Research in Special Education: Using Qualitative Methods

Why Qualitative Research?

In the field of special education, qualitative research has taken on a role that is beyond the expansion of knowledge. Research in special education has led to radical and sweeping changes in social policy as well as transformed many teaching approaches in special education. But why use qualitative and not quantitative methods? Is qualitative research more appropriate for research in special education? Can special education teachers overcome the inherent disadvantages of qualitative research?

The answer to the third question is yes, there are many ways that special education researchers can overcome the challenges and limitations of qualitative research questions. The second question cannot be answered by a simple yes or no. The appropriateness of a research method solely depends on the objectives of the research. But why should special education teachers use qualitative methods? Qualitative research provides more insightful perspectives of the various issues in special education.

The Qualitative Methods

Every special education teacher knows that research is important to the success of their career. Here are some qualitative methods that can be utilized to advance in a special education degree.

  • Case Study – This is a method that explores a particular bounded system. The system can be an event, a process, or an individual study. One of the most vital case studies in the history of special education was that of Anne Sullivan Macy. Working with Helen Keller, Macy methodically tested and evaluated various intervention strategies.
  • Ethnography – This method focuses on a cultural group and the researcher usually conducts interviews, observations, and analyses of documents. Anne Marie Ambert conducted an important critical ethnography in 1972. She proved that the school personnel’s assumption about ethnicity influences decisions about testing, placement, and referral. Ambert’s research was key to the present “do no harm” philosophy of many special education professionals.
  • Action Research – The purpose of this qualitative research method is two-pronged: to apply theories during fieldwork and to create an impact on the participants/setting. Perhaps the most unforgettable action research was that of Robert Edgerton, an anthropologist. In the early 1960s, he interviewed mentally challenged people who were confined in institutions. The results of his research revealed the inhumane conditions inside these institutions. Edgerton’s work inspired an advocacy that called for the overturn of laws against the marriage of people with such cognitive disabilities.
  • Narrative research – This method explores the lived experiences of people who have special needs or people who have loved ones with special needs. Narratives, such as life stories, memoirs, and autobiographies, largely rely on the idea that every person is a storyteller. An analysis of the narrative or story is expected to provide better perspectives and insights about disabilities. An example of a narrative research is by Susan Gabel. In “I was my face in dirty water,” Gabel presented the stories of three new teachers who have disabilities.


  • Brantlinger, E. et al. (2005). Qualitative Studies in Special Education. Exceptional Children71(2), 195