Review Essay: Qualitative Research for the Education of Mankind

Achim Seiffarth


For quite a long time, the "scientific foundation" of foreign language teaching methods, of school curricula, and of "European Frameworks" seemed to be granted by quantitative psychological studies in conjunction with one or the other linguistic theory. Alternative approaches to the study of second and third language learning used to be considered illegitimate. In the last ten or fifteen years, this attitude has been slowly changing, possibly as a consequence of the "intercultural turn." The present collection of essays on the use of qualitative methods in theory and practice of foreign language teaching (edited by MÜLLER-HARTMANN and SCHOCKER-V.DITFURTH) provides the reader with a panorama of qualitative research approaches in the field. All of the contributions deal extensively with epistemological and technical questions that came up in the context of scholarly inquiry undertaken by the authors themselves. The editors' main concern is to acquaint language teachers with qualitative methods and to offer support for teachers who want to study classroom reality on their own. The book may also hold interest from a more distanced point of view, too. In discussing different approaches to research, the authors had to overcome a conspicuous delay of foreign language research in assimilating qualitative techniques and methods. This condensed form produces a certain ambiguity concerning qualitative social research. As researchers, we ask subjects to explain motivations for choices and actions, and to express thoughts and opinions. After all, they are supposed to be autonomous, accountable persons. But aren't we then implicitly aiming at the education of a constant, identical, responsible individual? Is it by chance that our keeping diaries, displaying doubts in group discussions and our entire rhetoric of self-revelation (and "light") resemble pietist education of the soul? Under certain circumstances, the educational aspect of our research efforts may even appear to strive for complete control. This is the case when scientific inquiry is not strictly separated from institutional evaluation or from the selection of teachers and students. On the other hand, qualitative research can equally claim a critical impact when evidencing situations of asymmetrical communication. In foreign language teaching, state and European Community bureaucracies centralize decisions on teaching curricula and methods, while qualitative research gives voice to "deviant" local traditions and to teachers and students values, visions and needs. Qualitative research, as it appears in the book edited by MÜLLER-HARTMANN and SCHOCKER-V.DITFURTH, strives to find its way between education and control on the one hand and its emancipatory potential on the other.
URN: urn:nbn:de:0114-fqs0302227


qualitative social research; language acquisition; intercultural education; teachers' vocational training; voice and writing as metaphors

Copyright (c) 2003 Achim Seiffarth

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