Writing and thinking about qualitative research: 2016 reflection

It seems that every one is writing their wrap up for 2016. It’s been a hell of a year and as the Western calendar draws the a close, I want to reflect on how this year has impacted on what and how I want to research.

batch-1867552_1920I return to a blog I wrote just over one year ago. I conducted an audit on my fledgling thinking about qualitative research. Before I wrote the blog, I thought qualitative research was just research that didn’t use numbers. Over the past year I have begun to understand the politics of qualitative research. There is power in the ways we try to formulate new knowledge. There is power in claiming truths which mean there are ethical ramifications for that.

The last blog was inspired by a collaborative paper by some of the biggest names in the qualitative 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 those with fresh fire in their bellies about using qualitative methods. I think 2016 has shown, resistors are needed. Those not scared to challenge what has gone before. Maybe some of those wise ones out there on social media will act as my discussants.

I want to imagine again that I was on the panel and I am going to have another crack at answering the symposium questions.

So here on 13th December 2016, I conduct my second audit on what I think about qualitative research.

What is your personal history with qualitative methods?

Last year I began to see writing as a method of inquiry and wanted to explore ways of incorporating it into my research, so the research lens I played with is largely post structural and/or post qualitative (though I hate lables – I’m more of a concept flaneur). This blog is about the things I have found interesting and the things I feel uncomfortable about.

I have really enjoyed spending a year blogging as inquiry. I have used several different genres, particularly metaphors, to explore new concepts. I turn them over within metaphors, look at them from various angles.

This year, however, I have begun to look more closely at what it means to be a writer and a reader. How does that dynamic work? Is writing actually a collaboration between those we cite, those who inform our research, and those we write for?

For me, social media writing is a way this idea can be more fully explored.

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

The epiphany came when I realised that every decision I make as a researcher has an ethical ramification. That’s a huge and sobering responsibility.

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

I see philosophical ethics as something every academic needs to consider when they write their research, and not just qualitative researchers. Personal epistemologies are ethical when it comes to writing. A researcher’s personal outlook comes through in their writing. If a researcher is arrogant about their expertise and see’s others as needing to learn from them, that will come through in the text. If someone believes that despite their expertise, they are still learners and others can help increase their knowledge, that will come through in the text.

As Damon Young writes, the reader has agency. Text lasts much longer than the author, yet we fixate on the person who put the words together, rather than the people those words affect.

This is an ethical dilemma I face every day as I think about how to compose texts. As I experiment with different genres and styles, I am looking for a way to invite the audience in, to collaborate on the development of new knowledge.

concept-1868728_1920Quantitative research is often easily scanned for tabulated and graphical results. Qualitative research needs to draw the reader into the world of their ontology, epistemology, axiology, and methodology so the reader can interpret the findings the way the author intended.  Qualitative research often needs to be read from cover to cover, (which is a massive effort when an advisory team recommends 500 papers synthesised by the end of January!).

Social Media has been a reductive force on qualitative research because often people only read the headline/tweet, share the link, make a comment on the headline/tweet and don’t read the blog. It is easy to share a table or a diagram, less easy to share a philosophical argument (only 140 characters so can’t engage fully..sorry). Headlines and tweets matter in qualitative research and it becomes an ethical responsibility of qualitative researchers to work out this problem with social media composition.

Social media is having an impact on the reporting of research. It needs to be taken seriously. Dismissing it risks rich and complex qualitative research. How can we stop qualitative research becoming subject to even more reductive practices by playing the impact game with click bait?

Do you have a favourite qualitative study and why?

I haven’t really paid attention to empirical qualitative research this year. I have been spending far too much time tackling how to explain my own to the world.

I have read some histories, though. My two favourites (and probably most influential qualitative studies on me in 2016) have been:

  • Embodying the Monster, by Margrit Shildrick, where she traces the conflation to the Other (women, people of colour, outsiders, people with disabilities – there was no distinct LGBTIQ reference) with the monstrous. It was a rollicking read where I came to discover that people who were not top of Bacon’s hierarchical categories (white male), have been considered monstrous for centuries. The fear of (and being called) the monsters was used to keep people in line.
  • The Rise of Modern Science Explained: A Comparative History by H. Floris Cohen who tried to explain why Europe had a scientific revolution, rather than the Ottoman Empire or China. While Cohen’s major thesis was interesting, I couldn’t help but notice an undercurrent of the history of scientific publications. How natural philosophers thought through sharing their discoveries with minimal chance of excommunication or dismissal by Skeptics.

What is the current state of qualitative methods? What are the major challenges qualitative researchers face in the next decade?

[I’m combining these because that’s what the symposium did and I think they naturally flow into each other anyway]

The writing as an inquiry metaphor I have worked closely with in 2016 has been the monstrous. Monsters are liminal, in other words, they help me see things from multiple angles. Monsters are messy. They leak and are ugly. I am tired of cleaning up research to look pretty. I’m even tired of cleaning up messy research to look like something out of the Maker movement.

Qualitative research is not a deconstructed coffee we pay extra for to make ourselves. There was a time and a place for post structural inspired research to write in ways which made obvious the construction on the piece to demystify the Ivory Tower. A worthy political cause. Poetry was written. Dramas. They were so obviously constructed, they couldn’t help but provoke a reaction.

Different ways of writing have their place in the scheme of academic writing, but I believe they have done their work as stand alone acts of academic activism. But now it’s time to employ those skills in activism upon the structures. Don’t simply deconstruct. Work out a way to reconstruct and light fire in other people’s bellies with beautiful texts which insight activism on a world that seems to have gone so terribly wrong.

While some qualitative researchers continue to beat the post structural composition ethic, qualitative research has stagnated. The pieces may have become obviously constructed, but the author has become central in the writing. It becomes about writing, rather than the research and the need for change. We still can’t work out how to solve the problem of researching intersectionality, without being intersectional. Why not look that tension in the face? Stop making excuses.

It’s an ugly conversation that can’t be strategically dressed in op shop clothes to show messiness with a touch of cool. It’s scary, which is good, because tackling this problem involves some adrenaline. But, if it isn’t tackled, research stagnates.

Maybe the author needs to stop being central and some collaboration needs to happen.

***

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.

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