Musing on deductive and inductive reasoning

I have always had a hard time understanding deductive and inductive reasoning. The clarity seems to come through specific examples.

Quite simply, the easiest mental tool for me to use is the semantic one: when using inductive approaches, the wisdom is in the data. In contrast, the word deductive derives from the Latin deductivus, which mean derivative. When using deductive approaches, the wisdom is derived from the literature. I hate to do this, but I am going to cite here. I tried to find an academic reference to support this but I couldn’t find one readily. I just looked the word deductive up to find out its origin.

Anyway, back to our topic – I don’t think it is possible for us to say we will use a purely inductive approach. This is impossible because we have already conducted a literature review. We are already exposed to previously thinking on our respective topics. Therefore, we bring at least some a priori knowledge to our research because we are scholars who read. Of course we also bring the reality of constructivism to the table; we are scholar-practitioners. Not only do we read about our topics, we all experience them.

One example of a purely inductive researcher is Jane Goodall, who was installed to study primates having no prior training in science. Louis Leakey, the primary investigator for this primate study, was socially ostracized for his placement of an untrained researcher. This flew in the face of the academic machine that had excluded the masses from academic and research participation. The codes she inductively developed clearly indicated that chimps use tools. These results were profound as they ended a long-running assumption in the scientific community that only humans were capable of using tools (PBS, n.d.).  No other researchers had opened their minds to the possibility because their minds were tainted with a priori knowledge. Ha, this would be a great lead for my citizen science narrative… never thought of it before. I had the good fortune of meeting Goodall when she attended a retreat at the Murie Ranch, where I was an intern many years ago. My heart is beating faster as I write about the Ranch. It was a truly enchanted place filled with the wisdom of my ecologically-minded predecessors. I wrote a book about the Murie Ranch when I interned there (Meehan, 2001).

In contrast, deductive approaches rely heavily on the foundation of theory and validation of what is known already. For example, my research on inquiry-based online education is informed by my research on the topics of inquiry-based learning and online instructional methods. I have a deductive code developed but I look at it as a loose framework. This framework was necessary for me to organize my data collection intentions and to ensure that I asked enough follow-up questions to solicit thick descriptions from my interviewees. As I analyze the interview data I collected, I am now trying to forget about my deductive code so I can be open-minded to the themes that emerge from the data. The inductive code that develops from a posteriori knowledge can then be compared to my deductive code. The alignment that emerges (or does not emerge) relates to my effectiveness as a researcher primarily (Hennink, Hutter, & Bailey, 2011).

Hennink, M., Hutter, I., & Bailey, A. (2011). Qualitative research methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE. ISBN-13: 978141292265.
Meehan, M. (2001). The Murie Ranch. Moose, Wyoming: The Murie Center, 2001.
PBS. (n.d.). Frontiers Profile: Jane Goodall. Retrieved from

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