Make haste slowly…the value of pausing in doing qualitative research

“Make haste slowly” were words of advice given to me by the principal in the first school that I taught in many years ago. Terry, as he was known to teachers and staff, had many years of teaching and administration experience. His office appeared somewhat disorganized, with stacks of papers piled on his desk. Yet, rather than sitting in his office, Terry could often be seen walking around the school grounds, talking to children, teachers, and parents. He frequently dropped by my classroom to see what was going on. These were friendly, supportive and encouraging visits, and Terry allotted specific time for me to gain mentorship from a more experienced teacher.  As a young teacher I was enthusiastic to try out new ideas, although I did not always consider these within a broader context. Terry’s advice to me still lingers:  “Make haste slowly.” At the time, I did not fully realize what he was getting at, but with the years, I’ve come to appreciate this advice. In particular, I’ve come to understand that to do qualitative research of quality, slow work might be needed. What is the value of completing tasks slowly in a world in which we are continually pressed to do more, faster, in shorter time frames?

Connecting to the literature. First, doing quality research entails having a deep understanding of the ways in which the findings of our project are connected to other literature. Since so much of qualitative research is interdisciplinary, we may need to go outside our known areas of research and journals that are well known to us to learn about scholarship in other fields. How, for example, are concepts applied and used in other disciplines? What are potential critiques? How might these be addressed in the development of a new study?

Analyzing data as an iterative and recursive process. Second, the planning and conduct of qualitative studies, along with the analysis and interpretation of data and writing up of findings is typically a process that takes longer than anticipated. Analyzing data is an iterative and recursive process, likely to take researchers off in different directions – perhaps to recruit more participants, plan other ways of generating data that will do a better job of informing research questions, pause to examine unexpected issues that arise during the research process, check preliminary findings with participants, or to conduct further review of literature. The impetus for researchers to take short-cuts is felt in the pressures to “publish or perish.” Yet, researchers who take short-cuts can easily lapse into research misconduct – for example, by failing to cite others’ work faithfully, overlooking data that does not support the argument being developed, or even, in worst case scenarios, fabricating or falsifying data. These offenses: plagiarizing, and fabricating or falsifying data may be subject to formal review, and careers may be lost as a result if complaints are upheld.

Taking time to complete thorough and comprehensive analysis. It is possible to engage in practices that get the job done quickly, but perhaps result in less than stellar work. For example, by only transcribing those segments of naturally occurring or interview data that are relevant to the research questions the data analysis process ignores any data that does not pertain directly to the initial research questions. By taking these sorts of short-cuts, qualitative researchers circumvent opportunities to examine important issues that participants of research projects attend to that may have initially escaped the researcher’s attention. When data are transcribed with a view to only focusing on topics of interest, opportunities to examine the larger data corpus are missed. This not to say that researchers can’t focus on particular phenomena that arise in a data set; however, in writing up findings and representing interpretations, authors should be clear about the rationale for pursuing particular topics, and how they went about selecting and building a data corpus for a particular purpose.

Writing up studies. Third, writing as a process is not necessarily a linear, untroubled process. Writing involves reading, thinking, and time spent away from a topic for creative insights to emerge. Thus, it is enormously useful to allow time for the cognitive processes involved in thinking, imagining, and innovating. By working on different tasks simultaneously, researchers can build in the time needed to be thoughtful about their work. For example, since research involves multiple processes, including reading, writing, and analysis, in addition to the house-keeping tasks of keeping files and bibliographic details up-to-date, researchers can switch between tasks to allow time for the imaginative process to occur.

Pausing. Stage and Mattson (2003, p. 101), although writing about the process of ethnographic interviewing, assert that researchers:

often move to avoid or fill pauses.  They usually operate under strict deadlines and do not plan for pauses, or simply do not feel comfortable being quiet through a pause. We suggest that researchers consciously pause to reflect on the context in which the focus of their study resides.

This urge to hurry through an interview with a research participant can easily occur throughout the life of a project. Given that researchers are also engaged in numerous other tasks, both personal and professional, it takes a conscious effort to pause, attend, and be thoughtful. Yet, this is why I think that my former mentor’s advice to “make haste slowly” can be useful in my current work. By pausing, I leave time to ask questions about what I have accomplished, what I still need to do, and what unanticipated questions are worth pondering.

Thus, today in my work, I intend to take time to do some slow and thoughtful editing of my current writing project. Which of your tasks might benefit from some slow work?

Best wishes with your research this week, Kathy R.


Stage, C. W., & Mattson, M. (2003). Ethnographic interviewing as contextualized conversation In R. P. Clair (Ed.), Expressions of ethnography: Novel approaches to qualitative methods (pp. 97-106). Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.


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