How do you get started on a qualitative research project? Do you really need a research question, and if so, how do you come up with one? How exactly do you analyze your qualitative data? How do you deal with critics who are skeptical of qualitative research? How do you make sure that your research can stand up against valid criticism? These are questions I answer in my newest book, Rocking Qualitative Social Science. My real motivation in writing the book, however, was my own difficulty finding answers to these questions by stitching together answers from a wide variety of qualitative methods texts. I wanted to create a one-stop-shop guide. Part of the reason it was so difficult to find this guidance is it felt like there was no comprehensive guide on qualitative methods for scholars who think about methods like I do and like so many of my colleagues and students do.
There is a certain kind of qualitative scholar who doesn’t quite fit the mold usually addressed by standard qualitative methods texts. The type of qualitative scholar I have in mind spends their formative years (or decades) struggling because of these texts. Some scholars find these texts somewhat helpful but ultimately lacking; they feel the need to innovate or cobble together their own approach, drawing more heavily on the actual studies they wish to emulate rather than the methods texts’ advice. Others are convinced that these texts have conveyed The Right Way to do qualitative research and that they, our beleaguered researchers, are, or have been, doing it wrong; consequently, they struggle to adapt their preferred style to this narrower model of qualitative research. In the best-case scenario, a confident, savvy researcher with extra time to spare will read about a dozen or so methods texts, selectively pick and choose from the advice while ignoring the rest. But with increasing pressure to publish (not to mention, for many scholars, higher teaching, service, and advising loads) and crippling rates of anxiety, depression, and imposter syndrome for graduate students and early career faculty, the best-case scenario is unlikely. Rocking Qualitative Social Science is intended to circumvent these outcomes by providing qualitative scholars a guidebook detailing how to do the research they actually want to do, recognizing the diversity of valid techniques, methods, and strategies for conducting research.
So what is this alternative approach that I offer? It is characterized less by a specific technique or method, and more by a style or even an attitude toward research that embraces flexibility rather than rigidity at various steps in the research process; as a result, it tends to diverge from the narrowly construed Right Way as typically related in these other books. Scholars working within this approach start with an interest that gets refined in the field—whether that is in the archive, in a cafe reading online forum comments, or embedded in a unique social space for long-term observation. Their general question evolves over time or leads to important insights beyond their original question. For these scholars, data analysis is a deeply personal process that requires following their instincts, puzzlements, and even emotional reactions to their data. Ultimately, the work they produce departs from the “normal science” trajectory, and instead analyzes familiar objects in new ways, develops new concepts and theoretical frameworks, or challenges the norms of their subfields. This process of producing research often yields skepticism among those who are not familiar with it, but also anxiety for those going through it. Doing this type of research offers unique challenges, but it also yields opportunities for generating important, creative, even paradigm-shifting insights into their fields of inquiry. I call this approach the Dirtbagger approach to qualitative social science, using the label adopted by early U.S. rock climbers who committed themselves fully to a life of climbing, doing whatever it took to get by. These “Dirtbags” followed a countercultural ethos that was rejected and policed by mainstream society, a useful analogy for this kind of qualitative social science that is likewise rejected and policed by mainstream scholars.
Rocking Qualitative Social Science is a guidebook designed to help people, especially junior scholars or people new to qualitative methods, conduct good qualitative research, talk about their qualitative research (with both non-qualitative scholars and other qualitative scholars), and evaluate other scholars’ qualitative research. Although this book will be useful to qualitative researchers of all kinds, it focuses specifically on aiding the Dirtbaggers, or those spunky scholars left out of earlier texts. In part because qualitative researchers frequently operate from a point of defensiveness against scholars who prefer more traditional scientific methods, including (but not limited to) quantitative methods, most qualitative methods books are written in ways that translate qualitative methods to skeptical audiences who think qualitative methods are insufficiently rigorous. In the process, I argue, many of these texts end up downplaying those features of qualitative research that yield the most creative insights and instead producing fairly rigid recipes for research. The result is would-be Dirtbagger scholars pursue their projects wracked with guilt or insecurity that they are “doing it wrong” (not realizing that they are doing what many other researchers are doing). Alternatively, they do what they are told but grow increasingly frustrated with shoehorning their research into an uncomfortably narrow framework that prevents them from answering the questions they wanted to ask in the first place. The central message of this book is: rigorous research does not have to mean rigid.