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Introduction to Interpretive Research Designs: From Research Question to Research Proposal

Member rate £492.50
Non-Member rate £985.00

Save £45 Loyalty discount applied automatically*
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*If you attended our Methods School in July/August 2023 or February 2024.

Course Dates and Times

Monday 29 July to Friday 2 August

09:00–10:30 and 11:00–12:30

Peregrine (Peri) Schwartz-Shea

University of Utah

Interpretive research puts the meaning-making of those studied at the center of a research project. Guided often by an abductive logic of inquiry, such research is commonly not driven by formal hypotheses or variables.

Based on a constructivist ontology and an intersubjectivist (or constructivist) epistemology, interpretive research generates data through talk, observation, and/or document selection and analyses them through a wide array of methods, including category analysis, discourse analysis, genealogy, metaphor analysis, story-telling analysis, etc.

This course in interpretive research design explains the vocabulary, processes, and quality (evaluative) standards consistent with the interpretive emphasis on meaning-making. It will enable researchers using such designs to explain its logic of inquiry to key decision makers, i.e., funding agencies, supervisors and other evaluators, as well as journal editors and peer reviewers.

The course is appropriate for those doing ethnographic/participant observer, interviewing, case study, narrative, historical, and other forms of research in such fields as political science, international relations, public policy, public administration, urban studies, political sociology, organisational studies, and the like.

ECTS Credits for this course, and below, the tasks for additional credits

3 credits Finish the first three lab assignments:

  1. the research question
  2. data generation
  3. data analysis

4 credits Complete and refine a research proposal based on lab 4, and email it to me by 10 August 2019.

Instructor Bio

Peregrine Schwartz-Shea is professor of political science at the University of Utah where she teaches courses in Qualitative-Interpretive Research Methods, Research Design, Public Administration, and Gender and Politics.

She conducts research on interpretive methods and human subjects protection policy.

With Dvora Yanow, she co-authored Interpretive Research Design: Concepts and Processes (Routledge 2012), the first volume in the Routledge Series on Interpretive Methods that they co-edit. 

As part of a new podcast series, New Books in Interpretive Social Science, hosted by Nick Cheesman (Australian National University), Peri and Dvora talk about their book and discuss what interpretive methods are and why they matter. Listen to the podcast here

Research proposals are increasingly a part of scholarly life. The topics for theses and dissertations require prior approval; funding support usually depends on a committee’s assessment of competing research proposals. Funding committees tasked with assessing proposals ask: Is the proposed topic significant? Will the proposed research address a recognised problem, solve a theoretical puzzle, or shed light on a heretofore unexamined area? Will this researcher bring the needed background, skills, and substantive knowledge to complete the proposed research? And most pertinent to this course: Does the design of the research—its methodology, methods, data and analytic techniques—address the research question in a convincing, coherent manner?

The expectations associated with the term 'research design' vary. In some disciplines and/or research communities, the common approach to research design assumes variables-based research (and may even presume that randomised, control experiments are the 'best' designs). Other disciplines and research communities are much more eclectic in their approaches to research and embrace methodological pluralism. Still, even in more pluralistic settings, research proposals may be scrutinised by those who have very particular conceptualisations of design and of research. Those conducting interpretive research need to be able to communicate their research purposes, design logics, and evaluative standards to such reviewers.

Research design, then, is a social endeavour. Articulating one’s research question, project and approach to a variety of audiences in a variety of settings is essential to learning what one wants to do. Moreover, if others cannot understand what your project is about that may indicate a lack of clarity in what you are attempting or, at least, that you are not clearly communicating your research goals. From brief oral descriptions of your project over coffee to a more formal written proposal, convincing one’s audience(s) is key. Wherever you are in the research process, this course will enable you to deepen your understanding of your topic, familiarise yourself with the key elements of interpretive research design, and practice articulating (and perhaps even defending) the approach you have chosen to your research question.

In addition to lecture and class discussion, students will work together in ‘lab sessions’ during the afternoons and/or evenings (Days 1–4). Detailed instructions will be given for these sessions, but the general approach is that students will draft and share sections of a research proposal with members of their research groups. Re-writing will occur over the four days to produce a short, written proposal as a record of learning from the course. On Day 5, participants will orally present their research proposals to the class. For those who already have written proposals, there are two options: 1 Revising the proposal with a particular funding agency in mind, and 2 Drafting a related or new proposal as part of an imagined (or actual) research agenda. Assignment details for all labs will be made available to registered participants.

  • Lab 1 One-page draft – research question and significance in the context of identified literature.
  • Lab 2 Edit, refine research question and literature; draft discussion and justification for anticipated data generation.
  • Lab 3 Draft discussion of choice of analytic methods.
  • Lab 4 Revise to produce proposal coherence across questions, data, analysis, anticipated contributions.

A caveat. Effective research design is highly contextual. Effectiveness depends on: the state of knowledge on a particular topic including areas of consensus and debate; the interests, talents, and methodological predispositions brought to that topic by the researcher; disciplinary conventions as well as the scholarly conversations and research communities engaged by the research; access to sites and data and ethical contingencies and constraints that may limit designs; and the funding priorities of governmental and private sources. In short, there is no universal template for achieving appealing, convincing, and fundable research proposals. An advantage of class members coming from a number of disciplines is that discussions and lab exercises should raise everyone’s awareness of these contextual factors (which may be tacitly known within disciplines and, thus, not actively discussed or analysed).

Course objectives

  • To learn to recognise and to formulate interpretive research questions;
  • To understand and acquire the vocabulary appropriate to interpretive research design;
  • To recognise and add to one’s research store an abductive logic of inquiry;
  • To practice assessing the connections between research questions, forms of data, and implied contributions;
  • To be able to articulate the rationale for interpretive research including its approach to design, access, selection, and evaluative criteria.
  • To produce a brief research proposal as a record of course learning.

What this course will not cover

  • Although any research proposal must include its choice of and justification for its particular approaches to data analysis, the specifics of particular interpretive analytic techniques will not be covered in this course.
  • Although the basic philosophical presuppositions of interpretive research will be introduced (i.e., its constructivist ontology and intersubjectivist epistemology), in-depth consideration and discussion of philosophy of social science is beyond the purview of this course.
  • Although the course interrogates the meaning of the term 'mixed methods,' it does not take up the approach to design envisioned by, e.g., the Journal of Mixed Methods Research.

Required texts

Schwartz-Shea, Peregrine, and Yanow, Dvora. 2012. Interpretive Research Design: Concepts and Processes. New York and London: Routledge. [SS&Y in the daily list]

Yanow, Dvora, and Schwartz-Shea, Peregrine, eds. 2014. Interpretation and Method: Empirical Research Methods and the Interpretive Turn. 2nd ed. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe. [Y&SS2 in the daily list]

Additional articles: Please see detailed day-to-day schedule below.

Pre-course assignments

1 Background reading assignments to be completed before the course begins

Schwartz-Shea, Peregrine. Forthcoming 2015. Interpretive social science. In Encyclopedia of Political Thought, ed. Michael Gibbons. Wiley-Blackwell Publishers.

From the required text Interpretation and Method, 2014

Wherefore 'Interpretive?' An introduction, pp. xiii-xxii. 

Chapter 1, Yanow, Dvora, Thinking Interpretively: Philosophical Propositions in the Social Sciences, pp. 5-26. 

2 Introductions

Once the course is confirmed, I will be asking you to briefly introduce yourself via email to all those registered. In particular, I would appreciate your answering the following questions:

  • Are you currently working on a research proposal?
  • What are the primary methods of data generation that you plan to use or have used?
  • What specific questions or concerns, if any, are you bringing with you to the course?

If I receive your introductions by early July I will try to plan to address the mentioned questions/concerns during the course.

No prior knowledge is required to take this introductory course.

People who will benefit most from it are those currently planning research (i.e. working on a research proposal) or who will do so in the future.

Those who have completed field research and are in the writing up stage will also benefit from several parts of the course, such as understanding and communicating (e.g., to reviewers) the appropriate quality standards for assessing interpretive work.

The pre-course assignments below include basic introductions to the nature of interpretive research. Those who wish to deepen their knowledge should consult the supplementary readings section; the sources are listed on p44 of the required text, Interpretive Research Design.

Day Topic Details
1 Introduction to Interpretive Research Design * Method and methodology * Varieties of interpretive research * 'Mixed methods' caveat


SS&Y, Introduction

SS&Y, #1 Wherefore research designs?

SS&Y, #2 Ways of knowing:  Research questions and logics of inquiry

SS&Y, #3 Starting from meaning: Contextuality and its implications

Y&SS2, #20 Danjoux, Ilan. Don’t judge a cartoon by its image, pp. 353–67.

Fujii, Lee Ann. 2008. The power of local ties: Popular participation in the Rwandan genocide. Security Studies 17: 569–597.

Kurowska, Xymena. 2014. Practicality by judgement: Transnational interpreters of local ownership in the Polish-Ukrainian border reform encounter. Journal of International Relations and Development 17 (4): 545–65.

Soss, Joe.  2005. Making clients and citizens: Welfare policy as a source of status, belief, and action. In Deserving and entitled:  Social constructions and public policy  eds. Anne Schneider and Helen Ingram, pp. 1–28.

Think about

What makes a research question / research project 'interpretive?'

How do methodological presuppositions affect the shape and content of research questions?

1 * Where do research questions come from? * Components of a research proposal Discussion of lab assignment


Sandberg, Jörgen and Alvesson, Mats. 2011. Ways of constructing research questions: Gap-spotting or problematization? Organization 18/1: 23–44.

In-class activity

Pair up; introductions of each other; formulating interpretive research questions

Form groups

1 After class lab assignment

Small group and/or paired work:

Research questions and research conversations; one-page draft – research question and significance in the context of identified literature.

2 The Research Process * Abductive logic * Access * Research roles * Co-generation of data


SS&Y, #4 The rhythms of interpretive research I – Getting Going

Y&SS2, #11 Shehata, Samer. Ethnography, identity and the production of knowledge, pp. 353–67.

Fujii, Lee Ann. 2010. Shades of truth and lies: Interpreting testimonies of war and violence. Journal of Peace Research 47 (2):231–41.

Think about

When does research begin?

2 * Forms of evidence Discussion of lab assignment


SS&Y, #5 The rhythms of interpretive research I – Understanding and generating evidence

Y&SS2, Part II, Yanow, Dvora, and Schwartz-Shea, Peregrine. Analyzing data. pp. 147-160. 

Y&SS2, #12 Weldes, Jutta. High politics and low data: Globalization discourses and popular culture, pp. 228–38.

Y&SS2, #12 Soss, Joe. Talking our way to meaningful explanations: A practice-centered view of interviewing for interpretive research, pp. 161–182.

Smith, Dorothy. 1974. The social construction of documentary reality. Sociological Inquiry, 44(4): 257–268.

In-class activity

General advantages and disadvantages: interview data, observational data, participant-observational data, documents, archives…

2 After class 'lab' assignment

Small group and/or paired work: Edit, refine research question and literature; Draft discussion of anticipated data; How, specifically, does the data address the research question?

3 Designing for trustworthiness * The interpretive gestalt * Modes of analysis * Reflexivity * How to think about theory…


SS&Y, #6 Designing for trustworthiness


Part III, Yanow, Dvora, and Schwartz-Shea, Peregrine. Analyzing data, pp. 255–66.

#7 Schwartz-Shea Peregrine. Judging quality: Evaluative criteria and epistemic communities, pp. 120–46.

# 5 Adcock, Robert. Generalization in comparative and historical social science: the difference that interpretivism makes, pp. 80–96.

#22 Wilkinson, Cai. Not just finding what you (thought you) were looking for: Reflections on fieldwork data and theory, pp. 387–405.

Think about

What have been your experiences with discussions of research quality?

3 * The human element Discussion of lab assignment


SS&Y, #7 Design in context

SS&Y, #8 Speaking across epistemic communities

Y&SS2: Part IV Yanow, Dvora, and Schwartz-Shea, Peregrine. Re-recognizing the human sciences through interpretive methodologies, pp. 421–5.

Think about

What sorts of 'politics of research' have you encountered?

3 After class 'lab' assignment

Small group and/or paired work: Draft discussion of choice of analytic methods; Why this approach to analysis?

4 Research ethics * Harms? * Consent * Privacy and confidentiality


Fujii, Lee Ann. 2012. Research ethics 101: Dilemmas and responsibilities. PS: Political Science & Politics October, 717–23.

Ellis, Carolyn. 2007. Telling secrets, revealing lives: Relational ethics in research with intimate others. Qualitative Inquiry 13, 3–29.

Think about

Researchers are increasingly being asked or even required to engage ethical aspects of their research in their research proposals. What ethical issues does your research raise?

4 Writing up research * Integrating interpretive standards into the research report Discussion of lab assignment


Schwartz-Shea, Peregrine, and Yanow, Dvora. 2009. Reading and writing as method: In search of trustworthy texts. In Sierk Ybema, Dvora Yanow, Harry Wels, and Frans Kamsteeg, eds., Organizational Ethnography: Studying the Complexity of Everyday Life. London: Sage, 56–82. 

Think about

How can trustworthiness be demonstrated?

4 After class lab assignment

Assessing proposal coherence: Final revisions of research questions, literature, data, analysis, anticipated contributions.

5 Research proposal presentations

Each student will present their research question, design, proposed methods of data generation and analysis and anticipated research contributions.

As an audience, we will first ask probing, skeptical questions of each presenter: 

  • Does the research put the meaning making of those studied at the center of the research?
  • Is the research trustworthy?
  • Is it ethical?
  • Are the anticipated research contributions significant?

At the end, we will debrief and discuss ways in which all the proposals might be improved.

Note Because of copyright restrictions, I cannot make the readings available to you. Please let me know if you have difficulties obtaining them.
Day Readings

Day-to-day readings are noted in the day to day schedule

Software Requirements


Hardware Requirements



There will not be time to read all chapters of the required text: Yanow, Dvora, and Schwartz-Shea, Peregrine, eds. 2014. Interpretation and Method: Empirical Research Methods and the Interpretive Turn. 2nd ed. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Below, I indicate chapters that may be of particular interest, depending on student background.

Those new to interpretive research may especially benefit from chapters that provide more depth on philosophy of social science:

2. Contending Conceptions of Science and Politics: Methodology and the Constitution of the Political Mary Hawkesworth

4. Working with Concepts: Challenging the Language–Reality Dichotomy Douglas C. Dow

6. Neither Rigorous nor Objective? Interrogating Criteria for Knowledge Claims in Interpretive Science Dvora Yanow

Those interested in thinking critically and interpretively about statistics should consult:

3. Figuring Authority, Authorizing Statistics Kirstie M. McClure

13. The Numeration of Events: Studying Political Protest in India Dean E. McHenry, Jr.

Those with an historical and archival interest would enjoy:

14. Making Sense of Making Sense: Configurational Analysis and the Double Hermeneutic Patrick Thaddeus Jackson

15. Studying the Careers of Knowledge Claims: A Guide Pamela Brandwein

16. Critical Interpretation and Interwar Peace Movements: Challenging Dominant Narratives Cecelia Lynch

17. Political Science as History: A Reflexive Approach Ido Oren

There are a variety of additional chapters on particular methods:

9. Ordinary Language Interviewing Frederic Charles Schaffer

10. Seeing with an Ethnographic Sensibility: Explorations beneath the Surface of Public Policies Ellen Pader

18. Value-Critical Policy Analysis: The Case of Language Policy in the United States Ronald Schmidt, Sr.

19. Stories for Research Steven Maynard-Moody and Michael Musheno

21. How Built Spaces Mean: A Semiotics of Space Dvora Yanow

And chapters that engage the sociology and politics of research:

23. 'May I See Your Color-Coded Badge?' Reflections on Research with 'Vulnerable' Communities Michael Orsini

24. We Call It a Grain of Sand: The Interpretive Orientation and a Human Social Science Timothy Pachirat

25. Doing Social Science in a Humanistic Manner Dvora Yanow and Peregrine Schwartz-Shea

Recommended Courses to Cover Before this One

Philosophy of the Social Sciences (Winter and Summer School)

Recommended Courses to Cover After this One

Winter School

Introduction to Qualitative Interpretive Methods

Working with Concepts in the Social Sciences

Historical Methods for Social Scientists

Advanced Qualitative Data Analysis

Analysing Political Language

Summer School

Case Study Research

Introduction to Relational Social Science

Expert Interviews for Qualitative Data Generation