Category Archives: methods

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.

Screen Shot 2014-07-03 at 8.48.17 AM 

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.



the meaning of ‘handmade,’ the evolution of cultural artifacts

The largest market for ‘handmade’ goods is Etsy, the online marketplace for all things vintage and handmade. Until recently, their definition of handmade was that it was not factory-made. But Etsy has changed the definition of ‘handmade’ largely because of its success… sellers aren’t able to keep up with the demand for their products. So, Etsy is ushering in its own industrial revolution by redefining handmade to allow sellers peddle items they produced with manufacturing partners and to hire staff and use outside companies to ship their wares.

The size of your shop is up to you.
Hire help if you need it or collaborate, even from different locations. Everyone who helps you make handmade items should be listed on your shop’s About page.
You can use shipping and fulfillment services.
If it’s right for your business you can let someone else handle these logistics. Keep in mind that shop owners are ultimately responsible for buyers’ customer service experience.
Manufacturers can help you produce your designs.
Sellers create their handmade items in many different ways. Partnering with an outside business is okay, but we’ll require you to be honest about how your items are made.

Some see this as a sell-out, an unconscionable compromise to what it means for an object to be handmade. But this redefinition of the meaning of handmade is precisely what happens with the use of objects in social contexts… high demand meets the very slow process of making everything without machines and so handmade comes to mean something you make with your hands, possibly aided by a machine (like a sewing machine, loom, soldering gun, and so on). Using something like a loom to weave a rug is just such an example, and watching a Turkish woman weaving a rug still looks like making something by hand. When an object includes parts that have been manufactured or is made with the assistance of a tool, it may still be considered handmade, the outcome of an individual’s creative work.

The meaning, role, and value of artifacts is fluid, changing with human use and interpretation.

Detroit ~ understanding urban development and decay through urban exploration (urbex)

Detroit has become a living laboratory for studying the creation and decline of urban industrial cities. The scale of deterioration in Detroit far exceeds that of other declining urban areas.

Detroit population:
1910 286,000
1950 1,850,000
2010 713,000

When the population of cities swell infrastructure develops to accommodate their needs, and as that population shrinks the infrastructure remains, leaving a ghostly reminder of these demographic changes. Houses, schools, churches, streets remain but are abandoned.
These abandoned spaces remain and as they deteriorate the land returns to what it was before the city developed. In downtown Detroit open fields have appeared amidst the remaining buildings… some of those spaces are being claimed as urban gardens.

One study that is chronicling the changes that Detroit continues to experience in this continuing story of urban change is Detroit Urbex. The intent is to “raise awareness of the social and economic challenges the city of Detroit faces through photography.” This is part of a movement called urban exploration or urbex, the exploration of man made structures, often involving exploration in places that are off-limits, and complete with suggestions for the kit for explorers (urban spelunking gear!).

Detroit Urbex’s photographic record is rich and deep, connecting the past and the present. Now and Then is a kaleidoscope of past and present images that are remarkably poignant. These images from Cass Tech High School, the most prestigious Detroit High School ~ now demolished, illustrate this technique.

Researching the virtual world

The explosion of social media has opened a new space in which human interaction and social life unfold, and perhaps are differently constructed. As the social world goes digital, social scientists are challenged to adapt research methodologies and methods to this new space, one where thousands and possibly millions of people interact.

A literature that provides guidance on how to do research in growing and includes books like:

Netnography: Doing Ethnographic Research Online by Robert V Kozinets
Internet Inquiry: Conversations About Method, edited by Annette N. Markham & Nancy K. Baym

And journals devoted especially to the topic:

A key consideration in research in this new space are ethical issues of privacy, consent, and research participants’ rights. Some references that deal with these issues are:

Banks, W. and M. Eble, 2007, Digital Spaces, Online Environments, and Human Participant Research: Interfacing with Institutional Review Boards, in Digital Writing Research: Technologies, Methodologies, and Ethical Issues, H. McKee and D. DeVoss (eds.), Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, pp. 27–47.
Brown, R. & Gregg, M. (2012). The pedagogy of regret: Facebook, binge drinking and young women. Continuum: Journal of Media and Cultural Studies, 26 (3): 357-369.
Buchanan, E. A. and Zimmer, M., Internet Research Ethics, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition).
Burden, K., Shuck, S., & Aubusson, P. (2012). M-Research: Ethical issues in researching young people’s use of mobile devices. Youth Studies Australia, 31 (3): 17-26.
Morrow, V. (2008). Ethical dilemmas in research with children and young people about their social environments, Children’s Geographies, 6 (1): 49-61.
Zimmer, M. (2010). “But the data is already public”: On the ethics of research in Facebook. Ethics and Information Technology, 12 (4): 313-325.

Research Design

Research design is really just a plan of action. Because the search for meaning, understanding or critique are open-ended, it does not mean that interpretive and critical research cannot be designed.

Here is one way to think about the typical ‘moves’ in creating a research design:

1. what is the conceptual topic
2. review what is already known, looking for alternative perspectives
3. what is interesting to explore; what questions are interesting to ask
4. think conceptually about what you know and want to know
5. what is your theoretical perspective and methodology
6. what is the content and why is it interesting or relevant
7. what methods will be used and why
8. how will data be stored, analyzed, synthesized
9. how and to whom will the research be reported