How to use a novel as a guidebook OR what is the difference between fiction and nonfiction?

A story in the NYT, which uses great graphics (another post, another important topic), describes how the author used Oliver Twist as a walking tour guide to London.

It was nearly eleven o’clock when they reached the turnpike at Islington. They crossed from the Angel into St. John’s Road; struck down the small street which terminates at Sadler’s Wells Theatre; through Exmouth Street and Coppice Row; down the little court by the side of the workhouse; across the classic ground which once bore the name of Hockley-in-the-Hole; thence into Little Saffron Hill; and so into Saffron Hill the Great: along which the Dodger scudded at a rapid pace, directing Oliver to follow close at his heels.


The inference here is that literature, fiction that is, can be a guide to what we might think of as the “real world.” And in this short discourse, the author illustrates what he sees as the substantial over lap between the contemporary streets of London and the days when and where Dicken’s Oliver Twist descended into gang life.

There are plenty of instances of people looking for places and things described in literature… Platform 9 3/4 in King’s Cross Station, for example.

Umberto Eco also takes up this idea in Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, but comes to a slightly different conclusion… with the descriptions of the streets of Paris in Dumas’ Three Musketeers. Eco takes his reader along as he shadows D’Artagnan through the streets of seventeenth-century Paris, but Dumas fools us and we cannot quite follow the trail, not because the streets are not there but because the trail doesn’t make physical, logical sense.

In both instances, whether the mapping is “accurate” or not, the idea or possibility of mapping reveals the uncertain boundary between story and history, between fiction and nonfiction. Fiction is dependent on reality (even fiction that seems most unreal); but reality, too, depends on fiction. What connects fiction and nonfiction is the underlying idea of story. Whether we are writing/reading the stories created by others for us or we are telling/listening to stories of friends, family, research participants’ lives we are making sense of the world through narrative, through story.

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.

Winkel, G. (2014). When the pendulum doesn’t find its center: Environmental narratives, strategies, and forest policy change in the US Pacific Northwest. Global Environmental Change, 27, 84-95.

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.