Dada’s Methodology: ‘explosive teeth flaring up in every direction like fire!’

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“Love” (1962) by Marisol

Martyn Hammersley is proud of his capacity to irritate and unsettle.

The rather unexpected academic spat that takes place between him and Delamont et al (2010) across successive editions of Qualitative Researcher illustrates the caustic nature of the exchanges this playful devil’s advocacy can generate.

While I don’t often agree with Hammersly (2008) I do like the insight he inspires. It is unsettling because Hammersley is an ethnographer.  Surely he appreciates that ositivism is dead. It has simply not survived the critical onslaught of post-positivist methodology and a new orthodoxy has taken hold. The qualitative researcher has won and nobody counts anything anymore.  This is a caricature, after all what is the current policy inclination for ‘what works’ in education if not positivism? And surely one of the ways of interpreting Abbott (2001) is by saying that methods associated with qualitative research can be squeezed into a quantitative methodological frame. I’m inclined to wonder whether Hammersley is really – after all – a shy positivist in qualitative clothing.

But, despite being interested in his work I am not a fan … Questioning Qualitative Inquiry – was an interesting, illuminating, unsettling and enjoyable (re)read. Not only that, in  bits it was funny. His introduction quotes a series of letters written by the American Comedian, Woody Allen. In what he calls a fantasy, Allen writes a piece entitled, ‘If impressionists had been dentists.’ This ‘fantasy’ is a series of imaginary  letters from van Gogh to his brother Theo in which he recounts his troubles as a dentist The exchange opens with this letter:

Dear Theo 
Will life never treat me decently? I am wracked by despair! My head is pounding. Mrs Sol Schwimmer is suing me because I made her bridge as I felt it and not to fit her ridiculous mouth. That’s right! I can’t work to order like a common tradesman. I decided her bridge should be enormous and billowing and wild, explosive teeth flaring up in every direction like fire! Now she is upset because it won’t fit in her mouth! She is so bourgeois and stupid, I want to smash her. I tried forcing the false plate in but it sticks out like a star burst chandelier. Still, I find it beautiful. She claims she can’t chew! What do I care whether she can chew or not! Theo, I can’t go on like this much longer! I asked Cezanne if he would share an office with me but he is old and infirm and unable to hold the instruments and they must be tied to his wrists but then he lacks accuracy and once inside a mouth, he knocks out more teeth than he saves. What to do? 


The humour of this exchange emerges from the transposition of an attitude or temperament of the artist onto a patently functional activity: dentistry.

The underlying point Hammersley is making is connected to the role, purpose and audience of educational research. He is an ethnographer (with strong empirical leanings) but contrasts a ‘scientific’ approach to research with the advocacy of ‘Dadaist’ qualitative research.

I can’t allow Hammersly to stand without challenge. I am and remain of the position that he clearly has openly acknowledged fantasies of control and limitation (of what counts as  quality in educational research). I suspect he would – by some unintentional fluke of coincidence  – restrict  entry to the academic field to the tightly bound by adherence to a set of rules in his own likeness, I am so much more interested in the wild profusion. My hunch is we are so far away from what even begins to be definitive answers as we are so far away from even defining appropriate questions or without questions points of exploration.

Latter offers an amusing take on this. Hammersly addresses the question – if the researcher were an artist, what sort of artist would she be, and Latter remains in this vein. If the researcher were a drink, what sort of drink would she be, or if not drink, then game or if not game a celebrated figure …

The researchers in this paradigm would drink.

Positivist: Scotch on the Rocks (conventional, hard liquor for hard science, hegemonic

Interpretivist: California white wine, (natural, convivial, social and interactive)

Critical Theory: Vodka (the revolutionaries drink, fiery and subversive)

Deconstructivist: Zima (defines categorisation neither wine, nor beer, nor hard liquor; trendy)


Abbott, A. (2001). Chaos of disciplines. University of Chicago Press.

Delamont, S., Atkinson, P., Smith, R., da Costa, L., Hillyard, S., & Pilgrim, A. N. (2010). Review symposium: MARTYN HAMMERSLEY, Questioning Qualitative Inquiry. Qualitative Research10(6), 749-758.

Hammersley, M. (2008). Questioning qualitative inquiry: Critical essays. Sage.


Martyn Hammersley talks about qualitative Inquiry

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When Martyn Hammersley describes himself as a trouble maker, we should believe him. So troubling is his approach that he seems to want an almost positivist approach to qualitative research. This is of course an exaggeration so extreme that it almost misrepresents him. None-the-less, he certainly leaves me doubtful about the value of qualitative work, while not precisely encouraging me to change direction and embrace big magic numbers.

What he does offer and what I think it worth considering is some discussion of how to evaluate the quality of qualitative research. Putting aside whether it is either necessary or desirable to do this, there is value in the fairly clear set of criteria he suggests. There is little point in basing the credibility of interpretive research on – for example – the numbers involved, or the replicability of the work undertaken, so what’s left?

I don’t agree with everything Hammersly says, but he is in my view a fantastic writer who I enjoy reading, not least of all because of his clarity. He holds his readers’ hand kindly throughout everything he says. He is mindful of wanting to ensure you understand him and that you appreciate the implications of his argument. But the stance he adopts in relation to research is not one I agree with. He would seem to prefer the application of a rigid, tightly defined, almost positivistic template upon qualitative research. I’ve reproduced a brief overview of some aspects of what he says below … troublemaker his is, but these are not unreasonable.

Box 1: Considerations in assessing the adequacy of research reports

The following considerations cover both clarity and sufficiency as standards:

1) The clarity of writing:

  • Consistency in use of terms
  • Are definitions provided where necessary?
  • Are sentences sufficiently well constructed to be intelligible and unambiguous?
  • Is there use of inappropriate rhetoric?

2) The problem or question being addressed:

  • Is this clearly outlined?
  • Is sufficient rationale provided for its significance?

3) The formulation of the main claims:

  • Are these made sufficiently clear and unambiguous?
  • Are the relations with subordinate claims (including evidence) made sufficiently explicit?
  • Is the character of each claim (as description, explanation, theory, evaluation, or prescription) indicated?

4) The formulation of the conclusions:

  • Is there a distinction between main claims about the cases studied and general conclusions?
  • Is the basis for the conclusions signaled?

5) The account of the research process and of the researcher:

  • Is there sufficient, and not too much, information about the research process?
  • Is there sufficient, and not too much, information about the researcher? (In other words, is what is necessary and no more provided for assessing the validity of the findings, the value of the methods, the competence of the researcher, according to what is appropriate?)

Hammersley (2008) p162

Hammersley, M. (2008). Questioning qualitative inquiry: Critical essays. Sage.