The History of Qualitative Psychology in Qualitative Psychology

Qualitative Psychology is a new journal from the American Psychological Association. The journal’s first issue includes two articles that may be of interest to AHP readers. In “Qualitative inquiry in the history of psychology” Frederick Wertz details the long history of qualitative work in psychology, while in his article David Leary describes the history of qualitative research through discussion the work of William James. Full titles, authors, and abstracts follow below.

“Qualitative inquiry in the history of psychology,” by Frederick J. Wertz. The abstract reads,

Despite the importance and ubiquity of qualitative inquiry, a comprehensive account of its history in psychology has not been written. Phases and landmark moments of qualitative inquiry are evident in variations that range from informal, implicit, and unacknowledged practices to philosophically informed and scientifically sophisticated methodologies with norms and carefully specified procedures. After the founding of psychology in 1879, qualitative inquiries were conducted by Wilhelm Wundt, Sigmund Freud, and William James, who assumed their scientific status. During the 20th century, with a rising emphasis on hypothesis testing by means of quantification, psychologists continued to use qualitative practices but did not include them in general accounts of scientific research methods. Although Gordon Allport (1942) called for bold innovation and an increasingly rigorous accountability, a delay in the systematic development of qualitative methodology took place even as practices continued to yield fruitful research in work such as Flanagan (1954); Maslow (1954, 1959), and Kohlberg (1963). Only between the late 1960s and 1990 did phenomenologists, grounded theorists, discourse analysts, narrative researchers, and others articulate and assert the general scientific value, methodologies, and applicable tools of qualitative inquiry in psychology. Between the 1990s and the present, a revolutionary institutionalization of qualitative methods has taken place in publications, educational curricula, and professional organizations. Examples of ground breaking, well-known psychological research using qualitative methods have begun to be examined by research methodologists. The historical study of qualitative methods offers a treasure trove for the growing comprehension of qualitative methods and their integration with quantitative inquiry.

“Overcoming blindness: Some historical reflections on qualitative psychology,” by David E. Leary. The abstract reads,

This article explores the significance of qualitative research in psychology through an historical review of certain aspects and outcomes of William James’s life and work. After showing how reflecting on his own personal experience allowed James to see and to name previously unrecognized or underappreciated aspects of psychological phenomena, it argues that his qualitative descriptions of various phenomena have had a notable, lasting, and positive influence on the discipline of psychology. Generalizing the point, it contends that qualitative research is essential to the advancement of psychology, and going further, it uses the example of James’s overlooked neurological speculations to argue that qualitative psychology is fundamental to neuroscience as well as other cognate fields. In making this argument, it criticizes current assumptions about the primacy of neuroscience as well as unrealistic hopes for neuroscience’s fulfillment and hence elimination of psychology’s role in understanding human experience. In sum, this article defends the thesis that qualitative research is not just one among many kinds of research—not just one of many psychological methods—but rather, as history has shown, it is an essential means of overcoming blindness and opening up important aspects of human experience to the attention they deserve, whether or not that attention then leads to the use of additional methods (possibly including experimental and quantitative methods) in the pursuit of fuller or supplemental forms of knowledge.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.