Qualitative Research for Social Justice

Some have argued that research for social justice compromises the scientific process. For example, Hammersley and Gomm, in their article, “Bias in social research” argue that research that aims to promote “some practical or political cause” is a threat to the scientific community. Others have argued that research is always and already part of the political research process – that there is no impartial stance that researchers can take when studying the social world (e.g., see Haraway, 1988 on the “god trick”). The third edition of the Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, edited by Norman Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln (2005) takes an explicitly critical perspective to research. Scholars who have taken up Denzin’s call to arms (2010) assert that qualitative research must be used to change the world in positive ways. How might qualitative researchers approach this task? Where might one begin? Below I discuss several texts that discuss approaches that forefront issues of social justice. Continue reading “Qualitative Research for Social Justice”

Examining the archives

This year I have been involved in a program that introduces faculty to archival collections at my institution, the University of Georgia (UGA). I have been learning about how archival collections are organized and catalogued, how to locate information that is useful for research purposes, and what to do next. I have a lot to learn!

At first thought, archives might be associated with old and rare books and documents. There are certainly many aged documents and books in the collection at my institution (and even a Babylonian tablet that is 4,000 years old). It is very impressive to enter the cooled, temperature-controlled vaults in which many of these documents, artifacts and books are preserved. Archival collections, however, can include any number of other forms of material culture. This includes photos, paintings and art work, music scores, audio- and video-recordings. Audiovisual archivists digitize older analog formats such as videotape that are fragile, and increasingly lack playback equipment since they are no longer in wide use. These digital copies become the chief way that viewers access these older analog formats.  Depending on rights access, archivists at UGA provide these digitized materials to users via a link to a streaming file. Also, a significant amount of materials coming into the archives is born-digital (e.g., electronic mail and so forth).

At my institution, one exhibit that drew on a donated collection from the Georgia Music Hall of Fame (formerly located in Macon, Georgia) included the physical door from the B52s’ famed song “Love Shack.” Another exhibit that explored the contribution and development of Foxfire a heritage center and museum in North Georgia, included examples of early crafts (woodwork, spinning, dying and quilting) as well as audio-recorded folk music.

How do collections come to be housed in archives? There many routes taken for a collection to find its way into an archives. One of the collections I have been examining was donated by a bank after a production company making a documentary film went broke prior to project completion. This extensive collection includes information about the interviews conducted for the film as well as production notes. Although a film was produced and is included in the collection, it was not aired extensively. Other collections are donated when people die or retire from public positions (e.g., politicians). Sometimes former faculty members donate papers and research libraries that include all sorts of rare manuscripts and related artifacts. Since archival collections may specialize in particular sorts of materials, materials may also be purchased from collectors and at auctions.

What kinds of questions may be asked of documents and material artifacts? The Library of Congress in the United States provides analysis tools for students working with different types of documents and artifacts. See for example, the teacher’s guides and analysis tools made available.

Once you have located documents and artifacts related to your research interests, you can easily adapt questions provided by the Library of Congress. For example, I have adapted these questions for use in an introductory qualitative methods course:

  • Who are the author/s or creator/s of these documents/artifacts?
  • For what audience were these documents written/artifacts created?
  • Who are the present audience/s of these documents/artifacts?
  • Who are other potential audience/s?
  • What was the purpose of these documents/artifacts?
  • What kinds of topics are included in these documents/artifacts?
  • What kinds of identities (and of whom) are produced in these documents/artifacts?

We used a set of documents from a digitized archival collection from the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage relating to the life of American singer-song-writer, Woodie Guthrie (1912-1967). Another set of archival resources could easily be used, however. These questions are informed by those provided by Silverman (2011) and Prior (2003).

  1. Consider the letters as “situated products.” What changes have been made to them since the date of writing?
  2. What do readers need to know in order to make sense of these letters?
  3. What did the writers seem to take for granted about the reader/s?
  4. What was taken for granted by the authors of the letters?
  5. What do you observe about the topic of the letters?
  6. What can you make of the original purpose and function of the letters?
  7. Are there any indications that the authors were writing for audiences other than one another? What evidence do you have for your answer?
  8. What may be observed about how the letters were originally written?
  9. Who were the original readers of the letters?
  10. Who were the writers of the letters?
  11. Describe the “document collection”.
    • How have the documents been transformed from the “original” writing?
    • What has changed as a result?
  12. Who are the potential audiences for these documents now?
  13. What aspects of the writer’s life are made visible in this particular selection of documents? What aspects are invisible?
  14. What “identities” are constructed in this set of documents?

For teachers of qualitative researchers who would like to integrate documents and material culture derived from archival collection into methods courses the following website is very helpful: Teacharchives.org

There is much more to learn about using archival collections for the purposes of research. For example, I am learning that my searches operate differently than I have been used to, since collections are usually named and organized to preserve the original collection’s organization. This means that the only way to learn about what is in a particular collection is to spend time with the materials – viewing video, listening to audio-recordings, or examining original documents.

Archival collections provide a wealth of material for research purposes. I hope that you will consider how these sorts of collections might be used to generate new research questions about the topics that you wish to examine. If you’ve used archives in your qualitative studies, please share how you have found these help in your research in the comments section below.

Kathy Roulston wishes to thank Chuck Barber of the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library for information included in this post, as well as Jill Severn of the Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies for reviewing an earlier version of this post and providing helpful clarifications. 

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References

Prior, L. (2003). Using documents in social research. Los Angeles: Sage.

Silverman, D. (2011). Interpreting qualitative data (4th ed.). Los Angeles: Sage.

 

Tips on transcribing qualitative interviews and naturally-occurring interaction

After interviews have been conducted or events have been recorded, the task of transcription begins. For those who have not transcribed before, it is easy to under-estimate the amount of time needed to transcribe interviews and interaction. What does transcription entail? Continue reading “Tips on transcribing qualitative interviews and naturally-occurring interaction”

What I learned about qualitative research from learning how to weave

Sometimes, learning a new skill can illuminate central issues to do with what is already known. Over the last two years, I have been learning how to weave. This was something I have wanted to do for a long time, so I was really excited as a beginner. I started with some basics.weaving Continue reading “What I learned about qualitative research from learning how to weave”

Call for proposals: Southern History of Education Society

The Southern History of Education Society will be holding their annual conference March 10-11, 2017 at the University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia. There is still time to submit an abstract to the conference. See the proposal guidelines below. For more information about the conference, go to Southern History of Education Society 2017 Annual Conference Continue reading “Call for proposals: Southern History of Education Society”

Common failings in first (and sometimes later) drafts

Sometimes you come across some good advice that stands the test of time. Such is the case of a chapter I came across many years ago written by British educational researcher, Peter Woods. In this chapter, Woods (1985) talks about the “false solutions” that we sometimes use to counter the pain of writing up our research (p. 100). Woods refers to various flaws in argumentation that prevent researchers from making the best possible case in writing up findings from qualitative research studies. By avoiding these kinds of arguments, we not only improve our writing, but make a stronger case for using qualitative methods to examine the social world. Below is a brief summary of Woods’ list of “common failings.” Continue reading “Common failings in first (and sometimes later) drafts”

Tips on conducting qualitative interviews

The ubiquity of the “interview” in contemporary society can mask what Harold Garfinkel (1967) termed the “seen-but-unnoticed” work that goes into everyday activity. For researchers, an important routine activity is the conduct of a “good” interview. In qualitative research, interviewing is one of the most popular and widely-used methods to generate data. For novices to research, it may come as a surprise that conducting an interview with a stranger is not quite as easily accomplished as one might anticipate. What strategies help with generating the kinds of data in qualitative interviews that might be used to examine research questions? Here are some tips… Continue reading “Tips on conducting qualitative interviews”

Tips for getting started (and finishing) a new writing project

So you have a new writing project that you need to complete. While you have the assigned topic, you just can’t seem to get started.  This is certainly something I encounter. After I have completed any combination of the following procrastinatory activities:

  • Get my favorite beverage accompanied by a snack;
  • Tidy my desk-top and office space. If you are prone to extremes, you can tidy the whole apartment or house;
  • Write a blog post (!) or
  • Play with my cat…

There always comes a point when I know that I must get started. What are strategies to get started on a new writing project? Continue reading “Tips for getting started (and finishing) a new writing project”