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Writing an award-winning book: Interview with Dr. Cheryl Poth

Innovation in Mixed Methods Research, 1st ed.Innovation in Mixed Methods Research: A Practical Guide to Integrative Thinking with Complexity won the 2020 Most Promising New Textbook Award from the Textbook & Academic Authors Association. In 2019 Dr. Poth was awarded TAA’s McGuffey Longevity Award as co-author of Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design. Given that last month we focused on mixed methods and this month we are focusing on careers, I wanted to chat with Dr. Poth about her book, and strategies that might help prospective textbook authors succeed.

Q: Congratulations on writing a winning book! What feedback did you receive from TAA reviewers? Or from readers or instructors who have adopted it?

Dr. Cheryl PothCheryl Poth: Many thanks and I am pleased to have the opportunity to share a little about my experiences writing this book and what I have heard from those that have attended my workshops over the past few years as I developed (and in some cases revised) my ideas that I presented in the book and now from readers is the helpful practical focus of this book.

I am told that the book is especially useful for those looking to tackle mixed methods questions where little guidance exists because it supports creative thinking about new practices. One reader gave me permission to share a comment she made, “Poth’s text helps learners see the complexity in mixed methods research, emerging issues, and importance of being adaptive. I used to assume mixed methods designs were conducted in a linear process. However, I soon realized once I got started, it is much more complex.”

Q: You begin the book with this description:

“Through embracing a new way of integrative thinking – and questioning the utility of some traditional mixed methods research practice tendencies under certain research conditions – I began to conceptualize the need for more adaptive approaches to mixed methods research. To that end, this book advances a complexity-sensitive mixed methods research approach …”

Please discuss this perspective, and how you came to embrace integrative thinking. How can student or novice researchers improve their thinking skills to prepare for their roles?

Poth: This is a great question – I talk a little in the book about my own research learning journey – which, by the way, is still in progress! I highlight how my natural science background led me to read many of the seminal complexity science publications which I then connected with some new thinking about the dilemmas I and those around me were experiencing as researchers. It took several years and fortuitous interactions with established researchers to build the confidence (and experience and expertise) to share my ideas coherently. So to answer your question – my advice to new researchers would be to read widely and think creatively about how established practices work and how they may be constraining possible practices. I liked ‘integrative’ thinking because of the central role integration plays in mixed methods research as well as how it applies thinking to mixed methods research that is already used to describe holistic and creative thinking through a focus on interactions in other fields, such as integrative medicine.

Q: Another direction differentiates your take on mixed methods: your focus on “developing capacity for emergence.” Can you explain what you mean and why this is important?

Poth: Emergence is one of those things that is incredibly hard to describe but easy to recognize once you know what you are looking for. Emergence is a core characteristic of a complex adaptive system and literally means the generation of something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Consider a time when you were part of a team that generated something more than what could have been done individually– be it an academic product or I use the example in the book of a basketball team that achieves an unlikely win.

In the context of the book, I describe ‘developing the capacity for emergence’ as the outcome from a new way of interacting among those involved in the mixed methods research. The new, innovative, and previously ‘unknown’ outcomes (such knowledge, practices, understandings…) generated are greater than their collective efforts. I make the case that these represent the types of novel interactions and outcomes we need to solve the complex issues facing society such as poverty, homelessness, racism, to name a few.

Q: Talk about wearing multiple hats:
(a) What is the most challenging adjustment for qualitative researchers who want to conduct a mixed methods study?
(b) What is the most challenging adjustment for quantitative researchers who want to conduct a mixed methods study?

How do you suggest that researchers choose the weighting of qualitative and quantitative methods in a mixed study?

Poth: I have heard researchers advise that this was a question to be answered when planning but my experience tells me that this is a question that must be revisited once your data is collected in light of your mixed methods research question. This is because, for a myriad of reasons such as recruitment challenges or shifts in your protocols to be more culturally responsive to your participants, the data generated may not be the data you intended to generate.

Weighting is an important consideration throughout the research and the robustness and integrity of the data collected should play a role in your decisions. I have had many experiences where the weightings I had planned shifted, for example for one study I intended to do a more quantitative-focused mixed methods research design that ended up being more qualitative-focused because I had greater confidence in the qualitative data I had collected.

Q: Your book is written as a text.How might instructors best use it, including the study resources and features? How might researchers who are past student life use it for their own professional development?

Poth: Both learners and instructors have told me they have found the book to be very useful as extending the conversation that is begun by more introductory resources. For example, instructors have told me that they have students read my chapter on designs after having read an introductory chapter or article about designs. The study resources are useful for learners to use as they begin planning and conducting their own studies – they help them organize their thoughts. For example, the complexity study profile template can be very useful for documenting thinking about possible sources of complexity and then revising the profile as the study unfolds and they gain more understandings of their context.

Q: You define wicked problems and grand challenges but probably did not predict this pandemic and its wide repercussions. What do you think now about the appropriateness of mixed methods research to study contemporary problems?

Poth: I have to admit that I am no longer a fan of the term ‘wicked problem’ because of its more common use for describing someone or something that is very bad and deliberately harmful. My preference is for complex problems because it more aptly describes the difficulty in solving the problem due to incomplete understandings of the interconnected nature of these problems with other problems. The term ‘complex’ seems more hopeful to me and this orientation helps me to see the possibilities and opportunities the pandemic affords. For example, it has highlighted the devastating consequences of enduring health and social inequities in our society. Mixed methods research offers another way for researchers to examine these issues by integrating qualitative and quantitative data. I have seen lots of great examples where large scale data sets can reveal trends in confirmed cases and numbers of hospital admissions but to really understand the consequences on individuals we also need to consider experiences and other types of data.

Q: Do you have any suggestions or guidance for people whose research has been disrupted by Covid, etc.? Might a student researcher whose data collection was interrupted find extant data—qualitative or quantitative—as a way to complete a study?

Poth: At the heart is the need for students and their supervisors to embed more adaptive practices in their qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods research and we would all benefit from more authentic accounts of how research is ‘adapted on the go’ during this time and at any time. There are lots of great sources for extant data but be mindful to find out as much as you can about the original study. I recently wrote an editorial in the International Journal of Qualitative Methodology about ‘qualitative data reuse’ and this is an area that I hope to make future contributions specific to mixed methods research!

This article was originally published on SAGE Methodspace. Reprinted with permission.

Janet SalmonsJanet Salmons is an independent scholar and writer through Vision2Lead. She is the Methods Guru for SAGE Publications blog community, Methodspace, and the author of six textbooks. Current books are the forthcoming Learning to Collaborate, Collaborating to Learn from Stylus, and Doing Qualitative Research Online (2016) from SAGE.