Influential qualitative researchers: Laurel Richardson

Sociologist Laurel Richardson is well-known for her writing about writing. In numerous texts, she provides plenty for students of qualitative research to think about (Richardson, 1990; Richardson, 1994b; Richardson & St. Pierre, 2005), along with practical suggestions for how writing is a “method of inquiry.” Richardson also proposes the use of “creative analytic practices” or “CAPs” in doing qualitative research. An emeritus professor at The Ohio State University in the US, Laurel Richardson uses ethnographic and biographical methods to develop sociological texts.

Richardson (1999, p. 660) defines creative analytic practices in this way:

In the wake of poststructuralist, feminist, critical race literary and queer theory, ethnographic work now appears in multiple venues in a variety of forms. The ethnographic genre has been blurred, enlarged, and altered to include autoethnography, poetry, drama, conversation, new journalism, readers’ theater, performance, hypertext, fiction, faction, creative nonfiction, true fiction, aphorisms, comedy, satire, layered texts, writing stories, songs, museum installations, photographs, body painting, choreography and so forth.

As but one example, in a chapter in the first edition of the Handbook of Interview Research (Gubrium & Holstein, 2002), Richardson (2002), discusses her use of poetry to represent the life of Louisa May, the name given to a participant in a study of unwed mothers. For Richardson, poetic representation of research data challenges academic authority. She writes:

The research self is not separable from the lived self. Who we are and what we can be, what we can study, and how we can write about what we study are all tied to how a knowledge system disciplines its members and claims authority over knowledge. Needed are concrete practices through which we can construct ourselves as ethical subjects engaged in ethical research, even if that means challenging the authority of a discipline’s cherished modes of representation (Richardson, 2002, p. 887)

And Richardson did just that in her submission of Nine Poems (Richardson, 1994a) for publication to the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography (Richardson, 1997, p. 179). Richardson asserts that “Each lyric poem represents a “candid photo” or an “episode” or an epiphany” (1997, p. 180). Richards goes on to say that

the reader is not told the source of the poems. No “subversive repetition” of science practices is proffered. The poet and the poems are conflated. Are the poems from the life of a particular person, and if so, is that person one and the same as the poet? Or did the poet compile the poems from interviews with different people or from a variety of texts? (pp. 181-182).

In using poems to represent ethnography, and writing about her use of poetry, Richardson takes the “opportunity to push contemporary ethnography’s envelope” (1997, p. 179). The field of qualitative inquiry is much the richer for this work.

In her extensive body of writing, Richardson weaves together themes that explore gender, work, academic life, illness and death – the stuff of everyday life. For example, her book After a fall: A sociomedical sojourn (2013) explores a period of time in an extended care facility after breaking her foot. Last writes: A daybook for a dying friend (Richardson, 2007) documents her conversations and interactions with a friend during her friend’s terminal illness. The book Seven Minutes from Home (Richardson, 2016), documents everyday life in a small town in Ohio. Each chapter represents the story of events that take place within a 7-minute span from her home. Other books include Fields of play: Constructing an academic life (1997) and Travels with Ernest: Crossing the literary/ethnographic divide (Laurel Richardson and Ernest Lockridge, 2004). Of course, Richardson has authored numerous other articles and chapters too.

Several years ago I had the good fortune to participate in a writing workshop with Dr. Richardson at the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry. The workshop started with everyone writing using only three words. By the end of the workshop, participants were reading from their evocative and creative texts completed that afternoon. And these all started with just three words! My notes from this workshop record that the “gifts of writing” we learned about that afternoon include:

  • Self-understanding
  • Meeting others
  • Developing a greater appreciation of the universe
  • A way for a shy introverted person to communicate with others
  • Being able to make use of “oppression” for “expression”
  • Communicating with family members

Richardson’s work challenges us to think about writing differently, how we represent the topics of our research study, who the researcher is in relation to a study, and how we relate to the audience to whom we wish to speak. It also encourages researchers to think about what they are doing in daily life, and how they engage with others. The personal and professional are not separate in Richardson’s research. If you have not read any of her articles, chapters, or books, you will find some suggestions for where you might start below. Richardson’s work is personal, powerful, and will linger with you.

Kathy Roulston 


Gubrium, J. F., & Holstein, J. A. (Eds.). (2002). Handbook of interview research. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Richardson, L. (1990). Writing strategies: Reaching diverse audiences (Vol. 21). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Richardson, L. (1994a). Nine poems: Marriage and the family. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 23(1), 3-13. doi:10.1177/089124194023001001

Richardson, L. (1994b). Writing: A method of inquiry. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (pp. 516-529). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Richardson, L. (1997). Fields of play: Constructing an academic life. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Richardson, L. (1999). Feathers in our CAP. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 28(6), 660-668.

Richardson, L. (2002). Poetic representation of interviews. In J. Gubrium & J. A. Holstein (Eds.), Handbook of interview research: Context and method (pp. 877-892). Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Richardson, L. (2007). Last writes: A daybook for a dying friend. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Richardson, L. (2016). Seven minutes from home: An American daughter’s story. Netherlands: Sense Publishing.

Richardson, L., & St. Pierre, E. A. (2005). Writing: A method of inquiry. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), The Sage handbook of qualitative research (3rd ed., pp. 959-978). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


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