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

The International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry, 2017

This past weekend I attended the 13th meeting of the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. This conference is attended by scholars from all over the world and offers  a feast of different approaches to qualitative researchers. Over 1500 delegates from more than 75 nations registered for the conference.

This year, Special Interest Groups organized meetings for conference-goers interested in Autoethnography, Arts-Based Research, Critical Poststructural Psychology, Critical Qualitative Research, Digital Tools in Qualitative Research, Social Work and Global Qualitative Health Research. There were also meetings arranged for researchers involved in the Indigenous Inquiries Circle and Forum of Critical Chinese Qualitative Research, as well as days in Spanish and Portuguese. An Initiative for the Cooperation across the Social Sciences and the Humanities facilitated dialogue among different groups.

The keynote addresses were delivered on Thursday evening, 18 May 2017 by Susan Finley (Washington State University, US) on The Future of Critical Arts-Based Research and Graham Hingangaroa Smith  (University of Waikato, New Zealand) on ‘Transforming research’ as an issue of social justice and human rights for Indigenous Peoples. Both presentations received rousing receptions from a packed meeting room.

One of challenges that I always have when attending this conference is deciding what to go to, since any given time slot provides numerous sessions to attend; and of course, it is always fun to catch up with old friends and make new ones. What I love about attending ICQI is meeting colleagues from other institutions, learning about new work going on, and meeting up with former and current students.

Since I teach qualitative research methods I attended sessions on that topic, and learned about others’ creative and innovative approaches to pedagogy as well as how others incorporate arts-based methods into their teaching. I enjoyed attending a plenary presenting for the Coalition for Critical Qualitative Inquiry that included presentations by Yvonna Lincoln, Patti Lather, M. Francyne Huckaby, Janet Miller and Gaile Cannella.  I learned about Sarah Tracy’s YouTube Channel, Get Your Qual On ; Sally Campbell Galman’s work using visual methods; and Kakali Bhattacharya’s current work in developing the idea of super-heroes’ skills in teaching qualitative inquiry. And of course, this is just a minute fraction from a much larger conference of over 1600 presentations! Let others know what you attended in the comments box below. What did you attend?

On behalf of the book award committee, I had the great honor of presenting the Outstanding Qualitative Book award to the following books:

The 2017 Outstanding Book Award was presented to:

Bhattacharya, K., & Gillen, N. K. (2016). Power, race, and higher education: A cross-cultural parallel narrative. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Kakali Bhattarcharya is pictured with me on the right below (unfortunately I missed getting a photo with her co-author Kent Gillen, who was also there to receive the award).

Kakali

Honorable mention was awarded to:

Spry, T. (2016). Autoethnography and the other: Unsettling power through utopian performatives. New York and London: Routledge.

Tami Spry is pictured below.

Tami Spry

The call for nominations for next year’s book award will be issued later in the year. For more information on the awards, which include a Lifetime Achievement Award (which was this year awarded to Ronald Pelias) and Dissertation awards, see the ICQI website.

Next year’s conference theme is Qualitative Inquiry in Troubled Times, with scheduled keynote speakers including Bronwyn Davies (University of Melbourne and Western Sydney University) and Karen Staller (University of Michigan). The 14th ICQI conference is scheduled for May 16-19, 2018. Be sure to add that to your calendar!

Kathy Roulston

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”

11 thinking “tricks” when analyzing data

Kathryn Roulston

A number of authors who write about qualitative research have talked about “thinking” as it relates to doing qualitative research (Freeman, 2017; Jackson & Mazzei, 2012; Saldaña, 2015); and in particular doing qualitative data analysis. One older source that I still find helpful is Tricks of the trade: How to think about your research while you’re doing it, by sociologist Howard Becker (1998). Trained in the symbolic interactionist tradition, Becker outlines a number of strategies, what he calls “tricks,” that qualitative researchers can use to make sense of their data. Continue reading “11 thinking “tricks” when analyzing data”

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! Continue reading “Examining the archives”

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”

Qualitative Research Journals

There are a growing number of journals that publish qualitative studies in particular disciplines. One of the oldest of these is Qualitative Sociology, established in 1978. Since that time, journals have been founded that focus on research in education (International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, founded in 1988), health (Qualitative Health Research, founded in 1991), market research (Qualitative Market Research, founded in 1998), social work (Qualitative Social Work, founded in 2002), psychology (Qualitative Research in Psychology, founded in 2004), and organizations and management (Qualitative Research in Organizations and Management, founded in 2006), among others. Continue reading “Qualitative Research Journals”

QualPage relaunched

It has taken longer than I had anticipated… but I am excited to announce the re-launch of QualPage. Founded in the early by 1990s by Judy Norris in Alberta, Canada, QualPage was one of the earlier websites to provide links to resources about qualitative research. When Judy Norris retired in 2003,  Professor Judith Preissle from the University of Georgia managed the website for some years, before she retired in 2013. Over the last year, with the assistance of Erika Cooper, I’ve been working to revamp the website and relaunch it for qualitative researchers out there. You will find new links, and additional resources. We hope that you will enjoy what the site has to offer, and look forward to posting more news and links for all our qualitative colleagues…

Enjoy!

Kathy Roulston