Influential qualitative researchers: Harry F. Wolcott

Educational anthropologist Harry Wolcott (1929-2012) has written numerous books on how to do qualitative research. His early study investigated the work of a principal in The man in the principal’s office: An ethnography (Wolcott, 1973). Unlike many of his contemporaries, Wolcott argued for the merit of an n of 1 (Wolcott, 1995). One of his more well-known studies examined the life history of a young man known in a trilogy of publications as Brad. Brad took up residence on Wolcott’s property in Oregon (Wolcott, 2002), and Wolcott went on to interview him and publish his life story in a journal article.

The first chapter I ever read by Wolcott examined the notion of “validity” in qualitative research in a book edited by Elliot Eisner and Alan Peshkin (Wolcott, 1990). Since that time, I’ve read many more books by Wolcott and still frequently refer to them. Eisner’s and Peshkin’s book drew together a series of essays on critical issues in qualitative inquiry that had been delivered at a conference at Stanford University in June 1988 (Wolcott, 1994, p. 337). Wolcott’s approach to his assigned topic of validity, was to examine the relationship that he had developed with Brad over the course of developing his life history, and the tragic subsequent events that occurred between them. Wolcott uses this example to illustrate “why validity does not seem to be an appropriate concept for judging the results of qualitative inquiry” (1994, p. 338). For those readers unfamiliar with this paper, rather than recount the details here, I will let you read Wolcott’s original articles as I did when I first read the “validity” chapter. Rather than search for the original articles, you will find these republished and discussed in the book, Sneaky kid and its aftermath: Ethics and intimacy in fieldwork (Wolcott, 2002). A friend and colleague who attended the conference at which Wolcott first presented his “validity” paper has shared with me that the “validity” paper received a mixed review from conference attendees. Apparently, audience members displayed a range of responses – from intense disagreement through to support. In using this text in teaching, I’ve encountered the same sort of responses among readers – this article arouses strong viewpoints and poses difficult questions about not only how one might address the issue of validity in qualitative inquiry, but how qualitative researchers conduct research, how one engages with participants, as well as the ethics involved in doing qualitative inquiry.

In the chapter “On seeking — and rejecting — validity in qualitative research,” Wolcott (1990) boldly dispenses with the idea of validity, and suggests that qualitative researchers might just try to “get it right”, or try not to “get it all wrong.” He suggests a “constellation of activities” (1994, p. 353) that researchers can take to do this:

  • Talk little, listen a lot
  • Record accurately, in their words, immediately after or during events
  • Begin writing early, share drafts with others knowledgeable about the setting
  • Let readers see for themselves, include primary data in final accounts
  • Report fully, deal with discrepant cases
  • Be candid, sees subjectivity as a strength of qualitative research
  • Seek feedback
  • Try to achieve a balance – return to site or field notes to reread the data, then reread the draft
  • Write accurately – write for technical accuracy, internal consistency with generalizations grounded in what is seen and heard (pp. 337-373).

Less controversial among Wolcott’s writing are his books on the process of conducting qualitative research. Wolcott has written numerous books that outline the steps in conducting a qualitative research study for novice researchers. These include The art of doing fieldwork (Wolcott, 1995), Ethnography: A way of seeing (Wolcott, 1999), Transforming qualitative data (Wolcott, 1994), and Writing up qualitative research (Wolcott, 2009). Wolcott’s writing is reader-friendly and conversational in style, and filled with useful tips for novice researchers. I have used all of these texts at various times in teaching qualitative research, and have found them to be straightforward and practical accounts related to the use of ethnographic methods in doing qualitative inquiry.

In recognition of his contributions to the field of qualitative research, Harry Wolcott received the inaugural Special Career Award in Qualitative Inquiry for dedication and contributions to qualitative research, teaching, and practice at the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry in 2010. If you have not read any of Wolcott’s work, be sure to add some to your reading list. There is much to learn and consider from his work.

Kathy Roulston

References

Wolcott, H. F. (1973). The man in the principal’s office: An ethnography. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Wolcott, H. F. (1990). On seeking — and rejecting — validity in qualitative research. In E. W. Eisner & A. Peshkin (Eds.), Qualitative inquiry in education: Continuing the debate (pp. 121-152). New York: Teachers College Press.

Wolcott, H. F. (1994). Transforming qualitative data: Description, analysis, and interpretation. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Wolcott, H. F. (1995). The art of fieldwork. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press.

Wolcott, H. F. (1999). Ethnography: A way of seeing. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Wolcott, H. F. (2002). Sneaky kid and its aftermath: Ethics and intimacy in fieldwork. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press.

Wolcott, H. F. (2009). Writing up qualitative research (3rd Ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

 

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