Harvard Educational Review
  1. Spring 2020 Issue »


    Portraiture as a Method of Inquiry in Educational Research

    Sarah Bruhn and Raquel L. Jimenez
    With its publication in 1983, A Nation at Risk condemned American schools and decried the future of education and democracy at large. The report offered a sensationalized portrayal of schools in decline and provoked a national conversation about the crisis of American education. That same year, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot (1983), a sociologist of education, published The Good High School as an intentional response to the focus on school deficiencies that was, and remains, common in social science research. To document the full range of complexity, vulnerability, and goodness that she saw in high schools across the country, Lawrence-Lightfoot developed the tools for a new mode of qualitative inquiry, which she termed portraiture. In portraiture, rigorous scientific empiricism is complemented by careful attention to the aesthetics of communication for the purposes of deepening perception and expanding common frames of reference, goals that often push audiences to see and think about the world in new ways (Dixson, Chapman, & Hill, 2005; Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997). Together, A Nation at Risk and The Good High School presented two contrasting narratives: one recorded the dismal failures of American schools, and the other illuminated the hopeful, if imperfect, work of teachers and principals.

    Like these two narratives that continue to shape public perception about schools, stories hold a significant place in our lives. The stories we tell help us make sense of our experiences, provide the frames through which we come to understand the world around us, and enable us to situate ourselves in relation to others. As researchers, we are storytellers. We tell stories to frame and motivate the questions we ask and the methodologies we use to answer them. We tell stories as we document, describe, and analyze our findings. And we tell stories to help others see value in our line of inquiry. These are not fictional or contrived tales. They are stories grounded in previously developed theories, in empirical scholarship, in our lived experiences of the world around us, and in systematic, reflexive collection of data. As we decide what scholarly traditions to engage with, which pieces of data are pivotal and which are secondary, and how to frame our work for a variety of audiences, we make critical decisions about the stories we construct.

    Portraiture is a method that takes these propositions seriously. In doing so, it demands that we are honest and transparent about the politics, power, and possibilities of our storytelling. Since the first use of portraiture as a research method nearly four decades ago, its tenets have been used to tackle a wide range of topics in education research, from immigrant youth and families’ experiences in US schools, to cultural practices at elite boarding schools, to meaning-making of rural students in China (Gaztambide-Fernandez, 2009; Hong, 2011; Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997; Suárez-Orozco, Suárez-Orozco, & Todorova, 2008; Xiang, 2018). Other scholars have celebrated the way portraiture and critical race theory complement each other, both generating alternatives to hegemonic images that seek to control nondominant groups (Chapman, 2007; Dixson, 2005). By asking researchers to be intentional about acts of representation that are inherent in the social sciences and their always-unsettled politics, portraiture troubles conventional boundaries between art and science, disrupting the dominant belief in “art as arbitrary and fictive; science as precise and real” (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 22).

    The method relies on several key tenets to bind together aesthetic and empirical considerations. First, portraiture reminds us that at the core of every research encounter is a complex set of relationships between people with different needs, desires, and motivations for engaging in the research. These relationships may be nurtured over many years or may be spontaneous and short-lived; but in either case—or anywhere along the spectrum—portraiture demands that the relationships be entered into with respect, a desire to learn, and grace. Second, portraiture asks the researcher to illuminate and explore goodness within the topic under study. While understanding struggle and deprivation is a critical dimension of social science research, portraiture demands that we “resist this tradition-laden effort to document failure,” insisting that we use research to push beyond deficit narratives to uncover new perspectives and more robust narratives (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 9). Studying goodness forces us to foreground the perspectives of our participants—What do they see as good? When they look around their worlds, what do they see that is worth celebrating? Finally, in its attention to the aesthetic whole of the final research product, portraiture asks us to consider how our work will be read and used by communities outside the academy walls, including our participants. When taken together, these dimensions—centering relationships, seeking goodness, and attending to the aesthetics of storytelling—allow researchers to construct stories that reflect the rigorous collection of data while honoring multiplicity and unresolved tensions.

    Yet, while the method has provided an alternate lens for examining some of the most pressing issues in education, it is important to acknowledge that portraiture was developed at Harvard, and those of us with access to formal training in portraiture with its creators are scholars and practitioners already engaged with an elite institution. It may be more challenging for those beyond such ivied halls to wrestle with how to use the method effectively as a means of documenting and analyzing the social world. But because the method is a mode of inquiry aimed at centering the epistemologies of participants while also crafting a scholarly analysis purposely intended to speak beyond the siloed walls of academe, we believe portraiture remains a critical methodological paradigm.

    In this symposium, we have gathered works that highlight the crucial elements that comprise the lens of portraiture—relationships, goodness, and the aesthetics of the story—in a purposeful effort to contribute to the broader pedagogical work needed to further disseminate the method. In “Tools to Build Their Best Learning: Examining How Kindergarten Teachers Frame Student Mistakes,” Maleka Donaldson trains her lens on two kindergarten classrooms to illustrate how portraiture can be used to elevate and examine, rather than control for, the contextual factors that shape how consequential moments of teaching and learning unfold in classroom settings. In choosing to situate her study in two contrasting contexts, one characterized by affluence and abundance and the other by ingenuity borne out of necessity, Donaldson explains how her inquiry is deeply connected to her own experiences as a kindergarten teacher. She writes from a place of relationship, sensitive to the external and often invisible forces teachers must account for in their classrooms. As a result, readers are offered a probing portrait of goodness in each setting. Donaldson’s work examines how two teachers craft distinct instructional approaches in response to the unique parameters of their educational settings and the deeply human moments of uncertainty, frustration, joy, and celebration that occur as they help young learners extend their competencies. In doing so, she adds to prior scholarship in cognitive development and the learning sciences that frame teachers’ responses to mistakes as crucial to learning and provides a useful window into what is possible even in underresourced settings.

    Simone Fried’s portrait, “State Takeover: Managing Emotions, Policy Implementation, and the Support/Sanction Duality in the Holyoke Public Schools Receivership,” helps move readers beyond the polarized discourses that frequently shape public discussions about takeovers by documenting educators’ good intentions in an education landscape that sometimes seems bleak. Rather than demonizing or martyring district employees, she explores the uncertainty, loss, and profound sense of duty these educators feel as they grapple with the unexpected and unwelcome change in their career trajectories. She illuminates how portraiture can be used to examine goodness—not by painting a facile picture of things running smoothly but by interrogating a wide range of perspectives and responses to policy changes that are intended to help young people learn.

    While Donaldson and Fried use the tools of portraiture to illuminate the tensions, contradictions, and possibilities that exist across different levels of the ecology of education, Pei Pei Liu and Sarah Dryden-Peterson offer timely methodological reflections on the use of portraiture in practice. Liu’s “After Words: Negotiating Participant and Portraitist Response in the Study ‘Aftermath’” takes readers to the heart of one of portraiture’s puzzles with regard to relationships built in the field: seeking, responding to, and incorporating participants’ responses to seeing some aspect of their experience represented in a portrait. While the practice of sharing portraits with participants is a long-standing tradition in the methodology, Liu brings productive clarity to this practice by articulating three distinct rationales—methodological, ethical, and interventionist—portraitists may consider when planning to share their work with participants and explains how the logics guiding each rationale carry distinct implications for the research endeavor and the relationships that are central to knowledge production in portraiture. Most crucially, Liu reminds us that portraiture, like all research, is an inherently representational practice that involves both careful attention to the truth claims we assert about the social world and reflexivity about the strategies and goals that guide us in our work.

    To close the symposium, in “Transitions: Researchers’ Positionality and Malleability of Site and Self over Time” Dryden-Peterson delves into the evolution of a researcher over time, a topic rarely covered in the literature about researcher positionality and identity. Drawing on her research of history teaching in the same school in South Africa in 1998 and in 2019, she demonstrates the importance of “research that considers sites and phenomenon over extended periods of time” rather than limiting our inquiries to one specific moment. At the same time, she compellingly argues that we need to pay more attention to how our shifting identities as scholars influence how we interact with our participants. Identity is not static for the portraitist or her subjects, and Dryden-Peterson reminds us that we must consider how new roles, new learning, and new dimensions of ourselves affect the work of building relationships within a research context. Portraiture calls on researchers to be particularly reflexive of their role in every dimension of the research process, from initial musings, to collecting data, to constructing the final portrait. By embracing this aspect of portraiture, Dryden-Peterson reveals the ever-shifting interactions between researcher and the social environment she documents. She asks us to grapple with how we as researchers change in parallel with how the people and contexts we study grow and adapt, illustrating how forging relationships in portraiture can become more meaningful when we consider our own evolution as people and scholars.

    The Editorial Board believes that in an era in which social, political, and economic inequalities are imprinted on our schools and communities, portraiture can expand our discourse by helping us capture injustice along with moments of celebration and beauty. At a time when big data affect every dimension of our lives, portraiture offers an important counterpoint to the broad brushstrokes drawn by large-scale research, allowing us to explore the idiosyncrasies and nuances comprising individual lives. Portraiture demands that we see the intersections in our participants’ identities and, just as importantly, in our own identities as researchers. With our public discourse fragmented and contentious, portraiture fosters opportunities for empathy and connection between researcher and participant and between portraits and their readers.

    And, finally, in an era in which researchers increasingly aspire to work in partnership with communities as they seek to understand and address our most trenchant social issues, portraiture helps us productively shift our gaze. Whether it is uncovering new truths about district takeovers or learning in kindergarten, through portraiture we are called to enter into relationships and dialogue with those whose lives we hope to understand, to see beyond conventional frames of reference, and to author narratives that inspire new courses of action. We hope the articles in this symposium will illuminate possibilities for enacting a more humane, useful, and just social science.

    Sarah Bruhn and Raquel L. Jimenez


    Chapman, T. K. (2007). Interrogating classroom relationships and events: Using portraiture and critical race theory in education research. Educational Researcher, 36(3), 156–162. doi:10.3102/0013189X07301437

    Dixson, A. D. (2005). Extending the metaphor: Notions of jazz in portraiture. Qualitative Inquiry, 11(1), 106–137. doi:10.1177/1077800404270839

    Dixson, A. D., Chapman, T. K., & Hill, D. A. (2005). Research as an aesthetic process: Extending the portraiture methodology. Qualitative Inquiry, 11(1), 16–26. doi:10.1177/1077800404270836

    Gaztambide-Fernandez, R. A. (2009). The best of the best: Becoming elite at an American boarding school. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

    Hong, S. (2011). A cord of three strands: A new approach to parent engagement in schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

    Lawrence-Lightfoot, S. (1983). The good high school: Portraits of character and culture. New York: Basic Books.

    Lawrence-Lightfoot, S. (2005). Reflections on portraiture: A dialogue between art and science. Qualitative Inquiry, 11(1), 3–15. doi:10.1177/1077800404270955

    Lawrence-Lightfoot, S., & Davis, J. H. (1997). The art and science of portraiture. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Suárez-Orozco, C., Suárez-Orozco, M. M., & Todorova, I. (2008). Learning a new land: Immigrant students in American society. Retrieved from http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:NLIB_282401

    Xiang, X. (2018). My future, my family, my freedom: Meanings of schooling for poor, rural Chinese youth. Harvard Educational Review, 88(1), 81–102.

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  2. Spring 2020 Issue


    Bridging the Public and Private in the Study of Teaching
    Revisiting the Research Argument
    Rachel Schachter and Donald Freeman

    Book Notes

    Tara Westover

    Absent from School
    Michael A. Gottfried and Ethan L. Hutt

    Where Teachers Thrive
    Susan Moore Johnson

    Redefining Success in America
    Michael B. Kaufman

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