Using the Listening Guide to Leave Oneself Open to Discovery by Xochitl Alvizo


I am deep in the throes of writing my dissertation. Writing started in earnest, in its most recent stretch, in mid-July when I came out to write in isolation in my home city of Los Angeles.* If all goes as scheduled (so far, so good), I will be submitting the first chapter to my editor today, the same date of publication as this blog post. Of course, after my editor’s suggestions, the chapter then goes to my advisor and will inevitably have a life of its own after that. For now, I am enjoying the moment of being on the cusp of completing my very first chapter. I’m a big believer in celebrating every moment of success!

Last month I was in the throes of data analysis. My dissertation involves qualitative research with twelve Emerging Church congregations across the United States. From that research I ended up with 40 audio -hours of transcriptions from the interviews I conducted. I spent the whole month of June – again, in isolation –in San Diego at Point Loma Nazarene University* focusing on the task at hand. Analyzing data is a completely different challenge than writing, and finding the best method of analysis based on one’s own commitments particularly so. Luckily, I found a method of analysis that allowed me to ‘listen deeply’ to my data and leave myself open to discovery.

I have written before about Nelle Morton’s feminist principle of ‘hearing each other to speech’, its importance in my own life, and how valuable I think it could be for those of us in academentia and for the way we do our work. There is a logic that sometimes dominates in the academy of finding the fault in the argument of the other and building one’s own argument in opposition to it. That is not, however, the manner in which I want to do my own work. Nelle Morton proposes a model of engaging one another in which we commit to ‘hearing all the way’, to “depth hearing.” The practice is of a kind of hearing that engages the whole self to the point that you might find yourself holding your breath in order to allow the coherence of someone else’s story to form and come together. Her claim is that this kind of hearing evokes “a new speech – a new creation” because it enables the speaker to be heard to their own story, thereby creating the possibility for new imagining, an imagining that contributes to the mutual empowerment and transformation of both hearer and speaker.

It was hard to imagine that I would find a method of analysis I could use that would capture this feminist principle. But by some unexpected good fortune, I came across Carol Gilligan’s voice-centered relational approach called the Listening Guide and had the opportunity to participate in a workshop with her on this very topic.

Part of what inspired Gilligan and her colleagues to develop this method was the conviction that “the road to discovery [for certain kind of research] is through voice and relationship.” My dissertation has to do with the Emerging Church and its participants’ understanding of what it means to be church and how they embody it. I also look at the claims made in the literature regarding the ‘how’ and ‘what’ of church. I engage both the literature of and about Emerging Churches and the data from my own research from a feminist point of view and out of feminist concerns and commitments. So how to enter such a project while still allowing church participants to speak for themselves and to really hear them about their experiences  of church and not just impose my perceptions and critiques upon them? The Listening Guide was my answer!

This voice-centered relational approach is designed to leave the researcher open, even vulnerable, to discovery. The method involves a series of four sequential ‘listenings’ designed to listen to the text (the interview transcriptions) “rather than categorize or quantify it” (** pg. 159).

  • Listening For the Plot – two steps:
    1. In the first step one attends to what is happening: what stories are being told? What is happening in them – when, where, to whom, and why? Are there any repeated images, metaphors, or dominant themes? Any contradictions or absences? One also notes the larger social and cultural contexts within which the stories are embedded and expressed, and the context within which the researcher and research participant come together.
    2. In the second step the researcher attends to her response to the narrative by “identifying, exploring, and making explicit [her] own thoughts and feelings about, and associations with, the narrative being analyzed” (160)
  • “I” Poems – Listening for the First-person Voice:
    1. The researcher underlines, or marks in some visible way, each “I” spoken in the text along with the verb/s that follow it. These are then pulled out and written down on a piece of paper, with each “I” phrase written on a separate line, like a poem, in the sequence that they appear.
    2. The purpose is to move the participant’s subjectivity to the foreground in order to listen to how the person speaks about her or himself. It also attunes the researcher to what the participant knows of her or himself before talking about her or him; it resists dealing with the research participants in an objectifying way (ibid, 162).
  • Listening for Contrapuntal Voices:
    1. This step begins by identifying a particular ‘voice’ that the researcher will listen for – an aspect of the research question – and determines the markers by which this voice is identified.
    2. This is done at least one more time, if not more, to listen for another voice related to the research question.
    3. The voices are marked in different colors or highlighting in order to make it easy to see how the voices relate to one another and what is revealed in the relationship between the voices. Is there dissonance, harmony, contradiction? Listening for at least two contrapuntal voices recognizes the reality that there is a multiplicity of voices and aspects of experience always at play in relation to any given situation or relational context, and helps reveal what may not be immediately obvious. These points of intersection will then become points of interest for the researcher and key for the discovery of new understandings regarding the research topic.
  • Composing an Analysis:
    1. There is a visual trail of different colored underlining and markings left with each listening, as well as a trail of notes, researcher responses, and interpretive summaries (ibid, 159, 168). This trail of evidence then serves as the basis upon which the researcher bases her interpretations in relation to the research questions.
    2. At this point the researcher ‘assembles the evidence’ and pulls together what has been learned about the research question through this process and how one has come to know it (ibid, 168).

Emerging Churches MapThe study of Emerging Churches is an essentially social and relational one. Beside the fact that they are corporate bodies sharing life with one another, and that I am coming to them in order to study and conduct research, I was welcomed by them, spent time with them, and  got to hear stories about their church. Essentially, they made themselves vulnerable to me and opened themselves to my potential critique. The Listening Guide provides me with a way to honor their vulnerability and offer up some of my own. The method allows me to listen to their many experiences in a way that takes seriously the experiences of the persons as persons and not as objects of study. By using this voice-centered relational approach, I attune to their many voices and leave myself vulnerable to discover the unexpected and, potentially, to ‘hear them to speech’ – to hear them all the way.

* I am grateful to my friends Kevin and Martin for allowing me to work in their house while they were gone on vacation for two weeks. I am also deeply grateful to the Wesleyan Center at Point Loma Nazarene University for accepting me to their visiting scholar program and providing me with such a beautiful place to work. Dissertations are always a community endeavor! 

** Carol Gilligan, Renée Spencer, M. Katherine Weinberg, and Tatiana Bertsch, “On the Listening Guide: A Voice-Centered Relational Method,” in Emergent Methods in Social Research (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 2006). 

Xochitl Alvizo is a feminist Christian-identified woman and a Ph.D. candidate in Practical Theology at Boston University School of Theology. She loves all things feminist. She often finds herself on the boundary of different social and cultural contexts, and works hard to develop her voice and to hear and encourage the voice of others. Her work is inspired by the conviction that all people are inextricably connected and what we do, down to the smallest thing, matters; it makes a difference for good or for ill.

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Categories: Academy, Emerging, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Relationality, Women and Scholarship

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11 replies

  1. Beautiful post. Can you define Emerging Church for us in a sentence or so. Thanks.

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  2. Very interesting! All I did for my dissertation, which was about the persona of Cleopatra in plays in English from 1592 to 1898, was read a bunch of plays and a really big bunch of books by dead white guys. The only people I actually talked to and listened to were the librarians who spotted and saved books for me and my dissertation adviser, with whom I also argued a lot. I’m trying to imagine writing a dissertation the way you’re doing it.

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  3. Thanks friends for the comments. A broad definition of the Emerging Church is: the Emerging Church is a movement within Western Christianity that seeks to rethink and reform church in light of what it takes to be important elements of a changing culture as well as in response to experiences of Christianity and church as unchristian. Most recently, in page 6 of their new book “The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity,” Gerardo Marti and Gladys Ganiel, both sociologists of religion, define it this way: “we argue that Emerging Church Christians are a discernable, transnational group who share a religious orientation built on a continual practice of deconstruction.”

    Barbara, my field is Practical Theology and tends to be interdisciplinary, which often means we do qualitative research as part of our dissertation. So far it’s been my favorite part. I’ve really enjoyed the direct engagement with the people involved. It keeps things interesting.

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  4. I actually still don’t know what an emerging church is? A brand new church in a neighborhood? A church where all lesbians are welcome and men never speak? A church that calls itself liberal, but really is the same old thing? Not conservative? Reads other texts besides the Bible? Just my educated guesses here.

    I find listening to women an incredible experience, but really I think men need to listen to women and stop talking at us for a whole year, now that would be my emerging delight, male silence everywhere! Emerge women!

    Good luck with the writing, theology is what it is so give it your best shot Xochitl! :-)

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  5. I love the idea of the “listening guide.” Not objectifying your “subjects” is a wonderful goal. Does this mean that your dissertation will essentially be quotes and paraphrases from the people you spoke to? Or does it ultimately come down to your interpretation of what you heard?

    What you’re doing seems to be a new step in standpoint theory. When I wrote my dissertation over 30 years ago, I tried to make clear where I stood so that the reader could read with that lens. It seems that in your dissertation analysis you are trying to limit your standpoint so that the understandings of your interviewees can be heard. Am I right?

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  6. An ’emerging delight’ – Turtle Woman – that’s a great expression! So some of your questions are also mine in this research project. A couple things I could say is that, yes, most of these emerging churches are new congregations, often in non-traditional spaces; art galleries and centers, pubs, and all manner of rented space. Most of the one’s I studied are not conservative, theologically or socially/politically, and most are aware of the patriarchal culture that dominates and work to be different. But whether they are truly an emerging delight is the question I began my research with…I’ll keep you posted!

    Nancy, even with this method, I still will be interpreting the data and reporting what I see from my perspective and out of my feminist commitments. So the reporting of my findings won’t just be quotes and paraphrases. But by using this method I make extra efforts to give a fair hearing to the voice of the participants in order that they get to ‘speak for themselves’ before I speak ‘about’ them. It also allows me to be potentially surprised by my data. The method values the reality that research is ultimately relational and that both researcher and participant play active roles. I wouldn’t say this limits my standpoint, but it allows it to be more explicitly informed by the multiple, and sometimes contrapuntal, voices of the participants.

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  7. This was really useful for me…..actually in thinking about reading classical texts and listening to the voices there. Not all translates, but quite a bit does. Thank you.

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  8. Wonderful Xochitl, I really miss you.

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