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Strategies and methods of qualitative policy inquiry

Vak 2010-2011

Students who set out to engage in a qualitative research project can quickly become confused. Although there are many books on qualitative method, the difficult issue remains of how to actually do qualitative research. Many beginning researchers will find that they only have a vague understanding of what their research will be about, and few ideas of how to obtain clarity on this. Often they find themselves in various phases of qualitative research out at sea, at a loss of how to proceed. There are few straightforward answers of how to get out of these quandaries. Qualitative research is characterized by the interplay of early intuitions, preliminary theory, research question, data-collection, data-analysis, and report writing. During a concrete study all six are “in play” simultaneously, influencing and shaping each other in the course of the research study. In addition, students can make use of a range of analytic methods, the choice of which determines their question and their data collection. This makes it difficult for beginning students to start and successfully conclude a qualitative research project.

What this seminar offers in addition to methods are systematic heuristics of how to move yourself ahead in the various stages of a qualitative research project. The strategy this seminar follows is to enter the landscape of qualitative inquiry through a practical, hand-on approach. In succession, we will work on getting from a general interest in topic to a feasible research question. We will practice the craft of qualitative research interviewing. We will work on the qualitative analysis or grounded theory as the analytic core of interpretive policy analysis. We will practice with confronting your preliminary theories with actual data. The outcome of all these exercises will be a draft version of the first chapter of your master thesis.

This seminar aims to give students an enhanced appreciation of the crafting of strategies of qualitative inquiry in policy analysis. It also tries to get the fun back into doing research. (Who says that you have to do it all by yourself? Learning to collaborate on your research is one of the goals of this seminar.) Qualitative inquiry places particular demands upon the researcher. Contrary to quantitative approaches, the research process cannot be neatly carved up in distinct sequential stages. Instead qualitative/interpretive inquiry calls for a constant, ongoing dialogue between theory, practice, problematization, the collecting of data, and critique. Indeed, we see it as part of the craft of the interpretive policy analyst to arrive at, and maintain, a workable and convincing alignment of these elements as his or her own inquiry unfolds.

We will work, with the student, through this assemblage of early hunches, vaguely articulated interests, attempts at problematization, conceptual allusions, preferences for certain interpretive methods, the generation of data, and ideas about results, to come up with a feasible research design. In so doing, one purpose of the seminar is to make students more aware of the assumptions that inform their choices. A second purpose of the seminar is for students to arrive at more informed choices about the design and execution of a qualitative/interpretive study. That is, choices which offer, as we suggest above, a credible alignment of the elements that make up a qualitative study. `We hope to make the student aware that there might be gaps in his or her chain of reasoning and practice; or that certain method choices might not fit the rest his or her strategy of inquiry; or that the data might not speak to the problematization. As such, this is not a “methods” class in the traditional sense of the word, although the systematic application of methods is crucial for the success of the research project.

The emphasis in the seminar will be on formulating a feasible research question, qualitative interviewing and grounded theory. Solid qualitative data collection and –analysis is the “hot core” of any interpretive study. Participants to the seminar will receive a thorough training in qualitative interviewing. Using real-world interview data, we will apply grounded theory in analyzing data and formulating explanatory models. In addition students will become acquainted with most of the major interpretive approaches to policy analysis, understand their philosophical assumptions, and become familiar with exemplars of each approach.

This seminar serves two different audiences 1) master students who are designing a research proposal. And 2) master students who are already doing their thesis research. Both groups are united by their desire to do qualitative research for their thesis. The seminar supports both groups. The first in advising them in how to write a workable research proposal by giving them an idea of the successive phases of the research process. The second group by training their skills in data collecting and – analysis, and in rethinking their research question and –design. This class in not intended for students who have just begun their program and have no idea yet what their thesis will be about.. This seminar is not intended to find a topic. It will help you develop your proposal once you have a topic. Also: experience has taught us that this seminar does not ‘work’ for students who see qualitative research as an add-on to quantitative work.


Dr. H. Wagenaar

Teaching format

• The class has a carefully thought out didactic organization. It consists of 7 three and three-hour meetings. The meetings offer both lectures and practical exercises.

• Format. The key didactic principle is learning-by-doing. Active participation is thus a key didactic ingredient of this seminar. Prior experience in teaching this kind of material has taught us that advance reading of the material, careful preparation of the assignments and active participation are essential for an effective learning process;


• Students are required to attend all classes but can miss a maximum of one meeting. In that case extra work will have to be done;

• The seminar meetings are meant to be the shared culmination point of a period of reading and reflection.

• Apart from the books, literature will be made available to the students ahead of the meetings.

• Grading is based on the final paper, but assignments and class participation will be factored into the final grade. Final grades will be rounded upward or downward based on class participation.


• Booth, W., Colomb, G, Williams, J, The Craft of Research, The University of Chicago Press, 2008, 3rd edition.

• Weiss, R.S., ‘Learning from Strangers: The art and method of qualitative interview studies’, New York: The Free Press, 1994, ch. 1-4, pp. 1-121

• Reader



At the end of the course students are expected to write a paper. This paper can be either a project design for the masters thesis, or a sample of a qualitative/interpretive policy inquiry. In this paper you reflect and use what you have seen and heard from the literature. The deadline for this paper is to announced yet.. General master students will have to write a 15 page paper, while research masters are expected to write a 20 page paper.

Schedule of Meetings and Literature

  1. From a Topic to a Research Question

• Booth, W., Colomb, G, Williams
Assignment: write up the sequence of steps that leads from your topic to your research question

  1. From a Topic to a Research Question

Discussion of Student Assignments
Assignment: Draw up a reasoned bibliography for your thesis

  1. The Art and Craft of Qualitative Interviewing

• Weiss, R.S
Discussion of bibliographies
Assignment: write a draft theoretical chapter

  1. The Art and Craft of Qualitative Interviewing

Discussion of Interviews

  1. Analyzing Qualitative Data:

• Kathy Charmaz, (1990) “Discovering Chronic Illness: Using Grounded Theory”, Social Scinece of Medicine, 30, 11: 1161-1172

• Hendrik Wagenaar, “Chapter 9: Strategies of Interpretive Policy Research”

  1. Analyzing Qualitative Data: finding patterns in data

Discussion of Student Assignments.

  1. Analyzing Qualitative Data: confronting data with the literature.


Wednesday 3 November till 22 December, 13.00-15.00 hrs., SA07.