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Thoughts and Hallucinations

Dublin City University Workshops in Qualitative Research and Discourse Analysis

The Whole Qualitative Megillah
Workshop #1

Michael Agar


"The whole Megillah (in the Yiddish from which American English borrowed it, gantse Megillah) came to be a wry term for an overly extended explanation or story, or for something tediously complicated, or an involved situation or state of affairs." http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-mag1.htm.


For the sake of argument, say that Glaser and Strauss' Discovery of Grounded Theory in 1967 was the qualitative take-off point. Then we can say that the amount and variety of literature that deals with "qualitative" research has grown exponentially since then. The qualitative megillah is now a mess. It's not clear what the term necessarily means beyond "propositional" versus "numeric" data, and even that doesn't work, since many qualitative researchers use quantitative data, sometimes in innovative ways that cause Carl Friedrich Gauss to spin in his grave.

In this workshop we will look at issues of qualitative data collection and analysis, but we will do so with a broad question in mind that we will debate over the two days. The question is:

What does it mean to claim that one is doing a qualitative study?

The question potentially leads down any number of paths. For example, there is a profound philosophical backstory that grounds the tradition, back at least to Hegel vs. Newton. We stand on the shoulders of giants. Never mind that Sir Isaac first said that. He wasn’t all bad.

In this workshop, though, we will emphasize the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski’s path—Understand a concept through the way it is used in everyday life, specifically, in the lives of participants in this workshop. Anyone is welcome to attend the workshop and listen in, from wet behind the ears to jaded old pro. But the workshop is designed for those with qualitative research experience, preferably ongoing or recently completed. Participants will speak from that experience as well as from what they have read or heard.

What do we mean when we tell people our study is qualitative? What did we do in our study, from the moment when it was first a gleam in our eye to the time when we handed over a document or film or museum exhibition and said we were done? What did we do when we decided what we needed to learn and how we needed to learn it, step by step, and how did those decisions change, and what were we up to in the grand scheme of things in the first place? Was any of it unique in a way that warrants this distinct but ambiguous label, qualitative?

The goal of the workshop is not to set a boundary. As we’ll see, there aren’t any in the old fashioned sense of necessary and sufficient conditions. Instead, the goal is to learn from each other and gain some clarity in terms of what, if anything, a claim to do “qualitative research” implies.

The presenter will start the workshop off with some claims that he thinks the word "qualitative" carries with it. It is the job of a presenter to lay out a framework that participants can use as the “before” picture. The framework includes a kind of logic and some thematic questions, together with a model of the research as fundamentally translational. Participants, including the presenter, will then agree, disagree, explore in detail, expand, modify, deconstruct, transdisciplinize, metamorphose, and otherwise react and collectively build in any number of ways. But mostly with reference to particular examples from their own work. Cosmic flights of the imagination must start on the ground and return there in short order. As collective workshop interests emerge, we will select domains of shared relevance to dive into. The model is jazz improvisation rather than a classical score.

Before the workshop, think about "qualitative" with reference to your own work. What devil made you do it? How did you learn to do it? What writings about it make sense in describing it and why? What are the key differences between it and "normal" social research, from first contact with "subjects" or "consultants" or—what do you call them?—and the day when you publish or give a paper? How did you write or talk it? How do your various audiences, critics, and colleagues react to your work? For that matter, how do you explain what you do at family dinners?

The workshop presenter is the author of an introduction to ethnography called The Professional Stranger. If you'd like a preview of his current version of qualitative essentials, two articles on his web page—www.ethknoworks.com—outline the basics. In the left hand column, click on An Ethnography by Any Other Name for a link to the e-journal where it was published. It describes a logic for ethnography. Also on the left hand side is an article described as "about language learning and translation as models for linguistics in ethnography." It links to a journal page, where you click on "Previous Issues" and then type the presenter's name in the search box. The "qualitative research as translation" theme is one he is working on now. These two sources, as promised earlier, are meant only as starting points to get the debate going, not as destinations.




By Their Words Shall Ye Know Them
Workshop #2

Michael Agar

The title continues the precedent of biblical allusions from Workshop #1, this time with a popular misquote from Matthew in the New Testament. We now shift from the macro question of qualitative research to the fine-grained details of how to do things with words, to steal the title of Austin's famous book that founded speech act theory.

This workshop explores a field with roots in many others--discourse analysis, conversation analysis, pragmatics—which in turn have even deeper roots in Malinowski's language theory of 1923. For our purposes we will work from the following premise:

Language, that uniquely human symbolic system, is the publicly available surface of the worlds we mean to explore as well as the means by which we explore them.

To make best use of the time, we will focus on a transcript that participants will create, preferably from their own research. They will need the original recording, something to play it on, and any preliminary transcript if one has been done. The more the participant knows about the actual occasion from which the transcript comes, the better. Best of all if the participant was actually part of the occasion him or herself.

If you don't have your own transcript, or if you'd just rather start fresh, do a recorded interview before you come. Pick a friend or relative who knows something, or how to do something, about which you're curious, and have a conversation about it. Be sure and tell them, after the recorder is running, that you're doing this for a summer school, that only you and workshop participants will hear any part of it, that you'll protect their identity, that you'll erase it after the workshop, and that they can tell you to turn off the recorder or erase the whole thing at any time.

In either case, whether you bring your own research transcript or create one for the workshop, listen to the recording several times before you arrive. Load it into your IPod and wear it while you're commuting to work. Notice one or two portions of the recording that interest you. Don't worry about why, just notice. Do a rough transcript of at least 15 minutes worth, just in rough form. We'll work on detail in the workshop.

We're going to experiment with how to represent language in the transcript in detail and how to make inferences off those details into matters of biography, social context, culture, and who knows what else, as well as the interviewer's influence. Discourse analysis is the experimental lab of qualitative research. If one sees broad themes that one believes to be characteristic of a social identity, then one should be able to locate those themes in the details of what people who claim that identity say.

For those who want a preview of different ways of doing a transcript, Charles Antaki (http://www-staff.lboro.ac.uk/~ssca1/antaki1.htm) has put together a web site for beginners at http://www-staff.lboro.ac.uk/~ssca1/intro1.htm. Take a look if you like, especially at the differences in Transcripts 1, 2 and 3, as he shows how to add more detail. This workshop will approach discourse differently than the CA (conversation analysis) model he presents. And don’t worry about inserting detail in your own material. We'll talk about and experiment with that in the workshop.

The workshop presenter's book describing an overview of language and culture for general readers is Language Shock: Understanding the Culture of Conversation. There is a sample of transcript analysis in there, though most interest in the book over the years has come from those who are part of, or who are interested in, a multicultural/multilingual world. Not necessary for the workshop at all, but a background on the uses of language analysis in general in ethnography from the presenter's point of view.






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