With an assignment coming up, we've been fielding lots of questions on the process of qualitative research. "Is this the right way to do X?" "Is it OK to combine X and Y?" "Is this the right number of codes?" "Is this the right approach?" "Am I allowed to do X?"
These questions follow a certain logic as if there is a right way to do qualitative research. The answers I give to these questions are probably unsatisfactory and frustrating to those asking them because the answer I give is something within the realm of "it depends" and/or "it's up to you". I come from a different logic where qualitative research is really about sense making and not rule following.
Sense making is more an intuitive process of working out, often iteratively, with lots of mistakes and stages of refinement, what works best for you as a researcher working with a certain set of data to answer a certain research question.
There are no rules for making sense of the data. There are no rules for thinking about how we make sense of data. Rather, it is often about empowering students to think what is striking and intriguing about their data, where the patterns are and where the disagreements or contradictions lie.
So, more important than working out if something is the right way is working out, for yourself, what is making sense; what is helping you. The job of the researcher is then to be able to explain and justify this process of messiness so that others can make sense of the process through which the data was transformed into analytical writing.
Taking coding, for example. There is a tendency sometimes to talk about coding as if it comes from a logic of rule following rather than sense making. This makes coding appear as if there is a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it; as if there might be a right number of codes, or hierarchies linking these codes together.
For me, coding is not an inherently given procedure but a sense-making process which we use as a way to interpret the data (i.e. beginning to dissect and recognise patterns within the data). Codes are not something that exist outside of the researcher but are the tools we use to label data in a way that makes sense to us.
In trying to tease out why I consider qualitative research to be about sense making not rule following my intention is not to lay blame students. With the growing concern in methods and methodology in social science, may be we have given the impression as teachers and researchers that there is a right way. Maybe we have not given enough space to recognising, and legitimising, the role of intuition (and reflexivity) in the process of qualitative research.
The challenge as we continue to formalise methods and raise expectations, in terms of methodological conversations and sophistication, is not to lose sight of this underlying logic of sense making that is fundamental to qualitative approaches. In other words, we need tools, ways of thinking and ways of communicating this logic of sense making and the role of intuition in the process of qualitative research and in training future generations of qualitative scholars.
Six years ago I was in Crimea. This was my first field trip to the Crimean peninsula. It is peculiar to reflect back on this time now that so much has changed. I was in the early stages of data collection and didn't know much about Crimea.
It was unseasonably cold in Crimea. Snow was falling, and a far cry from the supposed Mediterranean climate that I had expected. The only shoes I had with me that meant I did not slide into every road I crossed were an old pair of trainers. You can imagine: I stood out. I always stood out, but the trainers only enhanced this with my British-lack of heels and inability to cope well with Simferopol's slush.
But the 2012 Russian presidential elections on 4 March stick in my head. I remember making sure to pass by the Russian embassy several times that day to see what the vibe was. I thought the Russian presidential elections might be a bigger deal in Crimea than I witnessed them being. Before lunch on the day of the elections, I saw a few people (around 30) coming to vote. Some were even taking photos of themselves outside of the embassy. There were a few local TV cameras around and a few local police. And there was me, sheepishly try to suss out what was going on without drawing too much attention to myself. One thing that was striking was the age: all (of the few) that I saw coming to vote were elderly.
Later that day, I remember watching Putin's victory on TV with my host. Watching Putin cry as he returned to office, the event seemed so remote. It was hard to imagine this victory as something that might matter to Crimea.
It is precisely these contrasts -- expectations vs observations -- that have guided my understanding of Crimea as a place that is more complex, notably in terms of Russian identification, then is often given credit. Maybe more were voting in Sevastopol, as Crimea's "Russia's city", but this precisely the surprising thing about Crimea how our knowledge is often produced about peninsula from the perspective of Sevastopol.
But, six years later, these contrasts are the the precise ironies. Putin's return to Russia's presidency marked a ramping up of Russia's support for "compatriots" in places like Crimea. Then, four years ago, Putin led Russia's annexation of Crimea. In the space of a few weeks, Crimea's residents became Russian citizens (or were required to register as foreigners).
Tomorrow Russian citizens will go to the polls. They will likely seal a further victory for Putin. Elections will be held in Crimea precisely on the day, four years previously, that Russia formally annexed Crimea: 18 March 2014. As I sit in London writing this, with snow on the ground, the UK is in the throes of a tense and uncertain relationship with Russia, following the attempted murder of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury. Who knows where Crimea, Putin, or UK-Russian relations will be in six years' time.
Rejoice! Brexit will mean not just our country back from the strangehold of the EU. Brexit will also mean the return of the tangible symbol of what it means to be British: the blue passport.
The blue passport, after all, is a symbol to which we can all relate and lament. A symbol which can be rightfully returned to us now we have left the neo-imperialist European super-state. We have our rights back.
Of course none of this is true. The EU never imposed the colour of passports on member-states. The EU does not even impose common rules of citizenship across member-states.
But, I wouldn't be so quick to assume that blue passports are meaningless. Look beyond the UK and you don't have too look far for a precisely red vs. blue passport domestic and cross-border debate: Moldova. It is not for nothing that I tweet #MoldovanBrexit every second day.
In Moldova, the blue passport demonstrates the world in which Moldovan citizens are situated. A world where their rights to access spaces outside are limited (especially before 2014). It is the crippling costs of applying for visas, the crippling bureaucracies of applying for visas, the crippling time it takes to apply for visas, or the not-unlikely incidence that you might have to travel to a third-country intermediary (and acquire a visa for the third-country) to apply for the visa for state you want to visit.
The red passport meant the end to all this. Before 2014, the red passport meant acquiring (or reacquiring) Romanian citizenship (and EU citizenship). The red passport meant secure the acquiring the rights, status and belonging that Moldovan citizenship could not provide.
Since 2014, the red passport has also come to mean the fresh-faced Moldovan e-passport. Moldovans can now travel visa-free to the Schengen area so long as they have a red e-passport. The colour of the passport, of course, was not imposed on Moldova. The Moldovan state chose a red passports to show harmony with the EU (and the overcoming of the barriers of the blue passport). The EU did, however, insist on the e-passport for those wanting to travel visa-free to Schengen countries.
You have to wonder, then, why the UK would willingly give this all up. The UK government want us to believe that the blue passport is the symbol of all we lost by joining the EU. The blue passport transports us back to a time where British people could decide their own law. To a time where we could decide, incidentally, not to have a minimum wage or paid maternity leave.
But, the blue passport is the symbol of all that we are giving up.
Britain's Post-Colonial Reckoning
I'm not all gloomy about Brexit. Brexit might be precisely the post-colonial reckoning that Britain needs: a shake of realisation that Britain cannot force the EU, China, India and the US, among others, to yield to it. We will be the country forced to yield, not the other way around.
When the UK sees India, it sees a land of hope and opportunity: markets, people and skills. When India sees the UK, it sees a now provincial and former colonial overlord. Britain may remain blind to the this reality gap. It might remain blind to the everyday post-colonialities of the twenty first century. But Britain will experience this reality gap whether it can see it or not.
More likely, of course, Brexit will perpetuate Britain's victim-framing narrative. It will not longer be the EU victimizing the UK from within, imposing non-sensical directives. It will be the EU victimizing the UK through Brexit; punishing the UK for wanting a clean divorce, crippling the City to serve its own ends and preventing us from trade deals with those queuing at our door. We already see this narrative taking shape.
But, Brexit will mean a curtailment of Britain's rights and status in the international world, within and beyond the EU. The periphery is waiting for us. Let's go meet Moldova.