Altheide and Johnson's Evaluative Criteria

Altheide and Johnson suggest that positivism's definition of validity doesn't work because assumptionless science is impossible.  They point out that pragmatic issues affect what one reports, who's point of view should be taken when gathering, analyzing, interpreting and reporting findings.

Assessment of qualitative research, specifically ethnography, according to Altheide and Johnson, should:

  • Assess the goals of the research
  • Come from an ethical and humane frame

They approach the criteria of 'good' ethnography from the perspective of 'analytical realism.' 

From this perspective, the social world is seen as interpreted and socially constructed.  Thus, meanings and definitions produced as part of the research process are socially produced through communication and dialogue. 

With this in mind, Altheide and Johnson suggest:

  • Research must try to understand observed perspectives of social reality in the setting being investigated.  Since there can be many perspectives, ethnographies should seek to understand and report this multivocality and indicate how the researcher's perspective fits in
  • Research must clearly delineate the "process by which the ethnography occurred" and include information about the researcher, methods, setting, participants, analysis and interpretive process, and observers ways of knowing
  • There are certain unavoidable problems in ethnography which can influence observations, analyses and findings (e.g. the researcher's membership role in the setting).  How the researcher deals with these issues and reports on them is critical.
  • In general, topics to be addressed in a report of an ethnography include:
    • the context, history, physical setting of the environment
    • number of participants, key individuals
    • activities, schedules, temporal order, division of labor, hierarchies, routines and variations, significant events, the origins and consequences of members perspectives' on meanings
    • social rules, basic patterns or order
  • The key is to show the experience as lived by the observed, according to the observer's best judgment.  Altheide and Johnson note that the difficulty of illuminating tacit or taken fore granted knowledge makes achieving this goal difficult
  • Accounts explaining how the researcher dealt with tacit knowledge should be included in reports - how is the invisible made visible?
  • Readers must be given the opportunity to assess how the researcher gathered all data and what influences were present
  • Ethical account - researchers need to note that all knowledge is produced from a particular perspective. An explicit statement about the author's perspective and reflection on how this influenced the research process should be included


Altheide, DL. & Johnson, JM. (1994). "Criteria for assessing interpretive validity in qualitative research." In NK Denzin and YS Lincoln (Eds.) Handbook of Qualitative Research (pp. 485-499). Thousand oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

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