d i g i t a l   a d v i s o r . . .

Tricks to Labeling the Things You See

An important part of defining what you think you have learned is naming, not just describing, what you see.  But labels are filled with potential pitfalls.  Maybe the labels you choose gloss over important distinctions.  Maybe other people will misinterpret your label, ascribing other meanings to it.  Maybe readers will  rely on conventional stereotypes when in fact you should be challenging those stereotypes.   You also need to make sure you believe your terms are right.  You will likely find yourself changing the labels you use as your continue with your analysis and writing, for you will continually be trying to find words that best capture your thinking. Here are some tricks you should try:

1. Describe the act, not its meaning

Often our interpretation of what we see depends on assumptions we make about the relationship between behavior and intentions.  For instance, we assume that when kids volunteer things in class, they are interested or enthusiastic about the subject.  We tend to say that the children responded enthusiastically to the lesson.  The behavior is an indicator of enthusiasm.  But how do we know that this behavior actually indicates enthusiasm?  Is there a way to test this idea?   What other emotions could stimulate this behavior? Anxiety?  Need for approval?  How can you distinguish these different motives?  Until you are sure this is the best interpretation for what you see, try to label it with a behavioral term, like "participation," or "verbal participation," or "volunteering" rather than labeling it "enthusiasm." 

2. Test your label with different examples

Most people define their terms with examples from within their own data.  Try comparing different examples to see if they all can be labeled with the same term. For instance, if you decide that volunteering is an indicator of enthusiasm, try making a list of all the possible times when volunteering has occurred and see how if they all seem to indicate enthusiasm.

  • Vary the content. Is it enthusiasm when someone volunteers an epithet? When they say something off task?  
  • --Vary the degree or volume of the behavior.  Is it enthusiasm when they shout really loudly?  
  • --Vary the type of kid:  Is it enthusiasm with the kid is 6 years old?  What about 16 years old?    What about if the kid is diagnosed as autistic?  Or non-English speaking?

  • Vary the context:  Is it enthusiasm in music class?  What about in church?
Now you have the task of determining which examples count as indicators of enthusiasm and others not.  Or to define a longer list of conditions that have to be met before you will label something as indicating enthusiasm. 


© Mary Kennedy, 2006


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