The Pink Elephant Paradox (or, Avoiding the Misattribution of Data)

Jude A. Spiers


The pink elephant paradox refers to the threat to inductive thinking caused by the difficulty of inadvertently proving the existence of a concept or phenomena just because it overtly or insidiously exists in one’s thoughts, leading to misattribution, or miscategorization of data, and thus subverting inductive processes. As Morse and Mitcham discussed in Part I, this is reduced through inductive strategies, including processes of saturation, replication, and verification. In this article, I present a story of how the phenomenon of interest in nurse-patient interaction evolved and emerged through a number of qualitative projects. At each stage, concepts were identified, explored, and developed in order to more elucidate the central phenomenon. I will show how, while at times I could identify and avoid the pink elephant, at other times there were one or a herd lurking in the shadows or rampaging through my work. I think that discussing both the successes and pit falls is one way to acknowledge and address the fact that, although we accept the evolution in ideas and thought processes in qualitative research, we still may not be comfortable in articulating the far more complex and insidious threats to inductive processes.

Some schools of qualitative inquiry consider analysis of the literature a hindrance—in fact an invalidity—before commencing fieldwork. To the contrary, when a researcher is studying a concept rather than letting a concept emerge from a setting, it is essential to undertake a thorough theoretical and conceptual analysis of the literature (Morse, 2000; Morse et al, 1996). In my own program of research, the concept analysis was a study in, and of, itself, with the purpose of examining the maturity of concepts, and the explicit and implicit theoretical and research models. The literature constituted data that could be analyzed and formed the basis for a reconceptualization of the original concept by contrasting it with the theory derived from the fieldwork studies.

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