.15), a profile is "a multidimensional, multilevel description of beliefs, intentions and actions (broadly referred to as behaviours)". It is possible to develop a profile of a role, a program, an innovation, or the implementation of a policy. The dimensions or critical elements of the role, the program or the policy are identified and then manageable steps between current competent practice and desired exemplary practice are isolated and described. Since profiles have an underlying theme of growth, the steps represent stages of development. Profiles, ideally, are developed by those individuals who will use them as a guide for their own professional practice. Individuals involved in such an activity are in the best position to benefit from the process and to make sense of the document. Profiles do have value for individuals beyond the limited group of writers, however. If those involved in the process have knowledge, skill and credibility with colleagues who are not part of the writing team, the profile is likely to have relevance for the wider population.

The profile: The research

Some qualitative researchers argue that the process of understanding must begin with knowledge of, and reflection upon, one's own experience as a (provisional) member of the group being investigated. Smith (1983, p.12), for example, states that "...the essence of understanding is to put oneself in the place of the other - something which is possible if one possesses a degree of empathy with the other or has the disposition to recreate the experiences." It is important to understand what is, before exploring what can or might be.

Set within the qualitative research domain, this research was phenomenological and action oriented. It was phenomenological in that an "ordinary 'life-world'" (Tesch, 1990, p.68) was studied. The content and the context of the research were not fabricated: they were the reality of the participants' professional lives. The principalship was explored from the perspective of the participants. Tesch explains that phenomenologists are interested in the way people experience their world, what it is like for them, how to best understand them.

Principals studying their own 'life-worlds' constituted a form of action research. According to Tesch (1990, p.66), action research involves "practitioners in research processes that concern their own affairs. Action research is meant to overcome the passiveness of the research process by turning research itself into a transformative activity."

For Cohen and Manion (1980, p.209), the focus of action research is on "precise knowledge for a particular situation and purpose". They propose that typically action research is situational, collaborative, participatory and self-evaluative. This may take the form of (as in this case) researchers and practitioners working together to explore and assess questions, issues, and problems which arise from the situation.

The profile: The process

The process of developing a profile required the participants to first come to terms with their own understanding of the phenomenon and to then reach a shared understanding of that phenomenon. In this case the phenomenon was the role of the primary principal. The participants consisted of school principals from the government and Catholic systems in Western Australia, along with academic staff from two universities.

We took to the project an image of the 'is' and the 'could or should be' of the role. These conceptions had formed through our personal and professional experiences, our knowledge of relevant theory and research, and our personal values and beliefs. Our individual mental maps were a necessary precursor to a collective mental map, a document representative of the collective understanding. To reach a collective agreement, individual understanding, knowledge and experience were enhanced through exposure to the perspective, understanding, knowledge and experience of others.

It was necessary for us to

In order to explore the range of possibilities which exist with regard to the role of school principal, we first examined the realities. We identified and considered the range of issues relevant to the nature of the current role and to the ideal image of the role. We addressed questions concerned with the use of professional time, setting of priorities, degrees of autonomy and control, system demands and constraints, the 'ideal' role, and goals and purposes. Stating views, struggling to articulate a position, and then defending or revising that position characterised the experience.

As we conceptualised, argued, debated and agonised over the meaning and use of words, we were clarifying personal and cultural mental maps. This was time consuming and labour intensive; it was also professionally rewarding. The important components or facets of the role were determined by open discussion. All suggestions were considered and a process of elimination transpired as individuals argued to keep or remove items from the agenda. Example s from relevant research, literature and practice were drawn upon to support the arguments. Periods of reflection and separation from the task were built into the process, that is, time to think about the path chosen and confirm or rework the direction. In coming to a clearer individual and collective view of the role of the primary principal, we fulfilled the first purpose of the project: to critically assess and refine individual and group concepts of excellence.

As a participant observer and facilitator of the process, my role was to contribute to the developing understanding as well as to guide and facilitate the direction and substance of the exchange. As a member of the group, I had, along with others, responsibility for addressing the research purpose and reflecting on the debate in a way that contributed to our thinking. In addition I observed interaction, interpersonal relations, levels of frustration and enthusiasm and guided the activity accordingly. Thus the first stage of the profile process was to 'seek first to understand'.

It could be said that each member of the Profile project group was both a vehicle and a target of the research. That is, in exploring the issues we were generating the data. Involvement on these two levels ensured that the message conveyed in the finished document was grounded in the participants' experience and knowledge of the role.

The profile: The product

Once we worked through the assumptions, priorities, and symbolism of the dimensions, definitions and descriptions, the task became one of recording, in a consumable form, the shared understanding. The Profile document stands as a product of this shared understanding. It serves as a vehicle for individuals not directly involved in the writing process to come to understand the consensus position of the writers. The Profile is a statement of the writing group's understanding of the role of principal, of the dimensions of the role seen to be critical, and the identified stages of growth within each dimension. Non-writers may form a similar view of the role, may come to an appreciation of our understanding, or may retain or create an alternative position.

Three dimensions were identified as critical elements of the role of primary principal; Self: Processes and Outcomes. In general terms these labels captured, for us, the essence of the role of principal. Definitions of each dimension as stated in the Principal Profile (CEL, 1991) are:

Within the Self and Processes dimensions, further specification and description were necessary. The sub-dimensions of Self included Vision, Problem solver, Effective Communicator, Change Agent, and Monitor. Three primary processes were seen to be at work: Instructional Leadership, Pastoral/Cultural, and Administrative/Managerial. Each of these sub-dimensions was then defined and four stages of growth identified and described for each. In the sub-dimension of vision, for example, which was defined as encompassing "a range of views about the educational purposes of the school", the stages of growth were identified as follows: at a first level, that of competence, a primary principle "pursues a personal vision"; the next stage of growth would be characterised by the principal imparting "a personal vision of school purpose"; then developing the ability to pursue "a community vision of school purposes"; and ultimately reaching the ideal level of growth which would see the individual imparting "a community vision and commitment to school purpose and ethos".

Once developed, the profile entered a validation phase. In this phase the validation of the levels and the dimensions was tested. As suggested by Van Maanen (1979, p.257), "the aim to produce a coherent description of a claimed reality may be shared...". We produced a coherent description by reaching a point of shared understanding. Whether it is a claimed or an existing reality can be tested through a process of validation. In this case, as the document is presented to principals outside the research group, the understanding represented in the Profile will be tested for the application and utility it may have for others, that is, does the profile represent reality for principals other than the writing team? It is through the validation process that it will be seen whether our shared meaning can be understood.

It has been the aim of this paper to explore the field of qualitative research by suggesting that the research task is twofold: to first understand the nature of the research phenomenon, and then to make the findings understood by others. The Principal's Profile (CEL, 1991) has been used to exemplify the process and the product of a shared understanding. Van Maanen (1979, p.248) suggests that "whatever sense a researcher is able to make of the researched is ultimately mediated by the readers of the research". Hence the 'seek first to understand and then to be understood' theme of this paper.


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Author: Glenda Campbell-Evans is a member of the Department of Policy and Administrative Studies, Edith Cowan University. Lecturing responsibilities are in the areas of educational administration and qualitative research. Her research interests include the role of school administrators, influence of values in decision making and the socialisation of beginning principals. She is involved with the design and delivery of professional development activities which address the needs of practising and aspiring administrators in Western Australia and in two Canadian provinces.

Please cite as: Campbell-Evans, G. (1992). Seek first to understand and then to be understood: A qualitative research approach. Issues In Educational Research, 2(1), 25-33. ht tp://

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