A Qualitative Space Cadet

Although I no longer consider myself to be deeply inured in the academic system, there are still days where I spend a lot of time thinking about the nature of research and the processes which go into interpreting and communicating the world around us. My graduate days, after all, are still relatively close behind me.

One of the most influential memories that I have from my graduate experience was an excerpted chapter that I read in Dr. Susan Arai‘s class. The chapter was called “Being a methodological space cadet” and was part of a larger work entitled Critical Moments in Qualitative Research (edited by Hilary Byrne-Armstrong, Joy Higgs, & Debbie Horsfall). We were, at the time, exploring which methodology to use for our larger, qualitative (i.e. social science) thesis projects. A methodology is a systematic, theoretical analysis of the methods or body of methods in a field of study or branch of knowledge (Wikipedia article).

Photo credit to Jon Danziger 2013.

I recall Dr. Arai’s class, and in particular this reading, with some clarity because it left quite an impact on me emotionally. It reminded graduate students that arrogance and empty assumptions about the operations of the world are temptingly easy paths; humility and openness to the real world are challenges. A person who is trying to change the world with ideas cannot be locked up in a space suit, physically and mentally separated from the phenomena they are examining.

The chapter also addressed some of the key struggles of qualitative researchers, including crises of confidence, choosing between a vast array of methodologies and methods, and the non-linear process of research. I spent a fair amount of my time as a graduate student lost in the phenomenological methodology, working out the different approaches, rationales, and philosophies of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. I did, at times, feel like I was adrift in space. Hence the aptness of the chapter’s title describing a qualitative researcher as a ‘space cadet’.

In the daily parlance, ‘space cadet’ can also mean someone who is so “easily lost in reverie that he or she loses all awareness of the surrounding physical world” (see the Urban Dictionary description here). A person who is debating the relative merits of the coding versus the narrative approach to their interview transcripts can seem like an individual weightlessly floating in a world without gravity. However, allowing oneself to think carefully and fully about a particular issue means that you can create real insight into the matter. People who fall into reveries may be thought odd in polite society, but can have a rich and rewarding intellectual life.

This chapter reminds university and everyday researchers about several important practices to keep when examining the world:

  • Don’t be arrogant or high-minded; divest yourself of prejudice and get deeply involved with whatever you’re thinking about.
  • Don’t worry about getting lost or confused over the approaches you’re taking or have taken. In time, the ‘answers’ will make themselves clear (research, after all, is a non-linear process).
  • Give yourself fully to the idea or ideas which captivate you. You will be rewarded with great insights!

Have you ever read an article which has stayed with you for years afterwards? What did it say, and why was it so important to you? Comment below to share!

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