Sensitising concepts

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It feels as if Arwen and I are having a concept tennis match at the moment.  I write a blog gathering together disparate reading, which prompts Arwen to read, she summarises her reading in a blog, which them prompts further reading by myself, which I summarise in comment or a blog.  And so it goes back and forth, but the concepts are getting better, more useful to what we want.  And Arwen has now found what I currently think of as the ‘holy grail’ – the concept of a sensitising concept!

We’ve both been concerned about this inductive/deductive and etic/emic thing. I have ‘theories’ in my head so I am beginning to realise how the ‘purity’ of inductive is perhaps a little odd when you believe in constructivism.  If I look at some ‘data’ – in my case my transcribed talk samples – I can’t help but think ‘oohh, there is an example of talk that…’ and link it to some theory or concept in my head.  In some ways the coding process is all about that (see this post).  As I have said before I am clear that my research is about me ‘making a judgement’ – that systems thinking is in the eye of the beholder.  But I guess you worry a little that those theories either become ‘blinkers’ and make you miss things OR that you ‘force’ your data to fit the theories.

So Arwen found mention of Herbert Blumer’s notion of sensitising concepts.  Now I have a phrase to hook onto I can look it up in Sage Research Methods on-line.

In The Sage Dictionary of Social Research Methods there is an explanation by Martyn Hammersley (link for those with OU access).  The definition goes as follows:

A notion found in the methodological writings of the US sociologist Herbert Blumer, the founder of symbolic interactionism. By contrast with what he called ‘definitive’ concepts, sensitizing concepts do not involve using ‘fixed and specific procedures’ to identify a set of phenomena, but instead give ‘a general sense of reference and guidance in approaching empirical instances’. So, whereas definitive concepts ‘provide prescriptions of what to see, sensitizing concepts merely suggest directions along which to look’ (Blumer, 1969: 148).

This resonates so much with what I felt I was going to be doing with my coding.  Hammersley goes onto explain that the concept itself gets developed through the process of using it too – more refined.

Note to self – places to go back to

Christian (2001) The challenge of writing the critical/cultural essay (requires OU access)- has a section on sensitising concepts

Blumer’s 1954 paper is re-produced here  or available as a pdf here

3 thoughts on “Sensitising concepts

  1. Just a note to self really. Joy of joys, I have found a paragraph that neatly describes what I thought I would be doing when I do my analysis…..

    “Sometimes…qualitative analysis is first deductive or quasi-deductive, and then inductive as when, for example, the analyst begins by examining the data in terms of theory-derived sensitising concepts or applying a theoretical framework…After or alongside this deductive phase of analysis, the researcher strives to look at the data afresh for undiscovered patterns and emergent understandings (inductive analysis)”

    Patton, M.Q., 2002. Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methods Third ed., London: Sage Publications. (page 454)

    My ‘coding system’ are my theory-derived sensitising concepts which I will use to create and tag excerpts from the ‘talk samples’. Then when I look at all the excerpts linked to a code I will work inductively to develop emergent understandings. These emergent understandings will give me a more nuanced use of the sensitising concepts in the future.

  2. And another note, this time about analytic induction – when I first saw mention of this ages ago, I kind of ‘discounted’ its relevance to my research because it emphasised universality and causality and my research question is a descriptive one.

    However Patton (2002, 493-4) (full ref above) points out that over time, researchers have de-emphasised the causality dimension and now talk of analytic induction as a “strategy for engaging in qualitative inquiry.. that includes examining pre-conceived hypothesis, that is, without the pretense of the mental blank slate” (p. 493)

    Apparently Bogden and Biklen (1992) coined the term modified analytic induction for this. Their book is “Qualitative Research for Education: An Introduction to Theories and Methods” which I see reached it’s fifth edition in 2006.

    So again this helps me understand what I will do when I do analysis.

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