Not a final statement but a starting point: timely and extremely useful handbook for qualitative sport studies

Mark Brooke
Centre for English Language Communication,
National University of Singapore

Brett Smith & Andrew C. Sparkes (red)
Routledge Handbook of Qualitative Research in Sport and Exercise
495 pages, paperback.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2016 (Routledge International Hadbooks)
ISBN 978-1-138-35348-0

With the ever-expanding field of qualitative research in sport and exercise, the Routledge Handbook of Qualitative Research in Sport and Exercise is timely and extremely useful. It is extensive and covers many elements related to qualitative research in the sport and exercise sciences from conceptual underpinnings to processes to future directions. For me, the book has acted more as a reference source to cherry-pick chapters that relate to my own teaching and researching. That said, it is possible to read the book from front to back covers chronologically as we move from research traditions to different data collection methods in parts I and II through to data analysis techniques in part III. Part IV then focuses on representing qualitative research and Part V moves on to new sensory as well as internet and pluralistic research practices. Part VI, the final section, then discusses the future of qualitative research in the sport and exercise sciences. I have read the entire collection and find that every one of the thirty-eight chapters has a great deal to offer. However, for a short review, I have selected two chapters that I have found particularly inspiring.

One of the chapters that I have selected to discuss is in Part V, entitled ‘Opening up Qualitative Research Practices in Sport and Exercise’ (pp. 409-423). It is the chapter from Camilla J. Knight from the University of Swansea (UK), on teaching students in tertiary settings about qualitative research and how to do it. As Knight argues, this is often not focused on in the literature and is a skill many lecturers in the field of the sport and exercise sciences are required to have. In this chapter, Knight attempts to fill the gaps by overviewing philosophical, methodological and practical elements concerning the teaching of qualitative research in the tertiary sector.

Firstly, Knight points out how the positivist tradition remains dominant in this field with its focus on objective, randomised control and deductive reasoning. She argues that this has othered and continues to devalue qualitative research, giving it secondary status. Notwithstanding this hierarchy, in order to humanise research, there is need for qualitative method and to go beyond numerical statistics by valuing ‘each individual’s story and experience’ (p. 410). To do this, Knight asserts the need to teach the value of qualitative research as well as to guide students how to do it. To facilitate student learning, a ‘hands-on’ approach is preferential. Knight then goes on to demonstrate how educators have taken their students through to a completed research project during a course and how this has helped these students to develop their understanding of the basics of qualitative research (ontological and epistemological underpinnings; data collection and analysis; framing findings and writing up final draft) while maintaining active engagement. For this, several breakdowns of the entire processes of case studies that students have conducted are provided, listing the stages followed. Additionally, Knight offers overviews of more specific exercises set up by several teachers to train their students’ awareness of particular considerations in this field, such as the differences in the philosophical approaches of quantitative versus qualitative paradigms; or preparing students for fieldwork; or interviewing and transcribing. Readers can consult the original papers describing these activities for further details if they are meaningful to them.

One case presented is the narratives about what it means to be a ‘good mother’ and how that might relate to an ‘exerciser’ discourse (e.g., good mothers put children’s needs before their own need to exercise).

The next section of the chapter moves on to ‘anticipating and overcoming challenges’ when teaching students qualitative research as a subject. The content of this section comes from seasoned researchers as well as from teachers of research methods sharing their experiences. The topics covered are ‘ethical considerations’; ‘obtaining quality data’; ‘getting it right’; understanding the analysis process’; and ‘accounting for different backgrounds and experiences’. Knight explains the challenges that may arise when teaching these. For example, in the section ‘getting it right’, she describes how students appear overconcerned with quantitating their data (how many observations should I do? How long should I observe?) or pinpointing their objective (what exactly is it I am looking for?). This, she argues, might be an effect of the domination of quantitative method; it may also be because of constant student assessment; in other words, a result of a goal-oriented education whereby students need to demonstrate the learning of concrete outcomes. Drawing on findings from researchers and educators, Knight proposes that students need first-hand practice and guidance in the data collection procedures so that they can move beyond linear processes and be more open to using a wider-lensed approach. It is only through mentoring and experiential learning that more students can feel comfortable with open-ended questions such as ‘what is it like?’.

Another of the chapters that has influenced my teaching and research practice in this edited volume is from McGannon (Laurentian University, Canada) on Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) in part III ‘Analysing Qualitative Data’ (pp. 230-242). It clearly spells out what CDA is and how to do it. First of all, concepts are very well explained. For example, distinctions are clearly made between ‘discursive practices’ (e.g., how discourse is used to perform specific functions, with effects) and ‘discursive resources’ (e.g., how texts and talk are informed by broader cultural practices and discourses). McGannon then deepens the readers’ knowledge of these by discussing them in much greater detail, as part of the main tenets of CDA, in three separate sections: ‘Discourse and language are constructed and constituted’; ‘self-identity is a discursive construction’; and ‘discourses are (re)produced in social practices and institutions’. These culminate in the ‘C’ or criticality of CDA, McGannon concludes. Then the chapter nicely moves on to why and when to use critical discourse analysis and how to do it in the sport and exercise sciences to capture ‘socially constructed, nuanced analysis of culture, identity and experience’ (p. 233).

McGannon guides the reader through some of her prior research (McGannon & Schinke, 2013) for the ‘how’ section. One case presented is the narratives about what it means to be a ‘good mother’ and how that might relate to an ‘exerciser’ discourse (e.g., good mothers put children’s needs before their own need to exercise). From this point, she shows us how she collected data to evaluate the effects of discursive practices in this field with extracts from interviews with mothers. These interviews seek to uncover whether there is the same patriarchal discourse in her participants’ families. She clearly presents findings from her content analyses in a table. It comprises key features of discourse used to construct and make sense of one of her interviewee’s subjectivity and how this woman is impacted, even defined by the discourse. McGannon then goes on to explain how she followed up the empirical work to view the discursive practices in more abstract terms by reading feminist texts in the realms of family and the workforce as well as sport and motherhood. Thus, broadening the research focus to a structural lens. In sum, the whole process of how to conduct a sound exploratory CDA project incorporating inquiry into discursive resources and practices is systematically provided.

To conclude this review, in their opening introduction to the book, the editors, Smith and Sparkes, state that the book is ‘not a final statement’ but ‘a starting point’ (p. 6). Indeed, this research paradigm is growing as a multi-disciplinary academic field in its own right as well as in the sport and exercise sciences. This development is helping to demonstrate how a non-numerical, humanistic approach to research can and should be valued. I think that this handbook represents the editors’ stated hope: that it acts as a ‘springboard for new thought and new work’ (p. 6). I look forward to reading the future editions.

Copyright © Mark Brooke 2019


Table of Content

  1. Introduction: An invitation to qualitative research
    Brett Smith and Andrew C. Sparkes

PART I: Traditions of Qualitative Research

  1. Breathing in life: Phenomenological perspectives on sport and exercise
    Jacquelyn Allen-Collinson
  2. Doing grounded theory in sport and exercise
    Nicholas L. Holt
  3. Narrative Inquiry: From cardinal to marginal…and back?
    Anthony Papathomas
  4. Ethnography
    Michael Atkinson
  5. Case studies
    Ken Hodge and Lee-Ann Sharp
  6. Feminisms
    Cheryl Cooky
  7. Embarking on community based participatory action research: A methodology that emerges from (and in) communities
    Robert J. Schinke and Amy T. Blodgett

PART II: Collecting Qualitative Data

  1. Interviews: Qualitative interviewing in the sport and exercise sciences
    Brett Smith and Andrew C. Sparkes
  2. Conducting observations in sport and exercise settings
    Holly Thorpe and Rebecca Olive
  3. Visual research methods
    Cassandra Phoenix and Emma Rich
  4. Media research: From text to context
    Brad Millington and Brian Wilson
  5. Using material objects and artifacts in research
    Kerry Chamberlain and Antonia C Lyons
  6. Documents of life – from diaries to autobiographies to biographical objects
    Melissa Day

PART III: Analyzing Qualitative Data

  1. Using thematic analysis in sport and exercise research
    Virginia Braun, Victoria Clarke, and Paul Weate
  2. Phenomenological analysis in sport and exercise
    Susanne Ravn
  3. Interpretative phenomenological analysis in sport and exercise: Getting at experience
    Jonathan A. Smith
  4. Critical discourse analysis in sport and exercise: What, why and how
    Kerry R. McGannon
  5. Conversational analysis is sport and exercise
    Amanda LeCouteur and Suzanne Cosh
  6. Narrative analysis in sport and exercise: How can it be done?
    Brett Smith
  7. Synthesizing qualitative research: Meta-synthesis in sport and exercise
    Toni L. Williams and Rachel L. Shaw

PART IV: Representation, Evaluation and Ethics

  1. In defense of realist tales
    Samantha King
  2. Creative analytical practices
    Jenny McMahon
  3. Ethics in sport and exercise research: From research ethics committees to ethics in the field
    Catherine Palmer
  4. Re-thinking ‘validity’ and ‘trustworthiness’ in qualitative inquiry: How might we judge the quality of qualitative research in Sport and Exercise Sciences?
    Shaunna Burke

PART V: Opening Up Qualitative Research Practices in Sport and Exercise

  1. Researching the senses in sport and exercise
    Andrew C. Sparkes
  2. The web and digital qualitative methods: Researching online and researching the online in sport and exercise studies
    Andrea Bundon
  3. Pluralistic data analysis: Theory and practice
    Nicola J. Clarke, Nick Caddick and Nollaig Frost
  4. Mixed methods research in sport and exercise: Integrating qualitative research
    Kass Gibson
  5. The role of theory, interpretation and critical thought within qualitative sport and exercise research
    Tania Cassidy
  6. Teaching qualitative research
    Camilla J. Knight
  7. Knowledge, not numbers: Qualitative research and impact in sport, exercise and health
    Tess Kay
  8. Moving between worldviews: Indigenous physical cultures through Indigenous eyes
    Moss E. Norman and Michael A. Hart

PART VI: Future Visions

  1. Thinking about the future: Challenges and opportunities
    Tara-Leigh McHugh
  2. A look at the future of qualitative methodology through the prism of athlete career research
    Natalia B. Stambulova
  3. Qualitative research in search of ‘truth’ and agency: Challenges and opportunities for qualitative research
    Cora Burnett
  4. Challenges and opportunities for qualitative research: Future directions
    Michael D. Giardina
  5. Embracing the messiness of qualitative research: Challenges and opportunities for qualitative researchers in sport and exercise
    Vikki Krane
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