A climber who lives modestly and often itinerantly, supporting themself through odd jobs in order to maximize the amount of time climbing.
Wikipedia (2020), “Glossary of Climbing Terms”
A few months after I had started climbing at a local gym, I was stuck on a 5.9 route. Climbing routes are graded on their level of difficulty; intermediate begins at 5.9 (with increasing levels of expertise from 5.10a to about 5.13d).1 If I could send this one route (i.e., climb in one go without falling), I would no longer be a newb. But, after weeks of working this route, I kept getting shut down at the same place, the crux—the most difficult section of a climb.
One day I was talking with one of the gym staff about it. On the one hand, I was kind of stoked about this move lower down on the route that always felt really snazzy. I would swing both of my feet off the wall and get my left foot onto a small foothold and then get my right foot onto another while holding on to a hornlike handhold on an overhang above. But, on the other hand, I’d recently seen a number of other, more advanced climbers doing this route, and no one seemed to do it like I did. So in telling the staff member about the moves I used, I nervously added, “I know this isn’t really how you’re supposed to do it, but I can’t seem to do it any other way.” But the staff member assured me, saying that there’s no one right way to get up the wall, generously adding that he was curious to see me do it. A few days later, I got past the crux and climbed my first 5.9 route.
Okay, this is kind of a weird way to start a qualitative methods book, but this story—like so much about rock climbing—is a useful parable for thinking about methods.2 As in rock climbing, there is no one right way to do qualitative methods. As I’ll say again and again, there are certainly wrong ways to do them, but there’s also a plethora of right ways. All too often, people get pretty judgy about methods, particularly when someone does something in a different way—either a different way from how the critic was trained, a different way from how the critic typically does things, or generally a different way from what the critic considers The Right Way. This narrow-mindedness about methods contributes, I think, to our anxiety about methods.
In fact, I’ve been struck by a frequent gap between what people think is The Right Way—as manifested in books and articles about how to do qualitative methods, peer reviewers’ critical feedback, audience members’ skeptical questions at research presentations, or general conversations with other academics—and how a lot of people actually do qualitative methods. Certainly many scholars follow The Right Way, but many others do not. Their deviation is particularly evident in numerous methods sections and methodological appendices. More striking, I’ve had many conversations with colleagues—including both junior and senior faculty—who have said things like, “I know this isn’t really how we’re supposed to do it, but it’s what I did.”
The differences they describe seem to be fairly consistent across a range of people (suggesting their choices are not aberrational) and are always expressed with a dose of shame because they’re not doing it The Right Way. This insecurity about otherwise fantastic methods is problematic and ultimately unnecessary. It’s one of the many areas where we can learn from climbing.
When pro-climber Chris Sharma was doing sport climbing competitions in his teens, he used a unique climbing style. He would swing his body and use the momentum to help push himself up the wall, “much like a monkey swinging between branches.” Today, this is known as dynamic climbing, in contrast to static climbing, which involves slower, more controlled movement. Initially, people criticized Sharma’s style because static climbing had long been the norm. As his friend, fellow pro-climber Tommy Caldwell, remembered, “[T] he old-schoolers chastised him for poor footwork and lousy body control” (Caldwell 2017, 73). But as Sharma increasingly crushed it at comps, people eventually shut up. In fact, dynamic climbing became, and still is, pretty popular among competitive climbers.
As with climbing, social scientists have different approaches to qualitative research. Some of these differences have to do with people’s individual strengths, personalities, and preferences, while some differences relate to the challenges of a particular project. Some people are extroverts and exceptional conversationalists who excel at interviewing—the prospect of which might terrify many an introvert. Some people have an obsessive attention to detail and enjoy reviewing page after page of archival documents, which would make others sneeze or itch. Likewise, some research questions demand a particular method that the researcher has never before pursued and needs to learn (or get a coauthor) in order to conduct. Give ten people the same transcript of an event, moreover, and they may each focus on different elements—the role of gender, the role of race, how power operates, the social constructedness of a situation, the cultural meanings of exchanges, speech patterns, and so on—and they all may produce useful, insightful accounts.
The multiplicity of valid approaches may be overwhelming, but it’s also liberating. Too often, advice about qualitative methods is too narrow or rigid and ultimately constraining. This book is about removing those artificial constraints and letting loose but doing so in a way that is still rigorous. Indeed, overly rigid advice gives way to overly rigid criticism of anything that exceeds the prescribed bounds. The central message of this book is: Rigorous research does not have to be rigid.
This book describes an approach to qualitative methods that is less rigid, arguably more creative, and generally more rewarding than some of the other, more mainstream approaches out there. By mainstream, I basically mean quantitative methods and those qualitative approaches that look at quantitative methods as a model for how to do research. Or, more generally, those approaches that look to the scientific method as the ultimate model of doing research.3 I call these approaches mainstream (or conventional) because these seem to be the dominant approach when it comes to how qualitative work is evaluated—despite the multiplicity of valid approaches.
In fact, there’s a pretty big mismatch between mainstream ways of thinking and certain types of qualitative projects. For example, mainstream approaches tend to rely on a series of inviolable rules about how to do research. In a lot of cases, these inviolable rules make sense for quantitative scholars and for some qualitative or mixed-methods scholars. But for the rest of us, that script doesn’t really fit what we want to do, the type of research we want to pursue, the type of articles and books we want to produce, or just our general orientation to research. We want to do things differently.
Borrowing rock climbers’ most cherished sobriquet (for reasons I explain below), I call this other approach the “Dirtbagging approach” to qualitative social science. I’m saying “approach,” but it’s not really a single approach. It’s more a collection of options in the research process, or even an attitude toward research, that gets left out of mainstream guidebooks to qualitative methods.
A scholar working within this approach often starts with a broad research question that gets refined in the field—whether that is in the archive, in a café reading online forum comments, at a desk interviewing a stranger, or embedded in a unique social space for long-term observation. Their4 research question evolves over time or leads to important insights beyond their original question. In some cases, their final research question emerges after data collection is complete. For this scholar, data analysis is a deeply personal process that requires following their intuition, puzzlements, and even emotional reactions to their data—but in a systematic and rigorous way that allows for useful, compelling, and generalizable insights. Such scholars analyze familiar objects in novel ways, develop exciting new concepts and theoretical frameworks, or constructively challenge the norms of their (sub)field. Ultimately, this type of research yields opportunities for generating important, creative, even paradigm-shifting insights for one’s field of inquiry.
There is no real defining feature of this approach beyond the idea that it diverges from The Right Way. A key theme within this approach is flexibility, in opposition to the rigidity demanded by some other, more mainstream approaches. In fact, one of my goals with this book is to help dismantle the idea of The Right Way by presenting the range of good options. In the process, I borrow from several different disciplines, methods, and approaches, from ethnography to econometrics, using what’s helpful and leaving behind what’s not.
As a consequence of this eclecticism, every substantive label I (and later my friends) could think of to characterize this approach fell short: inductive, micro-level analyses, case study, Grounded Theory, ethnographic, theory generating, historical, and so on. The approach I describe can apply to these methods and techniques, but it’s not limited to them. For example, I often draw on the intuition and techniques ethnographers and historians use; but they don’t hold a monopoly on these ideas. People doing interviews, reviewing contemporary documents online, or pursuing multi-methods projects also use (or can benefit from) the techniques I’m going to describe. Relatedly, a lot of stuff I’m describing can be put under the “inductive” banner (essentially moving from your data to theory)—but I’m also describing stuff that’s deductive, too (moving from theory to data—don’t worry, I’ll explain what this means later). So, in the interest of methodological inclusiveness, I ultimately decided to skip these various (more methodologically substantive but exclusionary and narrow) labels and go for something a little more radical.5
Early on in this project, I adopted the Dirtbagging label as a shorthand to refer to my approach. It was a term used by mid-twentieth-century US-based rock climbers who committed themselves fully to a life of climbing, doing whatever it took to get by—including sleeping under the stars and scrounging for food rather than working a day job that would keep them from climbing full time. These “dirtbags” followed a countercultural ethos that was rejected and policed (literally) by mainstream society, a useful analogy for the type of qualitative social science that is likewise rejected and policed by mainstream scholars. It evokes a certain sense of deviance that I have often felt doing my research—that feeling of doing it wrong, of breaking some rule, of being judged for something that feels natural and necessary but that is not The Right Way.
It’s definitely possible to overstate the countercultural characteristics of the approach to qualitative research I’m describing. As I’ve mentioned already, it turns out this approach is really common among people who actually do qualitative methods. And if so many people actually do this approach, how countercultural can it really be?6 In some circles—some friend groups, departments, subfields, and disciplines—the approach I’m describing is both common and normalized. In fact, some of my friends who read this book before it was published suggested this approach isn’t deviant at all. They were lucky. They were trained and/or worked in departments where this approach was the norm—or if not the norm for the whole department, it was the norm for the advisors who trained them. There are lots of departments and advisors like that. There are also lots of departments and advisors not like that. And when working in those contexts, you can really start to feel like you’re a rule breaker, even if you didn’t intend to be.
Being a Dirtbagging social scientist is a bit like being a rock climbing hobbyist in the late 2010s: Rock climbing has also gone pretty mainstream (see the explosion of climbing gyms, the widespread release of two climbing documentaries in 2018, and the 2020 Olympics’ inclusion of climbing), but some people still look at you a little suspiciously if you say you climb. It’s that feeling of otherness and the anxiety that comes with it—despite the objective reality that we’re surrounded by people like us (even if we don’t know it yet)—that I’m going for by using the Dirtbagger label.
However, the term “dirtbag” can definitely be off-putting. It raises connotations of, essentially, an asshole. Or maybe a hobo. In climbing, the term is much closer to the second. Indeed, climbing dirtbags and hobos have things in common (low resources, a sparse or uncertain shower schedule, living in situ); but for climbers, hoboing is a means to an end. Some general definitions of the term capture the point:
dirtbag: A poor climber, alpinist, skier or other outdoorsman [sic] who lives cheaply, without normal employment, and with few amenities in order to spend as much time on their sport as possible. Used praisingly. (Wiktionary 2020)
dirtbag: A person who is committed to a given (usually extreme) lifestyle to the point of abandoning employment and other societal norms in order to pursue said lifestyle. Dirtbags can be distinguished from hippies by the fact that dirtbags have a specific reason for their living communaly [sic] and generally non-hygenically [sic]; dirtbags are seeking to spend all of their moments pursuing their lifestyle. (Urban Dictionary 2020)
As these definitions indicate, the label is really about commitment, dedication, and passion—but doing so in a way that breaks those social rules that simply seem irrelevant or hold a person back from pursuing their goals.
Hopefully this brief discussion makes something else clear that is really important: “Dirtbag” is not a derogatory term, but one climbers embrace and use with a certain amount of reverence. As explained in an advertisement for the 2017 documentary, Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey (a pioneering climber who was still dirtbagging around until his death at age 94), “In the climbing world, being called a ‘Dirtbag’ is a badge of honor, a hard-earned title not for the meek” (@DirtbagMovie 2018). It takes grit to be a dirtbag. However, to emphasize the character, behavior, and positive meaning intended, and to avoid the negative connotation of being an asshole, I purposely use the more active-sounding dirtbagger (or dirtbagging) rather than dirtbag. And when I’m describing my methodological approach, I capitalize the term to be clear I'm using it in a formal sense rather than as the informal label given to climbers.
This is a good time to explain that, befitting the dirtbagger image, I’m going to swear throughout because research is fucking stressful. Swearing has been shown to help people cope with stress—and to help athletes achieve really difficult feats (Byrne 2018). (In real life, I definitely swear the most while my mental health is the worst and when climbing really hard routes.) In this book, I’ll try to limit it to those places where we’re talking about something really painful, annoying, or difficult (or all three). It would certainly be strategic for me to adopt a formal tone and avoid bad words; that would help this book appear more legitimate and help to convince skeptical audiences that the approach it describes is indeed appropriate. But this book is not written primarily for that audience; it is written for people who are already attracted to this approach but who struggle with doubt, anxiety, and sometimes feelings of helplessness (or hopelessness) when it comes to their research.
1. Gym grades are much easier than outdoor grades. Outdoor grades go up to 5.15d and start at 5.0; but a 5.0 outside is about as difficult as a gym 5.8 or thereabouts. My first time climbing outside, I was a 5.10c gym climber, and I struggled with an outdoor 5.4. Although, to be fair, it was raining.
2. Thankfully, I had a useful precedent. Luker (2008, 1–2) begins her book, Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences, with a discussion on salsa dancing as a model for research. Yes, I’m totally riffing off that.
3. I’m conflating multiple things here. That’s because, while distinct, they overlap. A lot of quantitative approaches follow (or aspire to follow) the scientific method. But quantitative methods also have specific rules about how much data you need, what counts as data, and what types of questions you can ask with that data, which the scientific method is less persnickety about. (Making things even more complicated, I’ll sometimes talk about “normal science,” which is also different but has some overlap with these other approaches.) Different groups of scholars look more to one or the other approach, and the rest of us—for whom neither approach really works—can fall between the cracks. If that sounds familiar, this book is definitely for you.
4. Throughout this book, I will often use the gender-neutral pronouns they/their.
5. Again, using a non-methodological label for describing a particular approach to research is not unprecedented. Luker (2008) refers to her intended readers as “salsa dancers.”
6. Thanks especially to Ellen Berrey, Phil Goodman, and Neda Maghbouleh for making this point.
7. Fatima Minhas, private communication used with permission, March 10, 2019.