Qualitative Research, “S-Town,” and Speaking for Others

Years ago, in a required graduate-level qualitative research course, I was introduced to Donald F. Roy’s 1959 paper “‘Banana Time’ Job Satisfaction and Informal Interaction,” published in the journal Human Organization, which examines the social interactions of a small group of factory machine workers during break time. I was drawn to Roy’s analysis of the men with whom he worked: they reminded me of my father, a factory worker who invested heavily in his job.

Although I was working on a PhD and had read numerous qualitative studies, this piece pulled me back to my Chicago working-class roots, and I was appalled by the way in which Roy assumed he could infiltrate this workplace and use his position as a professor to make sense of these men’s lived experiences. I wondered if all research privileged the researcher at the expense of the researched. When it came to writing my own dissertation, a qualitative analysis of seven female first year English teachers, I was cognizant of writing their stories instead of writing my own impressions.

All of this came back to me as I listened to NPR’s new podcast, “S-Town.” The seven part series, released last month, is a study of John B. McLemore, a brilliant man living in Bib County, Alabama. The podcast begins with a murder mystery and ends with…so much more. (I won’t say more because it would ruin the experience.) The most compelling thing about S-Town is not that it simply sheds light on the lives of people in Alabama, but that, unlike in Roy’s study, it manages to do so in a way that feels truthful and avoids caricature.” As Katy Waldman writes in Slate, “…the podcast has a kind of philosophical aversion to cliché. It wants to pursue the sort of literary truth that goes beyond presenting colorful folks doing wacky things.”

Literary truth, like banana time, comes with a risk, as these are real humans being studied, discussed, and narrated in theoretical terms. Who really benefits? Those of us who teach research methods could use this podcast as an entrance point to better understand our responsibilities when writing about others.