Toward a Methodological Stance

Final paper for Approaches To Qualitative Inquiry with Colleen Larson

Section 1: Reflections on Received View of Research

I was raised by two medical researchers and a former astrophysicist, surrounded by stacks of quantitative journals. I rarely questioned the assumption that quantitative empirical research is the gold standard of truth, and that while subjective accounts are interesting and illuminating, they are not ultimately reliable. From scientists I learned that stories belong to mythology, while facts do not necessarily organize themselves in ways that can be apprehended so easily. Creation myths tell the story of a human-scale world in which humans are the most important element. Astrophysicists tell us that the universe is unfathomably vast and incomprehensibly old, and that we are insignificant in the grand scheme of things, while evolution teaches that we are more like mushrooms or daisies than unlike them. It is axiomatic for scientists that reality is empirically knowable, and while social and emotional considerations are a fact of life, they are noise to be filtered out.

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A participant ethnography of the Ed Sullivan Fellows program

Note: I refer to mentors by their real names, and to participants by pseudonyms

Ed Sullivan Fellows (ESF) is a mentorship and artist development program run by the NYU Steinhardt Music Experience Design Lab. It came about by a combination of happenstances. I had a private music production student named Rob Precht, who had found my blog via a Google search. He and I usually held our lessons in the lab’s office space. Over the course of a few months, Rob met people from the lab and heard about our projects. He found us sufficiently inspiring that he approached us with an idea. He wanted to give us a grant to start a program that would help young people from under-resourced communities get a start in the music industry. He asked us to name it after his grandfather, Ed Sullivan, whose show had been crucial to launching the careers of Elvis, the Beatles, and the Jackson 5. While Rob’s initial idea had been to work with refugees who had relocated to New York, we agreed to shift the focus to native New York City residents, since our connections and competencies were stronger there.

Ed Sullivan Fellows

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Ain’t No Makin’ It

Assignment for Approaches to Qualitative Inquiry with Colleen Larson

If you’re looking for a gripping and highly readable (though depressing) sociological study, I strongly recommend this one.

Ain't No Makin' It

The purpose of MacLeod’s study is to understand how class inequality reproduces itself, using the example of two groups of young men living in a housing project. He asks how these young people reconcile America’s dominant ideology of individual achievement, where success is based on merit, and economic inequality is due to differences in ambition and ability, with the reality of the participants’ own limited choices and opportunities. In particular, MacLeod addresses the question of whether education ensures equality of opportunity as it is purported to do.

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Examining the Assumptions Underpinning Interpretive Inquiry

Note-taking for Approaches to Qualitative Inquiry with Colleen Larson

Willis, J.W., (2007) Foundations of Qualitative Research, Sage, chapters 5-6.

Jerry Willis - Foundations of Qualitative Research

Postpositivist social science research involves six steps:

  1. Find an idea to research. The idea can come from anywhere, including your experience or whatever qualitative data.
  2. Develop or select a theory. It can be a nineteenth century style all-encompassing theory, a Merton-style midlevel theory, or a minitheory like learned helplessness. Sometimes you choose a theory to test first and then look for a way to test it.
  3. Develop specific, testable hypotheses derived from your theory (the hypothetico-deductive model.)
  4. Design a study to objectively gather quantitative data under controlled conditions that allow you to draw conclusions about your hypotheses.
  5. Analyze the data using standard statistical techniques and interpret the results using the guidelines of the scientific method. A positive outcome supports your theory but doesn’t prove it beyond any doubt.
  6. Report your work in an objective scientific paper format.

When social scientists differ on the outcomes of research, it’s usually a conflict of paradigms. In the 1950s and 1960s, psychological studies of gay people found they weren’t as “well adjusted” as straight people of similar backgrounds and age. At the time the assumption was that homosexuality was a deviant pathology, so that alone explained the unhappiness of gays. When the field started thinking of homosexuality as just another sexual preference, they interpreted gay unhappiness as the result of persecution by a hostile society. The same empirical observations support different conclusions depending on your assumptions. So is postpositivism in social science really more about arguing beliefs than proving truths?  Continue reading

Descriptive Participant Observations on the Culture of the Park Slope Food Coop

Writing assignment for Approaches to Qualitative Inquiry with Colleen Larson

The Park Slope Coop (PSFC) is a nonprofit organization founded in 1973. It offers sustainably and ethically produced food and grocery items. Because it needs only to cover costs rather than turn a profit, the PSFC’s prices are substantially lower than a typical Brooklyn grocery store. Since its founding, it has grown from a small ad-hoc organization into a substantial neighborhood institution with over 17,000 members. Only Coop members are allowed to shop, and members are required to work a monthly two hour and forty-five minute volunteer shift. This is unusual—most food coops give members the option of paying a membership fee rather than working. The PSFC is managed by a core staff of paid employees, but members perform much of the day-to-day labor, which helps keep costs low.

Park Slope Food Coop exterior

The aisles are narrow, stacked floor to ceiling with inventory. Per the web site, the store carries “local, organic and conventionally grown produce; pasture-raised and grass-fed meat; free-range, organic and kosher poultry; fair-traded chocolate and coffee; wild and sustainably farmed fish; supplements and vitamins; imported and artisan cheese; freshly baked bread, bagels and pastries; bulk grains and spices; environmentally safe cleaning supplies, and much more.” The PSFC generates over fifty million dollars in sales revenue per year, with a “shrink rate” (merchandise lost, damaged or stolen) of about half the industry average. The environment feels markedly different from a typical grocery store. There is a conspicuous absence of candy, magazines, soda, marketing aimed at kids, and branding and marketing generally. The only periodical available is the PSFC’s own Linewaiter’s Gazette, which resembles a high school newspaper.

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The Interpretive Turn: From Sociological Positivism to Constructivism

Note-taking for Approaches to Qualitative Inquiry with Colleen Larson

Willis, J.W., (2007) Foundations of Qualitative Research, Sage, chapters 1-4.

Jerry Willis - Foundations of Qualitative Research

The simplest way to define the difference between quantitative and qualitative research methods is that one uses numbers and the other uses words. But in reality, qualitative researchers use stats too, and all quantitative studies contextualize their findings with qualitative arguments. The real difference is not in the type of data being collected and studied; it’s the foundational assumptions behind each method, otherwise known as their underlying paradigms.

Paradigms of inquiry Continue reading