The Problem of Evidence


“The problem of evidence consists of the tasks of making this fact intelligible” (Garfinkle, p. 103).

    While recently writing an autoethnography examining the semiotics of name in relation to experience, I consistently came across criticism of ethnographic research aimed at highlighting the problem of interpretation of evidence. Coffey (1999) explains that in ethnography the researcher, and his/her interpretive eye, is as much a part of the research as are the subjects being examined. This sentiments is echoed in Garfinkle’s (1976) exploration of the documentary method of sociological research and the problem of what constitutes “reasonable findings”:

A prominent argument on behalf of this emphasis is that the documentary method is a scientifically erroneous procedure; that its use distorts the objective world in a mirror of subjective prejudice; and that where common sense situations of choice exist they do so as historical nuisances. (p. 21)

It is this assertion that any researcher must answer to when reporting and interpreting evidence.

    So how does one carry out objective interpretation of qualitative findings or observations? Norton (2000) writes:

As Wolcott (1994) suggests, a major challenge for qualitative researchers is not how to get data, but how to decided what to do with the data they get. The three ways in which he suggests data can be presented are defined as descriptive, analytical, and interpretive, respectively. (p. 33)

Norton then goes on to describe a study of Canadian ESL students and her attempts to perform empowerment research, a term originally introduced by Cameron et al. (1992) – “It is the centrality of interaction ‘with’ the researched that enables research to be empowering in our sense; though we understand this as a necessary rather than sufficient condition” (in Norton, p. 23).

    As I noted in my previous review of Gallagher and Marcel (1999), it seems that collaborative analysis would allow for a richer interpretation of phenomenon than an individual interpretation, one seemingly always doomed to subjectivity rather than unbiased evaluation. It is precisely this collaborative aspect that Cameron et al advocate and that Norton carries out with her own subjects. However, this collaboration may call on the researcher to wear a number of different masks when in community with his or her subjects. Norton notes the difficulty she had balancing her “diverse positions as friend, teacher, and researcher” (p. 32).

    But even in an empowerment approach that highlights collaborative study, it is still the responsibility, or burden, of the sole researcher or team of researchers to bring their own assumptions about the evidence out into the open and to clearly note what is being imposed upon their findings. I’m not sure I’ve read many research reports that attempt to clarify the researcher’s identity residue as it leaves its mark on conclusions and interpretation.


Works Cited


Coffey, A. (1999). The Ethnographic Self. London: Sage.

Garfinkle, H. (1967). Common sense knowledge of social structures. Studies in Ethnomethodology. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Norton, B. (2000). Identity and Language Learning. England: Pearson Education Limited.


About Marlen Harrison

Dr. Marlen Elliot Harrison has been teaching language, communication, composition, literature and gender/sexuality studies at universities in Asia, Europe and North America since 1997.
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2 Responses to The Problem of Evidence

  1. Ben R says:

    I like your blog, Marlen.

    The idea that evidence is richer when it is seen in the light of multiple interpretations is hard to argue with. I prefer to present multiple interpretations when I offer evidence. Still, though, this leaves unanswered the question of what we mean by, or expect from, richer evidence. Isaiah Berlin said the trouble with academics is that they care more about what is interesting than what is true. Is it possible that the richness of multiple interpretations provides some researchers with an easy cover for avoiding the tough choices that are required to assert that something is true, and not just multiply interpreted? Could be.

  2. marlen says:

    Thanks for your comment, Ben. The question of how to convey non-biased evaluations of evidence is a real challenge.

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