Qualitative Research for Social Justice

Some have argued that research for social justice compromises the scientific process. For example, Hammersley and Gomm, in their article, “Bias in social research” argue that research that aims to promote “some practical or political cause” is a threat to the scientific community. Others have argued that research is always and already part of the political research process – that there is no impartial stance that researchers can take when studying the social world (e.g., see Haraway, 1988 on the “god trick”). The third edition of the Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, edited by Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln (2005) takes an explicitly critical perspective to research. Scholars who have taken up Denzin’s call to arms (2010) assert that qualitative research must be used to change the world in positive ways. How might qualitative researchers approach this task? Where might one begin? Below I discuss several texts that discuss approaches that forefront issues of social justice.

Following the publication of Linda T. Smith’s influential volume, (Smith, 1999) on decolonizing methodologies, there has been a stream of publications that examine how qualitative researchers might work with indigenous peoples in ways that do not perpetuate the harms of research conducted by colonizers (Chilisa, 2012; Diversi & Moreira, 2009; Mutua & Swadener, 2004). This has also led to the use of decolonizing approaches with marginalized groups other than indigenous groups. For example, Eve Tuck examined young people’s experiences with the GED (an alternative credential to a high school diploma in the US) in New York using decolonizing methodologies and participatory approaches to research (Tuck, 2012). The Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies (Norman K. Denzin, Lincoln, & Smith, 2008) takes up themes, theories and approaches used by scholars working from critical and decolonizing perspectives. In four sections, scholars from all over the world discuss theories of decolonizing inquiry, critical and indigenous pedagogies, critical and indigenous and methodologies, and finally, issues to do with power, truth, ethics and social justice. Several collections of papers first presented at the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry, which is held annually at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign,  also speak to the topic of qualitative research for social justice (e.g., Norman K. Denzin & Giardina, 2010).

Django Paris and Maisha Winn, in their book, Humanizing research: Decolonizing qualitative inquiry with youth and communities (Paris & Winn, 2014), bring together authors working in North and South America who illustrate approaches to research with youth that exemplify research for social justice. These include critical ethnography and participatory approaches to research. Paris and Winn (2014) introduce the book by relating the importance of exploring what it means to be a “worthy witness” (p. xiii) as researchers simultaneously navigate tensions between the process of conducting qualitative inquiry and engaging in projects that foster social justice and equity.  A foundational goal of this book is to move “toward a stance and methodology of research that acts against the histories and continuing practices” (p. xvi) that serve to perpetuate inequitable schooling and life outcomes for some while advantaging others.  This book asks readers to reflect on questions about research, including: who benefits, who does not, what assumptions about others undergird the work, and in what ways does the work humanize or dehumanize participants?

Regardless of whether you agree with the idea that qualitative research should be conducted for social justice, it is clear that the number of qualitative researchers who aim to do social justice work is growing. The texts mentioned here are simply a beginning into the many forms that qualitative research for social justice might take. If you would like to look at further resources, please examine further references provided on QualPage, including

Decolonizing Methodologies

Critical Theory

Critical Race Theory

Action, Participatory, & Teacher Research


Chilisa, B. (2012). Indigenous research methodologies. Los Angeles: Sage.

Denzin, N. K. (2010). The qualitative manifesto: A call to arms. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Denzin, N. K., & Giardina, M. D. (Eds.). (2010). Qualitative inquiry and human rights. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Denzin, N. K., & Lincoln, Y. S. (Eds.). (2005). The Sage handbook of qualitative research (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Denzin, N. K., Lincoln, Y. S., & Smith, L. T. (Eds.). (2008). Handbook of critical and indigenous methodologies. Los Angeles: Sage.

Diversi, M., & Moreira, C. (2009). Betweener talk: Decolonizing knowledge production, pedagogy, and praxis. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Haraway, D. (1988). Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist Studies, 14(3), 575-599.

Mutua, K., & Swadener, B. B. (Eds.). (2004). Decolonizing research in cross-cultural contexts: Critical personal narratives. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Paris, D., & Winn, M. T. (Eds.). (2014). Humanizing research: Decolonizing qualitative inquiry with youth and communities. Los Angeles: Sage.

Smith, L. T. (1999). Decolonizing methodologies: Research and indigenous peoples. London and New York: Zed Books Limited.

Tuck, E. (2012). Urban youth and school pushout: Gateways, getaways, and the GED. New York & London: Routledge.

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