Discussion 1: Conceptualizing A Qualitative Research Question

studied in the professional literature. Out of that synthesis emerges a gap—an area in need of further study that is consistent with your interests—that defines the research problem. Clarifying the research problem takes time, effort, and thought.

Once you have developed your research problem, the research purpose and research question become self-evident.

What also becomes evident is your position with respect to the topic, the question, and what you hope to find. Qualitative research recognizes that the research “space” is shaped by both the participants and the researcher.

… the identities of both researcher and participants have the potential to impact the research process. Identities come into play via our perceptions, not only of others, but of the ways in which we expect others will perceive us. Our own biases shape the research process, serving as checkpoints along the way. Through recognition of our biases, we presume to gain insights into how we might approach a research setting, members of particular groups, and how we might seek to engage with participants (Bourke, 2014, p. 1).

For this Discussion, you will examine a research question based on the purpose for inquiry, a rationale for the study, and issues of positionality.

To prepare for this Discussion:

  • Consider the research topic you are developing for your Major Assignment 1.
  • Review Chapter 3 of the Ravitch and Carl text and use Table 3.1 (ATTACHED) , page 69 to help you create a rationale using the questions as your guide.
  • Review Chapter 3 of the Ravitch and Carl text and specifically use pages 70–76 (ATTACHED) to create a positionality memo to reflect on your relationship to the topic.
  • Review the Fundamentals of Qualitative Research Methods: Developing a Qualitative Research Question media program as a guideline to help you create a research question.

By Day 3

Transform your notes from your preparation work into FOUR paragraphs and briefly explain in your post the following:


Paragraph 1. Purpose of Study (This must be from a current qual study-Attached)

  1. This section begins with a purpose statement.  It will read something like this: “The purpose of the study I am proposing to do is to … (cite specific reference from the study you used).” If a researcher has stated that several areas need further study you select one of them and then present it verbatim, i.e., do not change the language.
  2. Use the table in Discussion 2 for language examples, e.g. explore, understand, describe.
  3. Example: If a researcher stated that further study was needed to explore how women with postpartum depression coped with the depression your purpose might be: “The purpose of this study will be to explore how women with postpartum depression cope with the depression.”

Paragraph 2. Rationale for Study

  1. This is why your study is important. You state why your study needs to be conducted. This is only about the one gap you identified that you will study.
  2. Example: “Studying how women cope with postpartum depression can enhance our understanding of methods that could be developed to help women suffering from postpartum depression.”

Paragraph 3. Issues of Positionality

  1. Positionality has to do with your position relative to the participants in your planned study and the research setting. It refers to your position with respect to education, class, race, gender, culture, and other factors.
  2. Positionality is concerned with the subjectivity you bring to a research setting and thus any bias that could occur in the development of your study (and the analysis of data).
  3. In this section, you describe what could be issues of positionality in your study and how you would address the potential issues.
  4. Example: “I suffered from postpartum depression and will have to bracket my beliefs and opinions on the topic before I develop my interview questions and also when I analyze the data from the study. I do not want any biases I have to creep into the study.”

Paragraph 4. The Research Question (RQ)

  1. The research question places boundaries around what you will study. It takes the purpose of your study and frames it as a question.
  2. Patton’s excellent book (4th edition) has a section beginning on p. 251 titled Framing Qualitative Inquiry Questions, which teaches you what to consider when designing a RQ and gives examples.
  3. Your RQ must be a question that uses the language of your Purpose Statement.
  4. Your RQ must be written as a qual question, i.e., it is not a statement with a question mark at the end. It does not begin with a verb. Here is where Patton’s section is very helpful.
  5. Example: “How did women who experienced postpartum depression cope with their depression?”  [Class: note that the study sample would be women who experienced and coped with postpartum depression. We will get into qual sampling in a few weeks.)

    Critical Qualitative Research Design

    pages 70–76


    Related to understanding your goals as a researcher is the development of the rationale of the study. A rationale is the reason or argument for why a study matters and why the approach is appropriate to the study. Rationales can range from improving your practice and the practice of colleagues (as in practitioner research), contributing to formal theory (e.g., where there may be a gap in or lack of research in an area), understanding existing research in a new context or with a new population, and/or contributing to the methodological literature and approach to an existing corpus of research in a specific area or field. Thinking about and answering the questions in Table 3.1 can aid in this process. Considering these kinds of questions is central to developing empirical studies, and it is important to understand that these rationales and goals will also lead you to conduct different types of research, guiding your many choices—from the theories used to frame the study to the selection of various methods to the actual research questions as well as designs chosen and implemented.


    There are many strategies for engaging in a structured inquiry process and through it an exploration of research goals and the overall rationale of a study. These strategies can include the writing of various kinds of memos, structured dialogic engagement processes, and reflective journaling. Across these strategies, creating the conditions and structures for regular dialogic engagement with a range of interlocutors is an absolutely vital and necessary part of refining your understanding of the goals and rationales for the research. We describe each of these strategies in the subsequent sections.


    Memos on Study Goals and Rationale

    Memos are important tools in qualitative research and tend to be written about a variety of different topics throughout the phases of a qualitative study. Memos are a way to capture and process, over time, your ongoing ideas and discoveries, challenges associated with fieldwork and design, and analytic sense-making. Depending on your research questions, memos can also become data sources for a study. There is no “wrong” way of writing memos, as their goal is to foster meaning making and serve as a chronicle of emerging learning and thinking. Memos tend to be informal and can be written in a variety of styles, including prose, bullet points, and/or outline form; they can include poetry, drawings, or other supporting imagery. The goals of memos are to help generate and clarify your thinking as well as to capture the development of your thinking, as a kind of phenomenological note taking that captures the meaning making of the researcher in real time and then provides data to refer back and consider the refinement of your thinking over time (Maxwell, 2013; Nakkula & Ravitch, 1998). While we find writing memos to be a useful and generative exercise, both when we write and share them in our independent research and when we share them within our research teams, they may not serve the same role or fulfill the same purposes for every researcher. We suggest other activities and a variety of memo topics throughout the chapter (and the book) to encourage and foster engagement through writing or what we term structured reflexivity.


    We hope that Examples 3.1 and 3.2 (as well as the two excellent examples included in the appendix that we urge you to read) help you to see and appreciate the incredible range and variation of approaches to and foci within these kinds of memos as well as the multiple writing styles used by the authors. We want to also remind you, after reading these, that while they are personal sense-making documents, engaging in discussion of them with colleagues and advisers is an important part of making sense of and thinking through these various influences on your thinking and being as researchers. These dialogic processes are described in the next section.


    Terms and Concepts Often Used in Qualitative Research

    Fieldwork: In qualitative research, fieldwork entails the process of collecting data in a natural setting. This means in a setting in which the phenomenon would naturally occur (e.g., a neighborhood, organization, institution, or workplace). The term fieldwork, which comes from the ethnographic tradition of participant observation, is often used in qualitative research to refer to the located process of data collection.

    Recommended Practice 3.1: Researcher Identity/Positionality Memo

    The purpose of a researcher identity/positionality memo (Maxwell, 2013)4 is to provide a structure, at an early stage in the research development process, to facilitate a focused written reflection on your researcher identity, including social location, positionality, and how external and internal aspects of your experiences and identity affect and shape your meaning-making processes and influence your research.

    We recommend that researchers with all levels of experience write this kind of memo and that you engage with this memo and add to or revise it over the course of a given study. In addition, we encourage researchers to write a new memo with each new research project since one goal of the memo is to connect aspects of your identity to the research topic and phases of the research process itself. For example, this memo is a required assignment in the doctoral-level methods courses we teach, and it is assigned before the students walk too far down the path of their independent research so that there is opportunity to challenge foundational assumptions and the relationship of who they are to the proposed study. Then the students are asked to reflect back on that memo once engaging in fieldwork so that they can further reflect on the influence of their positionality in the context of their interactions with study participants. We also recommend this memo to high school students with whom we conduct youth participatory action research (YPAR) as a way to help them understand the nonneutrality of research and to locate themselves within their justice-oriented research projects. Students of all ages and levels of research acumen find the memo to be both valuable and generative (and routinely describe the process of writing it as “more challenging” than expected).

    Our students and colleagues share that they find writing this memo not only vital to their own critical understandings of themselves and their identities but also invaluable to clarifying their understandings of the topic and design process. Students also report that they revisit this memo throughout the research process to help illuminate their thinking and monitor any biases they described in the memo. Some choose to write subsequent identity memos as aspects of their identities emerge as relevant to their inquiries. (Example 3.1 is a second researcher identity/positionality memo.) We encourage our students (and you) to share these memos with a range of thought partners in ways that help you to hear constructively critical feedback on your biases as they relate to your positionality and research.

    · Topics to consider exploring in a researcher identity/positionality memo include the following: Positionality (relationship of self and roles to study topic, setting, and/or goals)

    · Social identity/location (e.g., social class, race, culture, ethnicity, sexual orientation/identity, and other aspects of your external or internal identity)

    · Interest in the research topic and setting

    · Reasons and goals motivating the research

    · Assumptions that shape the research topic and research questions

    · Assumptions about the setting and participants and what shapes these

    · Biases and implicit theories and the potential implications/influences of these for your research

    · Guiding ideologies, beliefs, and political commitments that shape your research

    · Intended audiences and reasons for wanting to address/engage them

    · Intended audiences and reasons for wanting to address/engage them

    · Other aspects of your identity and/or positionality in relationship to the research

    · If engaging in team research, looking at the demographics and other features of the team in relation to your own identity and the research topic, context, and process

    The above list is primarily meant to generate ideas. We are hesitant to include a list at all because we do not want to limit the possibilities; however, we provide one to help guide possible directions for this process. Still, we want to underscore that there is no wrong way of composing this memo, and, furthermore, that you can write and share multiple memos throughout the research process that relate to these topics since this kind of reflexive writing is not meant to only happen at the outset of your research.

    We suggest that you consider sharing these memos with trusted colleagues and friends who can help you consider these issues productively through engaging in focused dialogue about the connections between self and the research at hand. We have also found that the sharing of these memos on research teams can be a vital source of thoughtful sharing that can generate powerful learning and exchange and help to situate the research team as a community of practice or inquiry group.5

    In Examples 3.1 and 3.2, we include two different examples of researcher identity/positionality memos from past and present doctoral students at different stages in the research process. In Appendixes D and E, we provide two additional examples so that you see the range of ways that students approach these memos.

    Example 3.1: Researcher Identity/Positionality Memo

    Susan Feibelman

    Researcher Identity Memo 2

    October 14, 2012

    Why am I interested in the gendered nature of school leadership?

    TAKE ONE (excerpted from my dissertation proposal): My interest in this topic is rooted in my personal experience as a school leader. Grounded in my first-hand experience with mentor-protégé relationships in both public and independent school settings, as well as the beneficial peer-to-peer mentoring relationships I have with other women leaders. In recent years, these conversations have acquired a frankness that reveals a growing impatience with the androcentric nature of independent school leadership and the fomenting of a “new boys club” that ensures the patriarchy’s longevity (Baumgartner & Schneider, 2010). Repeatedly women’s (White and of color) personal narratives describe the systematic regularity with which they are passed over for influential leadership roles. Our mutual interrogation of the context in which this practice unfolds has spawned a “mental itch” (Booth, Colomb, & Williams, 2003, p. 40) that is reinforced by a compelling body of research, which describes a similar trajectory for women leaders in public school. Fletcher (1999) refers to this phenomenon as “the story behind the story.”

    All research—the particular question it finds important to ask, the point of view from which the question is posed, the source of the data used to find answers, and, of course, the interpretation and conclusions drawn from the analysis—are surely, albeit invisibly, influenced by the standpoint of the researcher. (Fletcher, 1999, p. 7)

    Fletcher’s use of relational theory to frame her own thinking about leadership development in corporate settings has immediate application to various forms of leadership within a school community. The principle of relational theory argues,

    “growth and development require a context of connections . . . interactions are characterized by mutual empathy and mutual empowerment where both parties recognize vulnerability as part of the human condition, approach the interaction expecting to grow from it and feel a responsibility to contribute to the growth of the other. (Fletcher, 1999, p. 31)”

    Relational theory could as easily be applied to discussions about the practice of teacher inquiry and its self-reflective, mutually engaging, and action-oriented ethos.

    TAKE TWO: My interest in this topic began with a question I started to raise with fellow teachers and school leaders following a student council election. Once again a female student running for the position of president had delivered a thoughtful, well-developed speech only to lose the election to a male classmate, whose speech was loosely organized and disarmingly comedic. The student voters responded to the candidate’s irreverent charm y electing him president. While names and faces would change, this gendered dynamic would be played out election, after election.

    Knowing the students and their track records for working on behalf of the student body, I began to question what role gender played in the election results. I also started to look more carefully at the ways in which adults in the school community modeled gender preferences through their unspoken support of certain leadership styles over others. What then was the relationship between our students’ choices and the way we as their teachers might be prone to associate leadership with certain gender traits? Is this a topic for teacher inquiry?

    Annotation: In this memo, Susan reflects on her personal and professional experiences with the gendered nature of leadership at two different points in her research trajectory. Note that this is the second researcher identity/positionality memo that she wrote in relation to her study. Susan decided to structure this memo in response to a guiding question, which can be a generative way to approach a research identity/positionality memo.

    Annotation: In the first section, Susan relates her personal experiences to relevant, preexisting literature. In the second section of this memo, Susan discusses her interests to another professional experience. It is important to note that this memo was written when Susan had already developed research questions and had located her topic within relevant literature. This is an excellent example of a researcher identity/positionality memo; however, many memos will not look like this, especially earlier on in the research process.

    Example 3.2: Researcher Identity/Positionality Memo

    Personal and Professional Goals for Dissertation Study

    Mustafa Abdul-Jabbar

    December 12, 2012

    I see my confidence growing . . . I still think it has a way to go, but I see my confidence building . . . and I feel like I have more tools at my disposal, whether it’s research or people, to be able to connect with if I’m not sure. Whereas before distributed leadership, I felt limited in that.

    —Rosalie (personal interview, July 27, 2011) [school principal]

    As an educational leadership doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania, one of the chief-most issues I have sought to understand has been how school leaders cultivate trust within the educational organization. As a practitioner and school administrator in southeast Texas, an issue of practice that arose for me in my work was how to operate effectively in school organizations with low levels of trust, including how to systematically develop greater trust rapport and subsequent organizational capacity amongst instructional staff in low-level trust organizations. In pursuing research that addresses this problem of practice, I have sought to better understand how individuals within the school organization learn to trust one another and how they come to understand one another as trustworthy.

    I have chosen to study relational trust within the context of the Penn Center for Educational Leadership’s distributed leadership professional development program because the leadership paradigm inherent in the program is one that moves away from a focus on school principals, as the sole drivers of teaching and learning, toward a distributed perspective as a framework for understanding leadership. Thus, acknowledging that “school leadership has a greater influence on schools and students when it is widely distributed . . . (i.e., school teams, parents, and students)” (DeFlaminis, 2011, p. 1). I feel that this leadership paradigm is more attuned to the socioemotional and social-psychological elements that are conceptual staples in research and literature on trust, more recent literature on successful leadership (see Yukl, 2009), and more consonant with my professional experience.

    Distributed leadership, in that it identifies leadership as not predicated on rank/position, at least at the conceptual level, equalizes persons in the organization. For example, a teacher may be foregrounded during a particular activity while a principal is backgrounded, if the teacher’s activity is more closely aligned with the core work of the organization. Results from the 2011 pilot study into how leadership team members were conceptualizing leadership found that Archdiocese team members at the piloted school site successfully internalized this idea—that the phenomenon of leadership entails more than mere formal position or hierarchy but rather leadership practice is mutually constituted by the interaction of organizational members across various situations. It was also found that team members at the pilot school site were typically unacquainted with this definition of distributed leadership practice before their professional development sessions; thus, what they recognized as leadership practice was often broadened through their participation in the distributed leadership (DL) program.

    I have chosen this program context for study because I am most interested in how teachers and administrators, operating vis-à-vis one another on more equal terms, learn to trust one another. I believe that insight into this research arena will contribute to educational leadership scholarship and, through honing my understanding of the interplay between leadership and trust in schools, help me to improve my own professional practice as a school leader.

    Annotation: In this memo, Mustafa explores and describes where his interest in the topic of relational trust in leadership emerges from, namely, his past professional experiences.

    Annotation: In this next part of the memo, Mustafa explores the reasons for wanting to study the topic of relational trust within this specific context.

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