Wednesday, July 4, 2012

QR Archiving: More Questions Than Answers

One of my series of twig and fiber 3-dimensional figures.
I continue to worry the topic of Qualitative Research Archiving.  I am that dog with a toy in my teeth, shaking it back and forth, up and down.  I won't let it go, and I won't let anyone take it away from me.  The more I think about it, the more questions I have.  I mean--archiving qualitative research materials can take you all the way to questions of existence (for qualitative researchers).  There is no telling where it will stop!

OK--here's an issue that has been raised about the value/non-value of the archived materials.  I will call it the "You had to be there" argument.  In other words, yes the fieldnotes exist and the memos, but these can never capture the full experience of the moment at that place and time.  This makes the researcher, as the embodied fieldnote absolutely critical.  As a non-participant, someone who is doing secondary analysis, your interpretation can never include these sensory, absorbed messages that only the fieldworker contains.  [Sanjek's edited volume on fieldnotes has that great article titled..."I am a fieldnote..."--you get the idea.]

Does this mean that archived qualitative research materials will always be invalid?  Does this mean that only the on-site fieldworker has the privilege to make sense of the material?  Should the fieldworker withhold her/his materials from the world in order to protect the world (and the materials) from mis-interpretation? 

A couple of issues this raises.  What about those senior figures who work with graduate students or other fieldworkers...or larger projects in which numerous underlings do the legwork observing and writing fieldnotes and someone else reads and interprets them.  This has been done for decades, and is considered a valid research practice.  Should we have been questioning this practice more closely?

FieldNotes in the wild
FieldNotes in the wild (Photo credit: DragonGirl)
Another--what about this.  In anthropology, certainly, there is a tradition of archiving the papers of well known researchers.  I would assume that there are special collections of the materials collected by Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, Victor Turner.  Are these invalid without the presence of the researcher?  Should others be allowed to read, study these materials, and make their own interpretation?  Is such an act a violation to the original participants?

Speaking of whom, what about the citizen ethnographers that Nigel Fielding from the UK is talking about.  (See the May 2012 issue of FQS for more on this).  If they are present at the same time and place as the qualitative researcher, and/or studying the same topic themselves, should they be able to file responses to the data base materials and interpretations?  Is this something like asking for a member check?  Or does this go too far beyond that?  Who would be allowed to file responses and deposit them in the data base?  What if cranks just started dropping comments in databases like they do in the comment box on Internet articles, etc.  Do these have to be stored or accunted for? 

If comments by participants are to be allowed, do we have to stop doing anonymous studies?  Will participants--like adopted children--be trying to seek out the truth of the studies done to them, so they can become engaged participants with the researcher and the data base?  Ooh...that makes the qualitative research archive sound a bit like a sperm/or egg bank...not sure I like that image! 

Another issue is the exploding use of data collected in virtual contexts--if everything is a stream of text--is there a "there" there?  Does "you had to be there" hold in the same way as it does in face-to-face exchanges, or is the technology capable of capturing the context now?  I am thinking of the MIT linguistic experiment into studying the birth of a baby's language (it is a TED Talk archived someplace.)...every minute of the day, from multiple directions, video cameras captured the life of the researcher's family and the baby's beginning sounds. 

The use of archived materials has a long and respected tradition in disciplines like history.  Silly historians--seem to think they can work with partial materials.  Indeed, I think they believe that understanding will always be partial, because you can never have saved everything, or know everything about an historical event.  I mean, "you had to be there".  But when historians say it, they mean it differently than the qualitative researcher.  They yearn to recreate that time and place to the best of their ability, but they don't fool themselves that they are or were ever really there. 

A major argument for archiving qualitative research materials has been that they are needed for training up-and-coming researchers, but if we believe these archives to be inherently incomplete, do we think they are OK for training purposes but inadequate for real (adult, mature, grown) research purposes?

That does force the question:  who will use these archives?  how?  why?  Will review of the databases of others come to be seen as a required component of the literature review?  Or will they be used as a quantitative researcher might use a cache of data, seeking out a database that is the right sample, variables, and questions to make use of for their purposes? 

Are views of qualitative research archiving going to be shaped differently in different disciplines?  Will anthropologists using the salvage view will their papers to museums (as happens now)?  But what about sociologists?  educators? Are differences of purpose, as defined by discipline, significant to how or if we should archive qualitative research materials? 

Are the observations or fieldnotes of a master something we should study, but discard the run-of-the-mill examples?  Will studying Geertz's fieldnotes be like studying his articles?  Or will technology make fieldnotes a meaningless issue in the future?  [See the discussion of the MIT study above]

IRB's and the ethical issues--Consent Forms, etc. are always invoked when you raise the issue of archiving.  It's kind of like the vampire sleuth waving preventative herbs around or aiming at you with silver bullets.  Can we archive materials that were not originally described as materials that were going to be archived?  If the informed consent form didn't mention this, can you do it later?  If the materials are suitable anonymized is this acceptable?  A related set of issues is--are some qualitative research materials so precious that we need to waive the restrictions and make sure we save them for posterity?  If a collection is historically valuable, can it be archived for its significance and provisions made retrospectively to protect participants?  Are some collections too valuable to neglect? 

Archiving qualitative research materials is going to raise many of the same issues/prejudices that the discussion of qualitative data analysis software has raised to the field, because, essentially, they are the same thing.  Qualitative data analysis software creates a transparent, portable qualitative research data base--it was the first digital archive.  The fears its presence created are, for all intents and purposes, the same fears that the larger movement toward archiving qualitative research materials raises for qualitative researchers. 

What is going to be the role for qualitative researchers in the future?  A group that thrives on preserving the contemporaneous...having to come to grips with the tentacles of the past as they are preserved in the archive?  [How is that for strangled metaphors about time!]
Is "You had to be there" going to be like our own version of Custer's last stand? 
Will we make ourselves irrelevant by refusing to stare down the danger...enter the cave of the beast? 
Are we going to come to be seen as something like "the old magic"?  [If you are a Merlin fan you will understand this reference.]
Enhanced by Zemanta

No comments: