Two pieces of advice in conducting qualitative research

One year when I had not done such a great job of scheduling my time, I found myself writing my conference paper the week before the conference. Have you been there? (Hopefully not!) My panic increased as I kept reading more and more literature that informed the argument that I was making (while failing to start writing). I became overwhelmed with the sense that I simply did not know enough to present this paper, and never would. I felt that I should probably  just keep reading — which did not solve the writing problem, nor contribute to conference preparation. But what to do in the mean time?

Say what you know

A trusted friend and colleague advised me to think about three things that I could say about what I knew about this topic. She asked me to articulate these aloud. That seemed more manageable. One starting place is to simply talk about what you know to a trusted friend or colleague. This is not the time for detailed critique. Find someone who will provide supportive encouragement.

With further work, ideas (and academic arguments) will keep developing

Also consider the idea that we “know more than we can say,” credited to Michael Polanyi (1891-1976). Although we will continue to learn more about any particular topic that we are examining, conference presentations like the one mentioned above provide opportunities for us to reflect on what we “know” and talk about our ideas with others. Rather than working towards presenting a “finished” paper (given that even well-developed ideas will likely change over time), by working towards an intermediate goal (i.e., three ideas that I was able to develop as part of my argument), I was able to develop and complete my paper prior to the conference. Conferences, then, provide opportunities to check in with others about our arguments and ideas, and gain valuable feedback that will help us develop our work further. I am in no way advocating that we present under-prepared papers and ill-thought out arguments, though!

“Two or three things I know for sure”

In my teaching, I’ve found that sometimes students experience a similar sense of  panic to the one I’ve descried above (typically prior to submission of a final paper). I remind students who are working to sort through a mass (mess?) of qualitative data  of a quotation from Hubbard and Power’s book on classroom inquiry Hubbard and Power (2003, p. 198), in which they use an insightful quote from Dorothy Allison’s memoir Two or three things I know for sure. I’ve shared this next quotation in another blogpost… Hubbard and Power use it as a springboard to pose three questions in order to begin the process of making sense of data.

“Lord, girl, there’s only two or three things I know for sure.” She put her head back, grinned, and made a small impatient noise. Her eyes glittered as bright as a sun reflecting off the scales of a cottonmouth’s back. She spat once and shrugged. “Only two or three things. That’s right,” she said. “Of course it’s never the same things, and I’m never as sure as I’d like to be.” (Allison, 1995, p. 5 cited in Hubbard & Power, 2003, p. 198).

If you are not sure where to begin, the questions suggested by Hubbard and Power may be helpful:

  • One finding I’m certain of in my research is….
  • What data led you to this conclusion?
  • What new data could make you change your mind?

It’s all data

When I was completing my doctoral research and I struggled at times to sort out what I might learn from the data I had generated and collected, my adviser would laughingly remind me that “It’s all data.” I’ve occasionally quoted her to my own students, since even when we collect data that does not seem to relate to our research questions, there are still questions to be asked. If, for example, interviewees insist on talking about topics that do not relate to one’s research questions, then rather than discard that sort of data, questions to ask are: “Why is this important issue so important to the participants? What emergent problem or issue have I missed?” I suspect that many a methodological paper has begun when researcher have examined issues that emerged in their studies that they were not anticipating.

Here are two examples of what I have in mind here:

Using Erving Goffman’s work on framing and footing, Garton and Copland (2010) examine the prior relationships that they had with research participants as they were oriented to by speakers within the interviews that they conducted. Although the original studies that these researchers conducted were to do with learning and teaching, by considering the framing produced by an utterance such as “…if we had time” (p. 541), the authors show how the participants themselves made their prior relationships relevant within the interview setting, and what that means for the generation of data.

As another example, Jacobsson and Åkerström (2013) re-analyze what they initially conceptualized as a “failed interview,” showing how one of their study participants insisted on answering from a category position other than that she was recruited to represent. In their study of “being a neighbor”, one of their participants, Emma,  worked to “‘make a commercial’ for her neighbourhood, rather than reflecting on being a neighbour, in a more neutral, open, or thoughtful way, as other interviewees had done” (Jacobsson and Åkerström, 2013, p. 722). Although the data generated provided little of value to explore the topic of the study (being a neighbour), by orienting to the idea that “it’s all data”, the researchers found value in examining category representativeness and asymmetries of power.

I am sure that other researchers have much more good advice to offer… please share!

As always… all the best with your qualitative studies.

Kathy Roulston


Garton, S., & Copland, F. (2010). ‘I like this interview; I get cakes and cats!’: the effect of prior relationships on interview talk. Qualitative Research, 10(5), 533-551. doi:10.1177/1468794110375231

Hubbard, R. S., & Power, B. M. (2003). The art of classroom inquiry: A handbook for teacher-researchers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Jacobsson, K., & Åkerström, M. (2013). Interviewees with an agenda: Learning from a ‘failed’ interview. Qualitative Research, 13(6), 717-734. doi:doi:10.1177/1468794112465631


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