Category Archives: research examples

Dissertation writing, at the margins

Although PhD students have much greater freedom to explore alternative ways of doing their dissertation research and presenting what they have learned, I suspect the academy is still pretty conservative overall. This conservatism no doubt has a number of sources, including the comfort level of faculty, the bureaucracy of creating dissertations, and even the views students bring to the dissertation enterprise. Students can be the source of inspiration though and there have been a couple notable examples, of late.

First is Dani Spinosa’s (pursuing a doctorate in English at York University) blog [generic pronoun] creates, a site for blogging by herself and others that will become her dissertation. “It explores the ways that the dissertation can become a site of activism and community as well as a place for research and academic scholarship.” The blog come dissertation begins with the post in the image, and is followed by longer posts on postanarchism, poststructuralism, and postmodernism. Her research focuses on 11 poets and seeks to explore political philosophies of post-anarchism as a literary theory of engaging with texts. She posts once a week and the entries and comments are read by her supervisor and committee. Her initial intent was for the blog to be the dissertation (the blog posts are sorted by categories one might associate with more traditional writing, like footnotes and appendices), but the University required a written document for the defense. “Chairs and the head of the graduate department said a blog is not a dissertation. The print version is halfway between what the department wanted and what I was willing to give.” (See more at:

Another example is Nick Sousanis’ (pursuing a doctorate in interdisciplinary studies at Teachers College) comic-book format dissertation. Unflattening: A Visual-Verbal Inquiry Into Learning in Many Dimensions is what it says it is, an investigation of the interconnectedness of the visual and the textual and that interconnectedness’ relationship to learning, and Sousanis blogs about his progress here. To explore the relationship between perception and visual strategies, he depicts his dog navigating a forest at night using a range of senses to perceive.

And recently, Clemson University doctoral student A.D. Carson produced a rap album for his dissertation.

The album, “Owning My Masters: The Rhetorics of Rhymes and Revolutions” uses hip-hop to explore such ideas as identity, justice, economics, citizenship and language.

Clemson University doctoral candidate A.D. Carson talks about the history of rap music in his home studio near campus, Jan. 30, 2017. Carson used the studio to produce “Owning My Masters: The Rhetorics of Rhymes and Revolutions”, a 34-track rap album that also serves as his dissertation. (Photo by Ken Scar)

Writing in hip hop Carson isn’t being gimmicky but rather communicating in a way that is natural and embodied for him and complements the content of his work.


I’m trying to examine how an authentically identifiable black voice might be used or accepted as authentic, or ignored, or could answer academic questions and be considered rightly academic. So I have to present a voice rather than writing about a voice.

These are examples of what might be a trend, a move away from traditional book and article formats as the only representations of knowledge, but the change comes at a glacial not a volcanic pace. The next several decades may expand and complicate the notion of representation, but in all this one hopes the focus on form, while integral, does not diminish a focus on quality (whatever that may end up meaning).

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.

Elliott, H., Squire, C., &  O’Connell, R. (2017). Narratives of normativity and permissible transgression: Mothers’ blogs about mothering, family and food in resource-constrained times. Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 18(1).

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.

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


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.

publicity for research brings fame AND scrutiny

Two recent studies have captured the attention of the media and considerable publicity: Alice Goffman’s book On the Run and Michael LaCour’s now retracted Science article. In both cases, the researchers’ work garnered substantial attention in the popular media, and while each also has important possibilities for social change the primary focus has been on how the research was done, including the ethicality of the researchers.

9780226275406Goffman’s work is unusual in academe, research that has so captured the public attention that it has led to a TED talk, a speaking tour, possible TV and movie deals, and a trade paperback reprint. Stunning success for any assistant professor. The University of Chicago Press has had a hand in the promotion of the book, marketing it as one would a trade book including an NPR interview.

Her work has won accolades within academe as well ~ Goffman won the American Sociological Association dissertation award for her work, which is described as a major contribution to the study of U.S. poverty and racial inequality. It has also been favorably reviewed within the discipline ~ here, for example. This is a potentially important study in the wake of recent police violence against Black Americans that especially captured media attention when a white cop killed Michael Brown, a young black man in Ferguson, MO.

LaCour’s study also won the attention of the popular media because of the incredible claim that people’s views about same sex marriage could be changed through a short conversation with someone who supported the position. Ground breaking findings in political science! This study appeared in a peer reviewed highly regarded journal, one that is directed to a very broad audience of scientists rather than a specific discipline.

The reasons for retracting the paper are as follows: (i) Survey incentives were misrepresented. To encourage participation in the survey, respondents were claimed to have been given cash payments to enroll, to refer family and friends, and to complete multiple surveys. In correspondence received from Michael J. LaCour‘s attorney, he confirmed that no such payments were made. (ii) The statement on sponsorship was false. In the Report, LaCour acknowledged funding from the Williams Institute, the Ford Foundation, and the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund. Per correspondence from LaCour‘s attorney, this statement was not true. (ii) The statement on sponsorship was false. In the Report,LaCour acknowledged funding from the Williams Institute, the Ford Foundation, and the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund. Per correspondence from LaCour‘s attorney, this statement was not true.

Retraction Watch has chronicled the events around the retraction and responses of the two authors.

Research Issues 

It is a good thing when research findings become part of the public discourse about important issues… that is a critical role for researchers and research in contemporary society. With that publicity (whether fostered by a publisher or a researcher) comes a level of scrutiny perhaps with a spoonful of envy from other researchers. In both these cases, it was other researchers who are calling Goffman and LaCour out.

So what might we learn from these two cases. Here are some initial thoughts.

The Data Record ~ Goffman destroyed her data claiming she needed to protect her research participants and LaCour destroyed his claiming that was standard protocol. Neither position is tenable nor standard practice. While protecting research participants is of critical importance (and too often researchers blithely make a promise they may not be able to keep) but Goffman should be prepared to stand behind her promise and retain her data. And, it would seem now that LaCour may never have had data to destroy, he just said he destroyed it.

Triangulation ~ Goffman was either naive or is depending on the naiveté of her readers. Many of the critiques are reasonable requests for either corroboration, explanation or clarification. One example is her claim that, “The officers told me they had come to the hospital with a shooting victim who was in custody, and as was their custom, they ran the names of the men on the visitors’ list” has been challenged on many levels, including the unlikelihood that hospitals would release this information and that no one (and several researchers have tried) has been able to find hospitals, police departments or officers who actually do this. There are several other examples of this sort.

The onus on any researcher is to ask how to provide the best explanation of their data and this requires looking at those data in different ways, often collecting more data to clarify and test veracity.

Ethics ~ There are two contexts for thinking about research ethics: the ethics of the research practice and then ethics within the research practice. Destroying data isn’t acceptable and the ethics of research practice dictate how and for how long data ought to be kept, how to best maintain confidentiality and anonymity of research participants, honesty about sponsorship, and so on. Both Goffman and LaCour made major mistakes, and one can safely assume they acted purposefully and wrongly. In other words, there is no reason to believe they didn’t know better. LaCour’s fabrications are most egregious and his response has served only to confirm his unethical research practice.

But there is also the ethics within research practice, a much murkier gray area. Researchers, especially those doing the kind of fieldwork Goffman conducted, will necessarily encounter ethical dilemmas that arise as a result of being in the field. Her decision to live in the community she studied, and to live with some of her research participants isn’t a wrong choice (for all the critics that claim this is so, they would deny years of ethnographic research??) but it does inevitably challenge the researcher to make difficult choices. Likewise the criticism that she was not like the research participants (young black men) is an old irrelevant criticism ~ as Brian Fay has argued, “you don’t have to be one to know one.”

A number of critiques of Goffman’s work center on the ethics within research practice and are good fodder for discussions about how to do research well, in ways that respect research participants, and that leave room for researchers to explore areas of social life that may involve the illegal, immoral and unconventional fabric of human existence. These discussions are healthy for research, and the issues raised reinforce the importance of educating novice researchers about ethics beyond the ethics of research practice dictated by institutional conventions, like research review boards.

Grounded Theory ~ a brief note

grounded-theory-new-4-638Few research methodologies have been so beguiling as grounded theory. Even when researchers are not working squarely within this methodology, many strategies for data analysis are liberally borrowed from the work of grounded theory methodologists. For those who claim to be doing grounded theory, the ground on which they stand has and continues to shift from the original positions proffered by Glaser & Strauss in the mid 60s. Most especially Glaser’s realist ontology has been left behind.

Certainly, Juliet Corbin pushed that process along in her 9780857029140collaborations with Anselm Strauss and more recently Kathy Charmaz has offered what she calls a constructivist grounded theory approach. On the latter, you can watch this interview with Charmaz that clarifies her view, one that I think captures the emerging contemporary stance on grounded theory.

The use of prior empirical and theoretical literature is a key idea in contemporary grounded theory… the old school notion of avoiding all prior knowledge has been largely set aside in favor of abductive reasoning that sees the researcher traveling back and forth between their empirical data and relevant literature.

Grounded theory has also taken a more narrative turn, emphasizing more literary writing and more acknowledgement of the centrality of the researcher to the analysis. Nonetheless, grounded theory remains unique in the search for a core category, that theoretical idea that integrates the various aspects of the theoretical explanation. (See, for example, this recent article The San Miguel Project.)


Design meets social science

I spend some time when teaching research methods trying to help students understand the notion of material culture… not so much the archeological notion of material culture, but the human fabricated world we currently live in. We are so accustomed to just asking or watching people in order to understand human nature that we overlook the rich data record of objects, spaces, environments we have created that say so much about us. From an anthropological stance we can make some sense of what is valued by examining housing styles, graffiti, music, cityscapes. But, so what? Charles Constantine’s thesis looks at funeral practices and rituals and although it is not a stellar piece of social science research it’s a pretty good description of contemporary North American death traditions. Based on this investigation, and the real point of Constantine’s work is to reconsider design elements of death rituals–coffins, urns and burial places. Influenced some by the ‘home funeral’ movement, Constantine re-envisions what the things and places associated with dead bodies might be like, especially in an affirming, positive way for the living.

So he designs a coffin that is a coffee table. Urns that can be used to ‘plant’ the dead thus contributing to life. Discussions of his work on design blogs haven’t been very kind–my guess is that says more about a cultural taboo on seeing death as part of life more than it does about the ideas or the design. His designs are innovative (although I personally don’t like the aesthetics of the coffin/coffee table) and quite beautiful (his urns are lovely organic pieces of sculpture).

I am left wondering sometimes why we do social science research. I don’t have a strong utilitarian bent, I think knowing about is a worthy end. But I don’t mind seeing this marriage of understand the social world through research with an eye to a thoughtful reconstruction of our social world. I don’t suspect Constantine’s designs will change the big business of death, but how informative to have this unique perspective on the funeral practices we take for granted.

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.


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?