Tag Archives: research methods

Link round-up: literature reviewing and analysis

Here’s a signal boost for some recent writing advice I have found useful, or older posts that I’ve recently shared with my dissertation/thesis writing colleagues.


Here are notes on some of Patrick Dunleavy’s always great structuring/editing advice for papers and dissertations.

Reading, planning, starting writing

Raul Pacheco-Vega has excellent posts on planning and doing your writing and reading. They are aimed at developing academics but have use for students too.  I especially like this quote in How many sources is enough? (Number one question I get from students):

How many sources should I read for my literature review?

This is an absurd question that is prompted by arbitrarily setting a random number of sources as “enough”. If you read the right five sources, you’ve probably covered a full field. But if you read 40 sources that all tend to pull in different directions, you’ll still be unable to cover all the sources.

And this too:

“When should I stop reading and start writing?”

My answer to that question is: you should be reading AND writing. Apparently, a lot of people feel like they need to Read All The Things before they can write a literature review… But you should ALWAYS be writing as you read.

In that post, there are a few links to ways to write notes and memos while reading. My own approach has been something like that too: read with the purpose of your writing in mind, and construct your own sentences that might be lifted into your writing. even if they start off descriptive, you can work on making these sentences more explanatory and analytical later.

Writing literature reviews

Wendy Bastalich’s in depth explanation of critical literature reviewing is an important reminder to go beyond describing the previous research and make it work for you.

On a similar note is Pat Thomson’s point about not just naming the authors, but using the literature to frame your own study. I call naming the authors the ‘shopping list’ approach to literature reviews. Smith said…; Jones said…; – in this, your own voice is lost and the reader knows nothing about what you think about all these sources. If you’re a student, you’re probably partly being graded on your knowledge and understanding of the issues. For all writers, it is important to build your own argument, starting from signalling what the literature offers you and how it links to your purpose – not making the reader do this work.


Analysis needs to be so much more than coding and comparing your data to the literature. It sounds really obvious to say but your results chapter must use the data to answer the research question. The number 2 question I get from students goes something like, how do I turn my qualitative data into a results chapter? When I studied my Masters at Sussex, my dissertation was supervised by Dr Alison Phipps who a little while ago wrote about taking analysis beyond the coding and organising stage to interpretation stage, to really look at what your data say, how to build theory, and what you can conclude from the data.

And back to Raul Pacheco-Vega, who has this post on the difference between analytical and descriptive writing. The number 3 question I am asked!

If you’ve reached this point, I hope there is something useful amongst these links for you!


Blogging my research: deciding how to analyse colouring book images

I recently was able to take some time to start the qualitative analysis on the colouring books project. If creative materials like colouring books differentiate how boys and girls are presented  in active situations, it might affect their imaginations and trajectories through sport, leisure and education. The Let Books Be Books campaign asserts that gender differentiated and stereotyped materials restrict the story lines available to children and can make them feel outcast if they make choices that don’t belong to ‘their gender’.

The quantitative analysis was completed in late 2014 but soon being on maternity leave I was not able to get the second part, where I attempt more of a discourse analysis of some of the images in six colouring books. The focus is on images of human bodies and physical activity, and I am trying to get a sense of how masculinity and femininity are represented in colouring books for children. Are men presented as active and powerful? Are women represented as passive / engaged in domestic activities, and are their poses submissive? The quantitative research found that gendered colouring books (books for boys and books for girls) present predominantly characters of the gender the book is aimed at, and found something of a trend towards boys being shown out of doors  and girls indoors more often. This used a quantitative content analysis to describe the images based on certain categories (gender, age of character; space; activity type – e.g. leisure time physical activity, sedentary, active transport). Gillian Rose (2013) in Visual Methodologies identifies that content analysis can provide a thorough representation of the field, but struggles to contribute to a critical visual methodology. Content analysis cannot analyse what is invisible or missing, differentiate strong or weak examples of a code, or comment on composition and mood (Rose, 2013).

I’m interested in whether there is a double whammy so that girls don’t merely learn what activities are appropriate for girls, but also how to act, dress and behave in a feminine way and in relation to boys (and vice versa with boys, masculinity). This prompts qualitative research because of the need to consider the sense or meaning that can be read in an image and accompanying text that a quantitative content analysis cannot record. Rose notes that a quantitative content analysis finds it difficult to analyse the strength of connections, for instance prompting us to think that a more frequent occurrence is more important than something that is only seen as few times.

However, there are multiple forms of qualitative analysis that can help make sense of the meanings of images, so I will turn to my go-to visual methods guides to help choose an analysis method.

Rose’s Visual Methodologies (3rd ed, Sage) introduces a number of forms of visual analysis and examines how they are done and with what sort of research question and what sort of images you can use them with. There is some element of comparison between the methods although it cannot of course tell me exactly which method I should use! I gravitated towards three of the chapters: on Semiotics, on Discourse Analysis (concerned with texts), on Discourse Analysis (concerned with social institutions).

Semiotics might seem to make sense in analysing images and symbols that create meaning about gender. However, as it is represented by Rose, I found semiotics to be weighed-down by jargon, to focus on case studies that might not be representative.

On the other hand, discourse analysis, in the Foucauldian sense (according to Rose), pays attention to the social construction and consequence of difference. Discourse ‘refers to groups of statements that structure the way a thing is thought, and the way we act on the basis of that thinking’ (Rose, 2013, p. 190). Discourse can be articulated though a variety of means or media, so intertextuality is important – that is, meanings depend on other texts too. By implementing discourse analysis, we could investigate the reproduction of the social institution and practice of gender. Hence, examination is possible of the construction of masculinities and femininities, and how they related to one another, in order to create more nuanced understanding of gender relations, subject positioning and the gendered body.

One lead researcher read through all six books and created written notes of the overt and covert stories told in the images; that is, the discourses reproduced in the images. For instance, characterisation; setting (such as contemporary, historical or imaginary); and juxtaposition of male and female characters were noted for individual images, and further observation of the overall discourses in each book.


Visual methods with young people: encouraging creativity or bad photography?

I have just seen my final paper from my PhD project be accepted for publication, which offers me a chance to reflect back on the five publications that project prompted (all linked to at the end of this piece). It was a visual ethnography with secondary school students over one academic year, with students creating photo diaries of their engagement in physical activity (and also what they do when they are not active). The creative and participatory elements of this methodology gave me plenty to write about in these publications and I noted the additional insight into young people’s worlds that a photography project can provide – especially their lives outside of school or otherwise beyond the ethnographic site where we cannot physically go. I was also keen to share the participants’ photos as much as possible by reproducing representative pictures alongside the interview data we generated in talking about the photos and the participants’ experiences of physical activity. It felt important to share because this was something that the participants put time into making – and perhaps in some way it would work to deprivilege words in academic publication.

Participatory methods are often active or creative, and work to engage participants in the research process (Enright and O’Sullivan, 2012); they are a part of listening to and privileging student voice over doing research ‘on’ young people. For Gauntlett and Holzwarth (2006), visual creative methods are enabling, reflective, and a good starting point for examining identity and self.

What happens if participants engage with these methods but aren’t particularly … creative? What are we really looking for, something pretty or artistic or evocative?

There were indeed many wonderful photographs created by my participants, who wanted and were able to tell a story with or through their images. Examples include the boy I called Mitesh in Hill (2013 and 2015) who brought back more than 50 photos of his attempts in PE and out-of-school play to work on a body that would provide him with more status. It was really easy to decide to share some of these photos to add emotion to his verbal explanations. The visual was really powerful.

If this doesn’t happen, should we not bother reproducing the images in our publications?

In this project, of a total 539 photos created by the 25 participants, I received 78 photos of empty spaces, 75 photos of objects, and 112 self-portraits or snaps of friends. Many of them would not go in a photo album nor would they be chosen for an art exhibition. In short, they are not ‘great photography’.

Collectively, they contribute to telling stories about these young people’s engagement with and access to physical activity, its importance to them and how they try to fit it into their lives alongside school work, visiting family, relaxing with friends, worship and helping out at home. This side of the story showed that finding time for physical activity was difficult; it also showed that taking photos during physical activity is not always possible; and importantly the ‘storyless’ photos prompted some participants to explain that this was not all they did – they were able to talk about their other activities that the photos did not show. Photos in that sense provided elicitation, prompting further ‘feelings and memories’ as Douglas Harper has discussed (2002, p. 13).

I think the risk is that the ‘boring’ images that are not shared become the story not told, the hidden elements of the research project, and we might find ourselves at risk of not telling the whole story, simply because the data itself has little to ‘show’. This is obviously something that can happen with other forms of qualitative data, with mundane accounts or short answers possible in interviews. But I feel that there is still something to prove with creative methods, something that needs displaying to prove they are worthwhile forms of data generation, in the face of scepticism. I want to be proud of the project as a whole and that means reproducing elements of the data, not hiding it because my 13 year old participants had bad photography skills. In a journal publication where reproduction of four or five images might be possible, how do we make choices about what to show? If you claim to have used visual methods, but only reproduce the text or verbal data, that might render readers disappointed or confused as to what the visual data were for. In order not to privilege verbal accounts over visual, even if they are contradictory or less … instantly valuable? … the visual should, in my view, be shared.

Perhaps ultimately, this reflection contributes to calls for accessible datasets – provided we have ethically prepared for this – to let viewers see for themselves. Leonard and McKnight (2014, p. 2) highlight that the ‘seemingly mundane’ image is open to interpretation and might be seen differently by different viewers (citing Pink, 2007).

All data reproduction, whether from qualitative or quantitative projects, is a manipulation of the whole that will always involve some level of subjective decision making on what and how to present snippets of data in publication. In analysing and sharing data, researchers distill, shorten, concentrate, categorise – however you would like to call it – meaning that even the bad photography should be chosen if it contributes to emphasising the story or the decisions you’ve made for that publication.


Enright, E., & O’Sullivan, M. (2012). “Producing different knowledge and producing knowledge differently”: rethinking physical education research and practice through participatory visual methods. Sport, Education and Society, 17(1), 35–55.

Gauntlett, D., & Holzwarth, P. (2006). Creative and visual methods for exploring identities. Visual Studies, 21(1), 82–91.

Harper, D. (2002). Talking about pictures: a case for photo elicitation. Visual Anthropology, 17(1), 13–26.

Leonard, M., & McKnight, M. (2014). Look and tell: using photo-elicitation methods with teenagers. Children’s Geographies, 1–14. doi:10.1080/14733285.2014.887812

Pink, S. (2007). Doing visual ethnography: Images, media and representation in research. 2nd ed. London: Sage.

The five publications from this project

Hill, J. and Azzarito, L. (2012). Representing valued bodies in PE: a visual inquiry with British Asian girls. Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, 17(3), 263-276.

Hill, J. (2013). Rejecting the weak Asian body: boys visualising strong masculinities. In L. Azzarito & D. Kirk (Eds.). Physical Culture, Pedagogies and Visual Methods, 76-91. Abingdon: Routledge. http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415532778/

Hill, J. (2013). Using participatory and visual methods to address power and identity in research with young people. Graduate Journal of Social Sciences, 10(2), 132-151.

Hill, J. (2015) ‘If you miss the ball, you look like a total muppet!’ Boys investing in their bodies in physical education and sport. Sport, Education and Society 20(6), 762-779. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13573322.2013.820695#.U15a1VVdWiw

Hill, J. Girls’ active identities: navigating othering discourses of femininity, bodies and physical education. Gender and Education 27 (6), 666-684. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09540253.2015.1078875#.V2RNQrsrLIU

Book Review: Key Themes in the Ethnography of Education (Sara Delamont)

A few months ago I was lucky enough to receive a copy of Sara Delamont’s text Key Themes in the Ethnography of Education: Achievements and Agendas, thanks to a Sage giveaway on Twitter. They didn’t ask for a review, but I’ve put together my thoughts on the book.

Delamont presents the book in part as a companion to the four volume reader she has out called Ethnographic Methods in Education. That reader has clearly informed the work in Key Themes. The significance of the Key Themes book for me is in the depth of the literature review in each chapter. Delamont takes us through the major works in ethnographic study from anthropology and the sociology of education to map developments in specific themes.  For researchers embarking upon a methodological journey and requiring solid rationales for the choices they make with ethnography (or even any form of educational social research) the support is here in the traditions of ethnography. From the previous literature, Delamont then offers her own key issues for current and future work in each area. As a guide for structuring your own work within contemporary and classic ethnography in education, this is highly valuable.

For instance, chapter 3 on space and place, something that I have been interested in in my research, opens with a reminder of the importance of rich descriptive accounts of places in ethnography, something that sets ethnographic work apart of other forms of inquiry. Chapter 4 on time recalled for me the questions that participants or gatekeepers often ask (fair enough) of ethnographers: how long will you be here? Have you finished yet?

Sport and PE researchers may be particularly interested in the chapter on movement, which notes how ethnographers’ experiencing of individuals/groups’ movement or restriction of movement is important for understanding their lives. Restrictions on women’s movement is now thought backwards in the West, Delamont notes, with criticism of places such as Saudi Arabia where girls’ PE is largely unavailable, but that situation was common and thought civilised in nineteenth century Britain. Delamont draws attention to the difficulties faced in providing access for girls and women to physical activity in the early years of educational change, yet also highlights how in her own research in girls’ secondary PE immobility was as much a part of the lesson as mobility: girls’ movements and freedom still restricted. Although only a short snippet in this chapter, the narrative strongly expresses restrictions on girls’ movement and appearance – comportment, dress (whether to cover or reveal, whether to restrict free movement) that have been reproduced in PE.

Sport related researchers will also find interest in the chapter on bodies and performativity as many of the examples used are drawn from dance, PE, and boxing settings. These little examples are also really useful for teaching research methods, with snippets of real research to draw upon.

The book finishes with an examination of autoethnography, not something previously covered in the book. So it’s not so much a conclusion on the book as a whole as a contrast of what Delamont considers valuable empirical data collection and the (problematic) “look at me!” that might be found in autoethnography. This came as a bit of a surprise but it is easy to see why Delamont wanted to establish the value of empirical and analytical work in unfamiliar worlds and with hard to reach populations in contrast to introspective or experiential writing. I’d have thought that there are examples of good autoethnography by practitioners or participants in a field who have become social researchers, but its a worthwhile point that we must write analytically not just about experience. One or two examples of ethnographic research throughout the book emphasise for me the value of prolonged engagement in the field for understanding local meanings and thinking beyond dominant or expected representations or readings. This emic perspective can really help to access what something means to the community, not to say that an outsider reading is not at all useful but that it cannot assume what things mean to insiders. But it is the dialogue between insider and outsider that succeeds in making the familiar strange and making the strange familiar that creates rich ethnography.

The book is not a how-to guide on designing and carrying out ethnography, but each chapter has a page on key things to remember if you are doing ethnography: elements of experiencing a setting if you are to create successful ethnographic work: space, time, memories, movement, bodies, groups and identities, narrative, senses, knowledge. What ethnographers might be looking for, and how they will write about it, are key elements. Then there are notes on research for the future: what’s not been done yet or what key aspects of education still need to be investigated?

As the embodied experience of the ethnographer affects the research they create, so the experience of reading this book will be different for different readers. As a lecturer in research methods I most commonly read texts aimed at undergraduates which do have that “how to” approach. Delamont’s text is very different and reading from start to  finish provides opportunity to contemplate how your own ethnography can be shaped in response to thinking about classic ethnographies in education. This will be great for doctoral researchers situating their thesis in the methodology.

Using participatory and visual methods to address power and identity in research with young people

This post summarises my published paper Hill, J. (2013). Using participatory and visual methods to address power and identity in research with young people. Graduate Journal of Social Sciences, 10(2), 132-151. This work is open access and the full text can be read here

Calls have been made to engage more deeply in investigations of students’ embodied experiences of physical activity and sports, which might be achieved through listening to young people’s voices. At the same time, researchers have commonly used multiple methods, such as those employed within ethnography, and increasingly visual methods, in order to see as well as listen. This paper outlines visual ethnographic research that aimed to do this. It also establishes a case for addressing power differentials in social research with young people, arguing that participatory visual and ethnographic methods enable consideration of ‘difference’ between social researchers and their participants. When provided with digital cameras, young people make their own decisions about what to photograph and to share of their lives; by interviewing them afterwards, photographers’ meanings behind their photos can be elicited: participant photography alone would not achieve this. Finally, photo elicitation interviews can be a pedagogical site to discuss inclusion/exclusion, normalisation and marginalisation with young people. Participatory and visual methods may challenge traditional power relations, but they are not a panacea; instead, they provide an addition to methods toolboxes that can involve young people as experts in their own lives.

Research with young people and children has developed over a number of years an argument for researching with, rather than on, younger participants (Thomson, 2008; Valentine, 1999). In qualitative research, the ways in which we carry out empirical research, the relationships that are developed between researchers and participants, the knowledge that is produced and the epistemological and theoretical foundations can be affected by how as powerful researchers we aim to observe and analyse. Where age, gender and ethnicity intersect in creating something of a “difference” between researcher and participants, these issues can need greater consideration. This paper presents some methodological background to the choices made concerning data production during a project in which a white, female, late-20s researcher with a feminist theoretical background investigated physical activity engagement by a diverse cohort of 13-14 year old students in an inner city secondary school in the Midlands, UK. By combining visual ethnography, interviews and collaborative photography, the project aimed to address concerns about student voice in research with young people on their school and sport experiences (O’Sullivan & MacPhail, 2010). The paper considers some possibilities and challenges of using this methodology within school-based studies. Reflections from this project are offered on the ways in which participants retained power over content and meaning of their photographic contributions, and researcher relationships in the field. Visual methods are argued to offer an additional tool in tackling traditional power relations and encouraging participant investment.

Ontology: a working definition

“You keep using this word. I’m still not sure what it means. Can you explain again?”

So said a postgrad student to me in class last week as we discussed ontology and its importance in writing research proposals. Admittedly, it can be a dense, philosophical term that seems more like something you have to talk about rather than something you want to. In my undergrad and postgrad classes on qualitative research methods (for social science, education and sport), the first definition we use for ontology is “the nature of the world” or “the nature of reality”. Not sure that’s helping much. Just to lay it on even more, ontology and epistemology (“the nature of knowledge”) are the first topic we cover in this unit (module) – chucked in at the deep end! But, I argue, if you don’t know how you are approaching your research or what your philosophy is, you cannot make any of the following steps, like those of research design, methods, participants and analysis. However, some weeks later, it’s clear that these dense terms need some support – we need to keep checking that they are understood.

So here’s the response I gave to my class.

Ontology is about the way we define the world or what is in the world. It is about the extent to which we think we can offer definitions or fix what things and ideas mean to us and to others. Ontology prompts us to ask what we think the world is: is it a fixed world that we see and experience objectively, or a subjective world where things might be different for different people? This gives us ways to come to definitions which we might use throughout our writing and so it helps to know exactly what we mean when talking about, say, “schools”, or “health” or “overweight”.

Let’s take schools. Can you define school?

Let’s say we define school as a building in which students are taught by teachers. We could add details, such as there are classrooms; those classrooms contain rows of benches and desks facing the board or screen at the front; the teacher-student relationship is such that the teacher has authority over the students. The students are children and they are taught by an adult teacher. The students are tested within a written examination system.

If this was our definition of school we would be making an ontological statement about what school is. We might be certain that this is a fixed, unchanging definition – all schools look like the one we just described, and if a place doesn’t look like this, then it isn’t a school. We would then go about our research into schools going by this definition only, and make conclusions that would fit this definition of school. Ontologically, we are thinking objectively. There is a certain reality, concerning what school is.

However, we might look at this definition of school and raise some questions. We might say, well, the word learning doesn’t appear once in that definition, but isn’t learning a crucial part of school? We might ask, what if the school is not always in a building, such as a forest school, can we call it a school then? What if the students are not children, or the place is built on equality and not teacher authority, or the desks are in small circles not facing the front, is it a school then?

If we acknowledge that there are a lot of different ideas that make up a lot of different places that are all called school, and that it is difficult or even impossible for us to create a definition of school that encompasses all of those places, or that different people have a different idea of what school is, then ontologically we are thinking subjectively. We cannot be sure what the reality of school is, what we will encounter if we visit a school. We might be cautious about creating a definition of school that is aimed at generalising to all schools, because we acknowledge we might miss some schools out.

So ontology might be thought of as a question of defining and fixing a “reality”.

How about another example: “healthy”. Can we define healthy? Is healthy a fixed and measurable notion? (The ontological question: what is it?) Can doctors examine someone and state whether they are healthy or not? (The epistemological question: how do we know?)

Ill health is often linked by some to overweight or obesity: if you are overweight, you are not healthy. A simple definition, an objective reality and easily measured: using BMI. Over 25 BMI, that means you’re overweight, and therefore not healthy.

Yet we know that BMI is frequently questioned as a measure of fat; and who says fatness and overweight are unhealthy anyway? Someone might be really active, never get ill, eat properly (a can-of-worms phrase in itself!), but be defined overweight by BMI, and therefore treated as unhealthy. We know that Healthy At Every Size and similar movements challenge the notion that fat is inherently unhealthy. What if healthy to one person means mental health as well as physical? Or well-being? Or “the pain is not there today”; or “the pain has disappeared”? All these offer different definitions of health or healthy such that I argue it is difficult for us to fix a definition of health that we can measure and by which we will form our conclusions. Is there a difference between states of “I feel healthy” “I live healthily” or “I AM healthy”? What if I say “I feel healthy” but a doctor tells me “you’re not healthy”? These are ontological questions fundamental to what we can define as reality: my reality and the doctor’s reality. We might go as far as to say that health is a totally subjective measure; at the least, as researchers and educators we need to be aware that there are multiple measures of health, that it’s not a fixed concept or state, and is measurable differently in different people.

As always I welcome comments on my thoughts!

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