Serendipity & the Road to Theory
in Qualitative Research
Jean-Paul C. Grund
Definitions of Serendipity
• Serendipity is...
...the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable
or agreeable things not sought for. (Merriam
...the faculty of making happy and unexpected
discoveries by accident. (Oxford English
Word History of Serendipity
„...serendipity, a very expressive word, which as I have nothing
better to tell you, I shall endeavour to explain to you: you will
understand it better by the derivation than by the definition. I once
read a silly fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their
highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by
accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of:
for instance, one of them discovered that a mule blind of the right
eye had travelled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten
only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right – now do
you understand serendipity?“
Horace Walpole January 28, 1754
• Serendipity (noun): That quality which,
through good fortune and sagacity*, allows a
person to discover something good while
seeking something else.
• * Sagacity (noun): personal alertness, awareness, and
sagacious (adjective): having or showing understanding and
the ability to make good judgments; wise
Famous Examples of Serendipity
Columbus´ Discovery of America
Newton´s Discovery of Gravity
Galvani´s Discovery of “Animal Electricity”
Bequerel´s Discovery of Radioactivity
Fleming´s Discovery of Pennicilin
Alfred Nobel´s Discovery of Dynamite
Albert Hoffman´s Discovery of LSD
Serendipity in the Qualitative
• Serendipitous findings are often not in accord with
• It is not the divine roll of the dice that determines
• Three Principles Of Serendip: Insight, Chance, And
Discovery In Qualitative Research, by Gary Fein and
James Deegan. Qualitative Studies in Education, Volume
9, Number 4, 1996.
Serendipity in the Qualitative Process (1)
• Serendipity is not merely an unusual happening, but
the scientist is "prepared" to make sense of a truer
picture of the world, creating a more precise model:
• "Chance favors only those who know how to court
her." (Charles Nicolle);
• In the field of observation, chance favors only the
prepared mind." (Louis Pasteur).
• Serendipity is the interactive outcome of unique and
contingent "mixes" of insight (Sagacity) coupled with
Serendipity in the Qualitative Process (2)
Serendipity as Controlled Chaos:
"Naturalists in the social sciences are engaged in a strategy of
calculated chaos. They intentionally immerse themselves in the
logging of data regarding subjects that are of personal concern
to them, a process that initially need have little or no specific
social scientific orientation. The theory of the naturalist is that
a direction will emerge, will be "discovered." (Lofland &
But, insight is not a treasure at the end of the road for the
Princes of Serendip; it is one that unfolds with every twist and
turn in the road.
Serendipity in the Qualitative Process (3)
• Focussing on the Opportunities that Chance Provides.
• Conceptualizing Serendipity: Three Distinct
Components of Research:
• Each depends on the readiness to seize upon chance
events; that is, the unstructured, inductive quality of
fieldwork often provides leeway to incorporate the
power of serendipitous findings into the core of a
Serendipity in the Qualitative Process (4)
• The power of "being in the right place at the
• The observer cannot choose in advance to
witness an event; his or her presence is, in part,
a function of the decision of the observer to
judge "where the action is."
Serendipity in the Qualitative Process (5)
• Serendipity is not only observing memorable
events, but recognizing these as significant
when they occur and turning them into
• The ability to see a pattern or implication that
has gone unnoticed and, having exposed it, to
find it in other social settings.
Serendipity in the Qualitative Process (6)
Ethnography is preeminently a methodology that
depends on relationships.
It is not sufficient that one makes contact (good
fortune), but one must also be able to capitalize on
this contact (serendipity).
Key Informants & Community Fieldworkers:
Development of relations based on happenstance,
luck, or mistaken identity.
Serendipity in the Qualitative Process (7)
• the ability to establish connections between data and
• By what processes does this analytical insight occur?
– exposure to the relevant literature and being part of a
– the data themselves speak to the researcher and may
provoke an "Ah-ha!" response.
– Discovery of a dramatic metaphor or narrative strategy
that permits conceptualization and presentation of the
problem in a novel light.
Serendipity in the Qualitative Process (8)
Keeping one's wits
Part of serendipity derives from those unplanned
happenings that stem from one's own hands.
The powerful role of mistakes leading to insight.
Mistakes may be treated not only as unavoidable
errors, but as events that uncover the preconceptions
and choices of the researcher.
Learning how to learn from mistakes is critical for
using serendipity in qualitative research.
Further Reading on Frontloading &
• Drug Use as a Social Ritual: Functionality,
Symbolism and Determinants of Self-Regulation.
Rotterdam: Instituut voor Verslavingsonderzoek
• Ethnographic findings are not random.
• The chance component of research is central to
the collection and interpretation of data.
• Serendipity involves planned insight coupled with
unplanned events, core to the philosophy of
• A qualitative researcher must be prepared to seize
the clues on the road to discovery.
• The road to Serendip is not an easy path.
• Bahramdipity: the suppression of a discovery, sometimes
a serendipitous discovery, by the often-egomaniacal act of
a more powerful individual who does cruelly punish, not
merely disdain, a person (or persons) of lesser power and
little renown who demonstrates sagacity, perspicacity,
and truthfulness (From Bahram of Persia, as
characterized in the fairy tale The Three Princes of
Toby J. Sommer 'Bahramdipity' and Scientific Research The Scientist 13:13,
Feb. 01, 1999 (At: http://www.the-scientist.com/yr1999/feb/opin_990201.html)