Inductive–Deductive Pitfalls in Concept Development

Janice M. Morse



                [A] concept is not an isolated, ossified changeless formation, but an active part of an intellectual process, constantly engaged in serving communication, understanding and problem solving.

—Lev Vygotsky (1962)

The challenge of qualitative inquiry is essentially one of validity. Although much literature exists on methods of controlling or countering threats to validity when the goal of research is description, these problems are compounded when one begins working abstractly. Not only is the research most at risk with this research approach, but also these problems have been poorly addressed in the methodological literature.

Recall the goal of qualitative science twofold: first, to develop concepts in order to get a better grasp on the phenomena represented by the concepts themselves, and second, to develop generalizable and valid theories from this. We believe it is these tasks, essentially those involving interpretation, conceptualization, and abstraction, that will eventually provide qualitative inquiry with a legitimate place in the social sciences and ultimately earn its respect and contribution to knowledge.

Presently, ways of controlling threats to inductive validity with descriptive research are only partially successful. Briefly, strategies used prior to commencement of data analysis such as bracketing (Janesick, 2000; van Manen, 1990), rejection of preconceived theoretical frameworks (Miles & Huberman, 1994), or techniques of verification used during the conduct of inquiry (Meadows & Morse, 2001) demand that inquiry begins from the data with each new project, and do not facilitate the incremental compounding of research projects. Post hoc methods to ensure validity, such as testing results by implementation and subsequent inquiry (Morse, Swanson, & Kuzel, 2001), although important, occur too late in the process of inquiry to expedite the process of inquiry itself. Although these checks and balances guide inquiry toward validity, there is a need to explore the problem of conducting qualitative inquiry using concepts as a starting point within the analytic processes of induction/deduction, and to bring to the fore ways that more advanced inquiry implicitly proceeds. In particular, there is a need to explore the problem in instances in which inquiry begins with a concept itself, rather than commencing with a basic description. Here, we have attempted to identify and to formalize techniques by which inductive processes may be sustained (and deductive tendencies avoided) when commencing inquiry at the conceptual level.

Induction is a sacred tenet of qualitative inquiry. Therefore, when one begins a project with a concept of interest (rather than allowing the concepts to emerge from the data per se), how does one maintain a valid approach? We previously discussed this problem: Even obtaining consent from a participant may violate the principle of induction and “lead” the participant, thereby invalidating data (Morse, 2008). Therefore, when commencing inquiry with a chosen concept or phenomenon of interest, rather than with a question from the data about what is going on, how does one control deductive tendencies that threaten validity?

Difficulties stem from the nature of induction itself—is induction an impossible operation in qualitative research, as Popper (1963/1965) suggests? In this section, we first discuss Popper’s concern, followed by a discussion of two major threats that may prevent an inductive approach in qualitative research. The first threat is the pink elephant paradox; the second is the avoidance of conceptual tunnel vision or, specifically, how does the researcher decontextualize the concept of interest from the surrounding context and thereby avoid the tendency to consider all data to be pertinent to the concept of interest? How do we maintain both the integrity of the concept and the integrity of the research?


Popper (1963/1965) identified the most well-known threat to inductive soundness, which has become the Achilles’s heel of qualitative inquiry. He summed up his challenge to the notion of induction with an example of a group of physics students in Vienna in the 1940s:

Take a pencil and paper; carefully observe, and write down what you have observed! They asked, of course, what I wanted them to observe. Clearly the instruction, “Observe!” is absurd. (p. 46)

With this example, Popper is implying that just as observation is “always selective,” induction is not presuppositionless. From this criticism, fear of violating inductive processes has resulted in researchers’ reluctance to focus on a concept until it “emerges,” and some researchers even avoid the literature before commencing fieldwork (Glaser, 1992).2

But because Popper has removed the process of induction from the context of research itself, we suggest that Popper’s concern is unwarranted. Let us explain, and at the same time consider the history of the development of this problem, which we call the myth of induction.

The problem of induction is already hinted at in the 4th century BCE by Aristotle, although his approach is not so much to reject what will not fit into a tight logical box as to explain how something like induction, which obviously takes place, must in fact be able to do so. In an important passage from On Interpretation (Aristotle, 2000), he suggests that the formation of concepts is a little like what goes on as an army retreats under attack, constantly falling back here and then there looking for a place to make a firm stand. The passage easily reminds one of Piaget’s (1959) notion of equilibration, of how concepts are developed through trial and error engagement with phenomena. In both cases, induction is accepted as a real process, and one that is not subject to deductive logical formulation. This is not to deny that some skill-based rules of thumb might help guide induction, although it has been left to later phenomenologists and qualitative researchers to attempt to formulate such rules or guidelines.

When Hume (1960) formulated the classic riddle of induction, the upshot was simply to note that thinking involves two different kinds of concepts: those that can be linked or connected by necessity and those that cannot. But there is no need to deny the reality of concepts that cannot be connected by necessity. The fact that the concept of a triangle necessitates that the sum of the interior angles be 180 degrees, whereas the concept of a dog does not with the same necessity mean that it is a mammal, in no way requires that dog and mammal be rejected as being unsound or illegitimate concepts.

Thus, when Popper goes so far as to reject induction as a myth and to replace it with capricious conjecture, which we simply accept as long as we cannot empirically refute it by finding some phenomenon that falsifies it, he reveals his own inherently rationalist biases. It may well be true that this is how some sciences, especially the highly mathematized ones, tend to work. But it is certainly not how all science has to work, or in fact does work. Biology, for instance, clearly proceeds in its classification of organisms more like a well-organized army faced with ever-new experiences.

In this way, Popper’s argument is itself unsound precisely because he has removed the process of induction from its real-world context in different kinds of research. Consider another example: A race

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Mar 15, 2018 | Posted by in NURSING | Comments Off on Inductive–Deductive Pitfalls in Concept Development

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