By Sharon Walker, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

For me, the most challenging aspect of my thesis has been the analysis. By this, I do not mean the physical work of conducting the analysis but rather, the process of deciding how to go about it. Put simply, what is the justification for choosing a particular analytical approach over another?

My research in the sociology of education is a qualitative study to analyse the racialised discourse of widening participation policy in UK higher education. After some changes in direction in the initial stages of data collection, which originally combined document analysis with an ethnographic study, ethnographic data is now the main data source, for example, field notes from participation observations across a nine-month period, and interview data.

From the outset of the study, I was aware of the challenges involved in collecting data aimed at investigating racial phenomena (e.g. race, racism and processes of racialisation). These centred around how to go about identifying and delineating racial ‘realities’ as part of the everyday higher education settings I was aiming to research. I was encouraged, however, to learn that others are also aware of the challenges involved. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (1996) and John Hartigan Junior (2010) highlight some of the pitfalls researchers might fall into. In particular, their concerns can be summed up by the question, “Where does one fix one’s gaze?”. In other words, what does a researcher ‘look at’ or ‘look for’ when they are in the field? This is because, although we all have a sense of what constitutes race, we cannot escape the fact that much of what we understand is shaped by our everyday understandings, what Jane Hill (2008) refers to as our ‘folk understandings’ of race. Unfortunately, these folk understandings are inadequate for conducting social research, since, as Wacquant (1997) points out, they are often unclear, unstable, and lack analytical force.

So, where to begin? In my case, as I am concerned with analysing policy discourses, I turned to theoretical approaches well versed in investigating racial phenomena. One such example is critical race theory (CRT). Indeed, CRT, an approach to race analysis that began as a critique of the inherently discriminatory practices of the United States judiciary system to the disadvantage of non-white people, provided a helpful way-in to shedding light on how race continues to operate in societies, including in education. For example, it provided insights into the engrained or structural nature of racism, and how race acts as a type of shapeshifter, transforming itself and finding new expression in different socio-historical contexts. A combination of CRT alongside reflections on ethnographic research, for example, George Marcus’s (1995) work on travelling/multi-sited ethnographies, gave me confidence to go ‘into the field’ conscious of the need to continually lay aside my everyday understandings of race and racism.

However, despite this support, I still floundered with respect to data analysis – the physical transcriptions and field notes that littered my desk (or my computer screen). CRT was not directly able to help me with this step. This is because, as far as I can tell, CRT has not yet developed a viable approach to analysing discourse that takes into account a focus on racial phenomena; that is, one which allows researchers to work with a ‘racial lens’. Would this be different to other approaches to discourse analysis? I remain uncertain. I am aware though that the possibilities available to me failed to satisfy, perhaps due to their failure to engage with the above issue of ‘fixing one’s gaze’, which arguably has unique aspects in research on race.

While preparing my Upgrade Report, I spent a great deal of time reading about different analytical approaches. In fact, I included several possibilities as part of my report. I cannot overstate the need to consider how we will analyse our data alongside other elements such as theory and method. It is not advisable to start thinking about this after having collected our data. I am particularly thinking about those of us carrying out qualitative studies. It may well be that our approach to analysis ‘naturally’ arises from our theory and/or methodology. Whatever the case, do not overlook it or leave it to chance.

Despite my efforts to consider analysis from the early stages of my project, I admit that I was still confused, even as I approached the end of my data collection, about how I was going to approach this. In a perfect world where we are under less time pressure, a greater amount of time would be dedicated in our first/second year to pinning this down. In my case, I did eventually work it out once I had acquired a more in-depth understanding of my theory. I discovered, to my surprise, that my approach developed out of the work of a philosopher, David Theo Goldberg (1993), who, incidentally, is a CRT theorist. Through his discussion in his book Racist Culture, I have been able not only to develop a framework for analysis but also to consider how CRT might develop approaches to discourse analysis particularly concerned with race. I am currently working through this and will hopefully have more to share at a later date.

As I have learned, it is worth giving your analytical process serious thought throughout your research as a sure way of speeding up the end stages of your study. Analysis is as important to your research as any other aspect. It seems obvious to say, but I am sure that many of us still have an air of vagueness around this even as we approach the end of our field work. Therefore, do not shy away from this aspect of your research. Rather, make it an equal concern along with other aspects of your work.


Bonilla-Silva, E. (1996). Rethinking Racism: Towards a Structural Interpretation. American Sociological Review62, 465–480.

Goldberg, D. T. (1993). Racist culture: Philosophy and the politics of meaning. Oxford: Blackwell.

Hartigan, J., JR. (2010). Race in the 21st Century: Ethnographic approaches. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press.

Hill, J. H. (2008). The Everyday Language of White Racism. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell

Marcus, G. E. (1995). Ethnography in/of the World System: The Emergence of Multi-Sited Ethnography. Annual Review of Anthropology24, 95–117.

Wacquant, L. J. D. (1997). For an analytic of racial domination. Political Power and Social Theory11, 221–234.

Sharon Walker is a doctoral student at the Faculty of Education University of Cambridge researching issues of race equality in UK higher education policy. She has also recently co-published on issues of race and racism in education and international development. 

Posted by:fersacambridge

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