Qualitative process: Lareau’s lessons

A meeting with the chair of my committee and my qualitative advisor last week yielded the kind of reading recommendations that make you appreciate why experts are called experts.  Annette Lareau’s qualitative work on social class and family engagement with school would relate directly to my dissertation topic and methodology.  And, to make matters even better, Lehigh’s library had both.  The e-brary offered the kind of instant gratification to which most of us have become accustomed: the first book was available and with a quick click took up residence on my electronic bookshelf.     Wandering the stacks for the second book had pleasures of its own, instant and otherwise: finding it amidst an array of fascinating titles on the neighboring shelves, dropping all the grad student paraphernalia on the nearest comfy couch, kicking off my clogs  to curl up like a cat in a patch of sunlight, and diving into its contents right away.

Home Advantage: Social Class and Parental Intervention in Elementary Education (2000) is an account of Lareau’s time spent in two schools, one in a working class neighborhood and the other in an upper middle-class neighborhood.  Building on French sociologist, Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital, her data and analysis demonstrate that middle class families activate a wider variety of resources and choose to intervene at key points in their children’s education than do working class parents, resulting in a substantially different (read advantaged) educational experience for their children.

Lareau’s book is valuable reading for the novice qualitative researcher, not only for her carefully chosen descriptive details and compelling arguments, but also for the discussion of how her dissertation work evolved into a book.  Most valuable of all, however, is the appendix  (“A hidden gem!” as my qualitative advisor termed it) that describes Lareau’s process, outlining the mistakes she made,  the strengths she brought to the research, and what she now does differently as a seasoned qualitative scholar.  Among her practical tips: prepare a letter explaining your research in simple, laymen terms and use the same version for all your participants; don’t venture into the field unless you have time scheduled with 24 hours to write up your field notes; and spent more concentrated periods of time at the field site, especially at the beginning of data collection.  A frank assessment of her fumbling attempts to reconcile mounds of data with conceptual frameworks and how her advisors helped her to focus, re-focus, and focus yet again on the theories framing her study proved most timely and relevant to me.  She passes on the counsel of her teachers: constantly ask yourself, “So what?”  In other words, analyze your field notes and ask yourself how do your observations relate to the theoretical concepts you are aiming to advance.  Finally, she advises beginning researchers to develop scholarly skills in community: avoid taking on a “Lone Ranger” intellectual identity by sharing ongoing research with colleagues and soliciting critical feedback on your developing study.

Lareau is now a mature scholar, an expert if you will.  Her latest book, the second edition of Unequal Childhood’s: Class, Race, and Family Life, represents a 10 year follow up study on children and families she interviewed in the first edition.  She elaborates on the “concerted cultivation” of middle class families and demonstrates how these patterns persist and payoff for middle class families and children, even into early adulthood.   Reading Home Advantage, however, reminds me that even experts were doubt-filled novices once upon a time.

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