The Marriage Between Description and Interpretation: Thoughts on Wolcott's Writing Up Qualitative Reseach
Wolcott, H.F. (1990). Writing up qualitative research. London: Sage.
"My assessment of qualitative studies in education is that they reveal a tendency toward heavy-handed or intrusive analysis, particularly among educational researchers who feel they not only know their educator audiences but know what is best for them. Informants in their accounts do little talking; the research does a lot. Every reported observation or quotation seems to prompt comment or interpretation on the part of the researcher (now turned theorist), something like the chatty guide who becomes rather than gives the tour - and assumes that, without such a monologue, we would not know what to think. I dub studies that exhibit intrusive analysis 'Grounded Theory - But Just Barely.' A variation of this approach occurs when researchers draw back the curtain to let us watch events unfold but constantly interrupt the account with scholarly interjections, as if duty-bound to remind us of their academic presence (p.29)." Separate description and interpretation. Pay attention "...to how other researchers handle the interplay between observational data and academic tradition. You may be surprised (even disappointed) to discover that some studies you previously regarded as exemplars of descriptive work actually are constructed upon a conceptual framework, with case data playing on an illustrative role (p. 29)." What do I think about this statement? Is that contrary to what we have been taught?
My first reaction was a desire for Mr. Wolcott to give some specific examples. Does a chatty guide know when he is talking too much? How does one be the perfect guide? What does the perfect marriage between description and interpretation look like? As I wade into the process of scholarly writing, Wolcott's thoughts made me instantly reflect on my own writing. Was I a chatty guide? How will I know without examples to which I can compare?
I also wondered why it seemed that Wolcott was disapproving of writing up research around conceptual frameworks. My impressions have been that we conduct research to make sense of our world, and in order to do so we must construct conceptual understanding. While I agree that our participants' words must be present, our duty as researchers is to interpret the data to construct meaning. The meaning is present but it must be synthesized. Or, is that comment too arrogant? Do we need others to help us see meaning in raw data? Could it be that such interpretations save us time and allow us to work collaboratively to make sense of the world in which we live?