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Interpretive processes in collaborative research.


This paper provides a content analysis of published narratives about the experiences of educational researchers conducting interdisciplinary interpretive research in K-12 partnerships. A model of stages of the collaborative process is presented.


Although models have been presented about factors that influence the effectiveness or sustainability of collaborative research teams, few studies provide in-depth analyses of collaborative research practices (John-Steiner, Weber, & Minnis, 1998). Little is known about how collaborators collectively accomplish the process of analysis and interpretation. Insight in to how collaborators achieve new insight offers a way to evaluate the outcomes of collaborative endeavors.

This paper provides a content analysis of published narratives about the experiences of educational researchers conducting interdisciplinary interpretive research in K-12 partnerships. The paper is organized by four steps in a model of the interpretive process I derived from my own research and integration of the accounts. My purpose in the analysis is to examine, when taken together, what the self-reflexive accounts reveal about the nature of the collaborative process. A key step in the collaborative process occurs when collaborators appropriate each other's skills and expertise (John-Steiner, 2000). In hierarchical relationships where one member is senior by virtue of expertise, the process of appropriation most often takes the form of a one-way transfer of knowledge. These are more likely to reproduce knowledge than to create it (Lunsford & Ede, 1990). The process of appropriation has greater potential to lead to new insight when it is occurs within the context of a co-equal relationship among collaborators who bring distinct areas of expertise.


I conducted a content analysis of four self-reflexive accounts of interdisciplinary collaborative qualitative research projects published in mainstream journals addressed to an audience of teacher educators and educational researchers (Clark, et al., 1996; Eisenhart & Borko, 1991; Liggett, Glesne, Johnston, Hasazi, & Schattman, 1994; Wasser & Bresler, 1996). All are accounts of educational researchers working on funded projects in collaboration with K-12 teachers. When taken individually, a collaborative narrative can be dismissed as anecdotal. Comparing them in cross-case analyses is a way to enhance the external validity or generalizability of their findings.

I have done a considerable amount of primary research based on interviews with faculty about their experiences as collaborators. After discovering that a number of published accounts resonated with key themes arising in my own empirical research, I performed a form of confirmatory analysis by applying the coding scheme to the self-reflexive accounts I developed to analyze transcripts from interviews with long-term research collaborators. The candor of the accounts and the willingness of the authors to acknowledge tensions contribute to their credibility. The analysis uses triangulation to demonstrate the trustworthiness of the collaboration model.

A Model of the Collaborative Interpretive Process

Figure 1 provides a model of the key steps in the collaborative interpretive process derived from my own research and illustrated in the four narrative accounts of interdisciplinary collaboration presented in this paper. The squares in the figure are steps in the collaborative process; the ovals are outcomes. The steps in the process begin with dialogue; move to familiarity, then to collective consciousness, and finally to engaging differences. The outcomes are either accommodation or synthesis. The dotted lines around the boxes show that rather than being linear, the process utilized by collaborators is dynamic and recursive. Each step emerges from the other.

Accommodation and synthesis are the two different outcomes evident in the self-reflexive narratives. Accommodation refers to collaborators who achieve an interpretive end product that includes diverse views without reconciling them. Synthesis, on the other hand, refers to a conceptual framework or outcome that integrates diverse views or reconciles contradictory views. In the following section, I use one of the published accounts to illustrate each of the four steps. See issue's website <>

Step 1: Dialogue

Dialogue, interaction, and exchange are features common to all of the collaborative narratives. Face-to-face interaction end exchanges that occur during the process of preparing a manuscript are just two examples of the forms dialogue can take. A high level of interaction is required for collective interpretation to occur. The role of dialogue is given the greatest emphasis in the narrative written by Clark et al. (1996). The goal of the 10-person team of K-12 educators end educational researchers was to implement portfolios as a means of assessing student writing. The chief outcome of the project was that they gained a level of understanding about the constraints of one another's practice" (p. 197). These collaborators challenge the conceptualization of collaboration as being primarily about the sharing of work. They re-conceptualized it as an exchange that leads to mutual understanding. They noted what they consider unusual about their perspective: "we have come to see dialogue as the centerpiece of our exchange. We see this as a fundamentally different take on collaboration--one that characterizes sharing and mutuality not in terms of doing the same research work but, rather, in terms of understanding the work of one another"(p. 196).

A reluctance to disenfranchise the K-12 educators participating in the project led these collaborators to eschew a theoretical framework. The Readers Theatre format Clark et al. elected to use in their published account offered the latitude to meet their goal of mutuality and to honor the distinctions between the voices of the different collaborators. Relative to the model presented in Figure 1, the account these collaborators provide locate them in the early steps of the continuum. While their emphasis is on dialogue, they also probably achieved familiarity because they acquired an understanding of each other's work. This account demonstrates that collaborators can have a high-level of interaction without ever necessarily confronting or exploring the implications of different perspectives.

Step 2: Familiarity

Familiarity refers to a step in the interpretive process when collaborators gain more than a nodding acquaintance with teammate worldview and subject matter expertise. It is akin to what John-Steiner (2000) calls appropriation. A great deal of mutual education and learning occurs as familiarity is acquired, if not necessarily conceptual change. The development of familiarity is most prominent in the account of collaboration provided by Liggett et al (1999). This 4-member team of special educators conducted a policy study of the American with Disabilities Act's mainstreaming clause implementation in 12 school districts. Even though all were trained as special educators, these collaborators encountered significant differences in philosophical orientation and paradigmatic assumptions that were grounded in different experiential backgrounds in the field. They are candid in their acknowledgement of the sense of competitiveness that arose from differences in perspective.

Competition between disciplinary points of view and a reluctance to allow a single person's perspective to dominate created tension at every stage of the inquiry. Dialogue seemed to amplify differences in viewpoint. During the step of the project that involved coding the interview transcripts, for example, Liggett et al. described that even with months of discussion individual biases meant "we still saw different ways of interpreting the data in light of the goals of the research"(p. 82). One manifestation of familiarity is when a collaborator accurately anticipates another's point of view. This is particularly evident in the portion of the Liggett et al. account where they grappled with trying to establish a satisfactory level of inter-rater reliability in the coding of transcripts. The goal motivated them to think like a team, if only temporarily. They explained: "The specificity of reading text line by line forced us to think more as a team. Thus, the lesson learned was that the specificity of a task, when accomplished by a standard or goal, served to expand and broaden individual perspectives. The goal was not to reduce perspectives to some common norm, but to achieve a greater perspective--and thereby comparability" (p. 83). The reference to achieving a greater perspective suggests that at least at this juncture, the team inched toward the step of the interpretive continuum I have called collective consciousness.

When it came time to write the final report, the team once again found it difficult to reach agreement. Liggett et al. described this stage of the interpretive process with their typical candor: "Neither using persuasion to reach consensus or negotiating among views proved to be a satisfactory means of resolving the issue. No one was convinced of the "best" framework. Further, it was impossible to include all views as that would result in a lengthy, cumbersome document that lacked coherence" (p. 83-84). This group accommodated differences in perspective, but did not reach agreement about a conceptual framework. The account follows the steps of the continuum presented in Figure 1 leading to accommodation. It demonstrates that even with protracted dialogue, collaborators can acquire familiarity and produce an end product that accommodates different viewpoints without fundamentally changing conceptual orientations by integrating new perspectives.

Step 3: Collective Consciousness

Collective consciousness refers to a step in the interpretive process when collaborators internalize the concerns or issues considered to be of central importance by other members of the team. This produces an expanded or more nuanced and complex vision of the phenomenon under study. I believe this is the point in the interpretive process when collaborators undergo conceptual change. Wasser's and Bresler's account (1996) captures this step of the interpretive process more vividly than any of the other accounts. Working with a 5-member team of educators trained in different fields of the arts, they sought to develop case studies of the way arts education was implemented in several different school systems. These authors describe the impact of grappling with different world views in particularly vivid terms: "Trained in different disciplinary, although often overlapping fields, we came to the group speaking in different discourses. As a result, we judged different issues to be critical, 'saw' in different ways, and passionately believed in the righteousness of our causes and the lens by which we viewed the world" (p. 9-10). These words illustrate how even collaborators in closely allied fields can bring the lens of a different worldview to a collaborative task.

Wasser's and Bresler's account brings to life the step in the interpretive process where collaborators move from familiarity to developing a collective consciousness. This is when conceptual change, rather than accommodation, occurs. This is reflected in the observation: "Our roles and positions changed as we absorbed the concerns and issues of others, allowing ourselves to view site data through their concerns and developing our own position in new ways" (p. 10). Their scope of vision expanded in the process of internalizing the worldview and expertise of other team members. A number of strategies seemed to account for the ability of these collaborators to move from familiarity to a collective consciousness. They restricted the amount of time devoted to discussion about procedural matters. In addition, they adopted a stance that attached a positive value to heterogeneity and for the potential of different disciplinary perspectives to enrich the interpretive process. The group developed a discursive practice where they framed tensions not as problematic, but as play.

An additional strategy that proved influential to the outcome of this collaboration was that a team member assumed the role of the team's "memoist." She encouraged team members to revisit unresolved issues and to pursue the implications of the different perspectives across meetings. The interpretive process became recursive, rather than linear. This was instrumental to moving the discussion past the point of familiarity to achieve a collective consciousness and, eventually, to achieve the synthetic vision that is the final step in the interpretive continuum represented in the model.

Step 4: Engaging Differences in Perspectives

The fourth step describes a point in the interpretive process when collaborators explore the implications of the differences in their perspectives. Not all collaborators achieve this step. Collaborators can learn each other's point of view (familiarity) without incorporating new elements in their own way of seeing and thinking to develop a more complex understanding (collective consciousness) or mining differences to unearth new insight that may ultimately lead to the creation of new knowledge (synthesis).

Eisenhart's and Borko's account (1991) describes the on-going collaboration of an anthropologist and psychologist. Their account focuses on a project where they sought to understand the process of learning to teach mathematics. Of the collaborative narratives analyzed here, this pair offers the most insightful discussion of ways collaborators engage competing conceptual frameworks. Although they only tentatively achieved a strategy for synthesis, Eisenhart's and Borko's account illustrates the full spectrum of activities depicted by the collaborative model. The collaborators in this account reported that they began the project with sharply different worldviews grounded in different disciplinary perspectives. They saw the potential of the inquiry to "know in more than one way" but also feared they might be forced to compromise the principles of their disciplines. To address their differences, Eisenhart and Borko chose to take the time to educate each other by laying out the central assumptions and issues within each of their disciplines. During this process, they acquired the ability to articulate the other point of view, a step I interpret to demonstrate familiarity.

Eisenhart and Borko achieved the next step of the interpretive process presented in the model, the construction of a collective vision, when they developed a conceptual model. After designing a distinct set of research questions and collecting data separately, they integrated their different concerns in a conceptual framework. The conceptual framework, though not central to either's research agenda, was not antithetical to them either.

The next step was the one critical to moving Eisenhart's and Borko's collaboration from accommodating different perspectives to achieving some degree of synthesis. They made the decision to use critical incidents, specific observations of apprentice teachers, as way to integrate their viewpoints. Of this critical decision, they noted: "We reasoned that by asking ourselves to provide an explanation for an incident (and over time accumulating such explanations), we would force ourselves to deal squarely with the intersections and discrepancies between our approaches" (p. 150). This was the point in the process when they gained confidence that their disciplinary commitments would not be compromised.


Tension and conflict are central to understanding the interpretive process used by collaborators. Confronting differences in worldview and perspective is a central element of each of the four self-reflexive collaborative narratives analyzed in this paper. This is a point where the dynamics of the collaborative process are clearly linked to project outcomes. The potential for prolonged interaction about competing explanations is something that distinguishes the process collaborators use to create knowledge from that used by individuals.

These collaborative accounts can be distinguished by the strategies the participants employed to address differences. The narrative provided by Clark et al. suggests this team respected differences in viewpoint and used them to reach an understanding of each other's practices without using them as a springboard to further insight. Liggett et al. acknowledged that disciplinary differences emerging at each stage of the research were not ameliorated by dialogue. Consensus, compromise, deferring to a standard such as consideration of the audience, and "muddling through" were strategies this team used to keep the project moving forward. Eisenhart and Borko devoted considerable energy to educating each other about their fundamental disciplinary assumptions and used these differences at a critical juncture in the analysis to interrogate the phenomenon they studied from multiple angles. Wasser and Bresler visited and revisited the implications of different disciplinary perspectives at each stage of the research, using them to develop a collective consciousness that expanded the depth of insight offered in the final product.

The power of disciplinary socialization is evident in all of the collaborative narratives. Most of the collaborators seemed tenacious in their home discipline commitment. This produced competition, anxiety about the loss of credibility, and resistance to dominance of a single disciplinary perspective. It is possible this very tenacity to a disciplinary worldview inhibited the ability of most of the collaborators to achieve a synthetic conceptual framework. Collaboration is studied in many contexts. John-Steiner, Weber, and Minnis (1998) speak to the need for a theoretical account of collaboration that spans multiple settings. This offers an incentive to collaborators not only to develop self-reflexive strategies about the experience of collaborating, but also to share these reflections in published accounts. Such accounts are a particularly valuable source of insight when they focus on the interpretive process and document specific incidents that demonstrate how collaborators address differences in perspective linked to creative insight.


Clark, C., Moss, P. A., Goering, S., Herter, R. J., Lamar, B., Leonard, D., Robbins, S., Russell, M., Templin, M., & Wascha, K. (1996). Collaboration as dialogue: Teachers and researchers engaged in conversation and professional development. American Educational Research Journal, 33(1), 193-232.

Eisenhart, M. A., & Borko, H. (1991). In search of an interdisciplinary collaborative design for studying teacher education. Teaching & Teacher Education, 7 (2), 137-157.

John-Steiner, V. (2000). Creative collaboration. New York: Oxford University.

John-Steiner, V., Weber, R. J., & Minnis, M. (1998). The challenge of studying collaboration. American Educational Research Journal, 35(4), 773-783.

Liggett, A. M., Glesne, C. E., Johnston, A. P, Hasazi, S. B., & Schattman, R. A. (1994). Teaming in qualitative research: Lessons learned. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 7(1), 77-88.

Lunsford, A., & Ede, L.S. (1990). Singular text/plural authors: Perspectives on collaborative writing. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University

Wasser, J. D., & Bresler, L. (1996). Working in the interpretive zone: Conceptualizing collaboration in qualitative research teams. Educational Researcher, 25(5), 5-15.

Elizabeth Creamer, Virginia Tech

Creamer is an associate professor in interdisciplinary studies and higher education. Her research agenda involves faculty research productivity and collaboration.
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Author:Creamer, Elizabeth
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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