Qualitative Research: Academic and Administrative

September 4, 2011, 1:22 pm

Unlike my friend Tenured Radical, who has to teach on Labor Day, I am using this long weekend to write a long-overdue article based on some qualitative research I conducted. Even though I am an administrator now, I still have to keep up my research and finish up tasks that I took on when I was still a faculty member. I am excited to have time to devote to this research project, as I tend to analyze data and write in massive chunks of time rather than half an hour here and there. I need to immerse myself in qualitative data and think about little else to produce something good.

As I work to pull my analysis together in ways that make sense, I find myself amused by some aspects of qualitative research and questioning other aspects. I laughed aloud at some of the errors in the transcription, the result of having an outside service transcribe my taped interviews. Usually the errors are small and easily identified. For example, one sentence read, “Much to the sheer grin of some people in the institution,” which I had to read aloud to get the real word, chagrin. Other errors were a result of lack of familiarity with the topic. So, if I had been researching budgets and had spoken about “line items,” it would come back as “live items.”

I talked to the transcriptionist when I submitted the first recordings, asking for specific approaches to unclear bits of tape, specific topics, etc. I also tried to read all of the transcriptions as I got them, while listening to the interview audiotapes, but I gave up when they came back too quickly to process. I decided to wait until I was coding them to make fixes. However, even now, after coding,  I find that I am still finding errors. That is a bit of a bummer. Still, I don’t think this errors are changing the meaning of my analysis, and that is really the point.

I hate to admit that I have never seen the movie, but I've known the term for years.

The other, bigger issue is integrating information from many sources about the same topic or event. You get so much clearer about the constructed nature of reality when you try to make sense of so many conflicting stories. Qualitative data collection often produces one big Rashomon Effect, and it makes developing coherence in analysis damn near impossible. On the plus side, qualitative data provides complexity and depth that other data analysis methods just don’t offer. I take heart from my historian friends, who also sort through tons of data to produce a coherent analysis, and know that the task is doable.

All of this qualitative data analysis reminds me of some of the challenges of being an administrator in a new setting. Everyone wants to explain to me what the problems are, what has been tried before and failed, why it failed, what we should do differently, and how to best go about effecting change. Of course, the perspectives they offer are often wildly divergent about each topic, leaving the discerning qualitative researcher to ponder how to identify what is truly important, what is most accurate, what is most helpful to planning for change, and what is the best course to follow. Perhaps the best information I have gathered is about the “tellers” themselves: what they choose to include and what they leave out tells me a lot about the people with whom I am working. I get insight into personal interests and old grudges, barriers and resources, and these help me as much as anything concrete my new colleagues have to say.

I have also realized that, just like having an outside service do transcription sometimes requires extra effort and costs you clarity as a researcher, delegating work to other people can have its own costs. I have learned that delegating means that the work that is produced by your faculty and staff is different than you would have done it (better and worse). And if you want more control over the final product, you have to give better directions on the front end or do cleanup on the back end.

So, in my research and my administrative work, I am sorting through data, working to produce a coherent story and a final product of which I can be proud. It is nice to know that some skills and lessons translate well. Now, I just have to find a nice quantitative researcher and an economist to get me through the other aspects of the administrative job!

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