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So you want to be a qualitative researcher in the 21st century

Randall F. Clemens

Originally posted at

A tension exists between old and new. In The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom explains the generational process among writers: Old poets inspire young poets. The apprentice learns to love form by reading the work of a skilled master. The beginner writes derivative verse. Anxiety stirs as she realizes the only way to establish a legacy is to break from tradition. And, that’s the rub.

The charm of Bloom’s theory is that it extends to numerous fields. Consider the myriad movies in which young protagonists ignore the sage advice of their battled-scarred mentors. Characters fail, fail, and fail again. And then, after sweaty and bruised adversity, they triumph. Hello, Karate Kid. Or, think about athletes. Young basketball phenoms like LeBron battle the legacies of legends like Jordan and Magic. Musicians provide yet another example—thankfully, Bird inspired Coltrane. The theory extends to more quotidian examples too. Children clash with parents. Students argue with teachers. The young fight for a trophy, the ability to say, “I did things my own way, a better way.” The trophy, of course, proves elusive.

As qualitative research enters an exciting moment, apprentice and master researchers are reenacting similar clashes in classrooms and research labs across the globe. “The methods are quaint,” the initiate says, “but I think they’re a little dusty. I can do better.” The mentor winces: How many times has she heard similar boasts?

Innovative technologies and digital media are providing new tools and venues. Consider the possibilities of research-based digital media. They can reveal complex processes that contribute to elusive opportunities for low-income students in ways that peer-reviewed articles cannot. Policymakers often grimace at pedantic and esoteric research. A digital short provides fertile ground for conveying the sorts of thick description qualitative researchers seek and also improving the relevance of research for policy stakeholders.

Novel methods are alluring, an opportunity for novice researchers to shape their legacies. But, like the young poet who privately spends thousands of hours mastering rhyme and rhythm or the basketball phenom who quietly practices drills in the gym, the innovative researcher is the product of hours and hours of unheralded work: planning, collecting, analyzing, producing, experimenting, revising, and repeating.

Rigorous designs depend on the ability of a scholar to undergird the process and product with traditional methods, all the while embracing emerging opportunities. A two-minute film excites. It also requires a complex set of skills. The researcher has to be well versed in fundamentals like interviewing and analyzing as well unconventional techniques like filming and editing. She has to understand triangulation and color theory, parallelism and the rule of thirds, NVivo and Final Cut. The challenge is formidable. But, the chance to experience that inventive moment, the next adjacent possibility, is worth the work.