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Doing Qualitative Research

Doing Qualitative Research

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  • Introducing Margot and This Chapter
  • The Beginning
  • Snapshot
  • The Plunge
  • Expectations
  • Entering the Field as an Ongoing Proposition
  • Too Close to Home
  • What Was That Question Again?
  • Letting Go: Trusting the Process
  • The Support Group: The Tie That Binds
  • Postscript
  • Introducing Ann and This Chapter
  • Participant Observation
  • Choosing a Participant Observer Role
  • Beginning Observation with Wide Focus
  • Becoming ‘The Other’
  • Prolonged Engagement
  • Concern for Objectivity
  • What Was That Question Again? Again
  • Interviewing
  • Beginning Challenges
  • Staying Out Staying In
  • About Questioning
  • Logs
  • Beginning the Log
  • Log Format and Content
  • Analytic Memos
  • Audiotaping and Videotaping
  • Ongoing Data Analysis
  • Computers as Aids in Analysis
  • Leaving the Field
  • Keeping the Door Open
  • Establishing Trustworthiness
  • The Shock of Recognition
  • In the Act: Working toward Credibility
  • Support Group: The Life Line
  • Coda
  • Introducing Teri and This Chapter
  • Facing the Fears
  • Emotional Connections
  • Too Close for Comfort
  • Too Far for Comfort
  • Self-Awareness
  • Making the Familiar Unfamiliar
  • Making the Unfamiliar Familiar
  • Is Qualitative Research for You?
  • Flexibility
  • Humor
  • Accepting Ambiguity
  • Empathy
  • Accepting One’s Emotions
  • Introducing Diane and This Chapter
  • The Final Analysis of Data
  • Getting Started
  • Approaches to Analysis
  • Applying Thinking Units
  • Establishing Categories
  • Developing Themes
  • Developing Vignettes/Constructs
  • Including Numbers
  • Return to Trustworthiness
  • Back to the Field
  • When Is Enough Enough?
  • Negative Case Analysis
  • Peer Involvement in the Research Process
  • Member-Checking
  • Making the Story
  • Finding a Voice
  • Creating a Narrative
  • Narrative Devices
  • Revising
  • Personal Work Strategies
  • Introducing Margaret and This Chapter
  • Learning Qualitative Methods and Attitudes
  • Life-as-Research/Research-as-Life
  • Transformation of Self during the Qualitative Process
  • Research as a Transactional Process
  • Talking with Those Outside Academia
  • Talking with Those Inside Academia
  • Concerns for the Integrity of the Study
  • Concerns for Impacts on the Participants
  • Epilogue: Margot’s Last Word
  • References
  • Colleague Contributors
  • Name Index
  • Subject Index

Doing Qualitative Research

Doing Qualitative Research:
Circles within Circles

Margot Ely


Margaret Anzul
Teri Friedman
Diane Garner
Ann McCormack Steinmetz

London • Philadelphia


The Falmer Press, 11 New Fetter Lane, London EC4P 4EE


The Falmer Press, Taylor & Francis Inc., 325 Chestnut Street,
8th Floor, Philadelphia, PA 19106

© M.Ely (1991)

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means,
electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without
permission in writing from the Publisher.

First published 1991

Falmer Press is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group

This edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2003.

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

Ely, Margot

Doing qualitative research: circles within circles.
(Falmer Press teachers library).
1. Social sciences. Research. Qualitative methods
I. Title

ISBN 0-203-44850-2 Master e-book ISBN

ISBN 0-203-44855-3 (Adobe eReader Format)
ISBN 1-85000-813-2 (hbk)
ISBN 1-85000-814-0 (pbk)

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Ely, Margot.

Doing qualitative research: circles within circles/Margot Ely with
Margaret Anzul… [et al.].
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references (p. 221 ff.) and index.
ISBN 1-85000-813-2 (HC): ISBN 1-85000-814-0 (SC):
1. Ethnography Methodology. 2. Ethnography Field
work. 3. Participant observation. 4. Social sciences
I. Title.
GN345.E48 1991

Jacket design by Caroline Archer



Chapter 1 Grounding


Chapter 2 Starting


Introducing Margot and This Chapter


The Beginning




The Plunge




Entering the Field as an Ongoing Proposition


Too Close to Home


What Was That Question Again?


Letting Go: Trusting the Process


The Support Group: The Tie That Binds




Chapter 3 Doing


Introducing Ann and This Chapter


Participant Observation


Choosing a Participant Observer Role


Beginning Observation with Wide Focus


Becoming ‘The Other’


Prolonged Engagement


Concern for Objectivity


What Was That Question Again? Again




Beginning Challenges


Staying Out Staying In


About Questioning






Beginning the Log


Log Format and Content


Analytic Memos


Audiotaping and Videotaping


Ongoing Data Analysis


Computers as Aids in Analysis


Leaving the Field


Keeping the Door Open


Establishing Trustworthiness


The Shock of Recognition


In the Act: Working toward Credibility


Support Group: The Life Line






Chapter 4 Feeling


Introducing Teri and This Chapter


Facing the Fears


Emotional Connections


Too Close for Comfort


Too Far for Comfort




Making the Familiar Unfamiliar


Making the Unfamiliar Familiar


Is Qualitative Research for You?






Accepting Ambiguity




Accepting One’s Emotions




Chapter 5 Interpreting


Introducing Diane and This Chapter


The Final Analysis of Data


Getting Started


Approaches to Analysis


Applying Thinking Units


Establishing Categories


Creating Organizing Systems for Analysis
and Applying Existing Systems




Developing Themes


Developing Vignettes/Constructs


Including Numbers


Return to Trustworthiness


Back to the Field


When Is Enough Enough?


Negative Case Analysis


Peer Involvement in the Research Process




Making the Story


Finding a Voice


Creating a Narrative


Narrative Devices




Personal Work Strategies




Chapter 6 Reflecting


Introducing Margaret and This Chapter


Theme I: Metaphors for Qualitative Research


Learning Qualitative Methods and Attitudes



Transformation of Self during the Qualitative Process 191
Theme II: Researchers Interactive, Open to Change 193
Research as a Transactional Process


Theme III: Qualitative Research and
Professional Growth


Theme IV: Shouting across Paradigmatic Rifts


Talking with Those outside Academia


Talking with Those inside Academia

Theme V: Qualitative Research as an Ethical Endeavor 218
Concerns for the Integrity of the Study


Concerns for Impacts on the Participants


Epilogue: Margot’s Last Word




Colleague Contributors


Name Index


Subject Index



Chapter 1


Dear Reader,
Right at the start we planned to present you with one lucid, crystal-clear
sentence to establish the character and purpose of this book. That task
proved a bit like squeezing an elephant into a pint container while
keeping the poor thing alive and true to form.
You will find that this book is somewhat different from most texts on
qualitative research. It invites you to experience some of the struggles
and questions, the insights and visions of over seventy students, their
teachers, and other established researchers about learning to do
naturalistic inquiry. Our book started with a collection of papers by
student ethnographers to which we added accounts by more advanced
doctoral and postdoctoral researchers. These sources formed a database
for our studies on the process of becoming qualitative inquirers. In time
we found ourselves shaping the accounts and our analyses of them into a
book that might benefit future classes of student ethnographers, our
professional colleagues, and other researchers.
A distinctive feature of the book is its concern with the interplay
between affect and cognition how people feel and what they learn as
they go about the very messy but exhilarating business of learning to ‘do
it’. Our interest in this interplay is not arbitrary. We are convinced that if
practitioners of interpretive research are concerned solely with the
technical aspects, they will miss the essentials of this type of research. We
believe that qualitative study is forged in the transaction among what is
done and learned and felt by the researcher. It is an intensely recursive,
personal process, and while this may be the hallmark of all sound
research, it is crucial to every aspect of the qualitative way of looking at

This book is predicated on the assumption that there is a need to
make more public the interplay between the emotional and the
intellectual in ethnographic research, since this interplay is an essential


Doing Qualitative Research

ingredient. Ourperception that there is a void to be filled has been
supported in our experiences as professionals and researchers and has
provided us with an impetus to forge ahead. For this reason, we write
directly to students of the field, whoever you are in whatever roles,
beginning or seasoned.
By now you are likely to have:

1 realized that we are using different terms in a roughly
synonymous way:

naturalistic inquiry,
ethnographic methodologies,
qualitative research,
interpretive research; or

2 become irked, piqued, or interested because we have used so
many different terms; or
3 not noticed at all.

The first two responses have much to commend them. The field is shot
through with a variety of labels and proponents of those labels. These
derive from a number of theoretical models and a range of
modifications and variations upon these models that guide why and
how to do research (Goetz and LeCompte, 1984, p. 37; Patton, 1980,
p. 203). Underlying this collection of competing labels are certain
commonalities that link them together a network of underlying
principles and philosophical beliefs that constitute a paradigm or
world view. We are living in an era of paradigm revolution (Kuhn,
1970). Most of us grew up in a positivist or empirical era in which the
claims of empirical scientific research were held to be absolute.
Particularly within the past few decades, however, this empirical world
view has been challenged by an alternative paradigm, frequently
referred to as naturalistic. Those who work within the naturalistic
paradigm operate from a set of axioms that hold realities to be
multiple and shifting, that take for granted a simultaneous mutual
shaping of knower and known, and that see all inquiry, including the
empirical, as being inevitably value-bound.
Lincoln and Guba (1985) and Lofland and Lofland (1984) are among
many who list a variety of terms for research done within this post-
positivistic, naturalistic paradigm.

Social science is a terminological jungle where many labels compete, and
no single label has been able to command the particular domain before us.
Often…researchers simply ‘do it’ without worrying about giving ‘it’ a
name. (Lofland and Lofland, 1984, p. 3)


Chapter 1 Grounding

But you see, we did worry. How could we write a book about ‘Unnamed

One of the more frequently used terms is ‘ethnography’. There are
conflicting claims, however, for what can be properly termed
ethnography. There is also an interesting case made for labeling various
levels of ethnography that range from the study of a complex society as
a macro-ethnography to the study of a single social situation as a micro-
ethnography (Spradley, 1980, p. 30). Indeed, in attempting to define the
essence of ethnography, Werner and Schoepfle (1987) conclude that
‘…the ethnographic variety is almost limitless’ (p. 41). It could be
reasoned that the correct label for the kind of research this book is about
must contain the word ‘approaches’, or ‘methodologies’, as in
‘ethnographic approaches’ and ‘naturalistic methodologies’, since such
labels highlight more clearly both what researchers do in this multi-
faceted research and what they cannot claim to do. For example, Harry
Wolcott finds it ‘…useful to distinguish between anthropologically
informed researchers who do ethnography and…researchers who
frequently draw upon ethnographic approaches in doing descriptive
studies’ (1988, p. 202).
We solved our dilemma in the following ways. First, you know from
the title of this book that we chose to use ‘Qualitative Research’ as the
umbrella term. We did this because it appears to us that the term
‘qualitative’ has the broadest denotations. The word itself highlights the
primarily qualitative-as-descriptive nature of work within this paradigm
in contrast to the primarily quantitative emphasis of positivist
approaches. Second, because our own research and that of our students
is based on a variety of data-gathering and analysis strategies, rooted in
a number of traditions, we write to researchers who work in similar
ways. Third, because of this, we highlight those characteristics common
to a variety of qualitative research models as we discuss the information
in the chapters to come. This means that you, our reader, are asked to
live with a number of research labels from now on.
And these are many! For instance, in her analysis of texts on
qualitative research, Tesch (1990) compiled a list of forty-six terms that
social scientists have used to name their versions of qualitative research.
Even though Tesch further categorized these terms into twenty-six
approaches under four basic research groups, the sheer number is mind-
boggling. What is more, theorists change their labels quickly these days
as their understandings of their research evolve. We were quite
comfortable with Lincoln and Guba’s (1985) use of the term ‘paradigm
of naturalistic inquiry’ when they provided a rationale four years later
(1989) for adopting a different label, ‘paradigm of constructivism
research’. We’ll try to hold to a reasonable number of research labels in
this book.


Doing Qualitative Research

Now, to the definition of qualitative research, which is not as
straightforward as it seems. After serious and unsuccessful attempts to
present you with a universal definition at this point, we were relieved to
come across this statement by Lincoln and Guba (1985). These authors
were speaking of defining naturalism, but the statement applies to
defining qualitative research as well:

…it is precisely because the matter is so involved that it is not possible to
provide a simple definition…. (p. 8)

Thus fortified, we decided that the term ‘qualitative research’ is perhaps
better understood by the characteristics of its methods than by a
definition. Several experts such as Bogdan and Biklen (1982), Lincoln
and Guba (1985), and Lofland and Lofland (1984) present lists of such
characteristics. We here base our description on the work of Sherman
and Webb (1988) who analyzed what leading qualitative researchers
had to say about their work in philosophy of education, history,
biography, ethnography, life history, grounded theory,
phenomenography, curriculum criticism, uses of literature in qualitative
research, and critical theory (p. 2). Their analysis produced five
characteristics similar to all of those species of qualitative research, and
one that is characteristic of many (pp. 5–8).

1 Events can be understood adequately only if they are seen in
context. Therefore, a qualitative researcher immerses her/himself
in the setting.
2 The contexts of inquiry are not contrived; they are natural.
Nothing is predefined or taken for granted.
3 Qualitative researchers want those who are studied to speak for
themselves, to provide their perspectives in words and other
actions. Therefore, qualitative research is an interactive process in
which the persons studied teach the researcher about their lives.
4 Qualitative researchers attend to the experience as a whole, not as
separate variables. The aim of qualitative research is to
understand experience as unified.
5 Qualitative methods are appropriate to the above statements.
There is no one general method.
6 For many qualitative researchers, the process entails appraisal
about what was studied.

Further, from these characteristics, Sherman and Webb amalgamated the
following summary:

…qualitative implies a direct concern with experience as it is ‘lived’ or
‘felt’ or ‘undergone’…. Qualitative research, then, has the aim of under-


Chapter 1 Grounding

standing experience as nearly as possible as its participants feel it or live it.
(1988, p. 7)

The essence of these characteristics weaves its way throughout this book,
albeit in expanded form and different words. You may want to return to
these statements by Sherman and Webb as you read, for we see this framework
about qualitative research as a springboard for this entire volume.
All five of us have worked as a team on every aspect of this book.
Each of us, however, served as the primary author and facilitator for one
chapter, and in it inevitably touches on her own research experiences
and her own perspectives on this project. Each chapter begins with an
introduction to the person who shepherded that chapter to completion.
Each author speaks in the first person ‘I’ in her chapter when she writes
about her own experiences and insights, and in the first person plural
‘we’ when talking about the writing team. When we refer to one another,
we use first names. This has not been as complicated as we first
envisioned. We think you’ll understand immediately as you continue.
Each chapter is composed of our text as well as that drawn from the
database provided by students and other researchers. We include quotations
from field logs, student articles, and excerpts from published articles and
books. Our writing speaks to, with, and occasionally in opposition to
what other people write as we introduce, weave strands together, pose
questions, discuss, and generally say what we feel needs to be said.
Chapters 2 through 5 end with postscripts. While primary authors
made the largest contributions to their specific chapters, Margot
developed the postscripts so that they would provide highlighting
more discussion, new input, another point of view, challenge, or
disagreement. Some consider our own affective and cognitive processes
as these apply to the topic at hand.
We have provided wide margins near articles, quotations, and
postscripts so that you can write your own comments and questions
there, if you like to work in the ‘naturalistic way’. In this book student
contributors are referred to either by true name or pseudonym,
according to the wishes of each. The names of people and places from
researchers’ logs that we have quoted have all been changed to protect
their anonymity. At times the same quotation is used to support more
than one section in this book. This is consonant with the way qualitative
data are analyzed and presented.
We offer the following overview of the content of each chapter with
the proviso that, because of the nature of this phenomenon called
qualitative research, the topics are not as neatly separated and are more
interwoven than is usual in many research books. Chapter 1,
‘Grounding’, provides an explanation about how this book is conceived,
authored, and presented. Chapter 2, ‘Starting’, discusses those
important points of beginning to learn about qualitative research and


Doing Qualitative Research

entering the field. Chapter 3, ‘Doing’, focuses on learning the tools that
help us to see, to listen, and to interpret ‘qualitatively’. Chapter 4,
‘Feeling’, highlights the emotional/personal aspects that are part and
parcel of the research process. Chapter 5, ‘Interpreting’, talks of the
critical tasks of final analysis and writing. Chapter 6, ‘Reflecting’,
presents some overarching themes that resulted from a meta-analysis of
the entire database on what people do, feel, and learn as qualitative
researchers. The Epilogue, ‘Margot’s Last Word’, considers social
implications of the qualitative research endeavor.
And who is this ‘we’ so generously sprinkled throughout the
foregoing pages? ‘We’ are the people whose voices you will hear. ‘We’
began with Margot, the professor who first planned and facilitated the
qualitative research experiences described here. These led subsequently
to the research and writing that have resulted in this book. ‘We’ are also
a team of four who helped with every aspect of the work. Some time
prior to first teaching the qualitative research course, Margot became
acquainted with three graduate students who she felt might be fine
members of a team to work with a class that generally has a high
enrollment. Each was involved in naturalistic research. Diane was an
early childhood and elementary school teacher who was completing her
dissertation on children’s play styles. Ann was writing a dissertation
proposal while teaching at a college and negotiating an active family life.
Teri was collecting data for her dissertation, a study of women police
officers, and anticipating her year’s clinical internship in psychology.
None of these three needed any more work involvements, however
fascinating they might be. They joined in right away. After the
completion of the first course, we began to analyze the students’ papers,
and saw the value of organizing them as a support for future classes and
for the profession. At this point we asked Margaret to join the team.
Writing furiously at her dissertation in the nooks and crannies between
being an elementary school librarian and teaching an evening course at a
university, Margaret found space. It has been four years since the team
first began its odyssey. This book is based on the amalgamation of our
experiences and student contributions over that time. Diane, Ann, Teri,
and Margaret have all earned their doctorates.
But ‘we’ are more than this five. ‘We’ include over seventy people
enrolled in a doctoral level qualitative research course called ‘Case Study’,
in three semester groups. The students were asked as part of the course
requirements to write ‘articles’ on their most meaningful insights about
learning to become qualitative researchers, and to do so in an informal
manner, as if writing to other students. Into this primary database we
incorporated additional personal accounts gleaned from published
literature in the field so that we could amalgamate insights from experienced
researchers to complement our thinking and that of our students. In the
text, students and doctoralgraduates are cited first by entire name and


Chapter 1 Grounding

then by first name. Other authors are cited in styleguide form. The names
or pseudonyms of students, as well as those of several other doctoral
graduates, make up the list of colleague contributors on pages 239–40.
Of no small importance in helping us integrate the work of so many
people were the contributions of three colleagues and friends: Emily
R.Kennedy, Belén Matías, and K.June McLeod, who provided editorial
comments, moral support, and many dinners.
We wrote this book so that you might join with us in considering how
affect and cognition relate to and ensue from being qualitative
researchers. Throughout the book, we share some information about
the course for what it can contribute to our topic. In essence, this book is
the product of layers of qualitative research, and the course served as the
linchpin. The course allowed us

to establish and document the processes of helping people to learn
qualitative methodologies;

to think about these processes, to ‘go meta’;

to ask students to think about their processes as they wrote the articles
that are woven throughout;

to study in ethnographic ways ourselves as the team as well as the class;

to plan how to write this book and how to involve in it the work of other
colleagues, past and present students, and authorities in the field.

The writing here comes from people who are at various stages in the
ever-evolving process of qualitative research learning. As learners we
range from professors and people engaged in postdoctoral research to
doctoral students in the beginning stages of experiencing the
methodologies. Whatever our stages, however, it seems that all of us
have chosen to share a way of research life a way of life that sweeps
us along in continuous circles within circles of action, reflection, feeling
and meaning making.
‘We’ is also you. If this book is to make any difference, it will be that
the collective ‘we’ of the qualitative research community becomes more
aware and, as a result, more powerful. Thus, it is you who are also a
contributor. We hope you will communicate with us about any part of
this book and how the book relates to your experiences and feelings.
Please write to us in care of:

Professor Margot Ely
Department of Teaching and Learning
New York University, SEHNAP
239 Greene Street
New York, NY 10003.


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