Add Methods; Mix Well: An Analysis of the Qualitative Research Methods of Katrina M. Powell’s “Rhetorics of Displacement: Constructing Identities in Forced Relocations”
I study travel writing. And while my work has focused primarily on texts and archival material, I became enthralled by Powell’s research because of how she gracefully triangulates material from nonfiction, fiction and interviews to formulate her hypothesis about travelling bodies and identities. I was inspired at her choice to move beyond textual analysis and understand the themes of travel and displacement as they affect marginalized people in very real, non-imaginary, ways. While I have focused my previous and current research on how nineteenth century women were able to overcome oppressive societies and norms through their travel diaries, I have wondered how my work with texts written by people “from long ago” would have significant and practical impact beyond a line on my curriculum vitae and my own enjoyment. Since beginning my PhD program, I have had to ask myself how my work within Literature & Cultural Studies will be relevant to my students, communities and institutions. I think Powell’s findings are an example of what I would like my work to do and how I may consider approaching my beloved travel writing studies for major projects.
Katrina M. Powell’s “Rhetorics of Displacement: Constructing Identities in Forced Relocations,” published in College English, aims to explore how “the displaced can be feared” (299) and how an identity is affected when the body is “forcefully displaced” (300). Her purpose in this multi-layered study is to broaden her audience’s understanding of the “rhetorics of displacement” to cleverly uncover meaningful relationships between the rhetoric of those in power and those who have been displaced (300). Her work is ambitious in that she suggests more informed and contextual (leading to more ethical and responsible) reading and writing of displacement narratives. Powell takes a variety of power positions into account for her discussion: “[R]hetorics of displacement are deeply embedded in the resistances to the subjectivities inscribed for the displaced by those who have power over them, including tyrannical governments, United Nations (UN) aid workers, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administrators, and legislators” (302). Powell asserts that because of these types of “resistances”, displacement narratives often follow along preconceived, formulated lines; basically, there is a metanarrative that those in power and those displaced utilize to tell their local stories and rationalize their choices. Ultimately, Powell argues that “[o]nce one has moved physically from one place to another, the act of displacement, the act of reconceptualizing the hybrid identity, continues in an active way and does not end. What's important about this is that one identity does not take over another; rather, a hybrid identity results that incorporates the old and the new.” (301).
Powell discusses the rhetoric of and about the travelling, displaced body in Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke, (a documentary film on the displaced in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina) and Dave Egger’s fiction piece, What is the What (a novel based on the travel story of a displaced Sudanese boy) to contextualize her findings- archival material, interviews and narratives- from and about displaced individuals in the now infamous eminent domain case in the formation of the Shenandoah National Park during the 1930s. According to Powell, both Lee and Eggers’ works demonstrate how “[d]isplacement narratives written about the displaced often go through a process of othering whereby they blame the victim,” while “ the rhetorical strategies used by the displaced to speak back to those narratives include nostalgia, a particular sense of home, belonging, citizenry, and the right of return” (302). Her work with the people and archives of the Shenandoah National Park eminent domain case, and in particular the life of Mary Frances Corbin Donald, exposes how a law-imposed displacement of people is able to silence the voices of the victims affected and ultimately eliminate their rhetoric of “the right to return” (302).
Powell is certainly engaged in a “mixed methods” approach, and I believe she takes this emerging path because of what Banks would refer to as the “funk” of her research, or what Restaino and Maute would refer to as her “surrender as method”. Powell originally began her research gathering archival and narrative data and interviews as she worked with a documentary filmmaker, Richard Knox Robinson, who was researching the “Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographer Arthur Rothstein, who had been sent to Virginia in 1935 to photograph families being displaced during the founding of Shenandoah National Park” (312-3). This led her to find and interview a survivor / victim of the eminent domain case, Mary Frances Corbin Donald, and this interview ultimately allowed her to develop her thesis of the displacement counterstory.
Powell then develops a case study of Mary Frances Corbin Donald, a woman who because of the eminent domain case and her subsequent poverty was taken from her home in the mountains of Virginia when she was eleven years old, displaced to the Lynchburg Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded because her family was considered mentally unstable and thereupon sterilized. She was ultimately released as an adult, but her story, as Powell posits, had long been ignored, silenced and consequently forgotten because of the law-imposed displacement of her body and identity.
I appreciate how, even though Powell’s research is layered and thorough, she employs self-reflexivity, or when “the writer is conscious of the biases, values, and experiences that he or she brings to a qualitative research study” (Creswell 293). Powell admits how her research with filmmaker Robinson raised “concern[s] with highlighting the staged nature of documentary film, photography, and storytelling. Both of us [Powell and Robinson] were aware of the implications of retelling and reappropriating Mary Frances's stories, and throughout the process of interviewing, filming, editing, and screening, we tried to remain ‘mindful of how rhetorical acts of witnessing may function as new forms of international tourism and appropriation’ [Hesford, "Documenting Violations" 121]” (Powell 313). Additionally, Powell comments how she and her co-researcher were “explicitly conscious of issues of form, of the way that documentary is constructed, of the obtrusiveness of the camera, and of the role of the filmmaker and the interviewer in constructing a certain kind of displacement narrative” (315). In other words, she is mindful that her representation of this counterstory will not be clean from the researcher’s fingerprints in developing new, perhaps undesired, unhelpful, or even more complex marginalized identities for her participants, living or dead.
Suffice it to say, Powell’s interpretive framework for this study is dynamic. Because of her multiple methods, I understand that she is “look[ing] for the complexity of views rather than narrowing the meanings into a few categories or ideas” (Creswell 24), as a social constructivist. Additionally, her transformative framework is illustrated through her perpetual awareness of her own power as a researcher and author and her curiosity about displacement narratives -- “Who wants these narratives, and how are they used?” (317) -- causes me to consider that she is acutely aware that “knowledge is not neutral and reflects the power and social relationships within society, and thus the purpose of knowledge construction is to aid people to improve society,” (Creswell 25-6). Moreover, she seems to understand that her research is “collaborative because it is inquiry completed ‘with’ others rather than ‘on’ or ‘to’ others,” (Creswell 26) especially seen in her sensitivity working with Corbin Donald (Addison 140). At the same time, Powell seeks to deconstruct the metanarrative of the the displaced, traveling body, and in doing so, exemplifies a postmodern perspective (Creswell 27) while simultaneously commenting heavily on the rhetoric of a female body erroneously labeled “disabled,” in the vein of disability theory (Dolmage and Lewiecki-Wilson).
Powell’s strength is in showing her research process as an emerging pathway; she develops the idea that her argument and data came about through related, yet disconnected, research she was collecting. She was open to the opportunity to interview Corbin Donald and be flexible to the ideas that developed counter to the accepted theories of her research focus. Her mixed methods approach match this particular study as she herself recognizes that this issue is highly complex, layered and runs contrary to what her audience may expect (Addison 138). I believe her triangulation of data and utilization of nonfiction, fiction, narrative, archive and interview allows her a valid place in this discussion about (simply put) stories, and if anything, her various methods demonstrate how stories are multi-dimensional, living, messy animals.
While Powell makes note multiple times how she is aware and cautious of the messy nature of interviews and narratives, she fails to provide a more detailed account of the interview she has with Corbin Donald. Yet, I understand that this probably has much to do with Powell’s honorable amount of reciprocity by respecting Corbin Donald’s privacy and story, allowing Corbin Donald ownership of the details of her own narrative (Creswell 95; Journet 21).
Much like I was inspired by Cushman, I am moved and educated by Powell’s work to embrace the messiness of qualitative research. In speaking of her own research focus of the displaced traveler, I was reminded of the emerging nature of research methods: “Displacement is not an overtaking—that would suggest linear movement, a dialectic relationship among identities. Rather, displacement is a meandering path, a combination of many paths, paths not predetermined by place, person, or nation” (301). In other words, like surrender, displacement (in the most positive sense) may be a benefit in my approach to research, being aware of my research stance and frameworks, but all the while being open to the paths, approaches and methods available to me and my participants.
Addison, Joanne. "Researching Literacy as a Lived Experience." Rhetorica in Motion: Feminist Rhetorical Methods and Methodologies. edited by Eileen E. Schell and K.J. Rawson, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010. pp. 136-151.
Banks, A. (2015). 2015 CCCC Chair’s Address: Ain’t No Walls behind the Sky, Baby! Funk, Flight, Freedom. College Composition and Communication, vol. 67, no. 2, pp. 267-79. pdf.
Cushman, E. “The Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 47, no. 1, 1996, pp. 7-28. JSTOR, doi: 10.2307/358271
Creswell, John W. Qualitative Inquiry & Research Design: Choosing Among Five Approaches. 3rd ed., Sage, 2013.
Dolmage, Jay and Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson. “Refiguring Rhetorica: Linking Feminst Rhetoric and Disability Studies.” Rhetorica in Motion: Feminist Rhetorical Methods and Methodologies. edited by Eileen E. Schell and K.J. Rawson, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010. pp. 23-38.
Grabill, Jeffery T. “Community-Based Research and the Importance of a Research Stance.” Writing Studies Research in Practice: Methods and Methodologies. edited by Lee Nickoson and Mary P. Sheridan, Southern UP, 2012. pp. 210-9.
Journet, Debra. “Narrative Turns in Writing Studies Research.” Writing Studies Research in Practice: Methods and Methodologies. edited by Lee Nickoson and Mary P. Sheridan, Southern UP, 2012. pp. 13-24.
Powell, Katrina M. “Rhetorics of Displacement: Constructing Identities in Forced Relocations.” College English, vol. 74, no. 4, 2012, pp. 299-324. JSTOR, doi: 126.96.36.199. Accessed 15 Feb. 2017.
Restaino, Jessica and Susan Lundy Maute. “Surrender as Method: Research, Writing, Rhetoric, Love.” Peitho Journal, vol. 18 no.1, 2015, pp. 72-95. pdf.