‘Elephants in the room!’ 23 Nov 2012

‘Elephants in the room!’

Liz Stanley, University of Edinburgh

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2012) ‘Elephants in the room!’ Whites Writing Whiteness www.whiteswritingwhiteness.ed.ac.uk/news-and-blog/blog/elephants-in-the-room-23-nov-2012/ and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

Qualitative Longitudinal Research event Southampton 15 November 2012: ‘Interdisciplinary perspectives on continuity and change: what counts as QLR?’ http://newfrontiersqlr.wordpress.com/

Para 1     I enjoyed this first QLR event, including because of its diversity, although personally I would have liked more shorter sessions and fewer big papers and respondents to these (lots of chatty snacks rather than a succession of large two-course meals perhaps). However, the purpose of my blogging is not this, but to raise three points about this diversity and some interesting and fairly fundamental things which seemed to underlie our discussions but which didn’t really get picked up or commented on to any great extent because of time reasons.

Para 2     The first elephantic point, which I briefly raised towards the end of the day, is a biggy that concerns what ‘longitudinal’ is and what its relationship is to ‘cross-sectional’. The people who gave papers were nearly all doing two (or three) cross-sectional investigations, and only one was doing something more continuous and in this sense longitudinal, although of course even with the seemingly continuous in data terms there are likely to be intervals between. A really interesting question lurks here: at what point does ‘repeats in a cross-sectional analysis’ become longitudinal, and at what point does longitudinal in fact mean only ‘more than one cross-section’? In some ways this may not matter (if it’s good, it’s good…) – but if the collective ‘we’ wishes to stake a claim for something called qualitative longitudinal research, then it will be useful to contemplate the question and perhaps come up with a range of possible answers so we can debate them.

Para 3     The second point is also elephantine large and concerns time and whether the research stance we adopt is retrospective, that is, inquiring about things which have already happened, or prospective, that is, inquiring about now and what is still to come. All research accounts (call them interviews, fieldnotes, surveys, what you will) are accounts and not straight-forwardly referential; but an account given with hindsight knowledge of events gone by has a different configuration (in relation to time, but other things too of course) than an account given concerning which people have no hindsight and are concerned with ‘the moment’ and those to come. Again, the question is interesting and raises something about temporality and QLR which is fairly fundamental, including because among other things it impacts on the knowledge claims that a piece of research can and cannot appropriately make.

Para 4     There is also a third elephant in the corner, which concerns QLR research which generates and uses researcher-generated accounts for analysis (eg. interviews), and QLR research which uses found or ‘naturally occurring’ (not a phrase I’m entirely happy with) data (eg. archive documents). In research terms, this too is a large and important matter and once more raises some profound issues. A colleague once protested to me that archive documents (and letters in particular) were all over the place and had lots of things in them they and their research weren’t interested in, while interviews and surveys went straight to the point, while ethnography was somewhere between. For some of us, it’s the ‘all over the place’ we’re interested in, of course; but even if not, surely we can all still concede that the choices made here do indeed make a difference.

Para 5     I could bang on about how these three things shape up in relation to my recent (the Olive Schreiner Letters Online, see www.oliveschreiner.org) and new (how South African whites have represented whiteness and its ‘Others’ over a 200 year period, see www.whiteswritingwhiteness.ed.ac.uk) ESRC projects, but this will in part be what I’ll be talking about at the Manchester QLR event on seriality and duration and so will desist. However, it would be quite handy, at least for me, to have longitudinal/cross-sectional, generated/found and retrospective/prospective in mind as our collective QLR deliberations unfold before the Manchester event in March, and I hope to have some interesting discussions with other folk about such matters in Cardiff.

Liz Stanley, Sociology, University of Edinburgh, liz.stanley@ed.ac.uk

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