Common failings in first (and sometimes later) drafts

Sometimes you come across some good advice that stands the test of time. Such is the case of a chapter I came across many years ago written by British educational researcher, Peter Woods. In this chapter, Woods (1985) talks about the “false solutions” that we sometimes use to counter the pain of writing up our research (p. 100). Woods refers to various flaws in argumentation that prevent researchers from making the best possible case in writing up findings from qualitative research studies. By avoiding these kinds of arguments, we not only improve our writing, but make a stronger case for using qualitative methods to examine the social world. Below is a brief summary of Woods’ list of “common failings.”

The straw person argument

You may already be familiar with the “straw person argument” that can be dispelled with a single well-considered point of refutation. These sorts of arguments are those in which authors contrast their own ideas against a “bastardized ideal type” in which they have drawn on the “evils” of certain positions and “glued” them together to form a “Frankenstein’s monster of a case” (Woods, 1985, p. 101). This type of argument is easily constructed by failing to examine counter-evidence and making generalized assertions. Writers can avoid this by including discussion of literature that supports alternative arguments to the argument being developed. In sum, avoiding the straw person argument entails being “fair” to alternative points of view when writing about one’s research topic.

Overclaiming

Woods points out that authors can get carried away with their argument and overstate their cases (p. 101). In qualitative research studies this can easily occur when researcher take findings from studies that examine specific locations and sites and then make assertions about what happens elsewhere. At stake are issues of “transferability”. Much qualitative research takes the stance that instead of generalizing findings, researchers provide sufficient information for readers to be able to make their own decisions as to whether findings apply in similar settings (Seale, 1999, p. 45). The point here is that qualitative researchers must ensure that assertions are well-supported by the evidence provided.

Underclaiming

On the other hand, qualitative researchers sometimes do not go far enough. Woods points out that scholars may suffer from “unwarranted modesty,” or a “failure to perceive possibilities” and therefore miss opportunities and connections (pp. 101-102) to extrapolate from their findings. This is a particular challenge for new researchers. Articulating a personal voice is something that must be developed over time and with practice. Antidotes to underclaiming include taking the time to reflect and work on data analysis and representation, discussing ideas with peers and others scholars, and perhaps employing some of the “tricks of the trade” discussed by others scholars. For example, Howard Becker (1998) has outlined strategies to help researchers think about their research while they are doing it.

Utopianism

It’s common for qualitative researchers to be enthusiastic and passionate about their research projects. That is a good thing! Nevertheless, Woods alerts readers and writers that sometimes authors can propose “an imaginary state of ideal perfection,” or put forward “Utopian” suggestions as “practical possibilities” (p. 102). Again, ways to avoid Utopianism include taking time and effort to think about implications of studies, and provide suggestions for practice, theory and further research that are clearly tied to the particular study. Taking a reasonably modest view of research in which we think about our projects as tied to a particular community of practice might also help. That is, we hope that our studies add incrementally to prior research rather than providing single solutions to any particular research problem.

Sloppiness

Woods points out that sometimes authors write too casually, making “wild claims without proper evidence,” or including ambiguities, inconsistencies, and contradictions. In Woods’ view, sloppy arguments show a lack of analysis and planning (p. 102). A potential contributor to sloppiness is a miscalculation of the time and effort needed to do good work. Qualitative researchers who do quality work attend to detail, provide a clear chain of evidence, and take time to review and revise arguments. This kind of work is not usually accomplished at the last minute. Gaining feedback from peers is helpful. The best peer reviewers will read arguments carefully and provide concrete feedback for how to improve arguments. They will question our assertions and ask for more evidence. Authors may not always like to hear this kind of feedback, but taking the time to attend to critiques of our work will help us improve as writers and researchers.

Overzealousness

In conversations with colleagues, I’ve learned that some are particularly critical of methods texts that provide clear-cut recipes to conducting research. From this view, these sorts of recipes might lead to a completed research study, but the studies themselves might not have much to contribute. Woods mentions that “[t]oo much concern with the proprieties of method” can lead to a barren product (p. 103). For novice researchers this can be a stumbling block, since when learning a new skill, one naturally gravitates towards recipes for how to go about tasks. One way to avoid work that blindly follows methods in a way that fails to produce innovative and creative contributions is to gain practice in conducting research. Being more comfortable with doing qualitative inquiry – whether this involves examination of documents and artifacts, naturally occurring interaction, interviews and focus groups, participant observation or visual methods – involves practice. With practice in doing research and writing up findings, researchers are better situated to do research in ways that go beyond adherence to rule-bound protocols. Pilot studies for larger studies are also helpful for trying out ideas and reflecting on research design and methods.

Overexactness

For those researchers trained in methods that rely on an objectivist epistemology, it can be difficult to come to terms with the sheer messiness of doing qualitative inquiry. So many decisions to make prior to a study! So many ways in which researchers, by their very presence impact the settings that they are trying to examine! Further, participants do not always interact in anticipated ways. Such is the nature of qualitative inquiry – complicated, complex, and abounding in the unexpected. Woods asserts that sometimes authors present an account that is “too neat”, and that does not represent the messiness of everyday life that qualitative research examines (p. 103). One strategy to avoid “too neat” accounts is the use of a researcher journal. Throughout the life of a project, the researcher keeps note of the experiences of being a researcher, and how the researcher’s subject positions both limit and make possible ways to learn about the topic and participants’ lived experiences. Researchers can also be alert to emergent questions – that is, moments in which participants bring a researcher’s attention to issues outside the scope of the initial questions, but relevant to the study at hand.

Theoretical inadequacy

Finally, Woods (1985) talks about the ways in which researchers sometimes fail to make adequate use of theory. He pinpoints three inter-related issues:

  • Exampling, that is, simply illustrating other researchers’ concepts and theories. Woods asks: “What else did the research find?”
  • Theoretical mismatch – here the theory does not match how the study was designed and conducted
  • Undertheorized description – that is, the representation of findings is “journalistic” rather than academic (p. 104).

To sum up, what strikes me about the issues that Peter Woods highlights in his chapter is that in order to avoid these flaws in writing up qualitative studies, we need to

  • be thoughtful and reflective in how we design and conduct studies;
  • take sufficient time to review relevant literature and develop well-supported and clearly articulated arguments for our studies;
  • systematically and carefully analyze and represent data in ways that readers can follow;
  • seek constructive feedback on our work that will help us to think through flaws in the ways we have represented findings; and
  • carefully revise our work to make robust and reasoned arguments.

Reviewing Woods’ suggestions on writing helps me think about what I need to do when preparing conference presentations, as well as how I might revise and resubmit manuscripts to journal. I hope these ideas are helpful in your writing.

Please share your strategies for revising your work.

References

Becker, H. S. (1998). Tricks of the trade: How to think about your research while you’re doing it. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Seale, C. (1999). The quality of qualitative research. London: Sage.

Woods, P. (1985). New songs played skilfully: Creativity and technique in writing up qualitative research. In R. G. Burgess (Ed.), Issues in educational research: Qualitative methods (pp. 86-106). London and Philadelphia: Falmer Press.

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