Category Archives: methods

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

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 4.47.08 PM Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 4.47.34 PM

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.

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.

crowdsourcing ~ research possibilities

crowdsourcing |ˈkroudˌsôrsiNG|
the practice whereby an organization enlists a variety of freelancers, paid or unpaid, to work on a specific task or problem

Social scientists have traditionally felt a need to tightly control how they get their data, who should provide the data and how are seen as key features of good research. But, we might take note of the ways other scientists (biologists, astronomers, mathematicians, ornithologists, and geologists, for example) are capitalizing on the lived experiences of people to help them collect and analyze data on natural phenomena.

The Case of Citizen Scientists

Many research projects now involve collecting or analyzing huge amounts of data, and both tasks are sometimes beyond the resources of an individual researcher or research team. Crowdsourcing the research tasks is being used in an increasing number of projects, mobilizing the general citizenry’s interest in science. Screen Shot 2015-06-09 at 1.36.04 PM

There is one web-based platform that has facilitated these research tasks; check out Zooniverse, which creates citizen science websites that allow anyone with an interest to participate in research online. These projects call on citizen scientists to help with data analysis. One recent example is Snapshot Serengeti, a website with photos taken in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania. Anyone with an internet connection can help classify the different animals caught in millions of camera trap images.


Chris Lowry a University of Buffalo assistant professor of geology has developed Crowdhydrology, a project that enlists hikers, fishermen, birdwatchers, school kids and nature-lovers to monitor stream levels in NYS, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa. The idea is simple ~ at each site there is a giant measuring stick and a sign explaining how passersby can text water levels and stream locations to researchers. Citizens  in this project participate in data collection, contributing to research on hydrology. The data collected are public and available on the CrowdHydrology website, which describes the project thusly…

“The CrowdHydrology mission is to create freely available data on stream stage in a simple and inexpensive way. We do this through the use of “crowd sourcing”, which means we gather information on stream stage (water levels) from anyone willing to send us a text message of the water levels at their local stream. These data are then available for anyone to then use from Universities to Elementary schools.”

This is the interface that allows anyone to view or download the data.

Crowdsourcing for Social Science Research?

So imagine how social scientists might use crowdsourcing to investigate social issues and human phenomena. One example is a project in Egypt that gives women an opportunity to document rape, harassment and assault ~ Harrassmap tracks incidents of sexual harassment in the Greater Cairo area with the goal of understanding and changing the social acceptability of gender based violence. Social phenomena that are experienced or witnessed (safety, anxiety, happiness, bullying, crime, kindness, road rage, drug use, oppression) are all potentially chronicled, mapped and understood through crowdsourcing.

Also, check out the humanities projects on Zooniverse.

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A key issue in the successful use of crowdsourcing in the social sciences is that scientists do retain some control of the research questions and what counts as useful data, crowdsourcing as data collection ought not to mistake participation in data generation with expertise in the research topic.

Approaches to indepthness: ethnographic & longitudinal

As qualitative researchers there are different ways to think about how our research is indepth, seriously engaged with a research question and research participants. Two possibilities are immersing ourselves in a context (anthropological) or engaging with a context over a long time period (sociological) in order to deeply understand some social phenomenon.

Ethnography or ethnographic approaches are a methodology that draws us into a cultural context through participant observation over a sufficiently long enough period of time to formulate deep understandings of human experience. Living with, speaking with, and seeing from the inside out is the key to this indepth approach which is based on field work, participant observation, and interviewing. Other than the strategy of living within a cultural context, is the sociological strategy of longitudinal studies that continue engagement with research participants over a long period of time, sometimes referred to as a qualitative longitudinal study (QLS) which is based on indepth interviews with the same cohort of participants.

The same research question has been answered using both strategies. Two classic ethnographic studies that ask what happens to working class kids in schools are Paul Willis’ Learning to Labor and Jay MacLeod’s Ain’t No Makin’ It. Willis’ study looks at how British working class kids experience school so that class structures are perpetuated and MacLeod’s study looks at what happens to two groups of kids who differ by race but not class and their experiences of educational aspiration and schooling. MacLeod’s study is classic ethnography with a twist: twice after the initial research he went back to the Boston inner city neighbourhood to check in with his research participants and new editions of the book include appendices updating us about where the boys/men are at each point in time. MacLeod’s study might now be seen as a hybrid of the two approaches.


The Long Shadow is a good example of how understanding the same phenomenon, in this case framed as the transition of urban disadvantaged youth into adulthood, might be fostered by a long sustained relationship with research participants, i.e., knowing them for a longer time rather than intimately for a shorter time. What started out as a study to look at transitioning from home to grade one turned into a 25 yr longitudinal study of 800 low income inner city Baltimore kids.

These three studies are exemplars for researchers and implicitly offer lessons and advice on how to conduct indepth qualitative research in these two different ways.

imgres-1The QLS is useful for answering questions like:

  • what changes between T1 and T2 and Tn?
  • when does change occur?
  • are there epiphanies, tipping points, revelations?
  • what is missing over time? what is consistent over time?
  • what are the contextual factors related to change or stasis?

Click here for a short paper on the advantages/disadvantages, purposes and challenges of QLS and Johnny Saldaña’s Longitudinal Qualitative Research is another good resource.


crowd sourcing images as data

Crowd sourcing is an interesting strategy for data collection that I’ve written about and you can read about it here. Here is another example of crowd sourcing images around a topic, in this case the use of photo-sharing service Instagram asking teachers to  post photos throughout the day capturing moments they saw as representative of their daily lives as educators. There is a rich potential to answer a wide range of research questions with these images as the data set.

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Metaphors: how they help us to understand social life (and maybe make positive change)

I’ve written a few posts about metaphors  including their centrality to how knowledge about and action in the social world is constructed [The Power of Metaphors] and how to use a metaphoric lens during data analysis [Making Sense of Metaphors].

People use metaphors often as a short-hand, a way to capture complex ideas and relationships; to direct attention in a particular way; and often to present a moral view. In British Columbia where I live the province is in the midst of a fairly pitched battle between the teachers union and the government (ok so I’ve already tipped my hand in terms of the metaphor I use in talking about these labor relations). A rising chorus of voices have begun to use the metaphor of labor relations as marriage, not surprisingly since both the teachers union and the government claim to have the best interests of children at heart.

The labor relations as marriage works on a number of levels and not on many others. But, it is dominant in the media, the rhetoric of the union and the government, school administrators, students, and analysts. So, it needs to be taken seriously to understand the impasse in negotiations (and indeed the now decade old acrimonious relationship between the two) and using this understanding to both think and then act differently.


Here’s a link to the article:  Does It Help to Say the BC Teachers and the Government are in a Bad Marriage?




using time to frame data collection

Time is a cross-cultural construct, although its meaning is not universal.  In any context, time is invested with metaphoric meaning illustrating its conceptual roots. In Western, industrialized cultures we speak of spending time, being on-time, answer questions about how we are using our time, think time runs out, waste time, buy time, say time is money, and use time-outs. Time is finite and commodified… not too surprising within global capitalism. In other cultures, time is marked not by its passing, but by its use… for example, Balinese conceptions of days as full or empty are connected to ritual and spiritual happenings, or by human interactions. Cultures differ in how they measure time, for example, with devices like clocks or through natural events like seasons. Edward T. Hall argued that conceptualization of differences are based upon whether one takes a mono- or poly- chronic view of time.  Monochronic conceptions see time as fixed, linear and unchanging, and polychronic conceptions see time as fluid and adaptable.

So how to use time in collecting social science data must necessarily be sensitive to cultural differences. That said, here are a few ways time can frame data collection:

24-hour recall techniquea structured interview during which the research participant reports what they did the previous day beginning at 4:00 a.m. until 4:00 a.m. the current day, estimating time intervals as closely as possible. An example is the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Americans Use of Time Project

time sampling: random or systematic selection of time periods for observation. This is frequently used in primarily observational studies of human activity in structured contexts, like classrooms.

life history calendars (LHC): for collecting detailed retrospective information about the timing and sequencing of events in people’s lives. While demographers use this method for collecting data on common events like marriage, divorce, childbirth, death, and so on, it also lends itself to subjectively defined life events. An example here.