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Cultures of Inquiry

Bentz and Shapiro (1998) introduce the various cultures of inquiry in their book: Mindful inquiry in social research, especially in chapter eight, hermeneutics and ethnography, and chapter eleven, critical social science and critical social theory. These include an orientation to each specific culture of inquiry, its typical problems and concerns, how it views explanation and the nature of explanation, and the relationship between the researcher and subject matter. It is not necessary to remember these terms. Today it is probably more useful to think of the process of phenomenology as description and hermeneutics as interpretation. Phenomenological inquiry, for example, focuses on personal experience as one of its primary goals to understand rather than explain the real world, to understand human experience as it is experienced (Bentz & Shapiro, 1998, pp. 96-104). Bentz and Shapiro (1998) caution that the researcher must allow the data to emerge stating that ‘doing phenomenology’ means capturing “rich descriptions of phenomena and their settings” (p. 104), but that “inquiry doesn’t mean looking for answers”.

The online class and discussion in the Dialogue Central is very interesting. In her research proposal, Erica, uses transpersonal research methods to analyze break-up and re-unite behaviours, seeking to answer the “why” and “how come” questions of human break-up and re-unite. I suggest her to use ethnographic research because this type of research results in a case study or field study such as an analysis of behaviour patterns. Like education scholars, psychology scholars often immerse themselves, participate in and/or directly observe the particular social group being studied.

As Erica has written, her research proposal is a qualitative study conducted with a particular human experience with a number of factors that most of us do not have to contend with. I believe it is useful for its universal as well as its personal qualities. It was inevitable that her experience play a part in it and current literature is supportive of the premise that truly objective work is not desirable or even truly possible (Bentz & Shapiro, 1998). As she has suggested, her own experiences came to play a larger part in that story than she could has predicted, their importance arriving as it did during the analysis phase of observing. Bentz and Shapiro (1998) recommend searching for what they called “a good fit” between the style and world view of the researcher, the context to be studied and the set of research methods to be used in the study.

Erica attempts to “understand the world from the participants’ point of view, to unfold meaning of peoples’ experiences.” At the root of phenomenology “the intent is to understand the phenomena in their own terms – to provide a description of human experience as it is experienced by the person herself” (Bentz & Shapiro, 1998, p. 96) and allowing the essence to emerge. Since the goal of this study is to Investigate the process of break-ups and reunites of non-addicted partners in a long-term relationship with a partner in recovery from addiction, the ethnographic approach was most appropriate because it allows the researcher to explore “the life, behavior, attitudes, and concepts of a particular cultural or social group” (Bentz and Shapiro: 1998: 117). Data for this study could be taken from face-to-face, in-depth, and standardized interviews that took place in the interviewers’ homes at a convenient to them and in the language of their choice. Data could be obtained about how the participants “think and feel in the most direct ways” (Bentz & Shapiro, 1998, p.96). The focus was on “what goes on within” the participants. Participants were asked to “describe the lived experience in a language as free from the constructs of the intellect and society as possible.”

Methodology is no longer bound by the prescribed rules and boundaries of positivist thinking. Instead, the current era of post positivism allows a multiplicity of methods in order to make sense of human experience (Bentz and Shapiro 1998 ). Their work is centred on the posture of the researcher rather than as a methodology for undertaking research, suggesting that research is both moral and spiritual. Both a reflection of and a response to what Bentz and Shapiro (1998) note as the ‘ post – modern turn ’, suggesting we are living at a historical turning point, when modern myths no longer offer adequate explanations, leading to a crisis in ways of knowing and opening a contested space for ways of knowing and what counts as truth.

“[Critical social theory (CST)] attempt[s] to understand, analyze, criticize and alter social, economic, cultural, technological, and psychological structures and phenomena that have features of oppression, domination, exploitation, injustice and misery. They do so with a view to changing or eliminating these structures and phenomena and expanding the scope of freedom, justice and happiness. The assumption is that this knowledge will be used in processes of social change by people to whom understanding their situation is crucial to changing it.” (Bentz & Shapiro, 1998, p. 146). According to Bentz and Shapiro, a central premise of CST is that a more just world is an intrinsically valuable goal for human societies, and a more just world would be one in which unequal power relationships that result in domination and oppression were continually reduced, and ultimately eliminated.

The most important thing in CST is context to understand and transform social systems (Bentz & Shapiro, 1998, p. 146). CST involves systems thinking. It “asks how the larger social system manifests itself in and reproduces itself through … individual phenomen[a], while asking what the phenomen[a] add to the social system (Bentz & Shapiro, 1998, p. 147). In CST analyses, systems are historically situated and can only be grasped as products of and active agents within particular histories. CST also engages in immanent critique and ideology critique. In immanent critique, institutions and societies are analyzed according to their ability to keep their word.

Critical theory and critical thinking are related concepts and necessary components of large social change movements. Critical theory is based on the belief that people’s understanding and knowledge of oppression, exploitation, or injustice will provoke people to act and change oppressive or unjust social structures (Bentz & Shapiro, 1998).


Bentz, V. M., & Shapiro, J. J. (1998). Mindful Inquiry in social research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

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