Writing a Qualitative Study
Writing and composing the narrative report brings the entire study together. Borrowing a term from Strauss and Corbin (1990), we are fascinated by the architecture of a study, how it is composed and organized by writers. We also like Strauss and Corbin’s (1990) suggestion that writers use a “spatial metaphor” (p. 231) to visualize their full reports or studies. To consider a study spatially, they ask the following questions: Is coming away with an idea like walking slowly around a statue, studying it from a variety of interrelated views? Like walking downhill step by step? Like walking through the rooms of a house? We are intrigued by what Pelias (2011) refers to as realization (the writer’s process) and record (the completed text)—specifically how we might make this progression less obscure. Engaging in the process of writing a qualitative study can be considered ambiguous because “we may not realize what we have or know where we are going” (Charmaz, 2014, p. 290). In short, we may not be able to trace the path our writing process has taken until we complete the written report.
In this chapter, we assess the general architecture of a qualitative study, and then we invite the reader to enter specific rooms of the study to see how they are composed. In this process, we begin with revisiting the key ethical considerations for writing a qualitative study. Then we present four writing strategies for addressing issues in the rendering of a study regardless of approach: reflexivity and representation, audience, encoding, and quotes. Then we take each of the five approaches to inquiry and assess two writing structures: the overall structure (i.e., overall organization of the report or study) and the embedded structure (i.e., specific narrative devices and techniques that the writer uses in the report). We return once again to the five examples of studies in Chapter 5 to illustrate overall and embedded structures. Finally, we compare the narrative structures for the five approaches in terms of four dimensions. In this chapter, we will not address the use of grammar and syntax and will refer readers to books that provide a detailed treatment of these subjects (e.g., Creswell, 2014; Strunk & White, 2000; Sword, 2012).
Questions for Discussion
Ethical Considerations for Writing
Before considering the architecture underpinning writing qualitative studies, we carefully consider relevant ethical issues (see initial discussion in Chapter 3). In particular, we must attend to the application of appropriate reporting strategies and compliance with ethical publishing practices (see Table 9.1). For appropriate reporting strategies, it is essential that researchers tailor reports to diverse audiences and use language that is appropriate for target audiences. To comply with ethical publishing practices, researchers must create reports that are honest and trustworthy, seek permissions as needed, ensure same material is not used for more than one publication, and disclose funders and beneficiaries of the research.
Creswell (2016) presents an adapted checklist from the “Ethical Compliance Checklist” (APA, 2010, p. 20) to inform writing. These are questions that should be considered by all qualitative researchers about their study manuscripts and research proposals:
Several Writing Strategies
Unquestionably, the narrative forms are extensive in qualitative research. In reviewing the forms, Glesne (2016) notes that narratives tell stories that blur the lines between fiction, journalism, and scholarly studies. Other qualitative forms engage the reader through a chronological approach as events unfold slowly over time, whether the subject is a study of a culture-sharing group, the narrative story of the life of an individual, or the evolution of a program or an organization. Another form is to narrow and expand the focus, evoking the metaphor of a camera lens that pans out, zooms in, and then zooms out again. Some reports rely heavily on description of events, whereas others advance a small number of “themes” or perspectives. A narrative might capture a “typical day in the life” of an individual or a group. Some reports are heavily oriented toward theory, whereas others, such as Stake’s (1995) “Harper School,” employ little literature and theory. In addition, since the publication of Clifford and Marcus’s (1986) edited volume Writing Culture in ethnography, qualitative writing has been shaped by a need for researchers to be self-disclosing about their role in the writing, the impact of it on participants, and how information conveyed is read by audiences. Researcher reflexivity and representations is the first issue to which we turn.
Reflexivity and Representations in Writing
Qualitative researchers today are much more self-disclosing about their qualitative writings than they were a few years ago. Ronald Pelias (2011) describes reflexive writers as “ethically and politically self-aware, make themselves part of their own inquiry” (p. 662). No longer is it acceptable to be the omniscient, distanced qualitative writer. As Laurel Richardson wrote, researchers “do not have to try to play God, writing as disembodied omniscient narrators claiming universal and atemporal general knowledge” (Richardson & St. Pierre, 2005, p. 961). Through these omniscient narrators, postmodern thinkers “deconstruct” the narrative, challenging text as contested terrain that cannot be understood without references to ideas being concealed by the author and contexts within the author’s life (Agger, 1991). This theme is espoused by Denzin (2001) in his “interpretive” approach to biographical writing. As a response, qualitative researchers today acknowledge that the writing of a qualitative text cannot be separated from the author, how it is received by readers, and how it impacts the participants and sites under study.
How we write is a reflection of our own interpretation based on the cultural, social, gender, class, and personal politics that we bring to research. All writing is “positioned” and within a stance. All researchers shape the writing that emerges, and qualitative researchers need to accept this interpretation and be open about it in their writings. According to Richardson (1994), the best writing acknowledges its own “undecidability” forthrightly, that all writing has “subtexts” that “situate” or “position” the material within a particular historical and local specific time and place. In this perspective, no writing has “privileged status” (p. 518) or is superior over other writings. Indeed, writings are co-constructions, representations of interactive processes between researchers and the researched (Gilgun, 2005).
Also, there is increased concern about the impact of the writing on the participants. How will they see the write-up? Will they be marginalized because of it? Will they be offended? Will they hide their true feelings and perspectives? Have the participants reviewed the material and interpreted, challenged, and dissented from the interpretation (Weis & Fine, 2000)? Perhaps researchers’ writing objectively, in a scientific way, has the impact of silencing the participants and silencing the researchers as well. Czarniawska (2004) and Gilgun (2005) make the point that this silence is contradictory to qualitative research that seeks to hear all voices and perspectives.
Also, the writing has an impact on the reader, who also makes an interpretation of the account and may form an entirely different interpretation than the author or the participants. Should the researcher be afraid that certain people will see the final report? Can the researcher give any kind of definitive account when it is the reader who makes the ultimate interpretation of the events? Indeed, the writing may be a performance, and the standard writing of qualitative research into text has expanded to include split-page writings, theater, poetry, photography, music, collage, drawing, sculpture, quilting, stained glass, and dance (Gilgun, 2005). Language may “kill” whatever it touches, and qualitative researchers understand that it is impossible to truly “say” something (van Manen, 2006).
Weis and Fine (2000) discussed a “set of self-reflective points of critical consciousness around the questions of how to represent responsibility” in qualitative writings (p. 33). There are questions that can be formed from their major points and should be considered by all qualitative researchers about their writings:
Qualitative researchers need to “position” themselves in their writings. This is the concept of reflexivity in which the writer engages in self-understanding about the biases, values, and experiences that he or she brings to a qualitative research study. One characteristic of good qualitative research is that the inquirer makes his or her “position” explicit (Hammersley & Atkinson, 1995). We think about reflexivity as having two parts. The researcher first talks about his or her experiences with the phenomenon being explored. This involves relaying past experiences through work, schooling, family dynamics, and so forth. The second part is to discuss how these past experiences shape the researcher’s interpretation of the phenomenon. This is a second important ingredient that is often overlooked or often left out because the process is challenging and the lack of guiding resources (van Manen, 2014).
We suggest writing reflexive comments about what is being experienced as the study progresses—these might be observations during data collection or hunches about what the findings might indicate or reactions from participants during the study. These comments could be easily captured and retrieved using memo functions in qualitative software programs. Reviewing and then discussing how biases, values, and experiences impact emerging understandings is actually the heart of being reflexive in a study, because it is important that the researcher not only detail his or her experiences with the phenomenon but also be self-conscious about how these experiences may potentially have shaped the findings, the conclusions, and the interpretations drawn in a study. Thus, the act of writing a qualitative text cannot be considered separate from the author, the study participants, or the readers. The placement of reflexive comments in a study also needs some consideration.
The reflexive comments may be positioned in one or more positions in a qualitative study. Among the most popular placements involve the opening (or closing) passage of the study, a methods discussion in which the writer talks about his or her role in the study, and personal comments threaded throughout the study. It is not unusual to begin with a personal statement in a phenomenology whereby the authors disclose their backgrounds (see Brown, Sorrell, McClaren, & Creswell, 2006). Similarly, a case study may open with a personal vignette (see Stake, 1995) or end with an epilogue (see Asmussen & Creswell, 1995). As part of a methods description, a phenomenological researcher may disclose his or her experiences as health care provider for and a researcher of persons with HIV/AIDS as necessary for the interviewer to acknowledge and attempt to bracket those experiences (see Anderson & Spencer, 2002; Appendix C). Finally, the researcher may talk about his or her “position” in the introduction, the methods, and the findings or themes as is often the case in an ethnographic study (e.g., see Mac an Ghaill & Haywood, 2015; Appendix E).
Audience for Our Writings
A basic axiom holds that all writers write for an audience. As Clandinin and Connelly (2000) say, “A sense of an audience peering over the writer’s shoulder needs to pervade the writing and the written text” (p. 149). Thus, writers consciously think about their audience or multiple audiences for their studies (Richardson, 1990, 1994). Tierney (1995), for example, identifies four potential audiences: colleagues, those involved in the interviews and observations, policy makers, and the general public. More recently Silverman (2013) differentiated the expectations of academic and practitioner colleagues in that the former sought theoretical, factual, or methodological insights from our research, whereas the latter sought practical suggestions for better procedures or reform of existing practices. Identifying target audiences helps inform choices during the writing process. In short, how the report is structured depends on the readers you intend to engage with your writing. For example, because Fischer and Wertz (1979) disseminated information about their phenomenological study at public forums, they produced several expressions of their findings, all responding to different audiences. One form was a general structure, four paragraphs in length, an approach that they admitted lost its richness and concreteness. Another form consisted of case synopses, each reporting the experiences of one individual and each two and a half pages in length. More recently, MacKenzie, Christensen, and Turner (2015) discussed the challenges they experienced while trying to communicate their participatory research results with their indigenous participants.
Ravitch and Mittenfelner Carl (2016) discussed 14 questions related to the purpose and audience of a study. The following are adapted to inform writing decisions and should be considered by all qualitative researchers about their target audiences:
Encoding Our Writings
A closely related topic is recognizing the importance of language in shaping our qualitative texts. The words we use encode our report, revealing how we perceive the needs of our audiences. Earlier, in Chapter 6, we presented encoding the problem, purpose, and research questions; now, we consider encoding the entire narrative report. Richardson’s (1990) study of women in affairs with married men illustrates how a writer can shape a work differently for a trade audience, an academic audience, or a moral or political audience. For a trade audience, she encoded her work with literary devices such as the following:
Jazzy titles, attractive covers, lack of specialized jargon, marginalization of methodology, common-world metaphors and images, and book blurbs and prefatory material about the “lay” interest in the material. (Richardson, 1990, p. 32)
For the moral or political audience, she encoded through devices such as the following:
In-group words in the title, for example, woman/women/feminist in feminist writing; the moral or activist “credentials” of the author, for example, the author’s role in particular social movements; references to moral and activist authorities; empowerment metaphors, and book blurbs and prefatory material about how this work relates to real people’s lives. (Richardson, 1990, pp. 32–33)
Finally, for the academic audience (e.g., journals, conference papers, academic books), she marked it by the following:
Prominent display of academic credentials of author, references, footnotes, methodology sections, use of familiar academic metaphors and images (such as “exchange theory,” “roles,” and “stratification”), and book blurbs and prefatory material about the science or scholarship involved. (Richardson, 1990, p. 32)
Although we emphasize academic writing here, researchers encode qualitative studies for audiences other than academics. For example, in the social and human sciences, policy makers may be a primary audience, and this necessitates writing with minimal methods, more parsimony, and a focus on practice and results.
Richardson’s (1990) ideas triggered thoughts about how one might encode a qualitative narrative. Such encoding might include the following:
Quotes in Our Writings
In addition to encoding text with the language of qualitative research, authors bring in the voice of participants in the study. A good rule of thumb is that quotes should be as illustrative as possible and be contextualized, interpreted, and incorporated within the text of the manuscript (Brinkmann & Kvale, 2015). Writers use ample quotes, and we find Richardson’s (1990) discussion about three types of quotes most useful. The first consists of short, eye-catching quotations. These are easy to read, take up little space, and stand out from the narrator’s text and are indented to signify different perspectives. For example, in the phenomenological study of how persons live with AIDS, Anderson and Spencer (2002; see Appendix C) used paragraph-long quotes from men and women in the study to convey the “magic of not thinking” theme:
It’s a sickness, but in my mind I don’t think that I got it. Because if you think about having HIV, it comes down more on you. It’s more like a mind game. To try and stay alive is that you don’t even think about it. It’s not in the mind. (p. 1347)
The second approach consists of embedded quotes, briefly quoted phrases within the analyst’s narrative. These quotes, according to Richardson (1990), prepare a reader for a shift in emphasis or display a point and allow the writer (and reader) to move on. Harley et al. (2009; see Appendix D) used short, embedded quotes extensively in their grounded theory study because they consume little space and provide specific concrete evidence, in the participants’ words, to support a theme such as the initiation phase:
Many of the women were juggling careers and family, so time out for themselves was another important benefit of physical activity. One woman explained, “I had a little time for me. I started enjoying it. I started liking it.” (p. 103)
A third type of quote is the longer quotation used to convey more complex understandings. These are difficult to use because of space limitations in publications and because longer quotes may contain many ideas, and so the reader needs to be guided both “into” the quote and “out of” the quote to focus his or her attention on the controlling idea that the writer would like the reader to see. Frelin (2015; see Appendix F) used longer quotes to describe the impact of time on the development of teacher-student relationships:
That you always have the time to spend with a student, and can sit down and talk if you see that something is wrong. You can always have a proper conversation with a student. Always. It is fantastic, but you can’t do that at compulsory school when you have a group of 30 and need to rush off to the next lesson. (p. 598)
Overall and Embedded Writing Strategies
In addition to these writing approaches, the qualitative researcher needs to address how he or she is going to compose the overall narrative structure of the report and use embedded structures within the report to provide a narrative within the approach of choice. We offer Table 9.2 as a guide to the discussion to follow, in which we list many overall and embedded structural approaches as they apply to the five approaches of inquiry.
Narrative Writing Structures
As we read about the writing of studies in narrative research, we find authors unwilling to prescribe a tightly structured writing strategy (Clandinin, 2013; Clandinin & Connelly, 2000; Czarniawska, 2004; Riessman, 2008). Instead, we find the authors suggesting maximum flexibility in structure (see Ely, 2007) but emphasizing core elements that might go into the narrative study. In so doing, Clandinin (2013) describes the writer as well positioned for matching the narrative structures to the particular study context:
As narrative inquirers, we need to hold open and to make visible the ways that participants, and we, struggle for that coherence, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. We must, in the composing, co-composing and negotiation of interim and final research texts, make visible the multiplicity, as well as the narrative coherence and lack of narrative coherence, of our lives, the lives of participants, and the lives we co-compose in the midst of our narrative inquiries. (p. 49)
Narrative researchers encourage individuals to write narrative studies that experiment with form (Clandinin, 2013; Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). Researchers can come to their narrative form by first looking to their own preferences in reading (e.g., memoirs, novels), reading other narrative dissertations and books, and viewing the narrative study as back-and-forth writing, as a process (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). Within these general guidelines, Clandinin and Connelly (2000) review two doctoral dissertations that employ narrative research. The two have different narrative structures: One provides narratives of a chronology of the lives of three women; the other adopts a more classical approach to a dissertation including an introduction, a literature review, and a methodology. For this second example, the remaining chapters then go into a discussion that tells the stories of the author’s experiences with the participants. Reading through these two examples, we are struck by how they both reflect the three-dimensional inquiry space that Clandinin and Connelly (2000) discuss. This space, as mentioned earlier, is a text that looks backward and forward, looks inward and outward, and situates the experiences within place. For example, the dissertation of He, cited by Clandinin, is a study about the lives of two participants and the author in their past life in China and in their present situation in Canada. The story does the following:
[It] looks backward to the past for her and her two participants and forward to the puzzle of who they are and who they are becoming in their new land. She looks inward to her personal reasons for doing this study and outward to the social significance of the work. She paints landscapes of China and Canada and the in-between places where she imagines herself to reside. (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000, p. 156)
Later in Clandinin and Connelly (2000), there is a story about Clandinin’s advice for students about the narrative form of their studies. This form again relates to the three-dimensional space model:
When they came to Jean for conversations about their emerging texts, she found herself responding not so much with comments about preestablished and accepted forms but with response that raised questions situated within the three-dimensional narrative inquiry space. (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000, p. 165)
Notice in this passage how Clandinin “raised questions” rather than told the student how to proceed, and how she returned to the larger rhetorical structure of the three-dimensional inquiry space model as a framework for thinking about the writing of a narrative study. This framework also suggests a chronology to the narrative report, and this ordering within the chronology might further be organized by time or by specific episodes (Riessman, 2008).
In narrative research, as in all forms of qualitative inquiry, there is a close relationship between the data collection procedures, the analysis, and the form and structure of the writing report. For example, the larger writing structure in a thematic analysis would be the presentation of several themes (Riessman, 2008). In a more structured approach—analyzing how the individual tells a story—the elements presented in the report might follow six elements, what Riessman (2008) calls a “fully formed narrative” (p. 84). These would be the elements of the following:
In a narrative study focused on the interrogation between speakers (such as the interviewer and the interviewee), the larger writing structure would focus on direct speech and dialogue. Further, the dialogue might contain features of a performance, such as direct speeches, asides to the audience, repetition, expressive sounds, and switches in verb tense. The entire report may be a poem, a play, or another dramatic rendering. In previous chapters, we have described narrative studies that illustrate these narrative elements (see Chan, 2010; Appendix B), and we encourage you to review them for similarities and differences in how the studies are presented.
Assuming that the larger writing structure proceeds with experimentation and flexibility, the writing structure at the more micro level relates to several elements of writing strategies that authors might use in composing a narrative study. These are drawn from Clandinin (2013), Clandinin and Connelly (2000), Czarniawska (2004), and Riessman (2008).
The writing of a narrative needs to not silence some of the voices, and it ultimately gives more space to certain voices than others (Czarniawska, 2004). In addition, there can be a spatial element to the writing, such as in the progressive–regressive method (Denzin, 2001) whereby the biographer begins with a key event in the participant’s life and then works forward and backward from that event, such as in Denzin’s (2001) study of alcoholics. Alternatively, there can be a “zooming in” and “zooming out,” such as describing a large context to a concrete field of study (e.g., a site) and then telescoping out again (Czarniawska, 2004). Huber and Whelan’s (1999) retelling of the narrative of a teacher’s identity shaping refers to personal background influences as she talks about more current professional experiences. Similarly, Ellis’s (1993) personal narrative of a family drama enacted in the aftermath of her brother’s death in airplane crash is told by alternating between descriptions of childhood experiences and those surrounding the crash.
The writing may emphasize the “key event” or the epiphany, defined as interactional moments and experiences that mark people’s lives (Denzin, 2001). Denzin distinguishes four types: the major event that touches the fabric of the individual’s life; the cumulative or representative events or experiences that continue for some time; the minor epiphany, which represents a moment in an individual’s life; and episodes or relived epiphanies, which involve reliving the experience. Czarniawska (2004) introduces the key element of the plot or the emplotment, a means of introducing structure that allows for making sense of the events reported.
Themes can be reported in narrative writing. Smith (1994) recommends finding a theme to guide the development of the life to be written. This theme emerges from preliminary knowledge or a review of the entire life, although researchers often experience difficulty in distinguishing the major theme from lesser or minor themes. Clandinin and Connelly (2000) refer to writing research texts at the reductionistic boundary, an approach consisting of a “reduction downward” (p. 143) to themes in which the researcher looks for common threads or elements across participants. Clandinin (2013) describes these threads as important for composing multiple narrative accounts.
Specific narrative writing strategies also include the use of dialogue, such as that between the researcher and the participants (Riessman, 2008). Sometimes in this approach the specific language of the narrator is interrogated and is not taken at face value. The dialogue unfolds in the study, and often it is presented in different languages, including the language of the narrator and an English translation. An example is provided by Chan’s (2010; see Appendix B) story of one Chinese immigrant student and the affiliation this student had with other students, her teacher, and her family where dialogue between the researcher and the student provided evidence for each theme. Each dialogue segment was titled to shape the meaning of the conversation, such as “Susan doesn’t speak Fujianese” (Chan, 2010, p. 117).
Other narrative rhetorical devices include the use of transitions. Lomask (1986) refers to these as built into the narratives in natural chronological linkages. Writers insert them through words or phrases, questions (which Lomask calls being lazy), and time-and-place shifts moving the action forward or backward. In addition to transitions, narrative researchers employ foreshadowing, the frequent use of narrative hints of things to come or of events or themes to be developed later. Narrative researchers also use metaphors, and Clandinin and Connelly (2000) suggest the metaphor of a soup (i.e., with description of people, places, and things; arguments for understandings; and richly textured narratives of people situated in place, time, scene, and plot) within containers (i.e., dissertation, journal article) to describe their narrative texts.
Phenomenological Writing Structures
Those who write about phenomenology (e.g., Moustakas, 1994; van Manen, 2014) provide more extensive attention to overall writing structures than to embedded ones. However, as in all forms of qualitative research, one can learn much from a careful study of research reports in journal article, monograph, or book form.
The highly structured approach to analysis by Moustakas (1994) presents a detailed form for composing a phenomenological study. The analysis steps—identifying significant statements, creating meaning units, clustering themes, advancing textural and structural descriptions, and ending with a composite description of textural and structural descriptions with an exhaustive description of the essential invariant structure (or essence) of the experience—provide a clearly articulated procedure for organizing a report (Moustakas, 1994). In our experience, individuals are quite surprised to find highly structured approaches to phenomenological studies on sensitive topics (e.g., “being left out,” “insomnia,” “being criminally victimized,” “life’s meaning,” “voluntarily changing one’s career during midlife,” “longing,” “adults being abused as children”; Moustakas, 1994, p. 153). But the data analysis procedure, we think, guides a researcher in that direction and presents an overall structure for analysis and ultimately the organization of the report.
Consider the overall organization of a report as suggested by Moustakas (1994). He recommends specific chapters in “creating a research manuscript”:
A second model, not as specific, is found in Polkinghorne (1989) where he discusses the “research report.” In this model, the researcher describes the procedures to collect data and the steps to move from the raw data to a more general description of the experience. Also, the investigator includes a review of previous research, the theory pertaining to the topic, and implications for psychological theory and application. We especially like Polkinghorne’s (1989) comment about the impact of such a report:
Produce a research report that gives an accurate, clear, and articulate description of an experience. The reader of the report should come away with the feeling that “I understand better what it is like for someone to experience that.” (p. 46)
A third model of the overall writing structure of a phenomenological study comes from van Manen (1990, 2014). He begins his discussion of “working the text” (van Manen, 1990, p. 167) with the thought that studies that present and organize transcripts for the final report fall short of being a good phenomenological study. Instead, he recommends several options for writing the study. The study might be organized thematically, examining essential aspects of the phenomenon under study. It might also be presented analytically by reworking the text data into larger ideas (e.g., contrasting ideas), or focused narrowly on the description of a particular life situation. It might begin with the essence description and then present varying examples of how the essence is manifested. Other approaches include engaging one’s writing in a dialogue with other phenomenological authors and weaving the description against time, space, the lived body, and relationships to others. In the end, van Manen suggests that authors may invest new ways of reporting their data or combine approaches.
Turning to embedded rhetorical structures, the literature provides the best evidence. A writer presents the “essence” of the experience for participants in a study through sketching a short paragraph about it in the narrative or by enclosing this paragraph in a figure. This latter approach is used effectively in a study of the caring experiences of nurses who teach (Grigsby & Megel, 1995). Another structural device is to educate the reader through a discussion about phenomenology and its philosophical assumptions. Harper (1981) uses this approach and describes several of Husserl’s major tenets as well as the advantages of studying the meaning of “leisure” in a phenomenology.
Finally, we like Moustakas’s (1994) suggestion: “Write a brief creative close that speaks to the essence of the study and its inspiration to you in terms of the value of the knowledge and future directions of your professional-personal life” (p. 184). Despite the phenomenologist’s inclination to bracket himself or herself out of the narrative, Moustakas introduces the reflexivity that psychological phenomenologists can bring to a study, such as casting an initial problem statement within an autobiographical context. In previous chapters, we have described phenomenologies that follow general outlines (see Anderson & Spencer, 2002; Appendix C), and we encourage you to review them for similarities and differences in how the studies are presented. Specifically, Anderson and Spencer’s phenomenology of how persons living with AIDS image their disease represented many of these overall and embedded writing structures. The overall article has a structured organization, opening with a quote from a 53-year-old man with AIDS, followed by a study introduction, a review of the literature, methods, and results. It followed Colaizzi’s (1978) phenomenological methods by reporting a table of significant statements and a table of meaning themes. Anderson and Spencer (2002) ended with an in-depth, exhaustive description of the phenomenon:
Results were integrated into an essential scheme of AIDS. The lived experience of AIDS was initially frightening, with a dread of body wasting and personal loss. Cognitive representations of AIDS included inescapable death, bodily destruction, fighting a battle, and having a chronic disease. Coping methods included searching for the “right drug,” caring for oneself, accepting the diagnosis, wiping AIDS out of their thoughts, turning to God, and using vigilance. With time, most people adjusted to living with AIDS. Feelings ranged from “devastating,” “sad,” and “angry” to being at “peace” and “not worrying.” (p. 1349)
A similar structured approach informed by Moustakas (1994) was taken in Padilla’s (2003) phenomenology of the lived experience of a disability of a woman who sustained a head injury 21 years ago. Quotes from the woman were used to begin and end the article and are embedded throughout—the only exception being the writer’s description of the background of the project.
Grounded Theory Writing Structures
From reviewing grounded theory studies in journal articles, qualitative researchers can deduce a general form (and variations) for composing the narrative. The problem with journal articles is that the authors present truncated versions of the studies to fit within the parameters of the journals. Thus, a reader emerges from a review of a particular study without a full sense of the entire project.
Most importantly, authors need to present the theory in any grounded theory narrative. To do this requires the writer to engage in an iterative process: “It means going back and forth between the sections to rethink, revise, and sometimes recast and rewrite” (Charmaz, 2014, p. 285). As May (1986) comments, “In strict terms, the findings are the theory itself, i.e., a set of concepts and propositions which link them” (p. 148). May (1986) continues to describe the research procedures in grounded theory:
Strauss and Corbin (1990) also provide broad writing parameters for their grounded theory studies. They suggest the following:
More specifically, in a structured approach to grounded theory as advanced by Strauss and Corbin (1990, 1998), specific aspects of the final written report contain a section on open coding that identifies the various open codes that the researcher discovered in the data, and the axial coding, which includes a diagram of the theory and a discussion about each component in the diagram (i.e., causal conditions, the central phenomenon, the intervening conditions, the context, the strategies, and the consequences). Also, the report contains a section on the theory in which the researcher advances theoretical propositions tying together the elements of the categories in the diagram, or discusses the theory interrelating the categories. In previous chapters, we have described grounded theory studies that follow this general outline (see Harley et al., 2009; Appendix D), and we encourage you to review them for similarities and differences in how the studies are presented.
For Charmaz (2006, 2014), a less-structured approach flows into her suggestions for writing the draft of the grounded theory study. She emphasizes the importance of allowing the ideas to emerge as the theory develops, revising early drafts, asking yourself questions about the theory (e.g., have you raised major categories to concepts in the theory?), constructing an argument about the importance of the theory, and closely examining the categories in the theory. Thus, Charmaz does not have a template for writing a grounded theory study but focuses our attention on the importance of the argument in the theory and the nature of the theory.
In grounded theory studies, the researcher varies the narrative report based on the extent of data analysis. Chenitz and Swanson (1986), for example, present six grounded theory studies that vary in the types of analysis reported in the narrative. In a preface to these examples, they mention that the analysis (and narrative) might address one or more of the following: description; the generation of categories through open coding; linking categories around a core category in axial coding, thus developing a substantive, low-level theory; and/or a substantive theory linked to a formal theory.
We have seen grounded theory studies that include one or more of these analyses. For example, in a study of gays and their “coming out” process, Kus (1986) uses only open coding in the analysis and identifies four stages in the process of coming out: identification, in which a gay person undergoes a radical identity transformation; cognitive changes, in which the individual changes negative views about gays into positive ideas; acceptance, a stage in which the individual accepts being gay as a positive life force; and action, the process of the individual’s engaging in behavior that results from accepting being gay, such as self-disclosure, expanding the circle of friends to include gays, becoming politically involved in gay causes, and volunteering for gay groups. Set in contrast to this focus on the process, Creswell and Brown (1992) follow the coding steps in Strauss and Corbin (1990). First, they examined the faculty development practices of chairpersons who enhance the research productivity of their faculties. They begin with open coding, move to axial coding complete with a logic diagram, and state a series of explicit propositions in directional (as opposed to the null) form.
Another embedded narrative feature is to examine the form for stating propositions or theoretical relationships in grounded theory studies. Sometimes, these are presented in “discursive” form, or describing the theory in narrative form. Strauss and Corbin (1990) present such a model in their theory of “protective governing” (p. 134) in the health care setting. Another example is seen in Conrad’s (1978) formal propositions about academic change in the academy.
Another embedded structure is the presentation of the “logic diagram,” the “mini-framework,” or the “integrative” diagram, where the researcher presents the actual theory in the form of a visual model. The researcher identifies elements of this structure in the axial coding phase, and then tells the “story” in axial coding as a narrative version of it. How is this visual model presented? A good example of this diagram is found in the Morrow and Smith (1995) study of women who have survived childhood sexual abuse. Their diagram shows a theoretical model that contains the axial coding categories of causal conditions, the central phenomenon, the context, intervening conditions, strategies, and consequences. It is presented with directional arrows indicating the flow of causality from left to right, from causal conditions to consequences. Arrows also show that the context and intervening conditions directly impact the strategies. Presented near the end of the study, this visual form represents the culminating theory for the study. Harley et al. (2009; see Appendix D) advance a visual of the theory about the evolution of physical activity involving a main progression of three phases (initiation, transition and integration) along with two alternatives described as the modification loop and the cessation loop.
Charmaz (2006, 2014) provides an array of embedded writing strategies useful in grounded theory reports including a centering of the analytical frameworks. Examples of grounded theory studies illustrate imparting mood or emotions into a theoretical discussion, straightforward language, and ways that writing can be accessible to readers such as the use of rhythm and time [e.g., “Days slip by” (Charmaz, 2006, p. 173)]. Charmaz also invites the use of unexpected definitions and assertions by the grounded theory author. Rhetorical questions are also useful, and the writing includes pacing and a tone that leads a reader into the topic. Stories can be told in grounded theory studies, and overall the writing brings evocative language to persuade the reader of the theory.
Ethnographic Writing Structures
Ethnographers write extensively about narrative construction, from how the nature of the text shapes the subject matter to the “literary” conventions and devices used by authors (Atkinson & Hammersley, 1994). The general shapes of ethnographies and embedded structures are well detailed in the literature.
The overall writing structure of ethnographies varies. For example, Van Maanen (1988; 2011) provides the alternative forms of ethnography. Some ethnographies are written as realist tales, reports that provide direct, matter-of-fact portraits of studied cultures without much information about how the ethnographers produced the portraits. In this type of tale, a writer uses an impersonal point of view, conveying a “scientific” and “objective” perspective. A confessional tale takes the opposite approach, and the researcher focuses more on his or her fieldwork experiences than on the culture. The final type, the impressionistic tale, is a personalized account of “the fieldwork case in dramatic form” (Van Maanen, 1988, p. 7). It has elements of both realist and confessional writing and, in our opinion, presents a compelling and persuasive story. In both confessional and impressionistic tales, the first-person point of view is used, conveying a personal style of writing. Van Maanen states that other, less frequently written tales also exist—critical tales focusing on large social, political, symbolic, or economic issues; formalist tales that build, test, generalize, and exhibit theory; literary tales in which the ethnographers write like journalists, borrowing fiction-writing techniques from novelists; and jointly told tales in which the production of the studies is jointly authored by the fieldworkers and the participants, opening up shared and discursive narratives.
On a slightly different note but yet related to the larger rhetorical structure, Wolcott (1994) provides three components of a good qualitative inquiry that are a centerpiece of good ethnographic writing as well as steps in data analysis. First, an ethnographer writes a “description” of the culture that answers this question: “What is going on here?” (Wolcott, 1994, p. 12). Wolcott offers useful techniques for writing this description: chronological order, the researcher or narrator order, a progressive focusing, a critical or key event, plots and characters, groups in interaction, an analytical framework, and a story told through several perspectives. Second, after describing the culture using one of these approaches, the researcher “analyzes” the data. Analysis includes highlighting findings, displaying findings, reporting fieldwork procedures, identifying patterned regularities in the data, comparing the case with a known case, evaluating the information, contextualizing the information within a broader analytic framework, critiquing the research process, and proposing a redesign of the study. Of all these analytic techniques, the identification of “patterns” or themes is central to ethnographic writing. Third, interpretation is involved in the rhetorical structure. This means that the researcher can extend the analysis, make inferences from the information, do as directed or as suggested by gatekeepers, turn to theory, refocus the interpretation itself, connect with personal experience, analyze or interpret the interpretive process, or explore alternative formats. Of these interpretive strategies, we like the approach of interpreting the findings both within the context of the researcher’s experiences and within the larger body of scholarly research on the topic.
A more detailed, structured outline for ethnography was found in Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw (2011). They discuss developing an ethnographic study as a “thematic narrative,” a story “analytically thematized, but often in relatively loose ways . . . constructed out of a series of thematically organized units of fieldnote excerpts and analytic commentary” (p. 202). This thematic narrative builds inductively from a main idea or thesis that incorporates several specific analytic themes and is elaborated throughout the study. It is structured as follows:
In previous chapters, we have described ethnographies that follow this general outline (see Mac an Ghaill & Haywood, 2015; Appendix E), and we encourage you to review them for similarities and differences in how the studies are presented.
Ethnographers use embedded rhetorical devices such as figures of speech or “tropes” (Fetterman, 2010; Hammersley & Atkinson, 2007). Metaphors, for example, provide visual and spatial images or dramaturgical characterizations of social actions as theater. Another trope is the synecdoche, in which ethnographers present examples, illustrations, cases, and/or vignettes that form a part but stand for the whole. See Rhoads (1995) for an example of an effective opening vignette in an ethnography of fraternity life on campus. Ethnographers present storytelling tropes examining cause and sequence that follow grand narratives to smaller parables. A final trope is irony, in which researchers bring to light contrasts of competing frames of reference and rationality.
More specific rhetorical devices depict scenes in ethnography (Emerson et al., 2011). Writers can incorporate details or “write lushly” (Goffman, 1989, p. 131) or “thickly” a description that creates verisimilitude and produces for readers the feeling that they experience, or perhaps could experience, the events described (Denzin, 2001; Fetterman, 2010). The ethnographic study of the core values of the straight edge (sXe) movement illustrated many of these writing conventions (Haenfler, 2004). He told a persuasive story, with colorful elements (e.g., T-shirt slogans), “thick” description, and extensive quotes. Denzin (2001) talks about the importance of using “thick description” in writing qualitative research. By this, he means that the narrative “presents detail, context, emotion, and the webs of social relationships . . . [and] evokes emotionality and self-feelings. . . . The voices, feelings, actions, and meanings of interacting individuals are heard” (Denzin, 2001, p. 100). As an example, Denzin (2001) first refers to an illustration of thick description from Sudnow (1978) and then provides his own version as if it were a thin description.
“Sitting at the piano and moving into the production of a chord, the chord as a whole was prepared for as the hand moved toward the keyboard, and the terrain was seen as a field relative to the task. . . . There was chord A and chord B, separated from one another. . . . A’s production entailed a tightly compressed hand, and B’s . . . an open and extended spread. . . . The beginner gets from A to B disjointly.” (Sudnow, 1978, pp. 9–10)
“I had trouble learning the piano keyboard.” (Denzin, 2001, p. 102)
Also, ethnographers present dialogue, and the dialogue becomes especially vivid when written in the dialect and natural language of the culture (see, e.g., the articles on Black English vernacular or “code switching” in Nelson, 1990). Writers also rely on characterization in which human beings are shown talking, acting, and relating to others. Longer scenes take the form of sketches, a “slice of life” (Emerson et al., 2011, p. 75), or larger episodes and tales.
Ethnographic writers tell “a good story” (Richardson, 1990). Thus, one of the forms of “evocative” experimental qualitative writing for Richardson (1990) is the fictional representation form in which writers draw on the literary devices such as flashback, flash-forward, alternative points of view, deep characterization, tone shifts, synecdoche, dialogue, interior monologue, and sometimes the omniscient narrator. Similarly, Wolcott (2008a) emphasizes the use of techniques for telling the story as a travelogue, life history, or organized around specific themes.
Case Study Writing Structures
Turning to case studies, we are reminded by Merriam (1988) that “there is no standard format for reporting case study research” (p. 193). Unquestionably, some case studies generate theory, some are simply descriptions of cases, and others are more analytical in nature and display cross-case or inter-site comparisons. The overall intent of the case study undoubtedly shapes the larger structure of the written narrative. Still, we find it useful to conceptualize a general form, and we turn to key texts on case studies to receive guidance.
One can open and close the case study narrative with vignettes to draw the reader into the case. This approach is suggested by Stake (1995), who provides an outline of topics that might be included in a qualitative case study. We feel that this is a helpful way to stage the topics in a good case study:
We like this general outline because it provides a description of the case; presents themes, assertions, or interpretations of the researcher; and begins and ends with realistic scenarios. In previous chapters, we have referred to case studies that follow this general outline (see Frelin, 2015; Appendix F), and we encourage you to review them for similarities and differences in how the cases are presented.
A similar model is found in Lincoln and Guba’s (1985) substantive case report. They describe a need for the explication of the problem, a thorough description of the context or setting, a description of the transactions or processes observed in that context, saliences at the site (elements studied in depth), and outcomes of the inquiry (“lessons learned”).
At a more general level yet, we find Yin’s (2014) 2×2 table of types of case studies helpful. Case studies can be either single-case or multiple-case designs and either holistic (single unit of analysis) or embedded (multiple units of analysis). Yin comments further that a single case is best when a need exists to study a critical case, an extreme or unique case, or a revelatory case. Whether the case is single or multiple, the researcher decides to study the entire case, a holistic design, or multiple subunits within the case (the embedded design). Although the holistic design may be more abstract, it captures the entire case better than the embedded design does. However, the embedded design starts with an examination of subunits and allows for the detailed perspective should the questions begin to shift and change during fieldwork.
Yin (2014) also presents several possible structures for composing a case study report. In a linear-analytic approach, a standard approach according to Yin, the researcher discusses the problem, the methods, the findings, and the conclusions. An alternative structure repeats the same case study several times and compares alternative descriptions or explanations of the same case. A chronological structure presents the case study in a sequence, such as sections or chapters that address the early, middle, and late phase of a case history. Theories are also used as a framework, and the case studies can debate various hypotheses or propositions. In a suspense structure, the “answer” or outcome of a case study and its significance is presented in an initial chapter or section. The remaining sections are then devoted to the development of an explanation for this outcome. In a final structure, the unsequenced structure, the author describes a case with no particular order to the sections or chapter.
What specific narrative devices, embedded structures, do case study writers use to “mark” their studies? One might approach the description of the context and setting for the case in a chronology from a broader picture to a narrower one. The gunman case (Asmussen & Creswell, 1995) begins with a description of the actual campus incident in terms of the city in which the situation developed, followed by the campus and, more narrow yet, the actual classroom on campus. This represents a funneling approach that narrowed the setting from a calm city environment to a potentially volatile campus classroom, and this approach seemed to launch the study into a chronology of events that occurred. Another example is provided by the multiple case study of technology integration across three schools (Staples, Pugach, & Himes, 2005). Each case description begins with the technology context that existed prior to the study, the changes that occurred during the study, and concludes with future projections. The chronological approach seemed to work best when events unfolded and followed a process; case studies often are bounded by time and cover events over time (Yin, 2014).
The case study describing the relational practices of a teacher who negotiates educational relationships with students who have a history of school failure (Frelin, 2015; see Appendix F) also represented a single-case study (Yin, 2014), with a single narrative about the case, its themes, and its interpretation. In other studies (e.g., Chirgwin, 2015; Staples et al., 2005), the case presentations are of multiple cases, with each case discussed separately with no separate discussions of each case but followed by an overall cross-case analysis (Yin, 2014). Another Yin (2014) narrative format is to pose a series of questions and answers based on the case study database.
Finally, researchers need to be cognizant of the amount of description in their case studies versus the amount of analysis and interpretation or assertions (Merriam & Tisdell, 2015). In comparing description and analysis, Merriam (1988) suggests that the proper balance might be 60% to 40% or 70% to 30% in favor of description. An examination of the gunman case revealed a balancing of elements in equal thirds (33% to 33% to 33%)—a concrete description of the setting and the actual events (and those that occurred within 2 weeks after the incident); the five themes; and our interpretation, the lessons learned, reported in the discussion section. Writers must make these decisions, and it is conceivable that a case study might contain mainly descriptive material, especially if the bounded system, the case, is quite large and complex.
A Comparison of Writing Structures Across Approaches
Looking back over Table 9.1, we see many diverse structures for writing the qualitative report. What major differences exist in the structures depending on one’s choice of approach?
First, we are struck by the diversity of discussions about narrative structures. We found little crossover or sharing of structures among the five approaches, although, in practice, this undoubtedly occurs. The narrative tropes and the literary devices, discussed by ethnographers and narrative researchers, have applicability regardless of approach. Second, the writing structures are highly related to data analysis procedures. A phenomenological study and a grounded theory study follow closely their data analysis steps. In short, we are reminded once again that it is difficult to separate the activities of data collection, analysis, and report writing in a qualitative study. Third, the emphasis given to writing the narrative, especially the embedded narrative structures, varies among the approaches. Ethnographers lead the group in their extensive discussions about narrative and text construction. Phenomenologists and grounded theory writers spend less time discussing this topic. Fourth, the overall narrative structure is clearly specified in some approaches (e.g., a grounded theory study, a phenomenological study, and perhaps a case study), whereas it is flexible and evolving in others (e.g., a narrative, an ethnography). Perhaps this conclusion reflects the more structured approach versus the less structured approach, overall, among the five approaches of inquiry.
In this chapter, we discussed writing the qualitative report. We began by revisiting ethical considerations and then by discussing several rhetorical issues the writer must address. These rhetorical issues include writing reflexively and with representation, the audience for the writing, the encoding for that audience, and the use of quotes. Then we turned to each of the five approaches of inquiry and presented overall rhetorical structures for organizing the entire study as well as specific embedded structures, writing devices, and techniques that the researcher incorporates into the study. A table of these structures shows the diversity of perspectives about structure that reflects different data analysis procedures and discipline affiliations. We concluded with observations about the differences in writing structures among the five approaches, differences reflected in the variability of approaches, the relationships between data analysis and report writing, the emphasis in the literature of each approach on narrative construction, and the amount of structure in the overall architecture of a study within each approach.
In addition to many of the resources already suggested in earlier chapters, which include strategies and guidance for writing and communicating qualitative research, we highlight a few here focused on information about procedures and issues about writing. The list should not be considered exhaustive, and readers are encouraged to seek out additional readings in the end-of-book reference list.
Denzin, N. K. (2001). Interpretive interactionism (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
In this second edition, Norman Denzin expands his guidance about how “to do” interpretive interactionism—that is to make the lived experiences successfully accessible to a reader.
Gilgun, J. F. (2005). “Grab” and good science: Writing up the results of qualitative research. Qualitative Health Research, 15, 256–262. doi:10.1177/1049732304268796
Jane Gilgun presents compelling historical and contemporary arguments for the use of first-person voice and guidance for writing qualitative research.
Richardson, L. (1990). Writing strategies: Reaching diverse audiences. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Laurel Richardson offers an important resource for guiding qualitative writing and how it needs to be adjusted based on the target audience.
Strunk, W., & White, E. B. (2000). The elements of style (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
William Strunk and E. B. White convey the principles of English style in an accessible manner with illustrative examples accompanying detailed descriptions. This is essential reading.
Sword, H. (2012). Stylish academic writing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Helen Sword describes the elements of stylishness for scholars writing for larger audiences. Of particular note are her chapters on “tempting titles” and “hooks and sinkers.”
Van Maanen, J. (2011). Tales of the field: On writing ethnography (2nd ed.). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
John Van Maanen unpacks the styles associated with written representations of culture. In so doing, he offers valuable advice to an ethnographer through illustrative examples and practices.
Weis, L., & Fine, M. (2000). Speed bumps: A student-friendly guide to qualitative research. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Lois Weis and Michelle Fine provide an excellent resource focused on reflexivity. Specifically, they clearly explain the potential impact of qualitative writing on readers, audiences, and the participants studied.
Wolcott, H. F. (2008b). Writing up qualitative research (3rd ed.) Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Harry Wolcott leads the reader through a time-tested process of interpreting and communicating qualitative research. Noteworthy are his guidance with respect to perseverance in writing and tightening the message.