Qualitative Methods Intro 2: Ethics, Postionality

This post is part of a series of blogs offering a week-by-week account of my first year qualitative methods course. You can find them all under the tag GEO1018: Qualitative Methods

In the two part introduction to the module, my second lecture and seminar focus on ethics and positionality. My goal is that eventually I’ll go through a whole methods course without hearing that a qualitative method could be improved by being less ‘biased’; we’re not quite there but I have found that by getting in early how we work with rather than against subjectivity in qualitative analysis,  I can push the vast majority of the students to thinking more subtly about these methods.


At some point sooner rather than later, I’ll encounter a cohort of students who’ve never heard of some of these references…

It’s probably the most conceptual of the lectures in the course! Last week I skipped over some of the conceptual background to qualitative methods, so this week I start with a (very light) introduction to what, if we’re using isms, we’d call constructvism and interpretivism. My core points are that if the world is to some extent socially constructed, and that if social actors interpret the world meaningfully, we need to use qualitative methods to unpack how this meaning making shapes and reinforces or challenges these constructions.

I also include a short section on qualitative methods in physical geography; my go-to example is some of Carly Maynard’s work on river catchment managementwhich makes nice use of semi-structured interviews in an accessible way. Another really intriguing example is by Nyssen et. al.who use interviews in combination with contemporary measurements to assess gully erosion in a region of Ethiopia where local farmers are able to offer memories of past landscapes.

Most of the discussions of positionality are placed in the seminar; I briefly introduce it in the lecture, but then use the introduction of an excellent article by Farhana Sutlanato pose questions to students about positionality, particularly in relation to the projects that they will be doing where they interview fellow students; it’s nice to get them starting to think about positionality in these terms of insider/outsider, which I think is relatively accessible. The Sultana article in full is in Acme; the extract I use with questions for the students is here.

I also use adaptations of 5 ethical dilemmas that can be found in an ESRC Ethics guidebook online. I’ve simplified them a little and made them more geography focus – the actual slides I use with the examples are here. I find that this is quite a nice exercise in getting the whole seminar group involved; I can ask for a show of hands for some questions, and invite more of a discussion for others.


  1. Maynard, C. M. (2013). How public participation in river management improvements is affected by scale. Area45(2), 230-238.
  2. Nyssen, J., Poesen, J., Veyret‐Picot, M., Moeyersons, J., Haile, M., Deckers, J., … & Govers, G. (2006). Assessment of gully erosion rates through interviews and measurements: a case study from Northern Ethiopia. Earth Surface Processes and Landforms31(2), 167-185.
  3. Sultana, F. (2007). “Reflexivity, Positionality and Participatory
    Ethics: Negotiating Fieldwork Dilemmas in International Research.” ACME: An
    International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, 6(3), 374–385

Qualitative Methods Introduction: Lecture+Seminar

This post is part of a series of blogs offering a week-by-week account of my first year qualitative methods course. You can find them all under the tag GEO1018: Qualitative Methods

The first task in a qualitative methods module is to try and work out how to introduce the thing. This is not necessarily an easy task: a good portion of the students coming into the module will be ready to dismiss qualitative research as ‘anecdotal’ or ‘subjective’ in comparison to the ‘hard facts’ of quantitative research,  or will expect it to be easy: it’s just talking, right? On GEO1018, I know that I’ve got around 120 BSc students, the majority of whom have signed up for a degree of coring for soil samples, lab work and computer modelling. And I’m about to tell them that they’ve got a semester of interpreting discourse ahead.


I like to use this image as a starting point – would love to find the original source for it!

In the past, I’ve tried launching with arguments about constructivist social science, the value of experience as a form of data, the ethics of documenting unvoiced participants in the social world… generally, to a room of stony faces. I still do some of this, but I now put it off to the second lecture, in favour of a slightly more mechanistic introduction: what is qualitative data and what are the core techniques we use to get it. I think the focus on data as opposed to methods at the start is useful in (hopefully) helping students understand the end point of the methods we’re using.

The seminar content (PowerPoint and handout) focuses on research questions. Research questions are something that I’ve grown less and less sceptical about over time: when I was a PhD student, I was quite dismissive of them. While I still share the critique that they can hide the complexity of a research process, I now feel that the ability to express your research in the form of a few questions at any given moment is a useful sign that it has some thought and focus behind it, even if those questions might change from day to day. It’s also useful, I think, in helping students start to understand qualitative research: it gives them something substantial to get their teeth into, which looks a little like the hypotheses they’ve been taught about previously, but is subtly different.

The actual class starts by considering the wording of some of the questions from Oldekop, J.A., et. al. 2016. 100 key research questions for the post‐2015 development agenda. Development Policy Review34(1), pp.55-82. I think that this is useful in showing how research questions are a ‘real world’ thing, and also allows me to show problems that qualitative methods are best suited to answering (Eg “How do different countries and cultures vary in how they conceptualise, define and operationalise ‘development’, and what is the significance of this for development policies and practices?”). By focusing on development, it also means most geography students are in their comfort zone, which I think is a good place in which to introduce these methods.

The second exercise asks them to design some research questions in groups, based on a short article about the ‘Mobike’ bicycle hire scheme in Newcastle. In all honesty, I find that in this task it’s hard to get students away from questions or methods that lead them towards quantitative research, but I’m keen to get them creating their own ideas about research from the start of the module, and it can be useful to reinforce the good ideas that come out of this discussion and gently push them in that direction!




Qualitative Methods Module Outline

This post is part of a series of blogs offering a week-by-week account of my first year qualitative methods course. You can find them all under the tag GEO1018: Qualitative Methods

So before teaching starts next week, I thought it’d be useful to give you a little overview of this module. The course has around 250 students on it (!), which is all of our first year BA and BSc geographers plus a few others. It’s actually the second half of a course, in which the first half is taught by physical geographers. So effectively it’s a 1 semester module – that’s 10 credits in the UK system, or 5 ECTS.

Should it be of interest, the full module guide is here.

At first year, I’m not presuming any prior knowledge with the students, so I’ve structured it around being a ‘basics’ course. The idea is that (hopefully) the students pick up core qualitative techniques this year, and then build on these through introduction to more innovative and creative methods at stage 2. As I tell them in the first lecture: some of this is about learning the boring stuff so they can do the interesting stuff!

To that end, the module is split into 4 blocks:

  • Introduction-  2 lectures and 2 seminars: 1 of each covering research questions and ethics/positionality.
  • ‘Talking Methods’ – 3 lectures and 2 seminars, focused on semi-structured interviews.
  • ‘Being there’ – 3 lectures and 1 seminar, focused on participant observation
  • ‘Reading’ – 3 lectures and 1 seminar, focused on discourse analysis
  • 1 further seminar on writing up qualitative notes, for which the students can use data from either of the final 2 blocks

For each of the 3 main blocks, the students carry out a short piece of self-directed research, using the core method. I think for methods teaching you have to get students doing: lectures and class-room activity will only get you so far.  Their work is obviously not a full research project, but I hope that we’re introducing them to all the elements that make up social science qualitative research. For the assessment, the students write up reports on any two of these projects.

I don’t teach from a textbook, but my go-to book is often the Key Methods in Geography book. I also like Phillips and Johns’ Fieldwork for Human Geography as offering a slightly different approach in introducing research methods to students.

I teach with 3 teaching assistants (this year 2 postgrads and 1 Teaching Fellow). I do all the lectures, and in seminar weeks the students are split into 12 groups. The TAs do most of the seminars, though I do 1 a week in order to keep an eye on how the content is working.

I think that’s all the context you might need! Thanks for the positive responses on Twitter with regards to this project – I hope that if nothing else it offers people a few ideas for their own teaching!



Teaching qualitative methods

For the last three years, I’ve convened the qualitative methods half of GEO1018:Geographical Analysis here at Newcastle University. I also previously carried out a lot of methods teaching at Durham, and also do around half of our second year qualitative methods teaching here at Newcastle too.

So I’ve started, I think, to develop a sense of what does and doesn’t work in introducing qualitative methods to students!

However, I’ve struggled to find resources in text-books or online when designing seminars and other activities. Where I have found them, they’ve been very useful.

So, to that end (and to try and make my blogging a bit more frequent), I’ve decide to put a weekly blog here with a summary of the lecture content, seminar activities and other details. I hope that this might be a resource people will find useful in future! I’ll tag all the posts with ‘GEO1018: Qualitative Methods’.

The course starts next week and so I’ll upload the structure of the course later today, and details of the first session next week.


‘Exploring Atmospheres Ethnographically’ – Published

I’m delighted to say that the Susanne Schmitt and Sara Schroer’s edited collection, Exploring Atmospheres Ethnographically, has been published today. The book is a great collection of explorations of atmosphere, adding much needed detail to the conceptual discussions of this concept that have circulated in social science circles in recent years. It offers a good interdisciplinary range of articles by anthropologists, sociologists and artists, as well as my contribution from geography!

I contribute a chapter on atmospheres of pubs, in conversation with George Orwell’s fascinating essay The Moon Under Water.  It’s a topic I’ve long been interested in and I’m glad to add Orwell’s conceptualization of atmosphere, as described in his essay, to the discussion of the topic. The framework he offers starts with the premise that:

“If you are asked why you favour a particular public-house,
it would seem natural to put the beer first, but the thing that most appeals to me
about the Moon Under Water is what people call its atmosphere” ( Orwell 1946 ).”

I use Orwell’s conceptualization of atmosphere to explore my own ethnographic data, and I hope that it might encourage others to look at his essay for a framework for considering atmosphere.


BAE Systems are Looking to Take Control of More British Schools

Note that this blog is written purely from a personal perspective; it does not relate to my academic research or workplace

I grew up in Barrow-in-Furness, a somewhat isolated industrial town on the Cumbrian coast, known (if it is known at all) for its shipyard, a 2002 outbreak of Legionnaire’s Disease, and as the home of one of TV’s Hairy Bikers. I remain fond of what is a somewhat unusual but underrated corner of the UK.

So I was intrigued the other week when reading an article at The Guardian to see an advert pop up promoting a vacancy for the role of ‘Business Director’ at Furness Academy,  Barrow’s main secondary school which was formed from the merger of 3 comprehensives in 2009. What on earth did a school Barrow need a Business Director for, and why was an advert needed in such a high profile site?

On investigation, the answer is rather gloomy. To quote from the job advert itself:

Furness Academy is sponsored by BAE systems and is currently the single school within the Furness Academies Trust that is owned by BAE Systems Maritime – Submarines.

I think I had vaguely known that the school was sponsored by BAE Systems, the global arms manufacturer which runs Barrow’s shipyard. In a local context, this is quite normal: BAE, and its predecessors VSEL and Vickers, are deeply embedded in Barrow life as the town’s main employer. As a child, I had played at Vickers Sports Club; many members of my family and several of my friends have worked in ‘The Yard’.  So we’re used to a certain closeness with BAE in Barrow.

I wasn’t aware that this translated into them actually owning the school, however. Furthermore, it was the plans for the Business Director which appeared to be more insidious. They are being hired:

with a view to playing a strategic role in the development of the Multi-Academy Trust.

Here is the answer to our question as to why they need a ‘Business Diretor’: BAE are interested in controlling more schools. As the major employers in Barrow, with a long history in the town, having an association with the local school is somewhat understandable. But owning it and ‘multiple’ other schools seems much more troubling.

Let’s not forget that BAE Systems has a proven history of corruption in its dealings when selling arms to Saudi Arabia.  It employs ‘Education Ambassadors’ to “improve our corporate reputation at both a local and national level“. Their move into owning British schools is part of this programme to soften their image, to increase their political influence, to further trap towns and communities such as Barrow in a dependent relationship with arms manufacturing, all with the potential as well to make a profit.

I’ve written this because I’ve not found anything online about BAE’s apparent desire to expand its control over UK schools. I think many people would be troubled to learn about a global arms manufacturer looking to take ownership of our schools, as part of the ongoing privatization of the British education system.