What I learned about qualitative research from learning how to weave

Sometimes, learning a new skill can illuminate central issues to do with what is already known. Over the last two years, I have been learning how to weave. This was something I have wanted to do for a long time, so I was really excited as a beginner. I started with some basics.weaving

 Different tools are needed for different projects

First, one needs some tools. But where to begin? After some research, I started with a rigid heddle loom. This was an easy way into developing some skills. I kept reading books, consulted online materials, watched videos and took classes. Each teacher brought something different to the task of weaving, and as I learned more, I came to recognize the tremendous variety in tools available to do all kinds of weaving. The sheer diversity of looms and types of weaving was overwhelming: inkle, tapestry, rigid heddle, pin, tablet, back-strap, table and floor looms. I discovered looms that connect directly to computers and use weaving software to design highly complex drafts (i.e., patterns). Such variety! I even discovered a new disorder: OLAD: Obsessive Loom Acquisition Disorder. As I learned more, I gained a better sense of how different types of looms are used for different purposes.  Although the interlacement of threads is something that is common across different types of weaving, tools vary considerably. For example heavy floor looms are used to weave rugs, since strong sturdy beating is required. In contrast, intricate bands – even shoelaces – can be woven on inkle looms.

The same is true for qualitative research. What is exciting about qualitative research is the sheer diversity of theoretical and methodological approaches that scholars take to their work. While some scholars adhere to a specific set of theoretical and methodological tools; other pick up and try various tools for different purposes. Thus we have a variety of “schools” and paradigms in a “Big Tent” of qualitative inquiry (Tracy, 2010).  Theoretically diversity is a characteristic of qualitative inquiry, which spans interpretive, emancipatory, deconstructive, and more recently, new materialist, agendas. Methodologies include ethnography, narrative, historical and documentary approaches, visual methods including use of still photography and video, interview methods, arts-based research, and autoethnography. Given the sheer diversity of approaches one must simply start at some point and then keep learning. By gaining expertise in one approach to qualitative inquiry and continuing to learn about other approaches, one can gain a better sense of the kinds of projects that are possible. Is there a “right” way to learn how to do qualitative research? Probably not, but gaining more knowledge and skills of a variety of tools will help one learn about the kinds of tools one will need to specialize in to do one’s work well.

 Learning language and developing skills

In my excitement to learn about weaving, I went to the local library to check out some books on the topic. As I looked at the titles and topics I only got more confused. When I started to read patterns, not much made sense to me. Here, I was bumping up against the problem faced by novices in any field. There is always a set of jargon used by experts in a particular area that must be learned in order to make sense of how to apply knowledge. With practice, I came to understand basic terms and was able to use new words accurately in a sentence. Now when I go to class, I understand what it means to “beam the warp,” “thread the heddles” or “sley the reed”. These terms all refer to the process of warping a loom prior to getting started. Once I had learned some language describing what I was doing, I wanted to do it. This was far more complex than I had anticipated. I learned, for example, that there is no one correct way to complete the sequence of activities known as “beaming the warp”. Rather, experts in weaving frequently prefer one approach over another (e.g., back-to-font, versus front-to-back warping). I’ve now managed to warp a 4-shaft floor loom on four occasions. Each time, this has been a difficult task, and I am still inexpert. Each time I have had to untie some of the warp threads and rethread and retie them because I have made threading errors. I’ve struggled with tensioning the warp threads – an issue frequently encountered by novice weavers. Even though the threading patterns I’ve used have been simple, my skill level has meant that I have only accomplished the warping process very slowly. What I need to do now is practice.

The same is true for learning about qualitative inquiry. The amount of terminology in learning new terms and understanding how these have been taken up and applied differently across fields is large. Learning any new language is not easy. It takes time and effort. There are many reference books available to lead beginners through basic terminology and how to apply methods. For example Lisa Given’s two volume Sage Encyclopedia of Qualitative Research (Given, 2008) or Thomas Schwandt’s Dictionary of Qualitative Inquiry (Schwandt, 2015) provide helpful introductions to terminology.

Of course, doing something is not the same as reading about it. Initial attempts in research design, question formulation or conducting interviews may be fraught with challenges. Mistakes may be made. With time, effort, and sustained practice, however, the processes involved in the task of doing qualitative inquiry will become familiar. When in the novice stage of any new task, it’s appropriate to be kind to yourself. Most people are unlikely to develop a ground-breaking research design in a first or second effort. Time and practice do matter. Examining mistakes and coming to understand how one can perform tasks more skillfully the next time round is part of learning to do any new activity.

Take advantage of others’ skills and knowledge

We live in an age where there is no shortage of information concerning any topic that one might explore. Although I began my exploration of weaving online, I quickly checked out library resources. My next step was to join a weaver’s guild, attend the monthly meeting, and register for a class. I’ve met people who are new to weaving like me, as well as the experts who teach others. Learning with others has provided a supportive environment in which I’m able to nurture my beginning skills, ask questions, and seek help when I run into problems. My teacher has repeatedly modeled the tasks that I need to develop in order to improve my skills. I’ve also been assured that it is OK to make mistakes, as they provide opportunities for learning and growth.

The same is true for learning about qualitative inquiry. By meeting others who are learning about qualitative methods in a class – whether on-line or face-to-face — one can share the learning path, and support one another when tasks seem more difficult or tedious than anticipated. Attending conferences specific to qualitative inquiry provides an avenue to hear others’ stories, learn about approaches taken and outcomes, and meet the experts who write about the approaches you hope to use in your research.  Connections are made, and one becomes aware of the diverse communities of scholarship that one might contribute to. You may be reading about others’ research now, but in time, you will be able to contribute to scholarship in the area.

Sample, sample!

Experienced weavers recommend “sampling” as a way to try one’s ideas out before expending vast amounts of time and resources on large projects that don’t quite turn out how one envisioned. What this means is weavers add some additional warp to a particular project in order to check how the yarns interact with one another, whether the color choice is pleasing, and how the fabric will perform after finishing. After the sample has been examined, weavers may make changes in threading and color selection in order to achieve an outcome that they are pleased with.

Similarly, qualitative researchers use pilot studies to try out their ideas and methods. Here, a small study is designed and conducted in order to learn more about the research topic, and how effective the methods of data generation and analysis are in answering the research questions. Once initial data are analyzed, it becomes clearer if and how the research design and methods might need to be altered in order to examine the intended topic. For example, different kinds of methods might be used to shed more light on the research questions, or perhaps different sampling methods might be needed in order to generate the data needed. Pilot studies provide a way to experiment and inform future planning.

Patience and time

I have learned that hand weaving is not a fast way to produce fabric. Since this is a leisure activity and I am only spending an hour or two each week on it, my skill development is progressing slowly. It will be many years before I develop a high level of expertise and confidence in the art of weaving. I am having lots of fun though!

Years ago, a colleague whose expertise does not lie in qualitative methods said to me, “Someone should come up with a quick way to do qualitative research!” I know of know fast way to do qualitative research. The processes involved in qualitative research are frequently time-consuming – whether using observations, doing documentary analysis, or conducting, transcribing and analyzing interviews. Further, one needs to situate one’s research within a body of literature in one’s discipline, examining and interpreting data using the theoretical tools one has selected to use. It takes time to learn the language of qualitative inquiry, and to develop the skills to design, conduct and write up the findings from one’s research.  What’s exciting is that there are communities of scholars all over the world who are excited about qualitative inquiry, and who share their work with others. To learn more about what these scholars do and say, take a look at some of the journals that publish qualitative studies, or attend a qualitative research conference.  But most of all, have fun!

References

Given, L. M. (Ed.) (2008). The Sage encyclopedia of qualitative research methods (Vol. 2). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Schwandt, T. A. (2015). Dictionary of qualitative inquiry (4th ed.). Los Angeles: Sage.

Tracy, S. J. (2010). Qualitative quality: Eight “Big-Tent” criteria for excellent qualitative research. Qualitative Inquiry, 16(10), 837-851. doi:10.1177/1077800410383121

…and best wishes with your research, Kathy R.

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