10 Suggestions for Summer-time things to do in qualitative inquiry

For those in the northern hemisphere it is summer time, and some qualitative researchers have extra time to do things that are difficult to squeeze into a regular semester. Here are suggestions for 10 fun things to do…

  1. Visit an archives to look at the documentation left by other researchers

I recently spent some time looking at a bulky box of interview transcripts from a large research study on centenarians. It was fascinating both to look at the transcripts from this study, as well as the methodological analyses included in the administrative files that had been completed by researchers working on this project. These reports provided lots of ideas for other researchers to do with recruitment of this special population, as well as how data might be most effectively generated. Examining the records from another research study gave me lots to think about. Some researchers use archival data sets for their own research. For example, Catherine Stewart’s book (2016) reports findings from her examination of the records from the Ex-Slave Narratives study conducted as part of the Federal Writer’s Project in the 1930s. Lampropoulou and Myers (2013; 2012) have published secondary analyses from their examination of interview transcripts in the Qualidata Archive in the UK. What’s in your local archive?

  1. Read a book on writing.

There’s so many books, articles and chapters on writing that are fun to read, especially if you don’t feel like writing! Perhaps find a novelist who has written about writing (e.g., Dillard, 1989; Lamott, 1994; LeGuin, 1998); consider the intricacies of editing (Truss, 2003); or learn about therapeutic approaches to writing (Klauser, 2003). Or you could try the work of an ethnographer (Goodall, 2008), or a sociologist (Richardson, 1990; Van Maanen, 2011). Of course there are also books that take up specific topics, such as writing literature reviews, articles, or dissertations. If you have some favorites, add them in the suggestion box at the bottom of this page.

  1. Review the wonderful list of “Sixty genres of life narrative” by Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson

Smith and Watson (2010) include an appendix in their book, Reading autobiography: A guide for interpreting life narratives which lists no less than 60 forms of life writing. This list might inspire you to write your own narrative – whether that is an autoethnography, a confession, a diary, collaborative life writing, or an ecobiography. If you’ve never heard of an ecobiography, Smith and Watson (2010, p. 268) describe this as the “story of a protagonist with the story of the fortunes, conditions, geography, and ecology of a region.” Popular books in this genre include Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. And I’ve mentioned just five of the longer list.

  1. Try out one or more of those 60 forms of life writing.

It’s your turn now. Set the timer, and start writing. Five minutes will get you started.

  1. Take a moment to read an account of doing research from an ethnographer

How do other researchers practice the craft of ethnography? Again, there’s many to choose from – whether written decades ago; such as those by Clifford Geertz (1973), Hortense Powdermaker (1966); or more recently, for example, Bud Goodall (2000).

  1. Read a classic study.

You may have seen these texts cited. Find out what others are talking about by reading the original. Again, there are numerous books to select from, including… William Foote Whyte’s Street Corner Society (Whyte, 1993 [1943]), Margaret Mead’s Coming of age in Samoa: A pscyhological study of primitive youth for Western civilization (Mead, 1961 [1928]), Bronislaw Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific (Malinowski, 2014 [1922]), Hortense Powdermaker’s Hollywood the dream factory (Powdermaker, 1951) or Dan Lortie’s Schoolteacher (Lortie, 2002 [1975]).

  1. Read a recent ethnography.

Again, there’s plenty to choose from. For starters, try the much talked about ethnography by sociologist Alice Goffman, On the Run: Fugitive life in an American City (Goffman, 2014); or Matthew Desmond’s acclaimed Evicted: Poverty and profit in the American City (Desmond, 2016). Dip into Laurence Ralph’s ethnography of gangland Chicago (Ralph, 2014); Khiara Bridges’ (2011) study of a pregnancy and birth in a New York hospital, or Robin Boylorn’s (2013) award-winning autoethnography which chronicles growing up in a southern town that she names Sweetwater.

  1. Take moment to write a poem from your data set

If you haven’t done this before, Laurel Richardson, Corinne Glesne and Misha Cahnmann-Taylor provide some ideas (Cahnmann, 2003; Glesne, 2006; Richardson, 2002).

  1. Read a poem written by a qualitative researcher

If you have not come across this form of representation, you could start by reading poems by Sandra Faulkner (2005), or Prendergast, Gouzouasis, Leggo, and Irwin (2009). Recent issues of Qualitative Inquiry are a great source for poetic representation.

  1. Check out a new journal.

Journals that publish qualitative inquiry are being added every year. One recent addition is Art/Research International: A Transdisciplinary Journal


Kathy Roulston


Boylorn, R. M. (2013). Sweetwater: Black women and narratives of resilience Peter Lang.

Bridges, K. M. (2011). Reproducing race: An ethnography of pregnancy as a site of racialization. Berekeley: University of California Press.

Cahnmann, M. (2003). The craft, practice, and possibility of poetry in educational research. Educational Researcher, 32(3), 29-36.

Desmond, M. (2016). Evicted: Poverty and profit in the American city. New York: Crown Publishers.

Dillard, A. (1989). The writing life. New York: Harper & Row.

Faulkner, S. L. (2005). Method: Six Poems. Qualitative Inquiry, 11(6), 941-949. doi:10.1177/1077800405276813

Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures. New York: Basic Books.

Glesne, C. (2006). Becoming qualitative researchers: An introduction (3rd ed.). Pearson Education.

Goffman, A. (2014). On the run: Fugitive life in an American city. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Goodall, H. L. (2000). Writing the new ethnography. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press.

Goodall, H. L. (2008). Writing qualitative inquiry: Self, stories, and academic life. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Klauser, H. A. (2003). With pen in hand: The healing power of writing. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.

Lamott, A. (1994). Bird by bird: Some instructions on writing and life. New York, NY: Anchor Books.

Lampropoulou, S., & Myers, G. (2013). Stance-taking in interviews from Qualidata Archive. Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 14(1), Art. 12.

LeGuin, U. K. (1998). Steering the craft: Exercises and discussions on story writing for the lone navigator or the mutinous crew. Portland OR: The Eighth Mountain Press.

Lortie, D. C. (2002 [1975]). Schoolteacher: A sociological study (2nd ed.). Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Malinowski, B. (2014 [1922]). Argonauts of the western Pacific: An account of native enterprise and adventure in the archivpealos of Melanesian New Guinea. New York, NY: Routledge.

Mead, M. (1961 [1928]). Coming of age in Samoa: A pscyhological study of primitive youth for Western civilization. New York: Morrow Quill Paperbacks.

Myers, G., & Lampropoulou, S. (2012). Impersonal you and stance-taking in social research interviews. Journal of Pragmatics, 44(10), 1206-1218. doi:10.1016/j.pragma.2012.05.005

Powdermaker, H. (1951). Hollywood the dream factory. London: Secker & Warburg.

Powdermaker, H. (1966). Stranger and friend: The way of an anthropologist. New York: Norton.

Prendergast, M., Gouzouasis, P., Leggo, C., & Irwin, R. L. (2009). A haiku suite: the importance of music making in the lives of secondary school students. Music Education Research, 11(3), 303-317. doi:10.1080/14613800903144262

Ralph, L. (2014). Renegade dreams: Living through injury in gangland Chicago. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press.

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

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.

Smith, S., & Watson, J. (2010). Reading autobiography: A guide for interpreting life narratives (2nd ed.). Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press.

Stewart, C. A. (2016). Long past slavery: Representing race in the Federal Writers’ Project. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Truss, L. (2003). Eats, shoots & leaves: The zero tolerance approach to punctuation. New York, NY: Gotham books.

Van Maanen, J. (2011). Tales of the field: On writing ethnography (2nd ed.). Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Whyte, W. F. (1993 [1943]). Street corner society: The social structure of an Italian slum (4th ed.). Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press.


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


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.


Make haste slowly…the value of pausing in doing qualitative research

“Make haste slowly” were words of advice given to me by the principal in the first school that I taught in many years ago. Terry, as he was known to teachers and staff, had many years of teaching and administration experience. His office appeared somewhat disorganized, with stacks of papers piled on his desk. Yet, rather than sitting in his office, Terry could often be seen walking around the school grounds, talking to children, teachers, and parents. He frequently dropped by my classroom to see what was going on. These were friendly, supportive and encouraging visits, and Terry allotted specific time for me to gain mentorship from a more experienced teacher.  As a young teacher I was enthusiastic to try out new ideas, although I did not always consider these within a broader context. Terry’s advice to me still lingers:  “Make haste slowly.” At the time, I did not fully realize what he was getting at, but with the years, I’ve come to appreciate this advice. In particular, I’ve come to understand that to do qualitative research of quality, slow work might be needed. What is the value of completing tasks slowly in a world in which we are continually pressed to do more, faster, in shorter time frames? Continue reading “Make haste slowly…the value of pausing in doing qualitative research”

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 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”

Writing as a social practice

Writing is a task that is usually thought of as a solitary practice. One need only go to a coffee shop in a university town to see individuals hunched over laptops reading and writing to observe some of the work that goes into completion of the numerous term papers, theses and dissertations completed each year at colleges and universities all over the world. Yet, researchers who teach writing remind us that writing is a social practice. What do they mean by this? Continue reading “Writing as a social practice”

Working on writing

One might mistakenly assume that writing as an academic activity gets easier with more experience. I have not found that to be the case. In fact, with time, I’ve struggled with the tendency to let other responsibilities crowd writing out of my calendar. When the unexpected happens – such as the death of a loved one or family illness – writing has stopped altogether. The longer I’ve worked in the academy, the more I have had to learn about writing, and work at continuing to develop a writing habit. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way…. Continue reading “Working on writing”