Last March we were planning to focus on Theory in research design with Dr. Sharon M. Ravitch as our Mentor in Residence. We wanted to draw attention to her new book, Qualitative Research: Bridging the Conceptual, Theoretical, and Methodological.
It all seemed so calm and reasonable, but as everyone knows, COVID-19 happened and our plans shifted toward more immediate needs. I asked Sharon if she could shift gears and write something to help faculty and students who were suddenly trying to figure out how to proceed remotely. She wrote a series of posts, including one that offered significant pedagogical thinking: FLUX Pedagogy: Transforming Teaching & Learning during Coronavirus.
A year later, Dr. Ravitch and co-author Dr. Nicole Mittenfelner Carl reflect on what they’ve learned.
Methods Pedagogy for Practitioners: Supporting Students’ Wisdoms of Practice
“The new crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” – Antonio Gramsci
“I believe in intuition and inspiration. Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution. It is, strictly speaking, a real factor in scientific research.” – Albert Einstein
Qualitative research, like the pulsating life beating at its heart, is in a moment of radical flux. Questions abound about how to move forward with field research in these difficult and mercurial times. Research designs, data collection and analysis plans and processes—and even research questions and topics themselves—are changing to adapt to the current set of rapidly shifting realities, needs, and constraints caused by the COVID-19 global pandemic. People’s lives are disrupted and upended, both researchers and research participants, as are research studies, topics, settings, and timelines that made sense before March 12, 2020.
COVID-19 has important implications for student researchers in this moment including the need to 1) shift data collection plans and timelines; 2) conduct interviews and focus groups online, 3) employ new and different data collection methods, 4) shift research topics and questions to reflect new realities and priorities, 5) shift or add to data collection methods and instruments, 6) enact news kinds of validity in data collection and data analysis, 7) engage in collaboration and dialogic engagement online, and 8) change IRB and informed consent processes given changing conditions, the reality that people are overburdened, as well as work and travel restrictions. The qualitative research community must lift up critical and humanizing methodologies—with our participants, novice and student researchers, and each other—as vital to ethical research. This requires challenging biases and sedimented logics, lifting up collective imagination, and sharing inspiration through thought partnership as we endeavor to do “just research in contentious times” (Fine, 2017).
Practitioner-researchers, and those of us who teach them, should consider the specific implications this moment has for all dimensions of research. Importantly, it makes sense that qualitative methods are in flux given that validity in qualitative research is judged directly in relation to achieving fidelity to the complexity of people’s lived experiences in context (Ravitch & Carl, 2020). At this moment, this may require reevaluating and recalibrating research site and participant selection, topics, and research questions, adjusting theoretical and conceptual frameworks, shifting or changing data collection and analysis plans, and revising data collection instruments and plans for their implementation. It also means understanding ourselves and our social identities in new and more critical ways than ever before in this twin pandemic moment—which evinces deeper layers of researcher reflexivity such as racial literacy, all while adjusting to new patterns and challenges that shape our lives and our work.
Qualitative research broadly, and practitioner research specifically, requires fidelity to the complexities of research participants’ lived experiences in ways that challenge researcher power and the imposition of a researcher’s interpretive authority. Researcher and design responsiveness requires an emergent design approach, especially now. This means that elements of a study’s research design, such as participant selection and data collection methods, are carefully reconsidered in relation to emergent understandings and realities of participants’ views and experiences that surface during fieldwork. As we write,
Since participants’ experiences and mediating contexts are difficult to anticipate, identify, and articulate fully in advance of the implementation of research, researchers need to respond to these in real time once the research is underway. In fact, the primary criterion of qualitative validity is fidelity to participants and their experiences rather than a strict adherence to methods and research design (Ravitch & Carl, 2020, p. 18).
Responsive, emergent design research is contextually driven and involves a process-oriented, real-time approach to research design, data collection, and data analysis, which develops with intentionality during a research study in response to what is learned. In an emergent design approach, research questions and other elements of the research design such as data collection methods are reconsidered within the context of emergent understandings of various stakeholder views. Since participants’ experiences and mediating contexts are difficult to anticipate, identify, and articulate fully in advance of the implementation of research, researchers need to respond to these in real time once the research is underway. Within an emergent design approach, researchers and participants “work from local knowledge and interest; bridge to other knowledge domains; and liberate their local knowledge from its specific situated embodiment” (Cavallo, 2000, p. 780).
As qualitative researchers, we must use our collective imagination to push against current confines that constrain our abilities to engage in ethical research from relational and procedural standpoints. We need to commit to research that can actually respond to what we learn as we learn it and that engages the complexity of life, people, and settings as its central remit. This means considering how ethics relate to pandemic design choices, including micro design choices, which are the smaller but still important choices researchers make as we conduct our studies (Ravitch & Carl, 2020). Considerations such as scheduling interviews should be viewed as more than transactional choices in these times. Approaching our studies with a genuine respect for participants means that we make every effort to honor their realities (e.g., childcare, work schedules, privacy issues at different times of day) rather than placing a primacy on our own.
In the current milieu, one year into the pandemic, graduate students engaging in practitioner research need active support and thought partnership as they make emergent design methods choices and learn to be responsive researchers who enact humanizing methodologies in this unprecedented time. Some issues to consider and discuss with students/an advisor in relation to COVID-19 and shifting to online or socially distanced research methods, teams, groups, and courses include:
- Emergent design research plans and practices and their ethical implications
- Changes in topic/research questions and resulting changes in research design
- Online data collection methods—processes and ethics of emergent changes
- Methods and triangulation for validity in a rapidly changing time
- Iterative data collection and participant validation strategies (member checks) during a pandemic
- Participatory, multimodal, visual research methods
- Online dialogic engagement, inquiry groups, and collaboration
- Appreciative inquiry and trauma-informed/healing-centered interview techniques
- Participant recruitment and access issues and equitable representation
- How COVID-19 relates to/changes research topics, questions, processes.
Equity is Ethical
Issues of equity related to participant access and representation are central to making choices for validity and ethics, especially right now. One potential plus of pivoting to online data collection is access to a wider range of participants, though the opposite may also be true in a pandemic. This raises issues of equity and representation—if vulnerable groups and individuals are unable to engage in research because their lives are exponentially turned upside down, their stories and anything built from research may be exclusionary. In these times, so many different lines are blurred that, while stressful for graduate students, can enable qualitative researchers to reimagine methods with new kinds of criticality that moves the dial on issues of justice and human suffering starting from who is doing the research, who benefits, who is engaging, and who gets to decide the terms of any aspects of research (Ravitch & Carl, 2020).
Reflexivity in Flux
With all that’s going on in the world and in people’s lives, novice researchers need support to identify, examine, and challenge their own beliefs and assumptions as a central part of inquiry. Researchers must learn how to critically examine our own mindsets, tacit beliefs, and internalized knowledge hierarchies. It’s vital that researchers situate ourselves as learners, examine our ideologies, tacit beliefs and implicit biases, and work to ever-more critically understand how these shape our ideas and research. This requires researcher reflexivity—critically reading self with disciplined, curious, and compassionate humility. Implicit biases are often hard for individuals to identify themselves; this is why dialogic engagement becomes especially important while engaging in research at any time but especially during a pandemic. Opportunities for dialogic engagement with peers and advisors may not occur with the same frequency for many reasons including Zoom fatigue, isolation, and other challenges such as employment and caring for family. Making the time and space to engage with others in critical reflexivity to help researchers see their implicit biases is necessary in order to conduct equitable and just research. This is what we mean by reflexivity in times of flux.
Researchers should also take a reflexive learning stance on the contexts—near and far, personal and societal—that shape our research and our sites of research in and beyond the immediate setting. Through intentional, societally contextualized self-reflection that questions what researchers know and how we know it, researchers open up possibilities for authentic learning and inquiry.
To better align research with our shared humanity and push beyond constructed binaries in this moment of change and recalibration, we draw on Kapadia’s Chronic Illness Methodology (2016), which is an intentionally embodied, relational, critical methodological approach to designing and conducting research. Chronic Illness Methodology recognizes that everyone, including researchers and participants, are central to and embodied in the research process (Kapadia, 2016). This methodology is for all bodies and focuses particularly on participant wellbeing throughout all aspects of researching and writing to ensure “a critical focus on participants’ layered and societally contextualized stories of their own lives” (Kapadia, 2016, p. 16). Approaching methodology as an embodied project that values and includes all bodies is one of the ways researchers can use this moment to make catalytic change in the field.
What about participants during COVID-19?
In this moment of global, institutional, familial, and inter/personal stress, student researchers should actively consider how this time period impacts participants’ lives differently in relation to status and finances, whether or not they have family or community supports, and how people have unique coping mechanisms formed from past experiences that may or may not serve them well in the present moment. The realities of COVID-19 and ongoing civil unrest add urgency to the call for responsive methods. This urgency requires research to unlearn much of what we have learned in order to enact a “responsive and humanizing approach to research based in reflexive inquiry and
collective care” (Pak & Ravitch, 2021, p. 36). Critical research approaches allow researchers to “tell a different story” (Fine, 2017, p. 11). Thus, this current time period presents a unique opportunity to engage in more-imaginative and less-traditional approaches, including participatory action research and critical multimodal research to tell new stories (Pak & Ravitch, 2021).
Moving data collection online creates specific confidentiality, validity, and ethical issues that need to be identified and addressed as part of research design (Ravitch & Carl, 2020). It is vital that students develop relational strategies for vetting, rehearsing, and piloting data collection instruments proactively. As their professors and advisors, we should teach our students to intentionally plan, rehearse, and reflect on online data collection processes and give them opportunities to practice inside of our courses to ensure that the research experience is generative, engaged, and enriching. As we teach these tenets, processes, and practices, the words of Adrienne Maree Brown (2017) reverberate, “Liberated relationships are one of the ways we actually create abundant justice, the understanding that there is enough attention, care, resource, and connection for all of us to access belonging, to be in our dignity, and to be safe in community.” In the same way that we teach our students to intentionally engage in practices of abundance with their participants and in their research designs, we need to intentionally engage in our students’ questions, struggles, learnings, and practices with relational ethics, compassion, criticality, and responsiveness.
In this fraught and confusing time in society and for research, we wish you and your students good health, safety, and time for intention. Qualitative researchers generate powerful stories of healing, connection, and transformation. Right now, practitioner researchers, and those who teach them, can be truth-listeners and truth-truthtellers for the world. We have a unique positionality and set of skills to serve as night lanterns in these dark times. Together, we can foreground critical intuition and lift up collective imagination in the struggle for justice and peace, kindling each other’s and our students’ light through attention, care, resource, and connection as we work to build a liberating future. Our experiences of the world as we knew it may be in flux, but this flux also gives us the opportunity to ask, one year into the pandemic, “What does COVID-19 make possible?”
References Shulman, L. S. (1987). The wisdom of practice: Managing complexity in medicine and teaching. In D. C. Berliner & B. V. Rosenshire (Eds.), Talks to teachers: A festschrift for N.L. Gage (pp. 369–386). New York: Random House.
Brown, A. M. (2017). Emergent strategy: Shaping change shaping worlds. Chico, CA: AK Press.
Cavallo, D. (2000). Emergent design and learning environments: Building on Indigenous knowledge. IBM Systems Journal, 39(3–4), 768–781.
Einstein, A., & Shaw, B. (1931). Cosmic religion: With other opinions and aphorisms. New York, NY: Covici-Friede.
Fine, M. (2017). Just research in contentious times: Widening the methodological imagination. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Gramsci, A., Hoare, Q., & Nowell-Smith, G. (1972). Selections from the prison notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. New York, NY: International Publishers.
Kapadia-Bodi, M. (2016). Stories of our working lives: Literacy, power, and storytelling in the academic workplace. University of Pennsylvania. Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI10158578. https://repository.upenn.edu/dissertations/AAI10158578
Pak, K. & Ravitch, S. M. (2021). Critical leadership praxis for educational and social change. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Ravitch S. M. & Carl, M. N. (2020). Qualitative research: Bridging the conceptual, theoretical, and methodological. (2nd Ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
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