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Qualitative research as public scholarship

Randall F. Clemens

Originally posted at

At this year’s AERA conference, Bill Tierney and I presented a paper, “The Role of Ethnography as Ethical and Policy-Relevant Public Scholarship.” We had a great panel, including Rob Rhoads, Jessica Lester, Laurence Parker, and Yvonna Lincoln. Fellow blogger Antar chaired. Michelle Fine acted as discussant, providing great commentary.

The idea for the symposium developed after Bill sent a link to an article in The Chronicle about Goffman’s On the Run. If you remember, last year, I blogged about the book. Rather than focusing narrowly on Goffman’s research—many people have already critiqued her work—the session focused broadly on concerns of conducting ethnography as public scholarship.

What is public scholarship? Stated simply, it is a scholar’s engagement with multiple publics in order to inform social issues, provoke civic participation, and promote social justice. Typical examples include writing nonfiction books, appearing on NPR, and creating policy reports. This blog is a form of public scholarship. Unconventional acts—although, certainly not rare—include teaching courses, participating in local political movements, and conducting participatory action research. The difference between the first and second categories depends on the scholar’s level of engagement. A nonfiction book creates a one-way conversation from researcher to reader. Organizing a neighborhood-based planning committee or providing a summer outreach program involves collaborative engagement.

Qualitative research is particularly well-suited for more participatory examples of public scholarship. For years, the Pullias Center, based on research, provided mentoring services for students in Los Angeles. They even created and shared an infographic (another form of public scholarship). And, among other examples, they have developed apps and games to reach more students.

Public scholarship, as an abstract concept, seems noble and harmless. Why wouldn’t scholars want to advocate for social justice and facilitate deliberative democracy? In practice, it is considerably more complicated. While some (particularly those who believe in positive science) may disagree, all research is a political act. To engage with multiple publics draws attention to its political nature and makes researchers vulnerable to critique. That makes some uncomfortable.

For qualitative researchers, whose work is often misunderstood or dismissed, public scholarship poses even more risks. Think about two examples:

  • A group of university researchers conduct a large-scale experimental study. Education Week writes about it. The study gains national attention. Policymakers use the findings to argue for reforms. Later, statisticians at a think tank contest the validity of the findings. Debates ensue about the researchers’ methodological decisions.
  • A researcher conducts a five-year ethnography. The scholar publishes a book that becomes a NY Times best-seller. She performs a popular TED talk and appears on national news outlets. Journalists and scholars begin to critique her work. Discussions transition from the topic of the book to the qualifications of the researcher.

How do the two scenarios differ? There is often a degree of separation between quantitative researchers and their studies. Critics may read the methods section and think, “That’s a terrible design.” But, they typically don’t denigrate the researchers. The same separation does not exist for qualitative scholars. If critics perceive a problem, they often target the methods and the researchers. At a certain level, this makes sense. The researcher is the instrument. However, having witnessed enough controversies, the discussions often become personal, not professional. Instead of discussing flaws in the methods, critics target defects in the researcher.

Still, qualitative research as public scholarship is important and necessary. It contributes unique and grounded perspectives and contests deleterious stereotypes. It also has the ability to incite change.

The question then becomes, how might qualitative researchers improve the utility of their research as public scholarship and, relatedly, establish standards and techniques to enhance the quality of their work. These are a few of the issues Bill and I address in our paper. We plan to revise it this summer and invite feedback. If you have suggestions, let me know via comments, email, or Twitter.