Qualitative methods: Street ethnography and the “go-along”

Photo by Jay Westcott

One of my friends moved recently.  She really likes her new digs in an historic house and loves the proximity to town center.  My friend is a walker, so it was no surprise that she now makes regular jaunts to “her” coffee shop, a miniscule (by corporate standards), independently owned, convivial space with the requisite collection of slightly quirky customers.  She’s come to know the servers and is starting to say hello to regulars, some of whom are her neighbors.  In her personal life, my friend is gentle, quick to laugh, and a sympathetic observer of her fellow humans.  In her professional life, she is a qualitative researcher, perceptive and well-versed in the art of eliciting other people’s perspectives and lived experiences in naturalistic settings.

Interviewing and observing participants where they work or live are staple tools of qualitative researchers.  Often, interviews and observations take place in interior spaces; in offices, classrooms, or homes.  Frequently, one or all parties are sitting down, engaged in a somewhat formal and dialectical exchange. In other words, the environment and actors are relatively static.  By contrast, the tools of “street ethnography,” such as neighborhood walks and go-longs, are less frequently used.   They take place in exterior spaces; sidewalks, neighborhood paths, or public spaces.  Frequently, both or all parties are ambulatory, engaged in a much more informal and somewhat more egalitarian exchange.

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Migrating from Delicious to Diigo

The up and downs with the tool Delicious has caused me to sit back and reevaluate our relationship.  As I mentioned in a post just a few months ago, Delicious had been my bookmarking tool, my way to share links with colleagues and students, and a great way to keep current by following those in my field who were using the tool.  But also over the past year, there were rumors that Delicious would be no more.  Then, Avos bought the tool from Yahoo! and it seemed that all was well for me to continue using the utility without major upset.  I was so confident that I assigned students a task using Delicious as an assignment to help them learn a new tool for organization while compiling resources for an upcoming presentation.  Right before they were set to submit the assignment, Delicious redesigned their user interface.  The tag description option was no longer a feature, so their intro paragraph had to be written separately.  Interface changes confused students who were already shakily trying to learn a new tool and woke up to “everything looking different all of a sudden!”

While this served as a good lesson for being flexible and improvising when life changes, it was disappointing that a favorite assignment was no longer a viable option in Delicious.  So, needless to say I am not thrilled with the new look and the missing features.  And I am not the only one.  I was stubbornly holding on hopes that Delicious would stay relevant, but I think it’s time I give up the dream.  With this development, I have started to look into the tool Diigo; which, ” coincidentally” has an easy import function to migrate your Delicious bookmarks.  I know many colleagues who have been using Diigo and have had a strong preference for it, and I am starting to see why.  I’m already enjoying the highlighting feature, the Firefox plugin, and the integration with Twitter.  As I explore and get more comfortable with it, I will have a full report for you here on Research Salad.

More soon!


TED Talk: The Danger of a Single Story

I am adjuncting a course this semester called Global Systems and Societies.  The course provides a nice wide umbrella to discuss all things related to globalization, politics, societal shifts, and other forces of global change.  One theme that I have been consistently emphasizing is the danger of only hearing one perspective, one voice.  Whether it is developing students’ media literacy, exposing them to opposing viewpoints, or merely showing students that there are different facets of our world, educators play an invaluable role in developing the next generation of critical reasoners and leaders.  It is also essential to show students that in those varied voices, they can find their own and feel included.  Finally, as researchers, we must value the many voices that gives us differing perspectives of phenomena and lived experience to make our research as complete as possible.  One of my favorite TED talks is from Chimamanda Adichie, who warns of the danger of only hearing one narrative in a world of billions.


“Picture Pages, Picture Pages…”: Making Sense of Your Qualitative Data

As I work through a pile of data – interviews, documents, and yes, even some quantitative – it is slowly occurring to me that this is a lot to work through.  During the collection phase, you fret and think about what happens if a participant drops out, or if they are not forthcoming with information, or if they do not complete your post-test.  Upon completion, you sigh a big sigh of relief, and then start chugging away at what you have amassed.  As I sat with my advisor today trying to sift through mountains of qualitative data, I started to feel overwhelmed at even the shortened profiles of participants that I created.  There is a lot of information in each, and on top of that, I am looking to make connections to quantitative data in a way that shows a meaningful picture. And that’s where the white board came in…

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Living in a digital world, part 1 — personal paradigm shift

Pen and handwritten passage, original title: Homework

Image cc license from Flickr user Éktor: http://www.flickr.com/photos/atardecerboricua/3857853340/

I remember writing school reports entirely by hand when I was growing up in the United States.  In an effort to give all students equal opportunities, we were prohibited from typing our reports until junior high school because not all students had computers or typewriters and computer labs with word processing software in elementary schools weren’t yet commonplace. At the start of the school year, my mom would buy several reams of lined paper because a single, good paper, required many drafts and many pieces of paper.

I’d start with penciled statements on 3×5 cards and then move on to pages of penciled notes. Then there would be penciled outlines and drafts. Then there would be at least one draft in black or blue pen (I loved those erasable pens when they came out; even as imperfect as they were, they saved so much time). Then my mom, who proofread my papers, would find mistakes in my “final” draft, mark them in red pen, and then I’d write out another final draft.  I remember having an aching and tender writing bump at the end of the process, but a nice and neatly handwritten report.

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It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood

Perhaps individual interviews and focus groups spring to mind when one considers qualitative methodology.  Certainly these are prime tools for gathering data on the lived experience of others.  However, the neighborhood walk is another qualitative research tool that merits attention, especially in education:  how well do schools serve serve the communities in which they are located?  Walking the neighborhood is a method more commonly used in health research with children; however, it can be a simple, yet powerful tool for urban educators, many of whom do not live in the neighborhoods in which they teach or serve.

Much has been written about the changing face of America.  Demographics are shifting and today’s school-aged child is much more likely to be a student of color, to speak another language in the home, and/or to live at or close to the poverty line.   At the same time that the nation’s classrooms are becoming increasingly diverse, the face of America’s teaching population remains the same: most are white, middle class women. Read the rest of this entry »


Qualitative Research Series: Debating the Question Question

Courtesy of Flickr user: alexanderdrachmann

As part of our ongoing series on qualitative research, we wanted to delve into a topic that has been a point of contention during our qualitative research explorations.  Last spring, SES and AMF worked together on an independent study on advanced qualitative research methods.  The idea to work together grew out of our mutual concern that none of the Social Sciences departments were offering such a course, at least not anytime soon.  Anxious to learn more as we both launched into qualifying projects and dissertations, we decided to propose an independent study, based very much on our research interests and need to learn how to “do” interviewing and focus groups.  Like many things in life, self-paced learning is at once exhilarating and rife with self-doubt.  Over the course of several months, we read copiously; taught each other; shared quotes, articles, books, and coffee; interviewed five professors; tried (in vain) to bring our focus group together; compiled online resources and populated an e-portfolio (through Mahara); and completed a proposed syllabus as our final project.  Along the way, we learned more than we thought we would: about interviewing, people, student life, and each other.

Sometimes, however, it’s the lingering questions that teach us more than the answers we construct.  In conducting interviews with our professors on the topic  of interviewing, we encountered a great many similarities and a few differences of opinion.  One difference that stood out was whether or not to provide participants with the interview questions ahead of time. Some of our professors requested the questions beforehand and some declined to receive them in advance of the interview.  That got us thinking, “Where do we stand on this issue?” and, furthermore, “is there a right answer to this question?”

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