Sensitizing Concepts, Inspection and Exploration
In this section, I define and explain the purpose of sensitizing concepts within the context of grounded theory. The term originated with Blumer (1954), the late American sociologist, who contrasted definitive concepts with sensitizing concepts. Blumer explained,
“A definitive concept refers precisely to what is common to a class of objects, by the aid of a clear definition in terms of attributes or fixed bench marks….A sensitizing concept lacks such specification of attributes or bench marks and consequently it does not enable the user to move directly to the instance and its relevant content. Instead, it gives the user a general sense of reference and guidance in approaching empirical instances. Whereas definitive concepts provide prescriptions of what to see, sensitizing concepts merely suggest directions along which to look. (p. 7)”
Social researchers now tend to view sensitizing concepts as interpretive devices and as a starting point for a qualitative study (Glaser, 1978; Padgett, 2004; see also Patton, 2002). Sensitizing concepts draw attention to important features of social interaction and provide guidelines for research in specific settings. According to Gilgun (2002), “Research usually begins with such concepts, whether researchers state this or not and whether they are aware of them or not” (p. 4).
Sociologist Charmaz (2003) has referred to sensitizing concepts as “those background ideas that inform the overall research problem” and stated further,
“Sensitizing concepts offer ways of seeing, organizing, and understanding experience; they are embedded in our disciplinary emphases and perspectival proclivities. Although sensitizing concepts may deepen perception, they provide starting points for building analysis, not ending points for evading it. We may use sensitizing concepts only as points of departure from which to study the data. (p. 259, emphasis in original)”
For his part, Blaikie (2000) has argued that research that is concerned with theory generation might require sensitizing concepts but no hypotheses. Indeed, qualitative research, including grounded theory research, does not start with hypotheses or preconceived notions. Instead, in accordance with its inductive nature, it involves the researcher’s attempts to discover, understand, and interpret what is happening in the research context.
Sensitizing concepts can be tested, improved, and refined (Blumer, 1954). However, researchers taking the grounded theory path do not necessarily seek to test, improve, or refine such a concept. They might use sensitizing concepts simply to lay the foundation for the analysis of research data. Researchers might also use sensitizing concepts in examining substantive codes with a view to developing thematic categories from the data. For example, MacIntosh (2003) reported that in the process of substantive coding, she used sensitizing concepts in further data collection and analysis. Although MacIntosh cited Will van den Hoonaard’s (1997) primer, Working with Sensitizing Concepts, her description of the application of sensitizing concepts in the research process is at best vague and inadequate.
It is important to bear in mind that whereas sensitizing concepts might alert researchers to some important aspects of research situations, they also might direct attention away from other important aspects (Gilgun, 2002). In any case, the ultimate survival of a sensitizing concept “depends on where the data take us; emergent concepts may supplement or displace them altogether” (Padgett, 2004, p. 301)
An example from the empirical world: Civil War Re-enactors.
Exploratory study of human group life is the means of achieving simultaneously two complementary and interknit objectives. On the one hand, it is the way by which a research scholar can form a close and comprehensive acquaintance with a sphere of social life that is unfamiliar and hence unknown to him (sic).
In this example, we will be examining Civil War re-enactors. Using the “Sensitizing Concept“ of CIVIL WAR REENACTORS, we are able to proceed. Most people do not have a comprehensive knowledge of the Civil War re-enactor phenomenon. And in this case, that is a good thing. Thus, we can limit most preconceived notions about it, and thereby possibly eliminate most bias from the start.
EXPLORATION is by definition a flexible procedure in which the scholar shifts from one to another line of inquiry, adopts new points of observation as his study progresses, moves in new directions previously unthought-of, and changes his recognition of what are relevant data as he acquires more information and better understanding.
I am going to ask that you to think about the re-enactor phenomenon. Go ahead and think about it. On the surface, we know there are two warring “sides.” First there are the Confederate soldiers who wished to cede from the union. Next there are the Union soldiers who were enlisted to fight in order to keep the Union intact (or some say to free slavery). We also know that the Union ultimately won the war. Those “facts” are indisputable, and define some of the parameters we will be dealing with.
Studying social phenomena may involve direct observation, interviewing of people, listening to their conversations, securing life-history accounts, using letters and diaries, consulting public records, arranging for group discussions, and making counts of an item if this appears worthwhile. There is no protocol to be followed in the use of any one of these procedures; the procedure should be adapted to its circumstances and guided by judgment of its propriety and fruitfulness.
Ok, we have two groups and a known outcome.
I ask then… which “side” do you think new recruits join; the UNION or the CONFEDERATES? The answer to follow soon.
It is particularly important in exploratory research for the scholar to be constantly alert to the need of testing and revising his images, beliefs, and conceptions of the area of life he is studying. Part of such testing and revision will come from direct observation and from what informants tell him, but since his task extends to a probing into areas beneath those known to his informants, he should cultivate assiduously a readiness to view his area of study in new ways.
Most new “recruits” join the Confederates. However, most of these eventually switch “sides” and defect to the Union “side.” Why do you think this phenomenon occurs? Perhaps the Confederate newbies get tired of losing. After all, the re-enactors can’t change history. Thus, the Confederate soldiers will never win. Perhaps they get tired of losing.
The aim of exploratory research is to develop and fill out as comprehensive and accurate a picture of the area of study as conditions allow. The picture should enable the scholar to feel at home in the area, to talk from a basis of fact and not from speculation.
By INSPECTION I mean an intensive focused examination of the empirical content of whatever analytical elements are used for purposes of analysis, and this same kind of examination of the empirical nature of the relations between such elements.
As a procedure, inspection consists of examining the given analytical element by approaching it in a variety of different ways, viewing it from different angles, asking many different questions of it, and returning to its scrutiny from the standpoint of such questions from the empirical world.
Exploration and inspection, representing respectively depiction and analysis, constitute the necessary procedure in direct examination of the empirical social world.
They comprise what is sometimes spoken of as “naturalistic” investigation-investigation that is directed to a given empirical world in its natural, ongoing character instead of to a simulation of such a world, or to an abstraction from it (as in the case of laboratory experimentation), or to a substitute for the world in the form of a preset image of it.
We know that most social groups have some sort of status hierarchy. That is, the groups have a stratification system with some actors having more “status” than others. This seems to be a reoccurring aspect of social life.
So next I ask you, who have the most, and the least social status in the Civil War re-enactor communities?
After watching the documentary MEN OF RE-ENACTMENT (Jessica Lu; 1996), there are three generic levels of social status.
The persons with the most social status are the “hard cores” or “authentics.” The authentics only wear clothes made with materials only available during the actual war period. They do not wear polyester, machine crafted glasses, or eat modern-day processed food. If the item wasn’t available during that era, they do not allow it on their person or in their presentation of self.
The next lower level of social status is the “FARBS“ or “in-authentics”. These soldiers are ok with items that were NOT available during the period. However, they will only wear or possess these inauthentic items if they are not visible to the audience. For example, they may have a crate for ammunition, yet will have cold drinks inside.
Ammo crate lined with plastic for use as a cooler.
They may have modern-day cotton underwear, socks or any other item not available during the period. Again, these re-enactors are ok with such items as log as it is out of view from the audience.
(although these are NOT Civil War reenactors, this image makes the point)
These are called the “campers” or “picnicers with guns.” These soldiers don’t really care to appear authentic. They are in the scene mainly to enjoy the socializing aspect. They will appear with modern glasses, polyester uniforms, or anything else they feel like wearing or possessing. The authentics aren’t too pleased with these types. The authentics feel these “campers” ruin the experience. However, in the hard-core’s eyes, despite their heresy, they are a necessary evil. Without them, the re-enactors wouldn’t have enough actors to field the necessary “armies.” Thus, they are tolerated.
The SUV in the background tends to ruin the “fun” for the authentics
Based on these examples, what do you think is the lowest level of social status in the Civil War re-enactor scene?
SUMMARY: Before you read this article, you probably already had a rudimentary knowledge of the Civil War and generally knew what a re-enactor was. But my guess is that from surface knowledge alone, you wouldn’t have figured out the finer details of such a group phenomenon. This small example should provide you with an understanding of the methods of Symbolic Interaction (Exploration, Inspection, and Sensitizing Concepts).
Tuscaloosa : University of Alabama Press, ©2011.