Writing and thinking about qualitative research

When I was 17 my mum died and I started hating God.

When I was 24 my  brother was killed.

I was divorced at 30.

My first child was born when I was 35. She changed my life. I have no regrets. No grudges. I’ve even given God a civil nod now and then. How can I regret anything that happened? Without those chaotic, accidental bits of life, my first precious girl could very well have been a different sex/gender/race/etc.

164770_490862471880_8345722_nI can no longer pretend that my life doesn’t affect my research. My research is a part of my life and my life is a part of my research. Everything is entangled. I would not have chosen my PhD topic, frame, or research approach if my life had not been as it was.

In that vein, I am going to start conducting a yearly audit of my thoughts about qualitative research, inspired by a collaborative paper by some of the biggest names in the field: Carolyn Ellis, Norman Denzin, Yvonna Lincoln, Janice Morse, Ronald Pelias, and Laurel Richardson.

The paper is a transcript of a symposium where the authors answer six questions about qualitative research. They present honest and inspiring insights into the past, present and future of qualitative research.

But they have some voices missing. The voices of the “new on the scene” qualitative researchers. In fact the voices of all (but six) qualitative researchers are missing!

I want to imagine that I was on the panel. Me. The overly enthusiastic early career researcher that is still trying to find her way. I want to have a go at answering the questions. My answers will be far less sophisticated or informed, but, hey, this is social media — the embodiment of the assumption of radical intellectual equality.

So here on 16th November 2015, I conduct my first audit on what I think about qualitative research.

1. What is your personal history with qualitative methods?

I feel like I have had very little history with qualitative methods but on reflection I have always been a qualitative researcher. I taught historical inquiry for 15 years as a secondary teacher. I used historical inquiry in my Masters and phenomenography for my PhD. Both methods hooked me with their structure and procedures. I love that a set of rules has been determined to search for answers to a question. It helps me feel more in control of the chaos around me. I have always loved rules.

Another technique that has always helped me feel more in control is journalling. I am now exploring ways to incorporate this process into my methodology. I’m playing with writing as inquiry and authoethnography.

writing2. Was there a moment of epiphany that got you into qualitative work?

[In all honesty, my brain goes to a happy place during statistics, so it was kinda a no brainer.]

The type of qualitative work I am and will be doing in the foreseeable was sparked by a type of epiphany.

Recently, I have been challenged by rule breakers and messy researchers. The most difficult aspect of these challengers has been their complete logic. [That’s the thing. The rational argument will almost always convince me.] I had never thought to question why the rules exist. What happens to the bits of data we discard? I just assumed that someone else had done the thinking for me as I followed the rules.

A personal story to illustrate this.

I started blogging because so much of my life dictated the way I did my PhD and a huge number of the decisions I made along the way. I was told that the personal doesn’t belong in the study. In fact, there is a whole set of tips in phenomenography that helps a researcher bracket their lives from the lives of the research participants. I didn’t question this rule. I just thought it made sense because I was trying to be true to my participants. But what makes more sense is that, try as I might, it is impossible to not be entangled in the analytical decisions. To deny it, frankly, feels dishonest now.

So, at this point in my research life I have decided to “call out” my own experiences that seem to be entangled with my research. I am going to step out from behind the flimsy brackets and I am going to write up my research alongside a personal narrative.

I want to make it obvious I have constructed my findings.

I am writing about first year university students. I am a first year early career researcher. I am bound to draw comparisons. Hopefully the collaboration between my PhD data and my life data will reveal something deeper about about transition and hopefully I’ll celebrate more of the mess along the way.

Most of all, I think it will be fun.

3. Have you ever experienced an ethical crisis in your qualitative work?

As I was writing this blog post.

I initially put heaps more juicy details in the opening story.

But then I thought about my family and put myself in their shoes. What would they think about me airing our dirty laundry? For now I will remain silent and work on and through these stories privately.

I also think about consent in social media research. I’ve even written about it (shameless plug). I archived the status updates of 17 year olds for my PhD research. There are a lot of swears. A LOT!  There is also typical 17 year old banter that is annoying and immature. I have it all in my archive drawer. Do you think they will still be giving consent when they are 30? 40? They are de-identified but still…I think about it. [You can’t search Facebook unless you are a super hacker and I am sooooo not worthy of the attention of a supervillan. That helps me sleep at night.]

4. Do you have a favourite qualitative study and why?

No favourites. I like them all (if they are reported in a way I understand…I’m getting better at translating academese).

A recent collaborative study sparked my epiphany. An incredibly powerful piece about aging. Ken Gale, Viv Martin, Artemi Sakellariadis, Jane Speedy and Tami Spry explore their experiences and share them beautifully and powerfully. It made me understand that a compelling message can be shared in academia without resorting to the scientific method of reporting.

5. What is the current state of qualitative methods? 6. What are the major challenges qualitative researchers face in the next decade? [I’m combining them because that’s what the symposium did and I think they naturally flow into each other anyway]

Not sure, but I think it is backed into a corner, especially in education. The dominance of standardised testing has meant the spotlight is still squarely on quantitative approaches. The money is in the quant. The Australian government today released a statement that grants were no longer going to be awarded on the strength of publications, rather the ability to link with industry and commercial enterprises. Impact is now the official buzz word. No longer on the horizon.  I’m not sure what this means for qualitative research, but I am pretty sure it means that the fight for justifying the importance of the personal story just got harder.

So there you go. My place in qualitative research as of today. If you would like to audit your own place in qualitative research, I would love to feature it on my blog. The more we collaborate and write about this issue, the closer we might come to solidifying the importance of qualitative practices.


9 thoughts on “Writing and thinking about qualitative research

  1. Have you read The Wounded researher? It’s about the entanglement of life, soul and your research.
    Thanks for sharing and btw, all of us have family stories which are taugh and hard so don’t feel alone in your journey, that’s the journey of life, taugh, sad in moments, embarrassing at others and always magical and breath taking!
    I’m starting with qualitative research, loving it 🙂


      • Thanks for responding! I am in the first year of my PhD so I’m much learning with your blog. Reading now about post-human is and post-structuralism, learning, learning, learning! Advice always welcome, it seems to me you are a bit longer in this 🙂


      • No worries. Ask any time. I am learning too. I wouldn’t pretend to not be. I am new to post-structuralism and currently writing a paper about how I moved from a more positivist-esque approach in my PhD (not sure where it actually positions itself because it seems all over the place now I look through wiser eyes). Anything you discover, share away. There are a few of us working in this space on Twitter. I think we need a hashtag


      • I started my research with a very naive gaze. With colleagues questions and some readings I have become more and more critical. I am inhabiting the digital world exploring about digital learning spaces so I can’t divorce the individuum from its social context nor can I say tools are. I’m exploring Feenberg and his constructivist hermeneutics and social material approaches…ohhh how messy is this process, I couldn’t agree more with one of your posts. Maybe #messyresearch is what binds us?


      • That is a question that the *big minds* are trying to solve. My best advice is that theory is deeply personal. Keep searching until you find one that reads your mind. Then go deep. If you stick with your personal values, it will be easier to understand the thinking of the theorist. Then it will be easier to understand their influencers and their disciples. Then it will be easier to select a method. First year is a tough transitional year. You feel torn in so many intellectual and emotional directions. Do you have time to simply read and follow a trail of good ideas? I found mine at complete random but I am also in a reading group where we share papers with each other constantly. I don’t know much about the people you are reading so can’t advise about where to look, but if you like what I do, check out Laurel Richardson. She is where I started.

        Liked by 1 person

      • It is really difficult to work with a more complex view were one tries to be aware of the more complex picture of reality. I am still looking around although I chose qualitative and constructivist approach. Thanks for the advice and I hope we stay in touch. I will look for you on Twitter if you are. I’m @carolak if you are interested 🙂 a pleasure meeting you in this space!

        Liked by 1 person

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