“Qualitative researchers need to be storytellers”

This is what Harry Wolcott (1994, p. 17) asserts in his book on qualitative data analysis. What are strategies that one might use to tell the story of one’s research? Whatever approach one selects to use in a qualitative study, the end product will typically be a written report on the research study. This might take the form of an article, chapter or book. Of course there are numerous other ways to present one’s findings, including drama, poetry and performances – that is a topic for another post.

Or see the following bibliographies for ideas:

Readers’ theater


Performance texts

Below, I illustrate several approaches to organizing one’s findings that are drawn from Harry Wolcott’s (1994) book, Transforming Qualitative Data.

Chronological order

To present a study chronologically, researchers organize the findings of their research in temporal order.  One needs to start at the beginning of the story that one wants to tell and keep going. An example is provided by science writer Rebecca Skloot in her study of the life of Henrietta Lacks (Skloot, 2010). This book has recently been made into a film. Since the book actually tells several stories – the story of how Rebecca Skloot worked with the Henrietta Lacks’ family to tell the story; the story of Henrietta Lacks’ own life; and the story of what researchers have done with the HeLa cells derived from Henrietta, it is interesting to see how the film version of the book incorporates and tells these three stories.

A day-in-the life or a “typical” event

Both James Howell (1973)and Jay Mechling (2001) narrate the stories of their research by describing what “typically” happens in their participants’ lives. In Howell’s ethnography of the lives of blue collar workers in Washington DC , his narratives of two blue collar families, the Shackelfords and the Mosebys are first introduced with a “day in the life”, and followed with a description of the four seasons of a year, as readers follow what happens in each of the families that Howell came to know.

Mechling’s findings provide a portrait of the everyday customs and activities in the Boys Scouts of America through a description of what typically occurs during one two-week summer camp. The narratives about each day’s events are intended to represent what typically happens, rather than what actually happened at any particular camp, since  Mechling chose to creative composite characters and “collapse over twenty years’ worth of fieldwork observations” (p. 287) into his narrative description.

Plot and characters

Jay MacLeod (2009) describes the characters of each one of the participants in his study of the aspirations and attainment of a group of young men who grew up in a low-income neighborhood. MacLeod began this study as an undergraduate university student, and first describes what each of the participants hoped for in their life, before following the members of the two groups, referred to as the “Hallway Hangers” and “The Brothers” across three successive periods – as teenagers, eight years later, and at midlife — to find out what happened.

Groups in interaction

Sociologist Gary Alan Fine (1995) examines the life of kitchen work through ethnography. What goes on in the back stage of a restaurant kitchen? This narrative explores various aspects of kitchen work, including social, technical, economic, political and aesthetic aspects of food preparation.

The “Rashomon Effect”

The Rashomon effect refers to Akira Kurosawa’s film classic, Rashamon, in which the same encounter is depicted through the eyes of four witnesses. In using this strategy, feminist anthropologist Marjory Wolf (Wolf, 1992) tells the story of her anthropological research in Taiwan by providing three contrasting narratives. The text include a short story, a copy of the field notes collected about the event depicted in the  short story, and an article that analyzes the incident as the author looks back.

Write a mystery

Karen Ho (2009) explores the mysteries of Wall Street in her ethnography of what goes on in the world of Wall Street investment bankers, and how that has profound consequences for financial markets. Through in-depth ethnographic fieldwork, Ho explores the everyday practices that go on in financial institutions, and how these practices relate to the outcomes for the markets during the 1990s and 2000s in which the US economy experienced “not only record corporate profits and the longest rising stock market ever, but also record downsizings” (pp. 1-2).

These are just a few of the approaches to how one might write the story of one’ research findings — Wolcott suggests many more, and of course, once one looks at published research…other approaches may be found.

Kathy Roulston 


Fine, G. A. (1995). Kitchens: The culture of restaurant work. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Ho, K. (2009). Liquidated: An ethnography of Wall Street. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Howell, J. T. (1973). Hard living on Clay Street: Portraits of blue collar families. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.

MacLeod, J. (2009). Ain’t no makin’ it: Aspirations and attainment in a low-income neighborhood (3rd ed.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Mechling, J. (2001). On my honor: Boy scouts and the making of American youth. Chicago, IL: The  University of Chicago Press.

Skloot, R. (2010). The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Crown Publishers.

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

Wolf, M. (1992). A thrice told tale: Feminism, postmodernism and ethnographic responsibility. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.


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