Thursday, March 11, 2010

Qualitative Research Dissertations: A decade of experiences

I have been giving thought to dissertations over the last few weeks and thinking about the experiences I have had as a qualitative researcher working with a variety of dissertations.  One thing that comes to mind are the sticking points I have run into between my qualitative research expectations and the expectations of other committee members who may or may not have qualitative research training. 

In raising this issue, I have to make it clear--this isn't meant to point fingers.  Many times the questions raised led everyone to better understanding of a particular feature.  In many cases, it led to better language and descriptions, richer theoretical contextualizing. 

Here are some examples: 
1.  The use of "I" in the proposal or dissertation.  Over the years I have heard many objections to the use of the first person singular. 
2.   Accounting for subjectivity.  A reflective section on how the researcher's subjectivity is engaged with the topic, what the strengths and dangers are, and how the researcher will make themselves aware of their feelings and reactions and how they might be influcing the course of the research. 
3.  Inclusion of the researcher's own story as part of the narrative.  This is why I am passionate about this topic!
4.  Accounting for the use of software in the organization and management of the data and the analysis.  Why do you need detailed technical descriptions?  Just say what you did without reference to the software. 
5.  The use of visual data.  To the credit of other committee members, they called for better theoretical contextualizing of the use of this data, that is, providing a methodological background for the use of this data. 

Interestingly, long before the dissertation defense is scheduled, many students self-censor as they try to develop a dissertation that looks like the examples to which they have been exposed.  I have to beg for a stronger person voice and inclusion of examples of the visual data they've collected.  I cajole them to add a rigorous description of the use of their software tools, and I insist upon a section where they reflect upon their subjectivity in the conduct of the study. 

When I started off into academia post-graduation, I thought I would face challenges as a qualitative researcher, but I am  not sure I anticipated that these particular issues would persist year-after-year. 

Year-after-year, I go off to the International Congress on Qualitative Inquiry and attend sessions and workshops on experimental techniques in qualitative research--performance ethnography, new directions in technologies and qualitative research, arts-based research, soul searching in regard to subjectivity, and visual data uses.  I breath in the heady atmosphere of new ideas and approaches.  I am glad to know that these ideas exist.  But I am more knowledgeable now of the path by which ideas move from the center to the margins. 

My deep thanks to the doctoral students who have joined me in the exploration.  It has been a privilege to work with each of you. 

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