Qualitative Research and Complex Teams

bookcoverIt’s official!  My book is available now (in Kindle).  Hard copy will be available by mid-November.  It is published by Oxford University Press

The book was written to fill the gap among qualitative research methodology texts that primarily present the lone researcher model, despite the evidence that more and more often research is a team based sport!  The text emphasizes the central role of writing in all stages of qualitative research, discussing the roots of this change from single to team-based research in qualitative research, research design, and methodological and substantive approaches to writing in team-based circumstances.

It was written to be read by all researchers, qualitative or otherwise, who may be undertaking team-based qualitative research.  Based on my hands-on experiences working with diverse teams over the years, it includes many logistical tips and examples.

My thanks to Patricia Leavy, editor of this series on qualitative research, and the wonderful editors at Oxford who were so gracious and helpful throughout the process.

Thanks also to the many graduate students who read parts of the text as I was developing it, as well as the members of the Research Methodology and Program Evaluation in Education Ph.D. program at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.


Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right

pexels-photo-48566.jpegAt a recent coffee meet-up at a local café, a friend began talking with great animation about a book she had just purchased and was in the middle of reading that was giving her great insight into why the Tea Party thought the way it did. I wrote down the title and bought it on Kindle later that day. I read half the book before I went to bed…I couldn’t stop, it was so good. Here it is:

Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild, published in 2016 by The New Press.

Hochschild is a sociology at the University of California Berkeley who undertook a five-year study into understanding the “deep story” of the world where the Tea Party emerged—the Louisiana bayou country. It’s a story of the divisions between rich and poor that exist in our country, underscored by the divisions between black, immigrant, and white, and the histories of the different regions in our country and their unique experiences of the history we have passed through as a nation.

While I was extremely interested in the book for the topic and content, I can’t help it, I also approached it as a qualitative researcher, reading to learn how the author would address the methodological issues of the study. Strangers in Their Own Land is an excellent book I think for helping students see how methodology can be explained in a way that makes sense to a wide swath of readers. In other words, methodology doesn’t have to be jargony and distancing—it can be conversational and sense making!! Thank you Dr. Hochschild for demonstrating this so well.

I was particularly intrigued with the way she handled being the outsider (a University of California professor) working with the insiders (long time Southerners dwelling in this neighborhood they love so strongly). She treats her “participants” with deep respect, acknowledging their shared humanity, despite the differences in perspectives. At the close of the book she describes the process she went through sharing the text with those whom she had interviewed, receiving their feedback, and making revisions.

While the opening chapter provides many methodological details, the formal methodological discussion is left to the end of the book (an increasingly popular way to address methodology in a book designed for a more popular audience). But in both locations—Hochschild pays careful attention to readability.

I look forward to being able to read and discuss this text in a class with doctoral students with methodological interests. I think this is a great exemplar for how to write a readable book based on a strong study making use of qualitative research.


Anchor Articles and Advanced Topics in Qualitative Research

people-woman-coffee-meeting.jpgOver the last two years, I have been developing a concept I refer to as “anchor articles”. These are an article (or a very few selected articles) a doctoral student identifies as anchors for their impending dissertation work. An anchor article can be about the method or substance of what you want to do, and for some reason you identify it is key knowledge related to what you want to do with your dissertation.

I idea of the anchor article grew out of my EDUC 7101 class: Advanced Topics in Qualitative Research. For the purposes of this class, the anchor article must be relate-able to qualitative research methodology. However, every student’s topic is unique and the qualitative research issues they want to address differ widely depending on their study and their needs. Each student presents an anchor article that we read ahead of time and they then facilitate the discussion on the article. We give each article 45 minutes to an hour of discussion time, and quite frankly we could usually go on much longer.

In the Spring 2018 semester, several people want to understand the scope of qualitative research that has been conducted in their particular area of interest. This lead Sharifa to identify and present Keith Richards’ piece, Trends in qualitative research in language teaching since 2000, published in a 2009 issue of Language Teacher (42:2, 147-180). Although many of the group were not in the area of language study, it gave us a good comparison point for thinking about the development of qualitative research in a particular educational area during that specific period.

Amanda also helped us to think about qualitative research in a defined field by sharing the ERIC brief, Qualitative Research in Adult, Career, and Career-Technical Education Practitioner File (2002). This gave us the opportunity to think about the writing styles of these sorts of guides versus the peer-reviewed journal article, as we compared the way language researchers and those in adult education came to incorporate qualitative research.

Students also approach the selection of the anchor article with specific methodological issues in mind. Thus, Rosie brought us an article by Timothy Guetterman—Descriptions of sampling practices within five approaches to qualitative research in education and the health sciences—that was published in Forum: Qualitative Social Research (16: 2, Art 25, May 2015). The issue of sampling in qualitative research has long plagued her, as I knew, and this gave her the opportunity to get her arms around the problem.

Like Rosie, Kathleen was also concerned with a special methodological issue, and that led her to the article titled “Positionality and the Pen: Reflections on the Process of Becoming a Feminist Researcher and Writer” by Nancy Deutsch (published in Qualitative Inquiry, 10:6, 2004, 885-902). This piece was autoethnographic and theory rich and gave the researchers-in-training much to think about in regard to their own upcoming dissertation adventure.

“Educational Micropolitics and Distributed Leadership” by Joseph Flessa from the Peabody Journal of Education (84: 331-349, 2009) was the article Laurie shared. A school leader with many years of experience she was well acquainted with theories about distributed leadership, but this was one of the few pieces she found that combined these ideas with notions of micropolitics. This piece challenged us to think about the emphasis on consensus in school leadership literature and why this might be problematic for understanding the dynamic of conflict in schools.

Elizabeth has long been engaged in understanding maker spaces in higher education, a new phenomenon in universities. She found “Using the Design Thinking Cycle to Tell the Story of Innovative Learning Spaces” by Heather Tillberg-Webb and Ned Collier to be a provocative piece to aid her thinking (in B. Hokanson et al. (eds), Educational Technology and Narrative, 141-153). Thinking about the different cases of innovative learning spaces presented raised many questions about issues of spatial observation in qualitative research.

Finally, Roi showed up with an article after my own heart (how to conduct qualitative research with complex teams!)—Methodological challenges in multi-investigator multi-institutional research in higher education—by Kinzie, Magolda, Kezar, Kuh, Hinkle, and Whitt (published in Higher Education, 2007, 54: 469-482). This paper describes a mammoth study of 20 colleges and universities that was carried out by a 24 member team. We debated the research design and thought hard about how much data is enough!

As you can see, every anchor article brings something rich to the class. Part of the richness is certainly in what the different authors present in regard to their study or theories, but part of the richness is also in the individual students’ need for the selected piece. They weave the story of the search for, identification of, and selection of the anchor article into the story of their own journey as a doctoral student, and we can learn from both—article and individual.

Tawakkol Karman and Peace and Conflict in the Middle East: What Meaning for a Qualitative Researcher?

Tawakkol Karman explains that her name means “work hard and God will aid you”.  A small phonetic shift in her name–Tawaakkol instead of Tawakkol–would signify the opposite, “laze about and call for God to help”.  As one of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winners for her role in bringing about the Arab Peace and instigating the non-violent movement for human rights in Yemen, she lives up to her name, and is pleased her father named her as he did.

Karman, the 2018 Greeley Scholar for Peace Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, spoke this morning (4/5/2018) at a meeting sponsored by the Greater Lowell Interfaith Council held at the Dracut United Church of Christ, where she shared her experiences standing up to dictatorship and fighting for the rights of women.  She described her beginnings in the peace movement as a solitary journalist whose stories were published by a small socialist newspaper in Yemen, which launched her involvement in what became the Arab Spring movement, continuing to this day, post-Nobel Prize, to address the counter-revolution that has swept over the Middle East.

Everyone can take action to injustice and disparities, she emphasized, describing how the women’s movement in her country had started with small groups focusing on discrete goals.  A national transformation occurred as smaller groups coalesced and goals moved from small to large.  In the next stage, small goals were enacted under the umbrella of a new constitution, guaranteeing new rights for women.

I was struck by her passion and determination to address the issues women (and children) face in conflict torn nations.  As part of her mission, she had visited refugee camps throughout the region talking to refugees from different areas, learning first-hand of the ways systematic violence is perpetrated on women (rape) and their families (killing, maiming, and desecration of the dead).

I was also struck by her political savvy and capacity for determined political action.  I admire people who can bring together coalitions, knitting together different views with some relationship or goal to each other, hanging on through the tensions and divisions to stay the course.  I bow to their stamina for the everyday conflict that can be so wearing.

Qualitative research, like most forms of research practiced in academic contexts, presents itself–teaches and replicates itself–in relationship to a master narrative of objectivity, meaning claims about facts, truth, avoidance of conflict-of-interest situations, and neutral stances.  This proclaimed world of objectivity makes it difficult to utter the word subjectivity, much less claim it as a resource.  So, imagine what it would be like to take up strong political positions in such an environment?  When you hear the words of a witness like Tawakkol Karman, I began to wonder at my silence.

I am over generalizing of course, as there has been an important counter movement in our field–one that calls for critical methodologies and participant action research.  Many researchers pick their topics–the study of human trafficking, school inequity, and food scarcity, etc.–on the basis of their passions and desire to address inequality in civil, economic, and social spheres.  Social justice is a call that qualitative researchers have heeded in numerous ways.

As I thought more about Karman’s message, I wondered, how do we (I) raise up a new generation of qualitative researchers with the skills and knowledge to address the objectivity/subjectivity/social justice continuum with greater strength and assurance?  What am I doing to make this happen in my small corner of the world?


Stephanie Sparling Williams at UMass Lowell: Qualitative Research and the Camera



Spring brings great speakers to campus.  Yesterday Stephanie Sparling Williams, a curator at the Addison Gallery of American Art and teacher at Phillips Academy, presented a talk, “Astride the Lens: Radical Self-Staged Portraiture and the Black Female Body.”

She discussed the work of three important Black female photographers:  Adrian Piper, Carrie Mae Weems, and Zanele Muholi, of which, sad to say, I had been unaware.  Each photographer used self-portraiture in ways that created new perceptions of race and gender at a time of great contradictions, openings, and contestation around these issues.

While the photographic work was striking, as usual I was listening for the methodological discussion, and I was not disappointed.  The paper Williams presented grows (as so many things do) from long experience, personal quest, and the dissertation.  She completed her dissertation at the University of Southern California in American Studies (rather than art history), which she believed allowed her more freedom in crafting her methodological approach, self-described as a combination of phenomenology and ethnography.

What was particularly significant about the way she conducted her study was that she was not seated alone studying these photographs in some museum vault.  Rather, her methodology required that she be present with the photographs in a public exhibit so she could view museum goers interacting with the challenges presented by the self-portraits of Black women.  Williams described packing herself up and heading out to exhibits of the works and then “camping” for hours, days, and weeks in a gallery watching the public responding–through comment and physical reaction to the photographs.

In tandem with her methodological approach, her theoretical approach drew together the notion of “the gaze” as described by Mulvey and Diamond; “the mirror” as described in the work of Lacan and Fanon; and, again, the issues phenomenology brings to understanding the lived experience of the participant.

Williams’ focus on the work of photography–by photographer and model–is informed by her unique experiences as a fashion model and an artist with training in photography.  Demonstrating, yet again, how important the subjective is in the development of this thing called a dissertation.

Williams is developing several exhibits for the Addison Gallery, which is also in the midst of a fascinating emphasis on photography that shouldn’t be missed:  Addison Gallery of American Art





Entrepreneur-ship and Qualitative Research: Lessons from Desh Deshpande

Entrepreneur and philanthropist Desh Deshpande visited our campus yesterday to give a “Parker Lecture” on social entrepreneurship.  He has a long connection with University Massachusetts Lowell and was an important voice in supporting the development of our extensive undergraduate entrepreneurship program–Difference Makers.


I went with my own agenda:  How might doctoral students in our Research Methods and Evaluation Ph.D. program take advantage of this thinking about social entrepreneurship?  This was my opportunity to learn something significant about this topic that I could bring back to the program.

Here are some “think abouts” in my “take away” category of items:

  • The world can be divided into two categories–those with disposable income and those with no disposable income.  The second category is the arena for the social entrepreneur.
  • There is a big difference between individuals who do good works as professionals (librarians, social workers, teachers…) and a social entrepreneur–someone who wants to make a big difference in a systematic way that can be scaled up.
  • The most important lesson for an entrepreneur is to stay focused–don’t over-reach, don’t hedge.  Do the thing you can do best.
  • The biggest problem to success is EGO!  Egocentric organizations (such as universities) are highly focused on authorship, which will get in the way of creativity.

I left the event with Deshpande’s little orange book of wisdon–On Entrepreneurship and Impact–which I plan to review and share with students in the program.  I am encouraged that for Ph.D. students with the highest level of skills in social science research methodology and program evaluation there are an infinite number of exciting possibilities that they could bring into being…and now to start that conversation.

Celebrating the Life of Mark Hines: Thinking about universities growing and changing


Today I attended a celebration for the life of Mark Hines, a colleague from the Biology Department, most recently the Dean of the College of Sciences. I knew him only in passing, but his wife, Elaine Major, who has been the driving force behind the development of our Institutional Review Board (IRB) for the last 15 years is someone I work with frequently.

It was a memorable celebration for many reasons. The ballroom of the Inn and Conference Center was filled with people from across campus. Behind the podium, a wonderful montage of photographs from Mark and Elaine’s life rolled before our eyes. Children, grandchildren, in-laws and others shared memories of the pieces of life they had shared with Mark.

It gave me pause to think about two things:

1) How much our university (like many others) has changed and grown over the last ten plus years; and,

2) The massive growth and change in the IRB processes over the same period.

Universities Growing and Changing

I looked around the room and saw some familiar faces (admittedly more gray…and some limping), but also many, many new faces. University of Massachusetts Lowell is one of the fastest growing institutions of higher education in the United States (if our statistics are to be believed) and the proof is in the growing number of new faces.

As several speakers pointed out, Mark had been important to bringing new people to campus, faculty who are interested and eager, excited about their field and concerned about students. What a legacy!

Institutional Review Board Growth

Elaine Major has been the parent of the current IRB processes we now have in place. They are really a model of what things should be. I just helped two doctoral students navigate the process for their dissertation studies, and I was amazed with the care Elaine’s office took with each item. I remember the days when (at least for qualitative researchers) IRB was an afterthought. That’s no longer true, and much as I groan when I have to get my human subjects certification or fill out another form, I do think that we are conducting research with others in ways that are more safe for them and for us, more ethical, and more just.

Today, as I think about Elaine, her family, and their loss—I see them situated within an amazingly thick and rich context, of which both Elaine and Mark have contributed so much.

Complex Teams and Qualitative Research


There were many pathways that led me to Qualitative Research Reconstructed (QR-R?). Certainly one was my recent project examining the issues of complex teams and qualitative research. The outcome of this work is a book that will be published by Oxford University Press sometime in the near future, but more to the point of this blog—identifying and raising to the fore my concerns about complex teams and qualitative research was yet another way I became aware of my interests in reconstructing qualitative research at its roots.

One of the great things about taking on a new project is the way it sometimes focuses light on earlier thinking that was lost in the someplace in the scuffle of other work. Although my meandering into this area was sparked by work on multiple experiences with teams, I was half way through the manuscript when I suddenly connected the dots in a new and deeper way through making connections to “the interpretive zone”, writing I had done at the end of graduate school with friend and mentor Liora Bresler (Wasser & Bresler, 1996).

In this piece, “Working in the Interpretive Zone: Conceptualizing Collaboration in Qualitative Research Teams”, we examined the interpretive processes of a qualitative research team of which Bresler was the leader and I was a member. We identified the “interpretive zone” as a place where the team negotiated meaning in that study of arts education in elementary schools. The interpretive zone, as we described it, was a place where contradictions abounded and contextual were variables were often in flux. Constructing meaning in the zone required conversation that worked down through multiple inhibiting frameworks. That work published in 1996 had pretty much stayed in the background of my life until now as I thought about complex teams in qualitative research.

Ironically, it was new distant friends I was meeting in my literature search on team issues that turned me back in this direction. Three pieces in particular, re-introduced me to my own work and showed me how it was being extended. Let me introduce you to these three distant friends (in the backwards order I discovered there work):

First there was Mauthner and Doucet (2008), ‘Knowledge Once Divided Can be Hard to Put Together Again’: An Epistemological Critique of Collaborative and Team-Based Research Practices, published in Sociology in 2008 (Mauthner & Doucet, 2008). This intriguing article pointed out how “normative team-based research practices embody foundational principles” that are often at odds with the “postfoundational epistemological practices” (p. 971).

Proceeding this unique piece was Elizabeth Creamer from Virginia Tech who discussed “Interpretive Processes in Collaborative Research (2002). She conducted a content analysis of four accounts in the literature of collaborative team processes, ours being one in this group, to create a model of collaborative interpretive processes. The four steps of her model included: 1) dialogue; 2) familiarity; 3) collective consciousness; and 4) engaging differences in perspectives (Creamer, 2003).

Finally, in this process I also discovered Gerstl-Pepin and Gunzenhauser (2002). They described the group processes of a team studying the North Carolina A+ Schools Program. This was a highly complicated qualitative research team process composed of multiple layers. The many layers of interaction and the many kinds of players created inherent contradictions that were explored in dialogic manner.

This handful of three articles by authors who followed the interpretive zone helped me to see how that piece began a conversation that I was now returning to through the continuing study of complex teams. In that earlier piece I had focused in on one section of the work a team does, whereas now I was considering the whole of team work from initiation of a project to completion. The three articles here do not in any way constitute the whole of authors one can consider when thinking about qualitative research and team work, but they were important re-beginning points for me. I hope someday to meet them in person! Thank you for your work.


Creamer, E. (2003). Interpretive processes in collaborative research. Academic Exchange Quarterly(3), 179.

Gerstl-Pepin, C. I., & Gunzenhauser, M. G. (2002). Collaborative team ethnography and the paradoxes of interpretation. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education (QSE), 15(2), 137.

Mauthner, N. S., & Doucet, A. (2008). ‘Knowledge Once Divided Can Be Hard to Put Together Again’: An Epistemological Critique of Collaborative and Team-Based Research Practices. Sociology, 42(5), 971.

Wasser, J. D., & Bresler, L. (1996). Working in the Interpretive Zone: Conceptualizing Collaboration in Qualitative Research Teams. Educational Researcher, 25(5), 5-15.