Research Poetics

A few years ago, while working on an analysis of my mother-daughter data, I realized that the participants’ voices that I was reading in the transcripts sounded like poems. I had been reading and rereading the transcripts very closely and the poems just came to me. I decided to go with it and started a process of creating poems that represented specific stories I felt my participants were telling about their relationship.

Using poetry to represent qualitative findings is not new but it is still fairly controversial. Poems have also been used analytically with some success but, overall, social science is wary of poetry in published research. Many people don’t seem to grasp what I mean when I state that the poems crystalize participants’ meanings for me. They are also suspect of my using the participants’ words in ways that were not originally intended by the participant. While this is a fair criticism, it is really true of all qualitative analysis. As researchers, we restory the stories that are told to us; we interpret spoken words and our representation of these words always reflect our own bias.

For me, writing poetry has always been about stripping ideas and images down to their bare bones. By cutting out extraneous words and thoughts, the essence of the matter is revealed. There is a fine balance between leaving enough context to create the image and move the reader without overwhelming her with the details. As an analysis tool, I find this really helpful. I have also found that people respond to the poems (at least when read outloud) in a way that never happens when I present simple quotes.