When researching the lives of people

When I think about qualitative research, I remember a group of Salvadoran teachers sitting on the floor talking about the challenges of teaching in a rural setting. They talk about their frustrations with the younger ones who have never lived in a time of war and all the loss and violence that was so much a part of their lives. They talk about crossing the Sumpul River to get away from the soldiers and their makeshift classrooms in the forest where they went to school.

Sumpul River Massacre – “there were so many vultures picking at the bodies in the water that it looked like a black carpet,”

I haven’t thought about these stories for a long time, but I am thinking about them now. The memories have been stirred up by the reading I have been doing on qualitative inquiry and what it means to use a narrative approach to conduct research. For me, the only meaningful study of the lives of these people would be through a rigorous qualitative study. Using the criteria that exists to conduct qualitative research we could learn a great deal from these people’s stories.

This was not what I was imagining when I started my courses in the fall. Now I am thinking about John Creswell and what he says about listening to the participant in the study and working to understand the lived experience of those you are talking to Creswell (2015).

I am also thinking back to the first article I read, Tracy’s ‘Big-Tent’ criteria for excellent qualitative inquiry (Tracy, 2010). The first criteria – Worthy topic –  really struck me and this is challenging me to think in a different way about my own research.

Studies of worth excite interest and go places that are unexpected (Tracy, 2010, p. 841). That is what I want to do and this is certainly what good qualitative research should do. I have read and reread Samantha Cutrara’s book Transforming the Canadian History Classroom: Imaging a New We (Cutrara, 2020) and I now understand why this book is having such an influence on me. In my opinion, this is excellent qualitative research. It tells the story of four classrooms where the author attempted to turn conventional history teaching on its head.

Rather than teach the standard curriculum revolving around the two founding peoples, Cutrara allowed students, mainly from urban racialized schools in Toronto, to develop their own narratives. She calls this methodology Historic Space, and it focuses on deconstructing the historical narratives that are meaningless to the students she is working with (Cutrara, 2020, p. 168). The richness or rigour of her research comes from the stories she tells of her conversations with different students and also the pushback she experiences from some of the teachers she works with.

Cutrara is a very reflexive writer who has taken the time to write about the anger and frustration she encountered while doing this work. She wrote this book because after four years, she felt compelled to honour the voices of the students she worked with and to ensure that their voices were heard (Cutrara, 2020 p. ix.).

The research really resonates with me, not just because at one point I was a history teacher, but because she is telling the stories of the voiceless, another key component that Tracy identifies as good qualitative research (Tracy, p. 844). 

Tracy also writes that good qualitative research should make a significant contribution. I do need to read more about how Cutrara’s arguments are being received. She goes against conventional thought on the use of historical thinking concepts in the classroom so while I consider this excellent qualitative research there may not be many academics who share my belief.

Returning to the classroom in El Salvador, I can imagine a researcher using Tracy’s model and Cutrara’s story-telling ability to get at the heart of good qualitative research. What an exciting challenge to bring such important stories into the light.


Creswell., J. (2015). Doing qualitative research [Video]. In SAGE Research Methods Video https://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781506363448

Cutrara, S. (2020)Transforming the Canadian History Classroom: Imagining a New We. UBC Press.

Tracy, S. J. (2010). Qualitative Quality: Eight “Big Tent” Criteria for Excellent Qualitative Research. Qualitative Inquiry 16(10) 837-851. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077800410383121