Home > PAR journal, research > Cultural context in qualitative research: can it even be done?

Cultural context in qualitative research: can it even be done?

  A “critical friend” in the action research process is a trusted agent who gives deep insights from the outside into the nature, quality, and path of  your introspection. They help keep you grounded, and offer triangulation points in the sense-making process as you grapple with your own questions and insights. They act as sounding boards and mirrors, acknowledging that we can’t really ever know in the scientific sense about the truth of our propositions when dealing with complex human terrain. However we can pursue quality and appreciation instead, and that’s whata  critical friend’s role is.   

A good friend, acting as one of my  “critical friends” in my 1st person action research process offered the following for me to consider after a journal entry concerning a confrontation I had over curriculum transformation with a peer.

Ken, this journaling effort seems to carry itself in your research.  The fact that I have a military background provided me with certain comforts in reading this, but for those without the cultural insights…they may be a little lost.  If you approach your writing with a bit more cultural sensitivity, or as a “foreigner” your words of wisdom would reach a wider audience.  Military culture is very specific in communication styles, so standing in a circle outside the backdoor ***ing about directives and expectations is very NORMAL to soldiers, of which I contribute to trust among the brotherhood, but please know that many organizational structures do not support this special sharing and feeling process among its members.  You identified what is normal for a DC, so from that baseline you should be able to point to cultural inconsistencies which are now creating ripples.


I really like this 1st person reflection, but I feel a sprinkle of cultural unraveling/description is necessary to fully understand the phenomena. 

I replied:

I think you are exactly right Jeff.  The deeper into a subculture we go, the more unpacking and “scaffolding” we need to provide a framework of meaning for outside readers. I was thinking of a translation of a Chinese classic novel I have started to look at. It has 45 pages of dramatis personae before the opening scene and covers many generations of the family that is the central to the plot and narrative. I am exhausted by that already 😀  I just can’t upload that much into short term memory and hold it there to make an informed reading. So I am having to nibble on it as I go. 

I wonder how much like that the study of other cultures are for researchers? The ethnography chapter describes that dilemma: the knowability of other cultures, no matter how immersive you become. Could Jane Goodall every really be “of” the apes she studied?  The French sociologist Francois Jullien wrote with a certain despair of trying to fully grasp for himself the subtle elements of Chinese thought  in his book “In Praise Of Blandness’, despite a life of scholarship. Then he considered just how hard it is, if possible at all, to communicate the essence to another culture, which he was no longer fully a part of precisely because of his immersion in the Chinese culture. He was seeing himself in a no-man’s land of “between” 2 cultures.

In another sense that’s kind of where we all are: between our sense of self and our sense of the dominant culture and other subcultures in the soup we swim around in.

I say all that simply to say that what i am trying to do on my journaling is to capture the moment as quickly and deeply as I can, without over-thinking it and the first order immediate reflection, in order to build up some snapshots in time of my own role inside of my research. Dr Alana has recommended some qualitative analysis software called Atlas/ti that should assist me in identifying and linking narrative themes connecting the snapshots in time.  I am excited to see where it goes.

It is clear to me that I need to provide an intermediate layer of context around the raw entries in order to improve the accessibility to key points and themes as they emerge.

Jullien, F. (2004) In praise of blandness: Proceeding from Chinese thought and aesthetics. 169 pages. Zone Books, New York.


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