Monday, November 09, 2009

How not to write fiction

Note: This blog post comes from a talk I presented at Texas Christian University on November 6, 2009.

How Not to Write Fiction: Style and Evidence in Qualitative Research Studies
So I no longer read fiction. I read perhaps one book of fiction a year.

It wasn't always that way. Growing up, I used to love reading fiction – especially, I admit, science fiction. In fact, the first long novel I read was Jules Verne's annotated 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I was intensely proud of having finished it – I was perhaps seven – and also really interested in the annotations, which taught me all about narwahls and light bulbs and so forth. Most of the science fiction I read wasn't so highbrow, though: Heinlein, Asimov, Niven, Pohl, Herbert, Burroughs (Edgar Rice, not William). I even went through a bad patch where I read Piers Anthony, which is the science fiction equivalent of drinking Keystone Light.

Don't get me wrong, I also read other genres. I read a lot of murder mysteries, mostly Agatha Christie. I read the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift. I read the Bible cover to cover at least three times by the time I finished high school. I read Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago the summer before my senior year. And I read plenty of trash, such as Von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods. But science fiction was my passion, and I even thought that I might be interested in becoming a science fiction writer someday. Although I decided not to pursue that career in college, I kept reading fiction, at least a paperback or two a week, up to the point I started my PhD. Program at Iowa State University. And then, within a year or so, I stopped reading fiction almost entirely.

Why? It wasn't the course load. It wasn't that I thought I was suddenly too good to read fiction. It was simply that I had begun to read research studies, and I found that good research studies – the ones that were solidly grounded, well written, and intellectually curious – were more interesting than fiction to me.

Look at it this way. In fiction, you know the story is the author's construct. You know that it's often a reference to contemporary issues, sometimes an allegory, sometimes with a moral you have to intuit. You can scrutinize it to see how it's constructed. You can anticipate plot twists, sometimes far in advance, which really takes the fun out of it. You can pick holes and identify what's implausible. And although there's some pretty trippy science fiction out there, for the most part even the trippiest ideas are conventionalized enough to sell copies. Science fiction writers like to say that science fiction is not really about the future, it's about the present, and after a while you start to see the present concerns poking through the futuristic window dressing. It starts feeling preachy and contrived.

Compare that to, say, Edwin Hutchins' Cognition in the Wild, where he takes a concept as trippy as anything you see in science fiction – cognition isn't in your head, as everyone assumes, but instead it's distributed across people and artifacts – and he makes a solid case for it with compelling writing and stories that actually happened.

Compare it to Lev Vygotsky's studies in Mind and Society, where he argues that everyone has child development wrong – thought doesn't bubble out of children as language, language gets absorbed to produce thought – and he provides evidence with ingenious and bizarre experiments.

Compare it to Bonnie Nardi's Context and Consciousness, a collection of studies that is as compelling as any collection of short stories. (To me, anyway.)

These studies make claims that changed the way I saw everything, they backed them up with true stories and reproducible data, and they "showed their work" with methods sections – I could play along at home. And I had to: unlike my science fiction readings, these didn't give me the luxury of rejecting stories as implausible or suspending disbelief when they were well written. Either the theoretical framework held up and the methodology worked well, or not. And let's not forget that while fiction has a moral, research studies offer an implications section. Here's the lessons we learn; here's the work that must still be done; here's the ways in which actual people, including the real people in these stories, can benefit.

That, I decided, was the kind of study I wanted to write. Something useful, something interesting and trippy, something really readable in terms of style. Something like the studies that Bruno Latour writes. You've read Latour? He's a master stylist. Reading Latour is like drinking too much. Reading his books in the evening, you think, "this fellow is brilliant! Why isn't this clearer to his critics?" Then you wake the next day with a headache. "Ohhh, does that even make sense?" That's what I wanted to achieve – minus the headache.

A little side story here. A few years ago I was rereading some rhet-comp articles about research, and one casually mentioned that the researcher Steve Woolgar had gone as far as to make up a coauthor in one of his experimental ethnographies. That's odd, I thought. So I turned to the bibliography to see what ethnography the author was referencing. And there it was: Laboratory Life, by Steve Woolgar.

Laboratory Life, of course, was coauthored by Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar. And it dawned on me that this author thought Latour was a figment of Woolgar's imagination! A fiction!

Style and Fiction: Who Killed Rex?
Okay, so here's a story of my own. In 2000, I found myself sitting in the Network Control Center of a regional telecommunications company in West Texas. I really didn't know what I was looking for, to be honest: I had talked this company into letting me study its employees over ten months in exchange for reports on the company's "communication problems." Whatever they turned out to me. So I started with Customer Service, moved to Customer Service Data Entry, and then to the NCC, simply to see how people were communicating with each other. I would spend two hours shadowing each individual, then observe them again a couple of weeks later, giving them an interview after the second observation. And I would pick up artifacts – printouts, sticky notes, anything that looked interesting and related.

The NCC was a big room with a screen on one wall, seats facing it on tiers, kind of like a small movie theater or a large Enterprise bridge. Specialists hot-desked in the NCC. And the phones were always ringing: the NCC was where you were transferred when you reported some sort of network problem, like lost or interrupted service, crosstalk on the line, and so forth. If your overhead line was snapped by a falling branch, if you accidentally dug up an underground cable with a backhoe, the incident would eventually make its way to the NCC. There, a specialist would create a trouble ticket, assign it to a technician – usually a technician working for the dominant telecomm provider in the area, which we'll call BigTel - and communicate with the technician until the problem was resolved.

The NCC was busy. I mean, our individual phone service is rarely interrupted, but strands of the telecomm network break all the time. So specialists would be working three tickets on the screen, typing up a fourth while talking to a customer about the fifth. It was quite incredible to watch.

So one day I was sitting in the NCC, waiting for all these incidents to form patterns, when a specialist, Nathaniel, leans over to the guy I'm shadowing, Donald. Nathaniel said:
"BigTel let somebody's dog out and it got run over. Nothing mentioned in the ticket about it."

Donald nodded and listed the tickets he was to work for that day.
A few minutes later, the NCC's assistant manager sternly told the story again, this time to the entire NCC.
"There was nothing about a dog on the ticket," he said. "You must note that."
So this intrigued me. I mentioned that I read murder mysteries as a kid, right? And although this wasn't a murder mystery per se, it was still a mystery. Of course I asked people about it. Long story short, treating this incident like a mystery helped me to understand how Telecorp communicated internally and externally. It intrigued me, just as mysteries had intrigued me when I was younger, just as research studies had intrigued me in grad school.

Eventually, I wrote it up for a collection being put together by my good friend Mark Zachry and my beloved former professor Charie Thralls.

And since I had thought of it as sort of a murder mystery, I wrote it up in those terms, making it as entertaining as possible, hoping that others would get the same sort of thrill reading this study that I had gotten reading Hutchins, Vygotsky, Nardi, and especially Latour. The editors and I were pleased with the result.

An Email and a Question
Then I got this email from a graduate student. I've redacted it, but you can get the gist.

I'm currently taking a Qualitative Research Methods with [professor] at [university]. In our last class, we read your article "Who Killed Rex?" During our discussion, it was suggested that you fabricated your qualitative investigation of Telecorp in an effort to educate your readers ...

Let's leave aside for a moment the fact that this graduate student has asked me if I have falsified research data, a serious ethical charge. Maybe he wasn't aware of how big a deal that would be. Instead, let's concentrate on the irony here. Ten years after I gave up on reading fiction because it wasn't interesting enough, I was being asked if I had written fiction. At least he hadn't accused me of being a figment of Steve Woolgar's imagination.

The answer was, of course, absolutely not. I have never fabricated or fictionalized research data. Besides being completely unethical, that would have missed the point. It would have taken all the fun out of it! How easy and how boring that would have been.

I told the grad student that the story of Rex was true, that I had the data to prove it, and that each claim had at least 2-3 different data points supporting it, data points coming from different data collection methods.

Write Like a Mystery Writer, Build the Case Like a Lawyer

I had written the case like a mystery author, but I had built the case like a lawyer. Specifically, I had sourced each claim by triangulating, and I made uncertainties clear through hedging. (This is something I just finished discussing with my undergraduate field methods class.)

There are at least two types of triangulation:

Triangulating across data types. In a qualitative study, you should have at least a few different types of data, and these should give you different views of the phenomenon. You can't rely on just one. If you just rely on observations, you'll only have your perspective - you will be able to describe what happened, but not why or how it connects with their goals. If you just rely on interviews, you get their perspective - their story - but sometimes people recall incorrectly or are just flat wrong. So as much as possible, you have to build a story by looking across the data to see what the different data types are telling you. In this case, people from the NCC were blaming the other units for the problem, and if I hadn't cross-checked their stories with the other data, I might have told a more simplistic, less accurate, less interesting story.

Triangulating across data instances. But I also had to make sure to triangulate across instances. It wasn't enough to, say, compare Nathaniel's statements with observations and artifacts pulled from his sessions. I also had to compare his statements against statements of others; his observations against observations of others; his artifacts - well you get the drift. Doing this allowed me to ask: how representative is this incident? How representative are these views? Am I talking to an oddball here, or does everyone see things this way? This sort of triangulation helps you to ensure that the most interesting or extreme views don't take over the argument.

Hedging. Finally, unlike a fiction writer, we don't get to take a God's-eye view. We don't see everything, and in fact John Law has some great examples of how he always seemed to be missing the action in his ethnography of a research center. So if we didn't see an incident, or get that interview describing it, or pick up the artifact that would confirm it, we have to fess up. This is ethos-building, it's confidence-building. Hedging is a sign of honesty and confidence, not weakness.

Some examples of hedging in "Who Killed Rex":

  • "I did not witness the original complaint being filed, of course, but I did observe customer service clerks dealing with similar complaints."
  • "We can't rule out Customer Service entirely, but their culpability seems less likely than Donald suggested."
  • "I did not observe any sales reps asking about pets and locked gates. But ... sales reps had developed no self-regulative genres, no scripts or checklists or forms, to remind them to ask about pets and locked gates."
Being Accused of Writing Fiction
So much for building the case like a lawyer. Let's talk about writing like a mystery writer. As you can tell, this topic is dear to my heart, because I really, truly believe that the best studies can be as interesting and more world-changing - and certainly stranger - than fiction. How can you be accused of writing fiction?

Get excited about your work. When my undergrads conduct studies, I remind them that chances are, no one has ever looked at their site in this way, with this level of scrutiny, with these analytical tools. I tell them that they'll see a lot of things that their participants already know about - but they'll achieve a systematic overview and a depth of understanding that no one else ever has. That's a big deal. And it has transformative potential.

Celebrate when the data don't fit your preconceptions. When I started the Telecorp study, I was working within a standard theoretical framework, activity theory. Even my interview questions were constructed around the parts of an activity system. But soon I realized that the data were not fitting activity theory well. I was thrilled: that meant that my theoretical preconceptions were not shaping what I saw. I wasn't just repeating the story that other activity theorists had told me - I was actually recounting my own story, based on the data I had collected.

Let the evidence deepen your claims. As you triangulate, you'll find that your early hypotheses (claims) often won't be complex enough to account for the data. Great. Let the claims simmer a bit, working in the data, deciding which claims to abandon, which ones to hedge, which ones to make more specific. Often the early claims are not nearly as interesting as the ones that you've let simmer, just as a two-dimensional character isn't as interesting as a three-dimensional one.

Edit for style. Remember, build the case like a lawyer, but write like a mystery writer - or borrow from whatever genres interest you. Look how some of the more engaging studies handle the challenge. Me, I read a lot of Latour as I wrote this study, and some of his bombast and dramatism rubbed off on me. In the book, I also drew from all those readings during my youth, especially the Bible, which I quote and paraphrase and play with.

At its best, a qualitative study can be better than fiction. It can grab people, fascinate them, impact them, and improve their lives. And that's what I want to leave you with:

Make it better than fiction.


Becky/Rebecca said...

Clay, Kelli Cargile Cook will be teaching the methods course w/ me in the fall, and the field methods course in the spring. I know we'd like to us this excerpt in the fall....and chances are we'll be picking your brain about next spring later this spring/in the summer.

Miss you at TTU, but thank goodness you're still doing great work I can use!

Clay Spinuzzi said...

Sure, please do use this post or excerpts thereof. And I'd be happy to talk with you guys whenever you'd like. You know how excited I get about research methods.

Palak Varma said...
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