Social Science Methodology & Pathways for Further Exploration
People often ask me about the research and methods behind the ELVIS Framework and the ELVIS 7. To begin with, ELVIS is rooted in decades of prior psychological research in experiential learning theory, the narrative study of lives, and identity theory from a sociological perspective, as you have no doubt noticed from Part 1 of the book. It is also deeply rooted in my own grounded theory and action-research experience in the field. For those of you wanting to go deeper into this background, I highly encourage you to explore the foundational work supporting ELVIS, which includes:
1. Experiential Learning Theory, as pioneered by John Dewey, Kurt Hahn, Paulo Freire, David Kolb, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and others. Most notably, my work takes several cues from the legendary cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner and his notions of “Discovery Learning,” whereby learners discover information and knowledge-based relationships for themselves through personal inquiry – whether unstructured or structured. In the ELVIS framework, transformative experiences are considered to be direct personal close encounters with people and events combined with focused reflection, private personal interpretative processes, and meaning making in the form of identity narratives.
2. The Narrative Study of Lives, a relatively new arena of psychology, emerging sonamed over the past 50 years, and yet is based in some of the oldest characteristics of the human condition – our narratability (as I call it) or our addiction and abilities towards ‘storyifying’ our lives. Bruner emerges here again along with Dan McAdams, Ruthellen Josselson and Ami Lieblich (among others). The narrative research methods of these pioneers have long served as a guide to my own investigations, addressing the nuanced way researchers strive to reveal other people’s lived narratives while also recognizing their own roles as narrators and accurate interpreters in the process.
3. Social Identity Theory, as articulated most prominently by the contemporary work of Peter Burke, Jan Stets, and others, building upon the earlier foundations laid by Sheldon Stryker and even William James. William James (1890) originally put forward that there are as many “selves” as there are positions that one might hold in society and as there are groups who respond to and interact with the self. In today’s psychological vernacular, his notion of “self” has become the construct, identity. Modern Identity theory is built upon the premise that the Self emerges within the context of society’s patterns and organization through what Stryker dubbed “structural symbolic interaction” through the use of language and symbols that are based on shared meanings within a culture. Identities exist in the mind of the individual and give rise to the ‘sense-of-self’ – a person’s consciousness of their own being. Here again, Dan McAdams emerges as a powerful foundation for my work through his theory of ‘human identity as a self-authored heroic mythology’ – one in which we are each in the daily business of constructing. This once again wonderfully echoes Joseph Campbell’s analysis of the world’s mythologies and his famous framing of the “hero’s journey.”
4. Grounded Theory Research. My own research has led directly to the ELVIS framework and toolkit. Through grounded theory research informed by prior work in related areas, I developed novel investigative methods, which are a combination of new and more traditional ethnographic research approaches used with people of different ages, backgrounds, and over many years, and all engaged in transformative experiences of different types.
Grounded theory work involves investigating the personal experiences of people from the “ground up” — without prior filtration based on earlier theory and prior research. During the interpretive phase, such prior work is indeed brought in, but only after raw and original insights have been developed. My work investigating transformative experiences includes my original Ph.D. dissertation, examining identity change in educators engaged in extraordinary life experiences. Over the years, my research methodologies have combined ethnographic case study (to examine individual experiences) within the structure of phenomenology study (to examine the overarching phenomenon of identity transformation across cases).
Very typically for such research, my work has involved longitudinal individual tracking, including interviews, discovery groups, surveys, participant journals, and embedded observation. However, as a documentary filmmaker as well as a social scientist, I also recognized the tremendous power of the video medium for story generation and storytelling. And so, I pioneered a new approach to narrative analysis that includes 1st person experiencer documentary film-making to chronicle their lived experiences.
Treating these videos as research data sources, I developed a process for unpacking them as multi-layered forms of narrative to reveal both conscious and unconscious aspects of participant experiences. This analysis of videos demanded new tools. Among them: story mapping, scene-by-scene plot mapping, visual coding, audio coding, textual coding, thematic assignments, and director’s commentary as self-interviews.
Additionally, for many of my designed experiences, cohorts of participants would reunite some months after the main experience to share their personal videos at film festivals I would host. These ‘narrative-sharing’ gatherings have proved not only instructive in understanding the same experience from multiple perspectives, but have also been cathartic for many participants – a culminating and extended element of their experience that is important for durable meaning-making. Some of my cohorts continue to communicate and hold reunions to this day – an indicator of the impact of their experiences together.
I have since used components of these novel research methods in other work – for Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots educational program, for Bayer’s International Teen Science Program, for the National Center for Women and IT research projects on diversity, equity and inclusion with several large companies, for the PBS television series SciGirls and Latina SciGirls, and many others.