methodology as recipe

A challenging idea for many graduate students learning how to do interpretive and critical research is that one must make a commitment to a research methodology. The two most common errors/scenarios are that students want to begin with research methods (ways of making and analyzing data) or research design features (the most common is to say they want to do a case study, a topic I discuss in some detail here.)

Screen Shot 2014-03-27 at 4.34.21 PMI find Michael Crotty’s definitions and relationships among the elements that frame research helpful. See this image and here, for a short note on this.

A methodology is a framework that contains core ideas reflecting more fundamental epistemological and ontological groundings, but it also provides guidance on the focus of our inquiry, key concepts, values, and often a hint at methods (although this is a separate matter). A methodology contains core definitional foci and cue us to what to expect in a research project. Methodologies also give us a sense of what we might expect the outcome/product of the research to be, even though there is tremendous variation in representational forms within any methodology.

Methodology as Recipeimgres

To help students understand what a methodology is and why we need one, I use the metaphor of methodology as recipe. A recipe is a framework for preparing food: it has a name that reflects what the outcome will be; a list of ingredients, procedural guidelines; tools and techniques; and often a color photo to show us what the food should look like when we are finished. And, different recipes illustrate fundamental differences. For example, a recipe for a chocolate cake and one for beef stew vary on all of these features and are therefore about something quite different. One would never follow a recipe for a chocolate cake and expect to end up with beef stew.

Chocolate Cake                                                            Beef Stew

flour, sugar, cocoa, eggs, butter                            beef, broth, carrots, potatoes, onions

whisking, stirring, mixing                                         chopping, browning, deglazing

mixer, cake pan, whisk                                              knives, heavy pot

baking                                                                               braising, stewing

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A methodology is a framework for doing research: it contains a name that reflects the outcome; what is needed to identify the research as being within that framework; procedures and tools; and we often have a general notion of what the outcome will look like.


culture, language, rituals, artifacts

field work: prolonged engagement, participant observation, interviewing, kinship charts, mapping, SNA

field notes, photographs, transcripts

thick description; analysis with cultural categories; emic perspective

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Novice cooks and researchers are more likely to follow recipes closely, developing the knowledge and skills that will in time free them from a specific recipe while still working within the recipe framework. A good cook might substitute Guinness beer for some broth in the beef stew, but she is still making beef stew. An ethnographer might substitute live field note taking using social media for more traditional field notes, but she is still taking field notes.

Without a methodology a research project is ungrounded, drifting and has a high probability of being atheoretical. With a methodology, with a recipe, the researcher plans on making an ethnography or a narrative analysis or a hermeneutic investigation because the core ideas, the ingredients, the tools are valued and indeed reflect deeper senses of the nature of both the world and knowledge about it.

streetscapes & architecture ~ sources of material culture

Screen Shot 2016-04-08 at 8.49.14 AM Camilo Jose Vergara’s project Tracking Time is a repository of images of poor, urban American built environments. Returning year after year, Vergara photographs the same buildings and streetscapes to chronicle the transformation of the built environment, transformations that often illustrate decay but sometimes redemption and revival.

In these images there are “fragments of stories and urban themes in need of definition and further exploration.” “I think of my images as bricks that, when placed next to each other, reveal shapes and meanings of neglected urban communities.”

Vergara’s project illustrates a critical source of sociological understanding of human nature by chronicling the spaces humans create, inhabit, and reinvent. Urban life is, of course, revealed in the faces and stories of people, but equally in the bricks and streetscapes created by those people.

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narrative inquiry ~ what does it look like?

imgresIf you are searching for understanding about what narrative inquiry is, here are some starting points.

There are a number of journals that focus exclusively on narrative analysis/inquiry and so you might want to browse the tables of contents of various issues. There are many more journals (qualitative research focused and topical) that publish narrative analyses, but these will give you a quick entry into the methodology.

  • Narrative and Conflict: Explorations in Theory and Practice
  • Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics: A Journal of Qualitative Research
  • Narrative Inquiry
  • Narrative Works: Issues, Investigations & Interventions

Here also is a short list of published narrative analysis studies… these are not necessarily exemplary, but they are in different fields, use different kinds of data, and different kinds of analysis. Look at a few (not necessarily for a close reading) to get a better sense of what narrative inquiry looks like.



Bareiss, W. (2015). Adolescent Daughters and Ritual Abjection: Narrative Analysis of Self-Injury in Four US Films. Journal of Medical Humanities.

Boje, D.M. (1991). The Storytelling Organization: A Study of Story Performance in an Office-supply Firm. Administrative Science Quarterly 36:106-126.

Brewer, T. J. & deMarrais, K. (2015). Teacher for America counter-narratives: Alumni speak up and speak out. Peter Lang.

Connelly, F. M., & Clandinin, D. J. (1999). Shaping a professional identity: Stories of educational practice. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Dean, R.G. (1995). Stories of AIDS: The Use of Narrative as an Approach to Understanding in an AIDS Support Group. Clinical Social Work Journal 23(3), 287-304.

Frank, A. K. (2016). What is the story with sustainability? A narrative analysis of diverse and contested understandings. Journal of Environmental Studies and Science, 1 – 14.

Hamilton, H. (2008). Narrative as Snapshot: Glimpses into the Past in Alzheimer’s Discourse. Narrative Inquiry 18(1), 53-82.

Hoecker, R. (2014). Visual narrative and trauma recovery. Narrative Inquiry, 24(2), 259-280.

Langellier, K. (2001). ‘You’re Marked’: Breast Cancer, Tattoo and the Narrative Performance of Identity. In Narrative and Identity: Studies in Autobiography, Self, and Culture, edited by J. Brockmeier and D. Carbaugh. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Minde, J. (2015). Exploring the Nature of Narrative Analysis in Maps: the Case Study of the Georgia-South Ossetia Conflict. Narrative and Conflict: Explorations in Theory and Practice, 2(1), 19-33.

Mumby, D.K. 1993. Narrative and Social Control: Critical Perspectives. Newbury Park: Sage.

Ochs, E., R. Smith, and C. Taylor. (1989). Dinner Narratives as Detective Stories. Cultural Dynamics 2:238-257.

Page, R., Harper, R. & Frobenius, M. (2013). From small stories to networked narrative: The evolution of personal narratives in Facebook status updates. Narrative Inquiry, 23(1), 192-213).

Riessman, C.K. (2000). Stigma and Everyday Resistance Practices: Childless Women in South India. Gender & Society 14(1):111-135.

Sparkes, A. (1996). The fatal flaw: A narrative of the fragile body-self. Qualitative Inquiry, 2(4), 463-494.

the power of images

MisogynyThis image, a family photograph, taken by Hannah Hawkes Photography has gone viral. Mostly people are outraged.

The image is a disturbing one, to be sure… a mother and her daughters with their mouths taped shut and bound with holiday lights while the father and son smile, declaring “peace on earth” and giving a thumbs up.

Why the outrage? Seems the family requested the picture and the photographer accommodated their request. What the family’s motivations were is unknown, as is often the case with images. Often the photographer’s intentions are also unknown, but in this case Hannah Hawkes decided to reveal her intentions/interpretations of the photograph. She thought it was humorous, a joke, and her subsequent post made this clear.

After being silent, now isn’t that ironic, I would like to speak! I have been called every name in the book, and have received some very hateful and vulgar comments and messages. I would like to say that as a female I do NOT and have never promoted violence to women! I do not support abuse, or the degradation of women. My controversial photo was taken by request by the family, and was in no way meant to promote abuse. This photo was taken with humor in mind, and was meant as a comical Christmas photo. I personally know this family, and have known them for many years. They are not abusive to their children in any shape or form. Also, I would like to add that no one was harmed during the process! So everyone have a very MERRY CHRISTMAS and MAY GOD BLESS you and yours!

Screen Shot 2015-12-17 at 8.41.16 AMIf the photograph is funny it is certainly an example of black humor, but there’s no indication that the family or photographer were so motivated or that sophisticated in their thinking about this image. (The claim no one was harmed during the process may indicate the photographer’s lack of awareness of what constitutes ‘harm’ and suggests a simplistic conception of the relationship between photographer and image-making.)

So, the outrage depends on the context… a family photographer who takes pictures her clients want taken, but has seemingly little awareness of the meaning of what she is doing. Given that, the outrage makes sense. Viewers see this image as misogynist because both those being photographed and the photographer lead us to a literal reading of the image.

Put this same image in other contexts, say an arts based investigation of gender relations, and the image turns from disgusting and outrageous to powerful and evocative. In the first instance the image promotes the subjugation of women, in the second the image reveals that subjugation. This revelation is powerful because of the juxtaposition of middle class bucolic family imagery with the silencing and restraint of women alongside the freedom of men. The family image punctuates the message by focusing on the inter-generational perpetuation of women’s subjugation… the young boy’s grinning thumbs up reveals the arrogance and smugness of the power men feel they have/have over women. Yesterday, The Guardian published a story titled The Year in Sexism: How Did Women Fare in 2015? and the bottom line is not so well. That story didn’t go viral, and fewer people were outraged… but the messages in the story and this image are consistent and complementary.

Images compel emotional responses and we can use them both to learn about social phenomena (like family, gender relations, southern cultural norms, and so on) and to communicate about social relations. The literal intention of the family and photographer, the support for the photograph expressed in comments on the FB page, the outrage of media outlets, and the image as found data all speak to the power of images in human experience and understanding. Powerful, never simple… never literal in what they may reveal.

learning by example

If you think you will do interpretive or critical research it will be helpful to see what this kind of research looks like. Reading other studies is a window into the research process as well as the ways researchers represent knowledge from their studies. While many genres of research trade in the peer reviewed journal article, to get the most pedagogical benefit from reading qualitative research look more to book and monograph length works. First, good studies are complex and so it just takes more than 25 ms pages to communicate the findings. Second, increasingly interpretive and critical researchers include a confessional methodological tale in an appendix, a rich source of learning from others.

This is not really a part of the literature review for your study (although it could be) and to avoid conflating reading studies related to your research topic with learning
about research methodology and methods, I require my students and encourage others to read book length works that are not in your area of expertise. You might learn something about which you know little, but more importantly can focus on the research process more easily.

So what do I recommend as teachable/learnable texts, remembering that you are not looking for a perfect study but rather a really well done study that has flaws and features that permit you to see how the research process plays out in real research life.

The lists below hews mostly to education and schooling, but not exclusively.imgres

The books I have most often used in my research classes are:

God’s Choice by Alan Peshkin
Dude You’re a Fag by A. J. Pascoe
Ain’t No Makin’ It by Jay MacLeod
Working Class Without Work by Lois Weiss
Home Advantage by Annette Lareau

But, it’s good to go back to what I consider classic texts:

Boys in White by Blanche Geer, Everett C Hughes, Anselm Strauss, Howard Becker
Street Corner Society by William Foote Whyte
The Man in the Principal’s Office by Harry Wolcott
Deep Play: Notes on a Balinese Cockfight by Clifford Geertz (this is more a monograph, but too good not to list)
Learning to Labour by Paul Willis
Living and Dying in Murray Manor by Jaber F. Gubrium
Contradictions of Control by Linda McNeil
Life in Schools by Peter McLaren
The Polish Peasant in Europe and America by Florian Znaniecki and W. I. Thomas
Asylums by Erving Goffman

And, I can’t resist adding what has to be the most controversial piece of research in quite some time…

On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City by Alice Goffman


case study ~ research design, methodology, method?

Since the early 80s when I did my MA degree I have been steeped in “case study research,” and I have the deepest respect for those who have articulated the importance of focusing on the particular in social science research (Robert Yin, Robert Stake, Sharon Merriam, for example). The work of these individuals is valuable ~ Yin provides a valuable foundation for why we should look at cases, and Stake has added detail about different motivations for looking at cases.

With a background in sociology and cultural anthropology my early exposure to case studies created little confusion ~ I was and remain interested in the particular. So researching and understanding a case make conceptual sense. Being schooled in ethnography as a methodology meant that using the language of case study provided a way to engage the tools of ethnography in a flexible way, focusing on pretty much anything that can be identified as a case, that is, a bounded system. Indeed, Creswell defines case study as “an in-depth exploration of a bounded system (e.g., an activity, event, process, or individuals) based on extensive data collection” and he goes on to clarify what a bounded system is: “the case is separated out for research in terms of time, place, or some physical boundaries.” The coupling of a bounded case in naturalistic settings aligns these methodological ideas with interpretivist and critical perspectives on research, but a case can also be investigated within a post-positivist perspective.

In his 2000 book, The Art of Case Study Research, Bob Stake characterized case studies as intrinsic, instrumental or collective. Intrinsic cases are those that are inherently interesting to a researcher, perhaps because of their uniqueness or peculiarity. Instrumental cases are those that researchers study because they have features connected to bigger concepts and that provide an empirical instance to study a bigger idea. Collective case study is looking at multiple cases often with a desire to compare and understand variation, in other words it is a collection of instrumental cases.

So far, we have case study as the investigation of bounded systems that we are motivated to investigate with three possible intentions. Sounds like a very important feature of research design.

But is it a methodology?

Research methodology is a framework that guides research practice ~ it is the theoretical frame that pulls epistemology forward into a discourse that further articulates the nature of knowledge and that guides our choice of methods. Crotty describes it as: “the strategy, plan of action, process or design lying behind the choice and use of particular methods and linking the choice and methods to the desired [research] outcomes.” Note that methodology is a theoretical framework. An important feature of methodologies is that they have substantive content, notions about what the focus of the research will be. If one does ethnography, for example, some notion of culture (even if adapted substantially from cultural anthropology) is central to the investigation. If one does critical research, some notion of power (and likely inequity) is central to the investigation. If one does narrative research, some notion of storying is central. So methodologies bring together salient, foundational social constructs with features of doing research. One could argue that certain methodologies logically entail the investigation of cases, in which case, case study could be an element of a methodology, but that it is only one among a number of elements.

So where does this leave case study as a methodology? What are the foundational social constructs that are central to it as a methodology? Here is where the logic breaks down. Looking at a case, in a natural setting, doing extensive data collection in natural settings doesn’t begin to hint at any particular foundational social constructs… inevitably researchers must draw on some other methodology for those. There is considerable variation in methodologies that inform what one does when investigating a case, and even when researchers do not articulate their methodology it lurks in the articulation of what those central social constructs are and the means by which we investigate them (reflection on pre-reflected experience in phenomenology; story telling in narrative analysis; culture in ethnography; and so on).

Terminology is inconsistent in discussions of research ~ there is a bewildering, often rolling sea of ideas, concepts, and practices to navigate in learning about research. There is no single ship of understanding, but thoughtful (re)articulation of the ideas underlying the theoretical and practical aspects of research is part of being in a community of social science researchers.


Further reading: This recently published comparative analysis of Yin, Stake & Merriam‘s take on what case study research is explicates their positions well, and I think still leaves unanswered the fundamental question of what case study is. My view of case study as a feature of research design is unchanged.

Learning to be a better researcher… by being a research participant

section_volunteerResearchers are egocentric… the research they do stems from their interests and motivations. That’s a given. Within interpretive research methodologies this egocentric position is tempered by the interpersonal intersection of researchers’ interests with those of their research participants. Mostly I am a researcher, but I have also been a research participant and these different vantage points provide useful lessons for thinking about how we conceptualize research participants’ engagement with us and how we treat those who participate in our research.

In general, the interests of the researcher are more important, and procedures to protect research participants are institutionalized through research review boards. For example, research participants’ identities are anonymized to encourage them to participate and protect them from harm, embarrassment, possibly even legal sanctions should the details of their lives become known. (Whether this makes sense is debatable ~  for a good discussion see Jan Nespor’s article Anonymity and place in qualitative research.)

But, equally important is the shield anonymity provides the researcher, shielding them from research participants’ challenges if and when they see how their experiences, thoughts, and emotions are used as data, as well as shielding them from professional critique since data sources (and often data) are held in secret (this is, in part, the current criticism leveled against Alice Goffman). I was able to read the research report of the study I participated in because I know how to access research, cultural capital that researchers might safely assume (hope?) most research participants don’t have.

Narratives of Research Participant Reaction

Here are three sketches of research participant reaction to a published account of the research in which they were involved. All are real. There are a number of lessons to be learned, but I will draw out just a couple.

1. In an introductory doctoral level interpretive research course students read Lois Weis’ Working Class Without Work, a study of an upstate NY high school. A student in the course had been a student in that high school and felt Weiss had understood well some of the gender related occupational aspirational conflict, but demonstrated misunderstandings of the role of the school in students’ future aspirations.

2. I read the dissertation, the report of the research I participated in, and found conversations between myself and the researcher that were not about the research focus had been included as data to corroborate evidence of my behavior and motivations as a mother. I was unaware of this until I read the completed dissertation as neither the analysis nor final dissertation were shared with the research participants.

3. A doctoral student used narrative inquiry to investigate parental experiences dealing with adult children with mental illness. His decision to use a first person story telling strategy was seen as misrepresentation by one parental participant who withdrew consent for including their data in the study.

Involving Research Participants to Get It ‘Right’

As researchers we want to get it as ‘right’ as we can and there are a number of strategies often invoked to do so. The most common are developing a habit of self-reflexivity (often manifest in journal writing), member-checking (an unfortunate term introduced by Guba & Lincoln), using key informants, and peer debriefing. These strategies are of value only if we as researchers practice them seriously.

Member-checking or informant feedback (the term I’ll use) is when researchers share research data, analysis or reports with participants to ensure categories, constructs, explanations and interpretations “ring true” and to explore what might be missing. This is a much talked about and seldom used strategy.

I suspect most researchers avoid informant feedback because it entails: the possibility of creating more, new data (like in sketch #1 and #2); invites potential disagreements and conflict with research participants (like in all three sketches); and invites research participants to opt out of the research study should they not like what they see or how they are represented (like happened in sketch #3). I also suspect most researchers do not see the value in the iterative process of multiple engagements with research participants in the space of data making and interpretation, seeing them as worthy of one but not multiple viewings (like in sketch #1 and #2). Within any interpretivist or critical research methodology this is a contradictory stance, and in establishing respectful relationships with research participants this is a disrespectful stance.

I suspect most researchers worry about the purpose, conditions and consequences of seeking informant feedback ~ can research participants give informed, useful feedback? should I change what I’ve written? does the research participant have veto power? will I destroy the rapport I have if research participants don’t agree with my analysis? Informant feedback is more likely to lead to confusion and contradiction than confirmation and clarity ~ a situation, which I have argued in delineating the process of triangulation, that ought to be invited not avoided by researchers. This is critically important.  If researchers use informant feedback they should think in advance how feedback will be used and to be transparent with research participants about that.

It is also critical to care about whether you are getting it as ‘right’ as possible, and that means not avoiding informant feedback because it may challenge your ideas. Regrettably, this avoidance is safeguarded by the conventions of anonymity and confidentiality that shield researchers from engagement with research participants who cede their right to engage publicly with the researcher by agreeing to those conventions ~ a Gordian knot.

Presentation of Self as Researcher

I suggest novice researchers develop a 30 second or so introduction of themselves as researchers to be used in the research context. A reminder to all that you are here as a researcher and what you are interested in… over the course of a research study it will be needed less and less but it should also be a reminder to self. Screen Shot 2015-07-07 at 12.49.20 PM If we have extended interactions with research participants it is easy to forget that we are researchers and not friends, neighbours, confidants, compatriots, lovers, and so on. We may become those things, but then we are no longer just researchers and the challenge of distinguishing what is within the parameters of the research becomes cloudy, and we may enter into a murky moral ambiguity of ethics and intimacy. (The classic example of this is Harry Wolcott’s relationship with Brad, summarized from his perspective in his book Sneaky Kid and It’s Aftermath.)

Researchers bear greater responsibility than research participants to maintain clarity about their role and their legitimate access to or defining what is data, what is within the boundaries of the research project. In sketch #2, some of my conversations with the researcher had nothing to do with the research topic. I gave this no thought at the time but implicitly assumed they were interactions between if not friends then perhaps a professor and doctoral student, the other most significant roles we played in relation to one another. Even as an experienced researcher, I was naive as a research participant and let the researcher in on too much of my life ~ even being ‘friends’ on Facebook during the research to then be unfriended upon completion of the research project. I mistook this gesture as ‘friendship’ when in hindsight it was data collection, albeit never negotiated as such with me.

Being clear that we are researchers should be ever present in our minds, but as researchers we need to insure it is ever present in research participants’ minds as well. “Anything you say [or do] can and will be used as data by me” might be more useful at protecting research participants than many of the promises institutionalized by research review boards.

We should remind ourselves…

narcissism should not prevail

and being a researcher is simply not a license to tell all.