B.I.S.S Research White Papers

#readingforwriting: being specific in qualitative research

Every now and then patter offers a close-up of research writing. This near-sighted exercise is intended to illustrate how ‘reading for the writing’ can be helpful.

    This particular ‘reading for writing’ post looks at writing qualitative methods in a journal article. It speaks to last week’s post about the need to be specific, not woolly and imprecise. As a result of this post, I was asked by several people how qualitative researchers actually avoided vagueness. Did they too resort to numbers? This example is by way of a partial answer to that question.

      The paper I’m examining here is: Lynn McAlpine & Margot McKinnon (2013) Supervision – the most variable of variables: student perspectives, Studies in Continuing Education, 35:3, 265-280.

        The abstract begins by establishing the warrant for the paper (it addresses the existing knowledge base and what contribution this study will make), the purpose of the paper (the question it will answer) and some information about the research design.

          The supervision literature often conceptualizes the supervisor as the primary person in doctoral students’ progress. Yet, there is growing evidence that the supervisor is but one of many resources that students draw on. Our study takes up this idea in answering the question: What is students’ experience of their supervisory relationships over time? Sixteen social science participants in two UK universities, at different points in their doctoral journeys, completed logs of a week’s activities for a number of months before being interviewed.

            The researchers finish off their abstract with the claim that:

              This distinct longitudinal approach provides a more nuanced understanding of students’ perceptions of the supervisory relationship, specifically, varied reasons for seeking supervisory help, distinct needs related to where students were in their progress, and diverse ways in which they negotiated and characterized the supervisory relationship.

                On the basis of this claim, readers would expect to see details of the research design in the paper. So what was actually said? (For purposes of annotation I have altered the original paragraphing slightly…)

                  These different data types were synthesized in researcher-constructed case narratives for each participant – short descriptive texts with minimal interpretation.

                    Now, none of the researchers’ decisions are ‘wrong’ – all research does some things and not others – as readers we simply have to think about what the research can and cannot do. There is sufficient detail here for readers to consider key elements of the design – what does this size group allow the researchers to see and say? What does having people at different stages of the PhD mean for what can be said and not said? We can consider the implications of the partiality of the design and, because of the details given, think about what the researchers are able to claim on the basis of their choices.

                      We can also assume from their description that when we get to results, we will see both some kind of numbers – how many of the group thought in a particular way or had common experiences – and also names, where individuals are the focus. And this allows us to see we can that being specific – using numbers where appropriate and useful – troubles a simplistic binary of quant v qual methods.

                        We might also still have some questions arising from this description of participants and location.

                          The narratives enabled us to preserve a focus on the individual while still looking for commonalities to examine in more depth (Stake 2006). Through this process, we came to see the value of a closer look at participant’s experiences of supervision which led to this analysis.

                          • Does the fact that we don’t know anything about the discipline and universities mean that they didn’t make any difference, or that the researchers thought the participation group was too small to say anything meaningful about these particularities?
                          • What kind of invitational notice was put out onto the listservs?
                          • Why is there a variation in time of participation – was this just the stage of the participants’ PhD or did some just opt out?

                          But don’t be too critical of the writers – bear in mind that what can be written in a journal article is inevitably brief. This text is already more detailed than many you will see.

                            (1) How were the individual’s supervisory interactions situated in a particular set of intentions, relationships, experiences, and time in the doctoral journey?

                              (2) What kinds of supervisory interactions were sought and negotiated?

                                (3) To what extent did positive and negative affect emerge in these interactions?

                                  (4) To what extent did co-supervision influence the relationship and expectations?

                                    (5) How did students characterize their relationships with their supervisors?

                                      Then, the second author continued analyzing the data from the remaining participants with another member of the team verifying samples of the coding.

                                        Finally, the first author reviewed the analysis in the light of her knowledge of the data and the literature.

                                          From this analysis, new narratives were created focused principally on supervision. These provided a form of data display that enabled the interpretations emerging in this paper.