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:
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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:
- 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.
- This is done at least one more time, if not more, to listen for another voice related to the research question.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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).
The 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.