Next week I teach about writing up qualitative research. I feel quite confident in teaching students about the genre of the qualitative research paper. What always makes me pause as a teacher is how to teach students the power and responsibility that comes with representing the “other” qualitatively. I have always believed the qualitative researcher has an amazing amount of power. Walking into a site automatically places the researcher in a power position—I can change lives (even if just for the moment) by listening closely, observing intently, and being curious about the “other.” And then the researcher has the daunting task of doing justice to the site and people in writing. That is hard.
I try to live qualitatively. I remind myself to see the world qualitatively. I attempt to interact with the world qualitatively (this is all despite my internal, nagging need to control and predict). This means that when I travel, I do what I ask students to do in their research. I listen closely, observe intently, and remain curious. I look for locals to talk with. I ask their names. I ask them to talk with me about life in their space. Some provide very little information. Others provide quite a bit. But I always ask.
I have just returned from a conference in Memphis. I had a particularly ethnographic experience in Memphis. In talking with those who make Memphis their home and in walking through some of the Memphis experiences I came to feel a strange sense of being in some sort of surreal, comedic, yet profound space. I am struck that capturing this is a particularly daunting task. So I try here to do what I ask my students to do every semester I teach qualitative research methods. I try to capture a site and its participants. In my time in Memphis, I crossed paths with many people who call it home—Mark, Daniel, Julie, Rooster, Kris, Sean, Justin, Joe, Brian and Kali to name a few. Below I do my best to capture their world, as it intersected with mine during the time I was there.
Airline attendant: What’s in the bag ma’am?
Me: A stuffed duck.
Airline attendant: A stuffed duck?
Me: Yes, a stuffed duck. You know, the Peabody ducks.
Airline attendant: You have too many bags to carry on the plane, ma’am.
Airline attendant: You are going to have to check the duck, ma’am.
Me: Really? But, it will get dirty.
Airline attendant: I’m sorry. You are going to have to check the duck.
Me: I’ll take it out of the bag. I mean, it could be considered a pillow, not a bag. I really would prefer to carry the duck.
The flight attendant must have noticed my dismay, because she let a slight smile escape and said, “Go ahead with the duck. Have a nice flight back to Raleigh.”
It is hard to understand the world of others. It takes energy to know what they know, see what they see, and feel what they feel. It takes effort, determination, and skill. As a qualitative researcher, I try to do this every time I walk on a site. I try to teach my students to do the same. And I try to hone those skills as I walk through my non-academic life. I try not to walk through life from the outside looking in. I do my best to gain a glimpse of the inside world of the places I visit.
“Come on in, ladies… come eat here—best place on Beale.”
Departing from the Beale Street crowd who is ignoring this plea, I step off the main sidewalk to interact with the gentleman who has just spoken to us.
“Ok—what’s on the menu?” I ask.
“Chicken and waffles.”
“Chicken and waffles—are you kidding?” (Now I’m very interested).
“No I’m not kidding—haven’t you ever heard of a chicken and waffle restaurant?”
“To be honest—no. But tell me more—what’s the concept here?”
“Well, you’ve got your chicken. That’s a little spicy. Then you’ve got your waffle—a little sweet. Perfect combination—ying and yang, ya know?”
“Uh huh… well, let’s say I want ribs…” I say, as almost as a test.
“We can do that too. Ribs and waffles—ying and yang.”
“What if I just want a waffle?” I tease.
“Well, we can do that too. But it kinda misses the point. It disrupts the ying and yang.”
There I was, standing squarely in the middle of the hotel room whose balcony staged the tragedy of Martin Luther King’s assassination. I have to admit, I had heard about the Civil Rights Museum, but I was not expecting to be so taken with the space. We had spent close to an hour walking through the museum, which is designed to take you through a historical recounting of the civil rights movement. My eyes hurt after reading all the information that was on the walls and in the displays. I turned the corner and looked to my left and there I was—in the middle of the hotel room amidst the material items that were there the night Martin Luther King was killed. I glanced ahead and found myself looking out from the balcony where King was shot.
I couldn’t move.
I felt like I would disrupt something.
I knew that what happened there did disrupt something.
Is there any way I, as a qualitative researcher, cannot disrupt a space? By simply being there, I change it. And if I take my role seriously, I cannot help but interact with people. And if I do my job well, I gain insight into their lives that moves beyond the surface. Curiosity leads to questioning. Questioning leads to insight. Insight often leads to more curiosity. The cycle continues. The insights become more in depth and the interactions more substantive. I cannot help but disrupt the space.
“Next you will enter the jungle room…look to your right and notice the…”
The voice kept talking in my headset as I walked through Graceland. From room to room, the audio player provided information about Elvis’ life and music. It was a script with which I was familiar. I was glad, though, when we walked out the back door and I was able to turn it off. I really wanted to write my own script. I walked down the pathway. I turned the corner and looked to my left and there I was—standing right in front of a towering, white marble cross with a resurrected statue of Jesus on front and the words “PRESLEY” carved on the bottom.
It was probably not the right thing to do.
I imagined I might get kicked out of Graceland.
Now that would be disruptive, wouldn’t it?
“Did you hear that one of the Peabody ducks escaped?” a colleague asked at the airport.
“Are you kidding?”
“No. It left the fountain after being bugged by the boy duck and then just started running around the lobby. For what seemed like forever, countless people were running around the lobby chasing the duck and trying to catch it.”
“Yep, it was quite the event… ”
I could just imagine the headline: “Duck Leaves Palace and Enters Human World Causing Major Disruption to Peabody Hotel Guests.”
Every morning and 11:00 am, the ducks at the Peabody Hotel march from their Duck Palace on the roof to the elevator, ride the elevator down to the lobby, and then march across a red carpet into a the famous Peabody fountain for the day. At 5:00 pm, they reverse the process. I quite enjoyed watching it. I was intrigued by my own fascination. At one point, I sat staring at the Duck Palace on the roof of the Peabody hotel, drinking a bellini, curious about why I was so mesmerized. After all, there is something just a bit comedic about ducks marching on a red carpet. On my last day in Memphis, they were marching “new” ducks (every three months they retire the ducks to a farm and bring new ones in). The duck escape happened with one of the new ducks.
New qualitative students who enter my class often express some anxiety over leaving their academic palaces and going into the worlds of others. They hold tightly to the need to just be a fly on the wall. They are afraid of influencing the environment. They don’t know what to do if a participant talks with them. They get concerned when they actually start identifying with participants and having feelings about the site. They feel like a fish—or duck—out of water. I try to maintain a sense of calm with them. I try to tell them that they must do their best to be an insider from the outside. I encourage them to connect, even though they will (by the nature of the process) have to disconnect. Ying and yang, ya know?
So, what did I leave with after my time in Memphis, other than a bobble head Elvis and a large, bright yellow stuffed duck?
I am left with the awareness that living life qualitatively—embracing curiosity, openness and a willingness to engage—can be powerful. As a qualitative researcher I know this. As a person who much prefers to be in control and to “carry the duck” (if you will), I often need reminding. I appreciate the gentle reminder to let go and remain open, to delight in the unexpected, to relish in the comedic, to be intrigued by the absurd, and to authentically engage. In those unexpected moments of engagement –with a site and its people—there lies the potential for connection and understanding.
Authentic interactions are powerful. They can be disruptive. They can change things, momentarily and momentously. That is the good news.
I know this.
I teach this.
I leave Memphis having felt it.