Art and Science
On Emergent Themes: Searching for Patterns
The development of emergent themes reflects the portraitist’s first efforts to bring interpretive insight, analytic scrutiny, and aesthetic order to the collection of data. This is an iterative and generative process; the themes emerge from the data and they give the data shape and form. The portraitist draws out the refrains and patterns and creates a thematic framework for the construction of the narrative. She gathers, organizes, and scrutinizes the data, searching for convergent threads, illuminating metaphors, and overarching symbols, and often constructing a coherence out of themes that the actors might experience as unrelated or incoherent. This is a disciplined, empirical process—of description, interpretation, analysis, and synthesis—and an aesthetic process of narrative development.
The portraitist comes to the work with an intellectual framework and a set of guiding questions. The framework is usually the result of a review of the relevant literature, prior experience in similar settings, and a general knowledge of the field of inquiry. It also resonates with echoes of the researcher’s autobiographical journey—those aspects of her own familial, cultural, developmental, and educational background that she can relate (either consciously or unconsciously) to the intellectual themes of the work.
But whether the dimensions are explicit or implicit, formal or informal, they are part of the researcher’s anticipatory schema. They are not, however, stated as (or meant to be) propositions to be proved or disproved. Unlike quantitative inquiry, where the researcher comes with specific hypotheses to be tested, discrete propositions to be proved or disproved, detailed interview questions, predetermined observational schedules, and a well-defined research plan, the portraitist enters the field with a clear intellectual framework and guiding research questions, but fully expects (and welcomes) the adaptation of both her intellectual agenda and her methods to fit the context and the people she is studying. She hopes to generate theory, not prove prior theoretical propositions. Her methodological plan and conceptual frame—independently constructed before entering the field—are only starting points, but aspects of both are immediately transformed and modified to match the realities of the setting. With the portraitist’s first moves into the setting, the iterative process begins—a dynamic process of receptivity, negotiation, and accommodation that leads to more focused research questions and a more grounded research design.
Even though the portraitist anticipates changes in her research plan and is attentive to the cues in the field to which she must respond and adapt, it is important that she record her framework before she enters the field, identifying the intellectual, ideological, and autobiographical themes that will shape her view. The more conscious and explicit she can make this “voice of preoccupation” (and we suggest writing these reflections down in a form that encourages rumination, analysis, and critique), the more open she will be to what she encounters in the field. We see here a central paradox of this phase of the portraitist’s work: the articulation of early presumptions does not inhibit or distort her clear vision; rather it is likely to make her lens more lucid, less encumbered by the shadows of bias. Making the anticipatory schema explicit (in the form of memos, journals, or self-reflective essays) allows for greater openness of mind.
Once in the field, the portraitist begins by listening and observing, being open and receptive to all stimuli, acclimating herself to the environment, documenting her initial movements and first impressions, and noting what is familiar and what is surprising. The research stance evolves from quiet watchfulness—where the portraitist is mostly taking in stimuli and listening carefully—to the more purposeful activities of initiating relationships with actors, scheduling interviews, and developing a plan of action. With each stage of data collection, at the close of each day, the portraitist gathers, scrutinizes, and organizes the data, and tries to make sense of what she has witnessed.
Usually these daily reflections are documented in an “Impressionistic Record”—a ruminative, thoughtful piece that identifies emerging hypotheses, suggests interpretations, describes shifts in perspective, points to puzzles and dilemmas (methodological, conceptual, ethical) that need attention, and develops a plan of action for the next visit. In these Impressionistic records we see the interplay between relevant dimensions and emergent themes, between our anticipatory schema and our developing insights drawn from our interpretive descriptions in the field. And Impressionistic Records allow us to become increasingly focused and discerning in our work with the discovery of patterns, the development and dialogue of ideas, and the convergence of phenomena. This ongoing dialectic—between data gathering and reflection, between description and analysis—begins in the very early stages of fieldwork (recording the researcher’s acclimation to the setting) and lasts throughout the entire research process (until the writing of the final text). The emergent themes grow out of data gathering and synthesis, accompanied by generative reflection and interpretive insights.
Portraitists join with qualitative researchers of all varieties in emphasizing the flexibility of research design and the iterative process of data collection and thematic development. The analytic work of identifying emerging themes, or coding, is at the core of the iterative process of qualitative research. This ongoing coding guides the researcher’s activities. Any system of data organization and synthesis must be flexible enough to allow the researcher to shift gears and change direction as she moves from fieldwork to analysis and back to data collection. Then there is another stage of reflective scrutiny and retrospective analysis that follows the completion of fieldwork, when the researcher sits and sifts through interview transcripts, observational narratives, field notes, documents, and Impressionistic Records in search of patterns that will order and scaffold the narratives. This post-data collection analysis is less action-oriented and more ruminative than the day-to-day analysis of the data-gathering phase—less about preparing for the next day of purposeful and strategic data collection and more about deep contemplation and probing insight.
There is a generative tension embraced by portraitists: the tension between organization and classification on the one hand and maintaining the rich complexity of human experience on the other—the tension between developing discrete codes and searching for meaning, and the tension between the researcher’s desire for control and coherence and the actors’ reality of incoherence and instability. The portraitist does not try to resolve this tension by choosing one side over the other. Rather she works to maintain the tension and experience the dialectic between these two approaches to thematic development. Usually these resonant tensions ultimately get reflected in the portraitist’s text where the emergent themes both frame and scaffold the text, and the descriptive detail and empirical subtlety of the narrative allow for the expression of interwoven parts.
However qualitative researchers attempt to systematize and organize their data, they must always listen for the voices and perspectives that seem to fall outside, and diverge from, the emergent themes. Unlike quantitative researchers who isolate the outliers, the qualitative researcher makes use of the anomalies, learning important lessons by looking outside the trend. As the researcher organizes transcript data into categories and searches for connections within and between categories, she must be vigilant in attending to the experiences and perspectives that do not fit the convergent patterns. In portraiture, we refer to the perspective that deviates from the norm as “the deviant voice,” and we never stop listening for it, even as we become increasingly focused in our inquiry and certain in our analysis. The deviant voice is useful in drawing important contrasts with the norm; the divergence in perspective and the idiosyncratic stance helps us see the quality and contours of the convergent themes more clearly. The deviant voice is also useful in encouraging the skeptical, counterintuitive stance that the researcher must maintain throughout the course of the research. Incorporating this unusual perspective—the deviant voice—she may continue to scrutinize and challenge a facile consensus or find new ways of framing and understanding the dominant themes.
The portraitist draws out and constructs emergent themes using five modes of synthesis, convergence, and contrast. First, we listen for repetitive refrains that are spoken (or appear) frequently and persistently, forming a collective expression of commonly held views. Second, we listen for resonant metaphors, poetic and symbolic expressions that reveal the ways actors illuminate and experience their realities. Third, we listen for the themes expressed through cultural and institutional rituals that seem to be important to organizational continuity and coherence. Fourth, we use triangulation to weave together the threads of data converging from a variety of sources. And finally, we construct themes and reveal patterns among perspectives that are often experienced as contrasting and dissonant by the actors.