‘Getting out of the swamp’: Recording the intellectual work at the start of the qualitative research process

This blog post is prompted by some reading I have been doing about realist qualitative research. I have never considered myself a realist before. I have always been seduced by grounded theory approaches, and in particular, constructive grounded theory, elaborated by Charmaz (2006). However, as I have started to engage more with the literature about realist approaches to qualitative research (e.g. Maxwell, 2012 and Emmel, 2014) and put into practice the secondary analysis of existing qualitative datasets in order to develop new empirical research, realism now seems much more relevant to me.

Since starting my research project, and even before, when I was drafting and writing the funding bid, I had been doing a considerable amount of intellectual work. Prior to securing the funding for the project, I jotted down ideas on random scraps of paper (some of which I find in the neat scribbles of my notebooks) or on my iPhone note app; I shared and refined my ideas through conversations with colleagues and other academics at conferences; I began to develop a more coherent narrative about my research interests and eventually, developed funding bids; a fair few unsuccessful and finally, one successful. Throughout this time I was working on other research projects and developing theoretical positions that fed into the design of my developing research problem.

Post-funding, rather than launch into empirical investigation, I have continued this intellectual work for some ten months. I interact with colleagues regularly (old and new) to develop my ideas, I have engaged with relevant literature and, quite unusually, have analysed existing empirical evidence in order to arrive at research questions for new empirical enquiry. This involved meeting with the primary research teams from those datasets in an attempt to gain an understanding of the original contexts of data production and, as mentioned at the start of this post, a rethinking about my own methodological standpoint.

None of these activities, except perhaps the secondary analysis, will be unfamiliar to researchers; these are the ‘early processes of intellectual and reflexive engagement with the research problem’ that every qualitative researcher undertakes (Emmel, 2014, p. 80). Referencing Greenhalgh (2008), Nick Emmel (2014) uses the metaphor ‘getting out of the swamp’ to describe this part of the research process because it can be a frustrating, unpredictable and time consuming time. However, all of this work is also incredibly important foundational work that has fed into my decisions about how the research should progress; from the initial ideas, to developing the funding bid, to awareness of the influence of the various theoretical positions of other colleagues with a stake in their datasets and the new research, all of which are implicated in the framing of my research.

To use realist terminology, each of the above are examples of the generative mechanisms (or powers and liabilities) that have shaped my research and by extension that will shape my sampling choices and potentially the interpretation of the empirical evidence the project generates. My original research ideas and interests are a product of my theoretical understanding of the social world guided by my biography, the social world and the research communities I have been part of and continue to be part of now. I also have records of the institutions and social contexts that act as the external powers within which the research is being conducted.

Against the grain of grounded theory approaches and in line with a purposive realist strategy, I have been keeping a record of these processes, both in a personal academic diary, but also more publicly on my research blog (see my Diary of a Research Fellow series – links below). Not only have I kept a record of the practicalities or developing a research project but I also have a record of the generative mechanisms framing my research and how these will be brought to bear on the choices I make about who and what to sample in the upcoming fieldwork. This intellectual and reflexive work is the very foundation through which I will purposefully choose information rich cases to be strategically compared in the new empirical project in order to revise, elaborate and reconstruct theory in relation to men’s fulfillment of their care responsibilities in low-income localities.

For further reading, I recommend Nick Emmel’s (2014) book Sampling and Choosing Cases in Qualitative Research and his accompanying research blog, 39 steps.

The following are links to Diary of a Research Fellow as examples of recording how I am beginning to get ‘out of the swamp’ as a qualitative researcher for my current project ‘Men, poverty and lifetimes of care’:

Part One – Starting Out – Here I establish a more public sharing of the intellectual and reflexive work I intend to share on my research blog, in relation to my research on men’s care responsibilities low-income localities.

Part Two: Mind Mapping – Describes a method of organising research ideas but my own presuppositions, theories and ideas are also generative mechanisms that frame the study.

Part Three: Getting myself and the project established – Describes some of the activities I have conducted to get the project established. This is some of the intellectual and reflective work I have been doing to establish the research.

Part Four: Qualitative Secondary analysis and realist methodology – describes my emerging engagements with realist methodology and the process of qualitative secondary analysis which is an unusual approach to developing a research project.

Part Five a: Holding a stakeholder meeting and co-production

Part Five b: Running a stakeholder meeting with the third sector (Stakeholders and/or gatekeepers are external generative mechanisms in that they can constrain sample choice. They may have a say over who you can access and who you can’t access based o their opinion of their appropriateness of participation in the research.)

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