Researching the Margins: Qualitative Research Symposium

From Thursday, November 14th to Friday, November 15th, I attended a symposium called “Researching the Margins: Conducting Qualitative Research in Quantitative Fields.” Inspired by a visit last year from Dr. Kakali Bhattacharya, the intention of this inaugural symposium was “to decolonize research and provide a space for qualitative researchers in quantitative fields.”

Having attended Dr. Bhattacharya’s talk last year (“Culturally Congruent Critical and Contemplative Qualitative Research“) and knowing some of the organizers, I signed up right away. The longer you’ve been in your academic institution, the better you become at figuring out when an event is a space where you want to be.

There are were plenty of surface-level reasons for me to attend this conference. I do qualitative research. I’m interested in topics that may sometimes be considered “the margins” (although I believe they should not be). I also have two current projects I enjoy sharing with others, and thanks to the organizers (Tiffany Monique Quash and Elizabeth Bartelt), was able to share both. Of course, there are deeper reasons I was excited to attend this conference that have to do with representation, power, and hierarchies of academic interests and methodologies. But these themes are complex and I still struggle to articulate them.

What I can articulate are the things that this conference – its organizers really – did incredibly right. I hope to see (and help shape!) more spaces like this in academia. If we are truly in the business of pushing the boundaries of knowledge, we are surely capable of pushing at our own traditional structures and practices to do better. Here are just a few aspects of the conference that gave me life:

We created the structure together.

The premise and set-up of this conference was novel (at least to me). All participants who registered by the deadline were invited to present their work in lightning style panels. Rather than receive assigned times, participants indicated their preferred presentation length (3, 5, or 10 minutes). The rationale behind this choice was an exercise in decentering power. It wasn’t up to the conference organizers to judge which topics are worthy enough of full presentations vs. panel vs. lightning talks vs. roundtables; instead, this choice was placed in the hands of presenters.

We used pronouns.

Sharing pronouns is a basic practice. I became increasingly used to sharing pronouns as an undergrad and especially in queer spaces, but there is a notable absence of pronoun-sharing in my current institution and department. It is both easy (for cis folks) to forget and easy to comply with institutional norms, so I appreciated the organizers’ commitment to listing pronouns both on our nametags and during in-person introductions.

We used microphones for everything.

And being able to hear was pleasantly surprising. From quiet speakers to audience members asking questions on the other side of the room, I could hear everything. This sounds silly, but when I’ve attended previous events in this space – the Social Science Research Commons – I’ve grown accustomed to not hearing. I realized that I enter talks in most large rooms expecting that I won’t be able to hear all the questions asked. Wild.

But so far I’ve framed microphone use as beneficial for me, and by extension, beneficial for all. While this is true, we should also use microphones with acknowledgement that some people have hearing impairments and it is necessary and ethical to accommodate them.

We acknowledged.

First, we acknowledged the indigenous peoples upon whose stolen lands we were standing and upon which this university was built. Language in this acknowledgement, a land statement, include acknowledgement of these peoples as the past, present, and future caretakers of this land. I’ve seen this practice adopted a little more frequently at IU events, however, there’s a danger in simply reciting a statement and calling it good. I wonder about how to maintain the significance of this acknowledgement as we hear it more often and begin to ritualize it.

We also acknowledged the legacy of scholars, particularly queer women scholars of color, who have come before, and have inspired this conference. Organizers displayed some of their images on a PowerPoint slide, giving them both auditory and visual space at our conference.

Dr. Lucia Guerra-Reyes gives the keynote address “From Being There to Getting Things Done: A Cross-Disciplinary Perspective”

Takeaways

Beyond learning more about how to hold a radically inclusive event, I want to highlight personal takeaways paired with a consideration of “so what?” or “what now?” Articulating what I learned is one thing – it helps cement those experiences and knowledges in my mind. Explaining to others is a step further; it’s the idea of how teaching a subject helps you understand it better. But I’m working on not only absorbing but thinking through how to apply what I’ve learned, especially from spaces outside of the mainstream (or on the margins).

1.) There is a vast scope of qualitative research being done across campus and I want to be part of it.

At Researching the Margins, I appreciated the opportunity to meet scholars doing engaging work across campus. I was pleasantly surprised to hear about three other scholars doing bi/multiracial research across campus within the first few hours of the conference.

 “Interdisciplinary” research is a buzzword. Academics acknowledge that working across disciplines is useful, can produce more rigorous work, may be more accessible to the general public, and can even help secure more funding (although this is contested). Yet in practice, departments are rather rigidly segregated. And, while this is just a personal hypothesis, the more “prestigious” or “rigorous” a department perceives itself to be, the more tightly they appear to police disciplinary boundaries. In contrast, the general public and increasingly, funding agencies, have no stake in work that is “purely” sociological or historical or anthropological. Ordinary people and organizations care about the “so what?”

My “so what” for this takeaway is this: when I say I want to be a part of the community of scholars doing work across campus, I don’t mean merely existing and doing my work in my own corner. At a minimum, I commit to being intentional about seeking out and spending time in interdisciplinary spaces. While I am here, I intend to be aware of the work that others outside of my field are doing. And ideally, I want to not only hear and share, but keep my eyes open to opportunities for collaborative research.

I’ve been told that I should just get a foundation in one discipline and then do any interdisciplinary work I want later. But to do quality interdisciplinary research requires training and practice like anything else, and isn’t the purpose of a graduate program to train?

2.) The methods and methodologies I found so exciting as an undergraduate are here, if I know where to look.

Research topics and content weren’t the only aspects of this conference that energized me; it was also seeing different methodologies and ways of analysis. While it’s easy to learn about different methods (concrete research tools like interviews, survey, ethnography, and media analysis), it’s trickier to pin down methodology. Methodologies encompass the way in which you approach your research question, what types of questions you even ask, and how your worldview that informs those questions. At least, this is my preliminary understanding, as a student who is beginning to realize that articulating my methodology is more important than I thought, particularly when you reside in spaces where others’ methodologies might appear at odds with your own.

Being in this conference space highlighted the narrowness of only ascribing to a single department’s methodologies. In any given department, individual faculty certainly ascribe to their own methodologies, yet there is also a single overarching narrative for what is “good” and “rigorous” research. Above that, there’s a broader overarching narrative in the field of sociology for what’s deemed “good” or acceptable research. There are narratives like this for every field, which may help explain why interdisciplinary work is so lacking.

I bring all this up to say certain methods and methodologies outside of my field are a guilty pleasure. As an undergraduate, I attended conference presentations given by graduate students and faculty in the school of education and the school of social work. They talked about methods such as photovoice, autoethnography, and poetic analysis. As an undergrad about to graduate at the time, I was almost desperately searching for a way to integrate my art into an academic career. Arts-based methods sounded too good to be true. And in way, they were. My sociology professors informed me that these were not taken seriously in sociology. And so, a good student, I tucked these possibilities away, hoping I could use them later, and tried to do serious sociological research.

I’ll cut my narrative off here and simply say that hearing about these methods and methodologies again did two things for me: 1) I remembered and reconnected with what excited me as an undergraduate and an artist, and 2) I understood the lack of these methods and methodologies in sociology as a fundamental difference in worldviews. It was not simply a matter of proving these methods are rigorous but a difference in how we view knowledge and research. I think some of this is changing as sociologists like Patricia Hill Collins acknowledge and give legitimacy to different ways of knowing commonplace to minority communities but historically unacknowledged by academic institutions. I wish I could give more examples from my field but the names that come to mind aren’t sociologists. Dr. Kakali Bhattacharya, the inspiration for this conference, is an incredible example, but I welcome any recommendations.

3.) Finally, I need to “do better” (or hold to my own standard).

Since becoming a graduate student, advice about working harder, hustling, or pushing through have fallen flat. I once took a great deal of inspiration in The War of Art by Steven Pressfield which urges creatives to get through writer/artist’s block by sitting down and doing your work. But now I don’t need anyone to tell me to work. I work plenty. So I’m hesitant, as a person who works a lot, to conclude that I need to do even more. That’s not healthy for me nor those who see me. And that’s not what I want to say.

“Doing better” isn’t about blaming myself for lacking, but about being intentional.

In particular, as I listened to Tiffany Monique Quash’s presentation titled “Balancing Act,” I realized how much I wasn’t doing. I’m talking about practices like sharing pronouns, acknowledging my positionality and bias in my work, and being transparent about my methodological assumptions. There seems to be a difficult balance between presenting yourself in a way that appears legitimate to mainstream academics and doing what is simply good practice.

For example, I now catch myself presenting my work as Totally Unbiased, Objective Social Science. I do this almost naturally – “naturally” because I am skilled at mirroring and “almost” because it still requires work – echoing the presentation styles I see from older graduate students and faculty. I do this to indicate that I am being properly socialized (or “professionalized”), can be seen as a legitimate member of my program, and am not simply conducting “me-search.” Of course, this is all a sham. I am biased and so is every one of my audience members. But this is just one example with too many big ideas for one blog post, which has already gone on longer than I planned.

“Doing better” requires actively resisting the socialization I am receiving in graduate school. It requires doing things for which I will receive no credit or recognition. I recognized this in my first year, but now in my second year, I can a) articulate it more clearly, and b) see that there are others who recognize this too. And for that, I am grateful to have taken part in the inaugural Researching the Margins Qualitative Research Symposium.

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