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Life history as movie

Randall F. Clemens

I originally published this blog on September 24, 2009.

A few days ago I called my friend, a graduate student in screenwriting. He happened to be on location, shooting video for a movie. They were driving around Los Angeles, getting the best of the best, a pretty building here, a nice park there. Afterwards they cobbled all the shots into one scene.

This is not a revelation. Anybody who has watched a movie set in a familiar place knows filmmakers frequently take locations blocks or even miles apart and scrunch them together. I remember watching a movie set in Washington D.C.; the main character, escaping from some villains, ran from Northwest to Southeast in 30 seconds. It was quite a feat. Sometimes the city isn’t even the same. Why shoot in New York when Montreal is cheaper? 

An analog exists between what filmmakers and researchers do: we both present narratives. A director, however, can pick and choose and take shortcuts. He does not have to represent Los Angeles as it is; instead, he presents it as best befits the story. A qualitative researcher has an obligation to present the city as it is (or at least tell the reader why the city may not be a true representation).

A common misconception about qualitative research is that it is easy. Bad qualitative research is easy. Good research is not. Good research requires skill, time, and constant analysis and self-reflection.

I am currently collecting data for a life history about a first-year college student. I usually communicate with her via email or text three or four times a week, and on average I spend three hours a week with her. Sometimes I conduct formal taped interviews; sometimes she walks me around campus; sometimes we discuss classwork and homework; and sometimes we just talk about life. One time I even fixed the chain on her bike. But all the time I am collecting data, formally or informally.

I don’t have to commit so much time to this research project. I could meet with her once or twice a month during her freshman year and write an informative, provocative article about the challenges of a first-year student. But that article, like the filmmaker and his city, would be more a representation of me than her.

No, good qualitative research is not easy. But, it is rewarding.