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16 The Days Are Long, but the Years Fly By Reflections on the Challenges of Doing Qualitative Research Annette Lareau In safe, comfortable spaces, such as in dark bars late at night, ethnographers and other qualitative sociologists often confide to each other about the remarkably slow pace of their work. Often talented researchers have been ashamed of being so slow. Yet, it is normal for a project to take years. I remember when I started the study that became Unequal Childhoods, other sociologists would ask me about it when we met at conferences; they expressed interest and enthusiasm about my planned book.1 As the years ticked by, people looked more uncomfortable when they asked me about my book. (This was also probably because I looked embarrassed that my book was not done.) Then, a few years later, they stopped asking! I would meet people at a conference and they would ask about my teaching, my family, or the conference, but they wouldn’t even mention the book. It was too embarrassing . There was a charming essay in the New York Times in 2004 about authors who take years to write a book. One author said, “Once the book is out you go from ‘What a chump she can’t finish that book’ to ‘Wow, what an incredible journey.’”2 Sometimes I think that sociologists interested in naturalistic studies of daily life have ceded too much ground to quantitative sociologists. This 266 is not to say that quantitative sociologists aren’t smart, interesting, and thoughtful. But the labor process is different. Although there are scholars who collect survey data, most quantitative scholars do not spend any time collecting data. Instead, the data set is given to them. In addition, the data set is established. There are a finite number of variables. The options are limited . Quantitative research also seems much more predictable than doing qualitative work. The pathways are established. This is not to say that quantitative scholars don’t hit brick walls, have perplexing findings, or have findings that inexplicably vanish with the introduction of a new variable. It takes a long time for a researcher to get to know a complex data set. In addition, there is always the terror in number crunching that you might make a small error that would radically change the results. (It has happened.) But the key point is that the process of doing quantitative research is more predictable. It is also faster. And qualitative work is chaotic as well as slow. Most of the time that I was working on Unequal Childhoods, I had no idea what I was doing. On paper it looked like I knew what I was doing. After all, I had written a grant proposal to the Spencer Foundation (which had graciously given me, as an advanced assistant professor, a major grant). I had read a fair number of books and articles on the relevant topics. I had completed an ethnographic study as my dissertation, published a heavily revised version of the thesis as a book, and even won an award for the book. Thus, you might think that I should have felt like I knew what I was doing. But I didn’t. Instead, I was stumbling along. Each situation was somewhat unpredictable . For example, each family that we observed had different ways of organizing their life; we needed to adjust to them. In addition, although I hoped to learn interesting things from the observations, I wasn’t exactly sure about what I would learn. Even if you have a lot of years under your belt, the course of the research in each project is far from certain. This unpredictability makes the work exciting or terrifying depending on your perspective. Gaining access and maintaining access are huge hurdles; yet access is being constantly renegotiated. Multiple people need to be told about the study as you go along. And you need to build rapport with different people. As you get deeper into the study, you face new challenges. Sometimes people don’t want you around. For example, one of the fathers in my study for Unequal Childhoods, Mr. Williams, was supremely unimpressed with the project when we visited his family regularly. As he told his wife somewhat angrily at one point, “It is your thing.” Ms. Williams laughed merrily when he made The Days Are Long, but the Years Fly By 267 this proclamation (as if he was being a recalcitrant child). His willingness to participate, despite his...


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