March Focus: Theory & Research Design

Categories: Focus Series, MentorSpace, Other, Research Design, Theory

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This month we will explore research design, with a focus on theory and conceptual frameworks. Find the unfolding series here.

Learn something new
about theory and research design!

We will explore qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. Dig into new perspectives on styles you’ve used, and branch out to discover new approaches. Throughout the month you will find original posts, interviews, open-access articles and resources to help you discover new insights and tips about theory and research design.

Meet our Mentor-in-Residence for March 2020!

Dr. Sharon Ravitch is the co-author of a new edition of Qualitative Research Bridging the Conceptual, Theoretical, and MethodologicalShe answered a few questions to kick off the series.

Dr. Sharon Ravitch

JS. The focus for March is “Theory and Research Design.” The second edition of your book Qualitative Research: Bridging the Conceptual, Theoretical, and Methodological points to the need to build bridges between theories and methods. Why do you feel this is important for qualitative researchers?

SR. To answer this I’ll first make a statement and then explain it. Research is not neutral, it is situated and political. Qualitative researchers are trying to understand phenomena as they are lived by other people in ways that do justice to the complexity and nuances of their lived experiences. Understanding that who we are is shaped by macro socio-politics, which instantiate themselves in micro settings and relationships (and in our consciousness), is at the heart of understanding the complexity and tensions of studying into people’s lived experiences.

Theories, which are disciplined ways of making sense of specific aspects of the world, provide frames that direct our focus to seeing, with thoughtful criticality, that which we might take for granted if only considered within the confines of our own mind, field, and social constructions. Theories take on many forms, and our axiologies—our value systems and the choices we make from them—direct us to choose or to build (or to ignore) certain theories.

It is vital to be clear, first with oneself and then with one’s thought communities and research audiences, about which theories contextualize and elucidate the core aspects of your study in ways that help you, as the researcher, to explicate the contextual realities that shape and mediate your study in the specific chosen setting and population.

JS. What starting point do you suggest for novice researchers at the beginning of the design stage? Should they start with theory, methodology, methods?

SR. I say start with PEOPLE! Talk to a few thoughtfully selected people. Ask them what may seem like basic questions to warm up:

  • What do I care most about in this study?
  • What do I most want to learn about and why?
  • Who do I need to speak with to learn more about this at this stage of development?
Use the code SAGE2020 for a discount!

Consider which experts—broadly defined since in qualitative research everyone is an expert of their own experience—to have conversations or informal interviews with as an early way to learn more about how to approach studying your intended topic and population. Starting and working on these phases of design simultaneously helps to develop the research more ecologically. For example, my graduate students do a “2-pager” (examples in the book), to hone their individual research questions, possible theories and bodies of literature to consult, possible site and populations, data collection methods and validity strategies, and to ask their early questions. They send the 2-pager to 3-5 people for dialogic engagement and thought partnership. This is a critical and effective way to iterate the emerging research topic, questions, and research design. For example, figuring out the “who” (i.e., participant selection) helps iterate the research questions, or figuring out perspectival triangulation needed for a full view shifts the focus of a study.

JS. You discuss “horizontals in qualitative research – criticality, reflexivity, collaboration, and rigor.” Can you briefly explain what this means for new researchers?

SR. We call these horizontals because they are through-lines across all processes of qualitative research. Criticality is about approaching people and the world with a set of ideas and understandings shaped theories and frameworks that interrogate societal constructions of power, hegemony, identity, structural racism and inequality. Reflexivity is about understanding how macro-sociopolitics shape one’s own psyche, belief systems, and ways of seeing and being in the world. It’s also about seeing how all relationships, including research relationships, are shaped by power and identity hierarchies mediated by a system of white dominance.

Since the researcher is the primary instrument of research in qualitative research—meaning that we are the primary lens and filter—means that we must commit to examining our own social locations and positionalities and their impact on the research process and product. Collaboration is about relational validity—how can we engage thought partners who challenge our assumptions, biases, and prejudices and how they inevitably instantiate themselves in our research? The central goal of reflexivity is to examine these questions in ways that generate methodological address of these issues.

Rigor is about the level of intention and systematicity that we invite, engage, enact, and make ourselves accountable to in our research; rigor in design, implementation, analysis, and representation makes validity possible. These four horizontals intersect and build on each other as a system of intentional accountability in ethical and trustworthy qualitative research.

JS. Tell us about your efforts to update this book. What has changed in the world of research, what influences did you take into account in this edition?

SR. Our new edition weaves critical social theories and theories of human development such as racial literacy and recast theory, critical race theory and theories of intersectionality, and post-colonial theory, into a user-friendly introductory-level text for students of qualitative research.

The book is a vibrant, explicated meeting place of a range of theories of, and approaches to, qualitative research that are anti-hegemonic, reflexive, and person-centered. This was true in the first edition and it is far deepened in this one, quite intentionally with respect to how we approach designing and doing research that is equity-driven, attentive to issues of intersectional identities and oppressions, reflexive, creative, etc. We engage this in the works we cite and suggest as well as in the student examples annotated in the 2nd edition.

For example, we annotate a full dissertation proposal by Iván Rosales Montes, who tackles deficitizing and white dominating narratives of/approaches to English Language Learners in US public schools. We have also integrated additional artifacts from other students engaging in work with/on/by minoritized populations to show the import, value, and uses of qualitative research for tackling societal issues and fomenting social transformation. In this edition we work to challenge status quo thinking and approaches in qualitative research by including a renewed focus on politics and implicit bias in participant selection, issues of representation in writing and multi-model research, emic and etic issues in analysis, resisting and challenging the imposition of interpretative authority, and building an authentic way to systematically address how power mediates research process and product. 

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