Norman Denzin, 1941-2023: The Father of Qualitative Research

August 11, 2023 3871
Headshot of Norman Denzin in his office
Norman Denzin in 2017 (Photo:
Sarina Chen
/CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Commons)

Sociologist Norman K. Denzin, whose pioneering work in developing and popularizing qualitative research methodology saw him dubbed “the father of qualitative research,” died on August 6 in Urbana, Illinois. He was 82.

At his death, Denzin was an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, where his portfolio demonstrated the breadth and depth of his scholarship. In addition to qualitative methods, he loomed large in developing interpretive theory, performance studies, and the scholarly examination of media, culture and society.

“With Denzin’s immense impacts on various fields in qualitative inquiry, his outstanding works in mentoring generations of qualitative scholars, and his accomplishment in building an international community of qualitative researchers, Denzin has been attributed as ‘the Father of Qualitative Inquiries,’ a well-deserved distinction,” Shing-Ling Sarina Chen wrote in last year’s edited volume, Festschrift In Honor Of Norman K. Denzin: He Knew His Song Well.

Publisher Helen Salmon, who had worked with Denzin for two decades at Sage, offered a more personal précis:

Norman was a gentle giant, and incredibly generous with his time and knowledge. He was a great mentor to generations of graduate students and junior faculty whose work he championed in the journals he founded and edited. He had an infectious laugh which announced he was in the room, and I’ll remember his signature shorts and Birkenstocks, the one concession to winter months being the addition of a pair of socks.

In noting Denzin’s passing, the University of Illinois College of Media quoted C.L. Cole and Robert E. Rinehart from a special 2006 issue of the Journal of Sport and Social Issues:

It is impossible to list all of his contributions or to fully express how his work has positively affected countless others. It is impossible to detail how his prolific writing, his creative vision and fresh ways of thinking have created a sea-change in those who have encountered them, struggled with them, incorporated them. It is also impossible to recount how his charming, easy-going affability, and generosity of spirit have lent themselves to mentees, friends, colleagues, students.

Born and matriculated in America’s Midwest, Denzin’s work reflected a spectrum of heartland concerns, from the focus on the individual voice to the impact of Hollywood, from the treatment of native Americans to the exploration of racial violence. And yet, as Chen would explain, Denzin’s efforts wielded the regional to explain the universal, just as he used his own autoethnography repeatedly to limn larger narratives.

Although based in the University of Illinois, in the United States, Denzin’s impacts are not limited to the scholars in America. Denzin’s impact on fields in qualitative inquiry extends to qualitative researchers worldwide. Again, through his own works, as well as conference and publication outlets, Denzin builds an international community of qualitative researchers. Denzin envisions an international community where qualitative researchers collaborate and support one another.

The end purpose, in Denzin’s estimation, was not the methodology itself but its results in real life. As he was quoted at “[The] basic question guiding my work is: ‘How is meaning constructed and lived in the lives of ordinary people and how may we, as interpretive scholars, ground our understandings in the spoken prose of the people we study?’”

This harnessing of the method and the goal was made explicit in books like 2010’s The Qualitative Manifesto: A Call to Arms, which included a strong focus on indigenous peoples. How seriously he took these issues was apparent. “I have long admired Norm Denzin’s vision and passion for qualitative inquiry,” H. L. (Bud) Goodall, Jr. wrote in a review. “But I have never seen him write with such raw, energizing power – his is the voice of a fine angry angel leading us into the political battle of narratives currently defining, and contesting, qualitative research. It’s a perfect pitch for this manifesto that is really a full intellectual and performative call to arms.″

All the combats of his career march back to raising the utility, the use, and the profile of qualitative research in its many forms – an Chen enumerated, there was existentialism, phenomenology, pragmatism, symbolic interactionism, semiotics, poetics, poststructuralism, postmodernism, performance studies, autoethnography, critical and creative forms of writing, justice studies, and more. Some of his most signal work in this regard came for Sage, the parent of Social Science Space, although Denzin also wrote and edited for many other publishers, such as AltaMira, Left Coast, Emerald, and Routledge. For Sage’s 50th anniversary book, Denzin noted how his journey and that of Sage intertwined:

Over a 49-year academic career, I’ve changed disciplines, departments, and colleges, but since 1987, my real academic home has been with Sage. I became a Sage author in 1987, when I found a home for a long, interpretive ethnography on the alcoholic self. This book opened the door to conversations that led to the first edition (with Yvonna Lincoln) of The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research (1994), and six years later the launching of a new journal, Qualitative Inquiry. In turn, this opened the door for subsequent books with SAGE Inc. and SAGE Ltd. on interpretive interactionism, the biographical method, the cinematic society, social theory, race, and the media.

That handbook, now in its sixth edition, and the journals he founded (such as Cultural Studies-Critical Methodologies and the International Review of Qualitative Research) proved remarkably important for both qualitative research and Sage. Denzin would describe the handbook as “the linchpin in SAGE’s entire qualitative methodology publishing program,” while Sage founder Sara Miller McCune said Qualitative Inquiry became “a natural home for the discussions around these new ways of thinking, exploring the qualitative framework within a multidisciplinary approach.”

Those publications were followed by theoretical and applied milestones in qualitative method, such as Interpretive Biography in 1989, Interpretive Ethnography: Ethnographic Practices for the 21st Century in 1997, Performance Ethnography: The Politics and Pedagogies of Culture in 2003, and that 2010 cri de cœur, The Qualitative Manifesto: A Call to Arms. In addition to his writing and his teaching, Denzin was founding president of the International Association of Qualitative Inquiry and launched the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry in 2005.

“Norm Denzin was a pillar of the qualitative research community and of the Research Methods list at Sage,” reflected Reid Hester, associate vice president, college editorial, for Sage. “For decades he made his mark as an author and editor with Sage, and we count ourselves lucky to have been his publishing partner. We will strive to honor his legacy by continuing to support and grow the qualitative methods community globally.”

Norman Kent Denzin was born on March 24, 1941, in Iowa City, Iowa. His parents were Kenneth, then working as a Farm Bureau county agent, and Betty. Denzin, as he explored autoethnography, often recalled his youth in several of his writings. His article “Performing methodologies” in a 2013 issue of Qualitative Methodologies outlining the formative events in his childhood in three spare paragraphs.

I was hometown bound, a farm boy raised eight miles south of Iowa City, Iowa who took all his degrees – humanities, sociology and psychology – from the University of Iowa (AB, 1963; PhD, 1966). But ours was a traveling family. My father was a Farm Bureau County Agent, a traveling salesman of sorts. We moved from one county to the next, from Johnson, to Iowa, to Linn, Warren, Wayne, and Muscatine, settling finally in the summer of 1953 back in Pleasant Valley Township in Johnson County on the family farm.

I was 12 years old. About this time my father’s luck ran out. This was the summer my parents divorced for the first time. This was also the summer dad’s drinking got out of hand. That fall he would join Alcoholics Anonymous and we became an A.A. family.

Six years later our little world changed forever. I came home from high school and found a note from Dad. It was short, it read, ‘I have to leave you. You and Mark are on your own now.’ I was 18 and Mark was 14. Mother was crushed.

As noted, Denzin began his higher education at the University of Iowa, where took a triple major in English, philosophy and sociology. “In the 1960s,” he wrote, “the University of Iowa was a hotbed of Vienna positivism and Skinnerian behaviorism, but in sociology under Manford Kuhn there was a tradition of symbolic interactionism, and Chicago School pragmatism. I was drawn to Kuhn and this framework, like a moth to a light on a warm summer night.”

While in graduate school, again at the University of Iowa, Denzin drank deeply from the well of sociologist C. Wright Mills, describing Mills’ seminal work Sociological Imagination as his “bible.” “Mills exhorted sociologists to write from their biographies into the spaces of history and culture,”” Denzin wrote. “He urged writers with the sociological imagination to connect biography and history, to join the personal with the public. He implied that we could change history by inserting ourselves into it. If we did not do this, history would go on behind our backs.”

“Our project,” Denzin continued, “is to change society, not just interpret or write about it.”

He would live up to that charge in his own writing,

Denzin explained that he entered grad school as a qualitative sociologist in waiting “because there were no courses on qualitative methodology at that time.” After taking a post as an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, he started to fill that void, for his students and for social and behavioral science writ large. Among his first assignments was teaching field methods to grad students, and he would teach “an evolving version” of that course for the rest of his career.

In 1966 there were no qualitative research methodology textbooks. There was a large body of work connected to the Chicago School on case study, life history, participant observation, interviewing, analytic induction, naturalistic observation, ethics and an emerging discourse on triangulation and the use of multiple methods. Grounded theory was on the horizon. My lectures from these two courses became The Research Act.

After three years at Illinois, Denzin took an assistant professorship for two years at the University of California, Berkeley – where he wrote The Research Act: A Theoretical Introduction to Sociological Methods — before returning to Illinois in 1971. Back in Urbana-Champaign, where he would remain on the faculty for the rest of his life, Denzin expanded his research interests, first in the Department of Sociology, and in the 1980s in the College of Communication as a professor of cinema studies and later as a professor in the university’s Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory.

His father’s alcoholism and his mother’s self-medication through television viewing appeared directly and obliquely in his scholarship.

I entered graduate school in 1963. Sometime during my second year in graduate school I decided I wanted to write the story of my family, how my father left us, how I felt ashamed being the son of a traveling salesman who belonged to Alcoholics Anonymous. I struggle to this day to find the voice that will help me tell this story.

Denzin wrote extensively on the social science of alcoholism, as in three books from 1987, The Alcoholic Self (which received the Charles H. Cooley Award from the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction), The Recovering Alcoholic, and Treating Alcoholism: An Alcoholics Anonymous Approach.

He also wrote about the importance that television played in his mother’s life, referring to her curled up on the couch as I Love Lucy played on the family’s Sylvania black-and-white TV the day his father left. He suggested she found solace in the barely functional Ricardo clan, a solace missing in the dysfunctional Denzin family. “I understand why mother loved Lucy,” he wrote in Cultural Studies – Critical Methodologies. “Mother didn’t have my father to yell at, so Lucy did her yelling for her.”

He combined his insights of alcoholism with his investigations of media and culture in his 1991 book, Hollywood Shot by Shot: Alcoholism in American Cinema, which drew praise from scholars and even film critic Robert Ebert. The book, and others like Images of Postmodernism: Social Theory and Contemporary Cinema also from 1991, reflect the mantle of cultural critic he would wear until his death.

His 1992 book Cultural Studies: The Politics of Interpretation or 2002’s Reading Race: Hollywood and a Cinema of Racial Violence, 1980-1995, appear as two of the many mileposts as his qualitative, social psychological and media work drew increasingly on semiotics, structuralism, poststructuralism and post modernism as explanatory vehicles.Lawrence Grossberg, reviewing Denzin’s 1991 work Images of Postmodernism: Social Theory and Contemporary Cinema, summoned the spirit of Mills in assessing Denzin’s impact.Revitalizing Mills’ sociological imagination,” Grossberg wrote, “Denzin addresses the relations between Hollywood films of the 1980s, their constructions of self, and the structures of lived experience. He offers a postmodern sociology which addresses the increasingly conservative basis of postmodern ideologies of race, class and gender.” 

Denzin’s publishing reflected his focus on social and ethnic justice, and the qualitative researcher’s role in cultivating underheard voices for the betterment of all. Starting with Reading Race, books such as Qualitative Inquiry under Conservative Regimes (2006), edited volumes with Michael Giardina like Contesting Empire, Globalizing Dissent: Cultural Studies after 9/11 (2006), Ethical Futures in Qualitative Inquiry: Decolonizing the Politics of Knowledge (2007), Qualitative Inquiry and Social Justice (2009), and the Handbook of Critical Indigenous Inquiry edited with Lincoln and Linda Tuhiwai Smith showcased actionable steps scholars could take. Denzin paid particular attention to the poor job scholars had done for native Americans, critiques made manifest in the Indigenous Inquiry handbook and volumes like Searching for Yellowstone: Race, Gender Family and Memory in the Postmodern West (2008), Custer on Canvas: Native Americans Memory, Museums and Violence in the New West (2011), and Indians on Display: Global Commodification of Native America in Performance, Art and Museums (2013).

Over his career, Denzin received many honors and accolades. In 1997 he was awarded the George Herbert Mead Award for lifetime contributions to the study of human interaction by the Society for the Symbolic Interaction. In 2006 the Carl Couch Center for Social and Internet Research established the Norman K. Denzin Qualitative Research Award, and four years later presented him its Clifford G. Christians Ethics Research Award for his book Interpretive Ethnography. The International Association of Qualitative Inquiry presented him its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009.

But as his hometown obituary notes, in the end, Denzin was more than the sum of his parts. “Norman was a dreamer, a visionary, a utopian. For all of his scholarly achievements, he didn’t define himself in such terms. As he wrote in one of his books, he saw himself as an ancestor, husband, grandson, uncle, father, grandfather, friend, colleague, co-worker, community member, mentor, justice activist, antiracist, inclusive global citizen and more.”

He is survived by his spouse, Katherine Ryan, two daughters and eight grandchildren. A public celebration of his life will be held at the next International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry in May 2024.

Social Science Space editor Michael Todd is a long-time newspaper editor and reporter whose beats included the U.S. military, primary and secondary education, government, and business. He entered the magazine world in 2006 as the managing editor of Hispanic Business. He joined the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy and its magazine Miller-McCune (renamed Pacific Standard in 2012), where he served as web editor and later as senior staff writer focusing on covering the environmental and social sciences. During his time with the Miller-McCune Center, he regularly participated in media training courses for scientists in collaboration with the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS), Stanford’s Aldo Leopold Leadership Institute, and individual research institutions.

View all posts by Michael Todd

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