Public Librarians are Boss at Pragmatic Improv

I (Shannon) just read a good article about qualitative research that I think addresses public librarians perfectly.

Chenail’s 2011 article in The Qualitative Report is entitled “Ten Steps for Conceptualizing and Conducting Qualitative Research Studies in a Pragmatically Curious Manner” which is, let’s face it, a mouthful, but which is also a pretty good title. At least it tells you precisely what the article is about.

Chenail gives us a good ten-step program. In the world of blogs a numbered list is pretty much the main format of 99% of posts, right? So here goes my 10-point synopsis, using my own current research project as an example:

1. What interests you?

If you, as a public librarian, are interested in a topic, then it’s likely other public librarians will be interested in it. Chenail lists the “p” words you can think about “program, project, population, participant, problem, phenomenon, policy, practice, process, or product.” My current interest: the programs/phenomenon of content creation in public libraries.

2. Justify it

Look at the “so what” as you put together your research statement.

I learned a bit about Burke’s Pedagogy of Motives recently and my main take away was the “in order to” connector when crafting a learning objective. This would work great for understanding your research project as well, since it answers the “so what” question. For example, “a phenomenological study of content creation activities in public libraries in order to establish the scope and focus of such activities and provide guidelines for further research and development yadda yadda yadda”  DON’T try to cram much in there. No one study will do everything, no should you try, so…

3. …Clarify it

Use the w/h questions (who, what…) to establish the limitations and scope of your study. “How” is particularly important–what is your metric? Are you going to interview, survey, observe, etc.? What specific correlations or connections are you looking at?

4.  Compose it

Compose your research question. Perhaps “What types of content creation programs exist in public libraries?” seems like a very simple research question, but for a phenomenological study, which is just trying to get a grip on what a particular phenomenon is, it’s good enough be start with. The research question may change throughout the study. Just keep that “so what” in your head as you allow it to shift.

5. Timeline it

What do you need to reach your goal? If you’re trying to do research “in order to” describe the scope of a phenomenon, you’re going to need to look at a lot of existing programs. How will you do that? A literature search, a web search, networking with those in the know…you’ll also need to clarify what you mean by (in this example) “content creation.” Does that just mean digital content creation, or is the scope of this research larger than that?

How long will each part of this research take? Do you need to work with an Institutional Review Board (probably not if you’re not in academia) and what do they need and when? What about scheduling for presenting this information? Conferences have a LONG lead time–you may be writing your presentation proposal while still collecting data.

6. Review it

Do your lit review. Some types of study either can’t be well-reviewed (especially for a phenomenological study–the need for this means the thing hasn’t been studied much or at all) or you might want to collect data before reviewing the lit (as in some grounded studies, when building a theory may be better done before looking at other theories in the literature).

Why are you doing a review? Not just to see what’s already been studied, but to explicate the concepts you’re studying. So be critical in your reviewing (i.e. X study looked a this but not that, and their limitations meant…)

Give yourself a lit review DEADLINE. As librarians we may over-focus on a perfectly exhaustive literature review. You can review forever, so just give yourself a cut off point and let perfection go. (Lit review perfection is not going to happen, anyway–even for “over-achieving” librarians!)

7. Design it

Since you’ve already looked at the what/where/why… and the “in order to” questions of your research, the study’s concept should be fairly self-evident. Check out Cresswell’s qualitative design bible to match your goals to a research design.

Chenail lists various conceptual goals: discovery, exploration, evaluation, assessment, construction of an explanation, description, and/or to change something. Is it primary (new data) secondary (looking at existing data) or meta (looking at several other studies)? The pragmatist’s methodology follows from the conceptual goals. You will further design your study based on your participants and choose your procedures accordingly.

Chenail warns the researcher to make sure that the study conducted is the one you conceptualized with this question: “How will I maintain rigor (e.g., reliability, validity, trustworthiness, generalizability) throughout the study?” So quality control is an integral part of the research plan you’re developing. To me, this should have been step 8 in an 11-part plan, not simply relegated to part of step 7 of 10.

And keep in mind this excellent advice: “Collect rich data and let it shine as the star of the study. Like using fresh ingredients in cooking, keep the preparation and presentation simple so your guests can appreciate the qualitative differences great products can deliver.”

8. Assess and develop yourself

Chenail tells you to look at what you already bring to the study. What’s missing? In a phenomenological study of content creation in public libraries, I have some experience in small libraries, but know little about big urban libraries where most of the content creation action is–I need to develop contacts and  visit other libraries to see what’s happening there.

9. Do it

Conduct and manage the study, Chenail says, as if that’s nothing. And in a way, it is. Once you’ve addressed all the thorny conceptual issues and put together a solid research methodology, actually doing the research is a breeze. Sort of.  He doesn’t give much advice here.

10. Present it

For me this is by far the hardest part of a research project, and I feel that Chenail doesn’t give the best help here. I have no problem presenting in person, but writing up a report of my research for publication is a huge hurdle. Still, he gives good advice when he tells the reader to come up with a working abstract and title in the beginning of the study. This acts as a self-check; if what you’re doing doesn’t align with the abstract you wrote in the beginning, then either the study or the abstract needs work. Either is ok–just make sure it’s the direction you want to be going.

Follow these steps et voila, a study!

What makes Chenail’s ten steps “pragmatic?” His advice to select your methodology and design on the question and what best suits it. “Without certainty in terms of methodological destiny, researchers are left with the tools of openness and rhetoric when it comes to defending their research choices.”

What makes it improvisational? The fact that you’re building the design as you go.

What makes his advice different from any other advice on designing research? Nothing. It’s just good advice, simply presented. And for public librarians who have probably done little original research, that’s just what we need.

Keep in mind all the times you’ve fixed problems by pragmatically improvising on the fly: library program performers who didn’t show up, cataloging catastrophes, missteps in advocacy or policy… the same mindset of “what’s the problem? where do I want to be? how do I get there from here?” is the basis for all research.

Above all, as Chenail says, “remain curious!”


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