Descriptive Contextualism

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Descriptive contextualists seek to understand the complexity and richness of a whole event through a personal and aesthetic appreciation of its participants and features. This approach reveals a strong adherence to the root metaphor of contextualism and can be likened to the enterprise of history, in which stories of the past are constructed in an attempt to understand whole events. The knowledge constructed by the descriptive contextualist is personal, ephemeral, specific, and spatiotemporally restricted (Morris, 1993). Like a historical narrative, it is knowledge that reflects an in-depth personal understanding of a particular event that occurred (or is occurring) at a particular time and place. Most forms of contextualism, including social constructionism, dramaturgy, hermeneutics, and narrative approaches, are instances of descriptive contextualism.

Descriptive contextualism is strong in its adherence to contextualism’s root metaphor of the act-in-context, but suffers from several weaknesses. The analytic goals of descriptive contextualists are somewhat ill-defined, and it is difficult to determine when such goals gave been accomplished. This problem is openly acknowledged by many descriptive contextualists (e.g., LeCompte, Millroy, & Preissle, 1992, p. xv). In addition, a personal, holistic appreciation of a specific event and its context may or may not yield any practical knowledge or benefits (Hayes, 1993b).