Practical Theology and Qualitative Research. By John Swinton and Harriet Mowat


London , SCM , 2006 , $27.00.

This book uniquely fills the niche suggested by the title. There has been a paucity of books specifically linking the subjects of practical theology and qualitative research. This is despite the fact that theological students often want to employ qualitative methods in research projects pertaining to the practice of ministry and to theological reflection on the practice of ministry. This book by John Swinton and Harriet Mowat addresses this need. ‘The primary purpose of this book,’ the authors write, ‘is to address the question: How can we faithfully use qualitative research to provide accurate data for theological reflection? (p. vii) They further explain, ‘It is intended that this book should function as a critical foundation for the process of integrating Practical Theology and qualitative research in a way which retains the integrity of both disciplines.’ (p. viii)

The book is structured in two parts. The first three chapters provide the authors' understanding of the ‘theoretical foundations’ of both practical theology and qualitative research. These initial chapters serve as an introduction to these two subjects as well as to the authors' understanding of how the two might be productively related through a sophisticated process of ‘mutual critical correlation’. The second half of the book is a series of chapters which describe particular research projects focusing on different aspects of ministry and exemplifying different methods of qualitative research.

In introducing the epistemological foundations and assumptions of qualitative research, the authors [following John McLeod, Qualitative Research in Counselling and Psychotherapy (London: Sage, 2001), 3] distinguish helpfully between three types of knowledge: knowledge of the ‘other’, knowledge of ‘phenomena’, and ‘reflexive knowing’. ‘Reflexive knowing,’ they explain, ‘occurs when researchers deliberately turn their attention to their own process of constructing the world, with the goal of saying something fresh and new about that personal (or shared) world’ (p. 34). All three types of knowing are involved in qualitative research and have the potential for informing practical theology. The authors especially emphasize the importance of reflexivity in knowing as correlating with a constructivist understanding of the social world. They describe this constructivist understanding as follows:

In distinction from the epistemology of the natural sciences that assumes a more fixed, stable and external reality, this understanding of knowledge does not assume that reality is something that is somehow ‘out there’, external to the observer, simply waiting to be discovered. Rather, it presumes that ‘reality’ is open to a variety of different interpretations and can never be accessed in a pure, uninterpreted forms. Instead, constructivism and its various derivatives assume the existence of multiple realities. (p. 35)

They assure the reader that they are not assuming that ‘reality is nothing but social construction’ (p. 36, emphasis original), but they do acknowledge the ‘polyvalent and interpretive nature of reality’ (p. 36) and that all reality is ‘formulated via an interpretative process which the researcher is inevitably enmeshed’. (p. 37) They emphasize the ‘narrative’ dimension of knowledge. ‘A key aspect of qualitative research,’ they write, ‘is its frequent orientation towards narrative.’ Sometimes narrative is explicitly investigated in qualitative methods of research, according to the authors, but it is nearly always at least an ‘implicit dimension’ and forms part of ‘the heart of the qualitative research enterprise.’ [p. 38, citing N. K. Denzin, Interpretive Ethnography: Ethnographic Practices for the 21st Century (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1997), 231 ff.]. However, narrative is an implicit dimension within most qualitative approaches.

Although they do not want to present quantitative and quantitative research as ‘bipolar opposites’ (p. 44), the authors do draw a rather definite distinction between these two approaches to research. Qualitative research ‘finds its focus,’ they distinguish, ‘in ideographic knowledge,’ whereas quantitative research focuses on ‘nomothetic knowledge’ by means of scientific method. They argue for a constructivist understanding of social reality, while nonetheless giving ‘logical priority’ to a theology informed by God's self-revelation. Such a sharp distinction between qualitative and quantitative research, however, avoids some of the nuance in the ways various researchers have attempted to describe this relationship.

Other recent writings in qualitative research fall into a broad spectrum regarding the distinction/similarity between qualitative and quantitative with regard to both scientific method and the observable facticity of the social world. Karen O'Reilly, for instance, similarly emphasizes the importance of reflexive learning and the constructivist nature of the social world. However, she moves to a position that she describes as ‘subtle realist’ in its scientific status and which she identifies as post-post-modernism.’ [Karen O'Reilly, Ethnographic Methods, (New York: Routledge, 2005), p. 6] In a more modernist fashion, on the other hand, Victor C. de Munck and Elisa J. Sobo [eds. Using Methods in the Field: A Practical Introduction and Casebook. Walnut Creek: Altamira, 1998), p. 16] identify qualitative research firmly within scientific methodology and seek to establish the social ‘facts’. ‘The purpose,’ according to de Munck and Sobo, ‘is to pin down the facts about people. We test our impressions against these facts by formulating a wide range of hypotheses or propositions about what is happening and then figuring out ways to test those hypotheses.’ For theological students who may be novices about qualitative research, Swinton and Mowat's contribution to the debate about postmodern epistemological ‘foundations’ might best be appreciated when read in conjunction with other literature on the subject in order to appreciate the pointedness of their position within the broad terrain of this subject.

The chapters in Part Two of this book further explain and illustrate the authors' approach to qualitative research. Chapter Four examines the subject of depression and spirituality utilizing the method of ‘hermeneutic phenomenology’. Chapter Five, which is written by Cory Labanow and based on his Ph.D. dissertation, is a case study of a particular congregation employing a ‘hermeneutic approach’ with two data collection methods: participant observation and interviews of congregants. Chapter Six describes research on hospital chaplaincy involving a series of interviews as well as direct observation. Chapter Seven describes a study of suicide and religious communities in the Scottish Highlands; research techniques included focus group discussion involving lay people as well as a series of interviews of church ministers. Chapter Eight describes a participatory research project which had as one of its aims to ‘explore the meaning and significance of spirituality from the perspective of the experience of people with learning disabilities.’ To do so, this study not only entailed interviewing people with learning disabilities, but also included people with learning disabilities as ‘co-researchers’ on the Advisory Group for the project.

These chapters in the second part of the book are helpful as practical illustrations for students contemplating their own research projects. They are also interesting in and of themselves. It is not the case, however, that these chapters are simply illustrating the application of theory introduced earlier in Part One of the book. Key dimensions of theory as well as practice are interjected within each of these chapters. Chapter Four, for instance, devotes considerable detail to explaining the hermeneutics of Hans Georg Gadamer and relating this material to the authors’ understanding of phenomenology. Chapter Six expounds on the value of ethnography, even though the ethnographic method being discussed was not actually used in the study described in that chapter. Chapter Seven [citing J. Mason, Qualitative Researching (London: Sage, 1996)] discusses five ‘difficult’ questions:

  • 1‘What is the nature of the phenomena or entities or social reality (situation) which I wish to investigate? This question relates to ontology.’ (p. 198)
  • 2‘What might represent knowledge or evidence of the entities or social reality which I wish to investigate? This is a question of epistemology.’ (p. 199)
  • 3‘What topic, or broad substantive area, is the research concerned with?’ (p. 199)
  • 4‘What is the intellectual puzzle? What do I wish to explain?’ (p. 200)
  • 5‘What is the purpose of my research? What am I doing it for?’ (p. 200)

These questions are apropos for planning any kind of research project.

It is also possible to be critical of some of the details pertaining to the research projects described in Part Two. In particular, there is occasional tension and even apparent inconsistency between some of the details of actual research and some of the premises established in the more theoretical first part of the book. For instance, Chapter Four asserts that people of different cultures experience the ‘same feelings’ of depression ‘but with different manifestations due to different social circumstances,’ and that men and women in the Hebrides Islands experience the ‘same feelings’ of depression ‘but different social expression’ (p. 103). This assertion of underlying sameness of feeling is at variance with the emphasis on the contextual nature of knowledge emphasized in Chapters Two, Three and even within Chapter Four itself.

This chapter on the study of depression makes strong use of narrative techniques in order to discover and display people's own interpretation of their experiences of depression. Although Swinton made provision for counsellors if needed to provide therapy for people remembering their experiences of depression during the course of this study, the emphasis was not primarily or immediately on providing pastoral care to the research subjects. It was on understanding the subjects' perceptions of depression in their own terms. As part of the validation process, then, Swinton communicated back to the subjects his own thematic interpretation of their stories of depression. He found that they concurred with his interpretation, but that they were also occasionally surprised by it. The emerging area of narrative therapy, however, which is influencing contemporary pastoral care would suggest that caution should be exercised in repeating back to people (and inadvertently reinforcing) their own hurtful narratives. Narrative counselling techniques empower the one being counseled – not primarily the researcher – to deconstruct culturally oppressive dimensions of personal narratives and to reconstruct them in more liberating ways. [see Jill Freedman and Gene Combs, Narrative Therapy: The Social Construction of Preferred Realities (London: W. W. Norton), 42–76; Alice Morgan, What is Narrative Therapy? (Adelaide: Dulwich Centre Publications, 2000), 45–75; Christie Cozad Neuger, Counseling Women: A Narrative, Pastoral Approach (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 149–177] Swinton and Mowat emphasize the importance of research and understanding in doing practical theology as more expansive than a narrower traditional focus on pastoral practice that would equate practical theology with pastoral theology. However, such a pastoral dimension still needs to stay ingredient in our research, if the hermeneutical circle to which they refer (pp. 81–2, 97) is truly to move through the cultural and contextual analysis and description of current practice to a theologically informed revised practice which faithfully cares for - as well understands–the human subjects of our study and of our ministry.

Another instance of questionable consistency between the theoretical chapters and the examples of actual research can be found in Chapter Five which is the case study of a single congregation. The first aim given for this research is ‘to highlight the current challenges for ‘emerging churches’ by describing and understanding in detail one such church. Such hoped for generalization of findings from a single case study to the sweeping category of ‘emerging churches’ is problematic and belies an earlier discussion in Chapter Two, ‘What is Qualitative Research?’, about the limits of such generalization in qualitative research (pp. 46ff.).

Chapter Two also describes ‘the heart of qualitative research’ with reference to people's own interpretation of the actions as follows: ‘… it is necessary to understand the meaning of the actions, the way the situation is being interpreted by those performing within it and the reasons behind the ways individuals and communities act in the particular ways that they do.’ (p. 38, emphasis original) However, in Chapter Seven regarding suicide in the Scottish Highlands, the authors import the Durkheimian concept of anomie and the Freudian concept of thanatos, to interpret the situation rather than simply staying with emic concepts such as ‘darkness’ which emerged from the interviewees themselves.

Such detailed criticism concerning consistency between theory and the actual conduct of research, however, can perhaps be seen to some degree as characteristic of qualitative research which does not attempt to control the many variables within situations in the same way that experimental methods do. As a result, it may be that qualitative research tends to be less tidy than the theories sometimes surrounding it. The strength of this book lies not in the perfection of its examples, but in the very invitation to students, theologians and church leadership to engage in qualitative research themselves as a way of enriching ministry and informing theology. Indeed, the book's pedagogical value potentially increases in the context of a classroom where the lecturer can invite students to engage the material more deeply by critiquing the research projects in Part Two in light of the foundational premises explained in Part I and, conversely, to reconsider the foundational premises in Part One in light of the experiences with research described in Part Two. This book is a helpful introduction to the subject. It provides a needed bridge between practical theology and qualitative research, and it invites and equips the reader to cross that bridge oneself.