Portrait of an Institution
Portrait of a Concept
Portrait of a Relationship
Portrait of a Developmental Stage
Portrait of a Process
[Photographer: Karin Wells (2011)
When I published my first portrait, The Good High School,in 1983, portraiture took its place in the lexicon of qualitative inquiry as a new and creative methodological approach. And like all innovations, it was both welcomed and resisted, embraced and criticized by the scholarly community. The next three decades were years of practice and refinement, teaching graduate methodology seminars, doing research, and writing portraits. The portraits I have written over these years illustrate the wide range and scope of the method, even as each has deep autobiographical roots. This range includes portraits of institutions, concepts, relationships, developmental stages, processes, an archeology of human experience,and intimate portraits of individuals.
Three decades of practicing portraiture have taught me that the boundaries that we draw between scientific and artistic representations of reality not only produce distorted caricatures of each realm but also blind us to the similarities and resonances between them. I have had many opportunities to talk with both scientists and artists about the roots, motivations, processes, and products of their work, and I am struck by their parallel and convergent accounts. This is certainly true of the most imaginative, confident, and skilled artists and scientists—those people at the top of their form, working at their most creative, grooving in their zones. I think of a theoretical physicist, with whom I had a recent conversation, who speaks about her science as “deeply intuitive and artful.” She used her hands to show me what she sees, thinks, and feels. I am reminded of my sculptor friend who works on his pieces for 3 years, gathering evidence of ancient forms, documenting their historical and cultural origins, and finally producing a piece that in his mind is based on what he calls “scientific searching,” but to my eyes does not even remotely resemble the studies of ancient forms. And I recall a wonderful letter I received a few years ago from an economist who had just finished reading the portraits in my 1994 book I’ve Known Rivers. He wrote, “I realize that you and I are engaged in similar processes . . . full of musing, interpretation, and leaps of faith.”
It is my hope that portraiture—this dialogue between science and art, this pursuit of truths, insight, and knowledge projected by the imagination, this “people’s scholarship”—will spread to places where it will be challenging, illuminating, and useful. The portraits I have written are part of ongoing efforts to redefine the boundaries and redraw the map of social science inquiry and discourse.