Tips on considering “subjectivity” in qualitative research

Many newcomers to qualitative studies struggle with the idea of how one’s self, and “subject positions” or “subjectivities” might be represented in qualitative inquiry. For those more attuned to positivist approaches to research in which the researcher is depicted as “neutral” and “objective,” discussing one’s own interests and relationships to a topic and participants of a research study can be viewed as erring dangerously into the territory of “biased” research that is viewed as problematic, if not lacking in validity.

One scholar who wrote about his subjectivities in relation to his research was Alan “Buddy” Peshkin (1931-2000), who was an educational ethnographer who worked at Stanford University. Over the course of his career, Peshkin used ethnographic methods to explore how schooling was accomplished in multiple settings in the United States. His ethnographies include studies of a Midwestern school (1978), a fundamentalist Christian school (1986), an ethnically diverse school in California (1991), a Native American school (1997) and an elite school (2001). What all of these ethnographies have in common is an interest in providing multi-faceted and in-depth portrayals of what goes on in school settings.

Peshkin also talked about how his own subject positions intersected with those of research participants in these studies. For example, Peshkin describes how his positionality as a Jewish person conflicted with that of his hosts in his study of Bethany Baptist Academy (1986). In this book, Peshkin details the personal challenges and costs of undertaking a study in which he was consistently made aware of his “potential nonexistence, or disappearance” (p. 287) as a Jewish person. The participants he worked with believed that non-Christians would not be saved and were “fair game for conversion” (p. 289). In this book, Peshkin considers the personal and societal costs inherent in these views, and ponders over the potential problems represented by the positions taken by fundamentalist groups within a pluralist society. More to Peshkin’s liking was the cultural diversity and ethnic maintenance promoted at Riverview High, a school attended by a multicultural student body, including Sicilians, Mexicans, blacks and Filipinos.

Peshkin takes up the idea of how one might consider one’s subject positions in a much-cited article (1988) entitled: In search of subjectivity: One’s own. Peshkin defines “subjectivity” as the “amalgam of the persuasions that stem from the circumstances of one’s class, statuses, and values interacting with the particulars of one’s object of investigation” (Peshkin, 1988, p. 17). He inventories his “subjective I’s”, describes how these I’s surfaced in the conduct of his research students, and gives each “I” a distinctive label to indicate how it surfaced in his research in schools, namely:

  • The Ethnic-Maintenance I
  • The Community-Maintenance I
  • The E-Pluribus-Unum I
  • The Justice-Seeking I
  • The Pedagogical-Meliorist I
  • The Non-research Human I

Suggesting that qualitative researchers need to notice the emergence of the various “subjective I’s” in any given study, Peshkin (1988, p. 17) observes that

When researchers observe themselves in the focused way that I propose, they learn about the particular subset of personal qualities that contact with their research phenomenon has released. These qualities have the capacity to filter, skew, shape, block, transform, construe, and misconstrue what transpires from the outset of a research project to its culmination in a written statement.

I’ve found reading Peshkin’s ethnographies and thinking about his reflections on how his subjectivities emerged differentially in the studies he conducted helpful in my own research, as well as in teaching.

Although some scholars have critiqued how the notion of reflexivity has been taken up in qualitative inquiry (e.g., the writing of subjectivity statements), for newcomers to qualitative research, Peshkin’s (1988) article is still a useful reminder and starting point. This article suggests that qualitative researchers ask themselves questions, such as:

  • What subjectivities might you bring to your research?
  • How might you label your “subjective-I’s”?
  • What have you left out?
  • What do each of these subjective-I’s allow with respect to your research study?
  • How do these subjective-I’s potentially limit you as a researcher of your topic?

Through his use of ethnographic methods to examine a multitude of school settings, Alan Peshkin has left a wonderful legacy in qualitative inquiry that contributes not only to how qualitative research studies are conducted, but how schools work.

There are many more articles and books on the issue of subjectivity and reflexivity in qualitative research. For starters, I recommend the following texts to begin (Finlay, 2002, 2012; Finlay & Gough, 2003; Macbeth, 2001; Pillow, 2003; Roulston & Shelton, 2015).

Kathy Roulston

References

Finlay, L. (2002). Negotiating the swamp: The opportunity and challenge of reflexivity in research practice. Qualitative Research, 2(2), 209-230.

Finlay, L. (2012). Five lenses for the reflexive interviewer. In J. F. Gubrium, J. A. Holstein, A. Marvasti, & K. McKinney (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of interview research: The complexity of the craft (2nd ed., pp. 317-331). Los Angeles: Sage.

Finlay, L., & Gough, B. (Eds.). (2003). Reflexivity: A practical guide for researchers in health and social sciences. Oxford: Blackwell Science.

Macbeth, D. (2001). On “reflexivity” in qualitative research: Two readings: and a third. Qualitative Inquiry, 7(1), 35-68.

Peshkin, A. (1978). Growing up American: Schooling and the survival of community. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Peshkin, A. (1986). God’s choice: The total world of a fundamentalist Christian School. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Peshkin, A. (1988). In search of subjectivity: One’s Own. Educational Researcher, 17(7), 17-22.

Peshkin, A. (1991). The color of strangers, the color of friends: The play of ethnicity in school and community. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Peshkin, A. (1997). Places of memory: Whiteman’s schools and Native American communities. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Peshkin, A. (2001). Permissible advantage? The moral consequences of elite schooling. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Pillow, W. S. (2003). Confession, catharsis, or cure? Rethinking the uses of reflexivity as methodological power in qualitative research. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 16(2), 175-196.

Roulston, K., & Shelton, S. A. (2015). Reconceptualizing bias in teaching qualitative research methods. Qualitative Inquiry, 21(4), 332-342. doi:10.1177/1077800414563803

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.

 

Tips for formulating interview questions

Asking questions of interviewees in ways that help them tell their stories is something of an art. It goes without saying that it is good practice to be well-prepared for interviews. This includes thinking about the physical setting for an interview and the technology one will need to record an interview. And there are so many choices: what will be used — a digital recorder, cell phone, tablet, pen and paper, telephone or synchronous online meeting room? If you are using a digital technology for the first time, it is always useful to test it, and check that the file form can be easily downloaded and made accessible for transcribing. This is because some digital recorders do not have a means to download files. Yet even before setting up the interview and asking the first question, one needs to have thought about the topics one wants to learn about, how these relate to the research questions posed, and the kinds of questions that might elicit information about those topics. In this blog post, I discuss tips for formulating interview guides. Continue reading “Tips for formulating interview questions”

Assessing “quality” in qualitative research

There is a very large body of literature devoted to thinking about how the “quality” of qualitative research should be assessed. From writing several decades ago in which the concepts of “validity” and “reliability” were redefined and applied to qualitative research (e.g.,  Goetz & LeCompte, 1983; LeCompte & Goetz, 1992), methodologists have argued for the rejection in qualitative inquiry (e.g., “validity”, Wolcott, 1990), re-conceptualized such terms as “validity,” (e.g., Lather, 1993; Scheurich, 2001), and proliferated new terms such as “crystallization” (Ellingson, 2009, 2011). It can be difficult for anyone new to conducting qualitative research to figure out where to begin when so much has been written. Here are a few ways to begin to think about what quality means in qualitative research. Continue reading “Assessing “quality” in qualitative research”

Memo writing as a way of being a researcher

In teaching qualitative data analysis, I’ve found that students are frequently surprised at the value of “memo writing.” This is perhaps because memo writing is frequently seen as an additional step in the process off data analysis that takes time out from the work of analyzing data. Yet, memo writing can serve an important role throughout the life of a qualitative research project – while conducting fieldwork and through data analysis. To quote Richardson and St. Pierre, “Writing is a method of inquiry” (Richardson & St. Pierre, 2005), and memo writing can play a part in that. Continue reading “Memo writing as a way of being a researcher”

Tips for observing and taking field notes in qualitative studies

Kathryn Roulston

Recently I was in a field setting observing a classroom. I thought about taking notes on my tablet or laptop, but I thought that might be distracting for those in the classroom. I went old school – I took a pad and hand wrote notes, and began by drawing an organizational map of the classroom. In the evening, I typed up the notes on my computer, and included as many details as I could recall. With permission of the administrators in the setting, I also took some photos in the classroom that provided context for my descriptions of what went on. Back in my office, I transcribed the interviews that I’d conducted within the next few days and then reviewed the transcripts slowly in order to write up a narrative about what I had learned and include relevant photos. What ended up in my field notes? Continue reading “Tips for observing and taking field notes in qualitative studies”

Using digital tools thoughtfully in qualitative research

There is no question that digital tools have revolutionized our work as researchers in numerous ways. For example, rather than writing down as much as I can recall from an interview after the event as Hortense Powdermaker (1966) describes in her tales of anthropological fieldwork completed over 50 years ago, all I need do is press “record” on my digital device to hear exactly what was said after the event. I don’t even have to connect my recording device to my computer to download the file – I can simply press a link in the recording app I use to upload the audio file to a cloud storage service. Yet, with all that digital devices add to my work, I still find it useful to consider some of the ways in which I need to be thoughtful in how I incorporate these in our research. Continue reading “Using digital tools thoughtfully in qualitative research”

Research integrity and the qualitative researcher

Kathryn Roulston

Trust is a crucial component of the enterprise of scientific research. That is because scholars trust others to

  • conduct research ethically with human subjects,
  • accurately report the methods that they used in research project,
  • fairly review manuscripts for publication, and
  • represent findings honestly.

Nevertheless, researchers do not always behave in honest and trustworthy ways. Continue reading “Research integrity and the qualitative researcher”

What to do when research interviews go awry…

Research interviews do not always proceed as anticipated. For example, the anthropologist, Evans-Pritchard (1972 [1940], pp. 12-13) reports on the difficulties he encountered with the Nuer people, with whom he conducted an ethnography in the 1930s. He comments that the “Nuer are expert at sabotaging an inquiry”, and provides the opening of a conversation with a member of the Nuer to illustrate Continue reading “What to do when research interviews go awry…”