Looking at Qualitative Research through Junior Papers: An Interview with Albert Lee ‘24

Headshot of Albert Lee standing in Colonial Club, wearing a blue suit.

Albert Lee ‘24 is the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Chair at Colonial Club, a member of the Students for Prison Education, Abolition, and Reform (SPEAR), and former Senior Writer for The Daily Princetonian.

As a junior, a hot topic for many of my friends lately has been their junior research and senior theses. In brainstorming ideas for this piece, I also thought about the incredible amount of learning that takes place in just a semester. That’s when I got the idea for this paper—to hear from seniors about their recent experiences conducting research for their Junior Papers. So, I reached out to Albert Lee ‘24, a senior majoring in Sociology and pursuing a certificate in Journalism.

Junior research requirements differ across departments at Princeton. Although it is common for students to be required to write a research paper each semester of their junior year, students in Sociology write a single Junior Paper (JP) during the spring semester. Sociology majors are also required to take SOC 300: Claims in Evidence and Sociology the prior semester, which introduces social science research and focuses on methodological training in both quantitative and qualitative research. In this interview, we delve into Albert’s experience conducting qualitative research for his Junior Paper, exploring both unexpected challenges and discussing key learnings.

Alexis Wu (AW): What was your central research topic for your JP?

Albert Lee (AL): My JP focuses on the experiences of immigrant students in higher education spaces, specifically with regards to family immigration history and cultural capital. This includes factors like a parent’s educational background and social connections, which can make it easier for someone to adjust to a higher education environment. For example, if your parents went to MIT and you now go to MIT, you’re going to probably feel a bit more comfortable in that space compared to someone who’s first-generation low-income, because you heard stories from your parents about college life and what that institution is like.

In terms of the specific populations I looked at, I focused on studying Asian American and Latin American undergraduate students, second-generation and beyond. I wanted to see how their parents’ immigration background and their own educational experiences affected their sense of belonging and their relationships with their peers, professors, and faculty.

AW: How did you choose the topic for your JP?

AL: I always thought I was going to do a quantitative JP. During my literature review, there was this one source that attempted to quantify the concept of social connectedness: how much of a sense of belonging you feel to an environment and to people within the environment. The paper studied a group of migrants in Europe, asking participants to rate their sense of belonging and the number of social connections they had with immigrants and non-immigrants. I found that quantitative side really interesting, and I wanted to apply that approach to students here. 

However, talking to my adviser Dr. Rhacel Parreñas led me to realize that conducting a successful quantitative analysis for this type of question needed a huge sample size. This wasn’t quite feasible given that I only had one semester to complete my JP. So, she encouraged me to redefine my research question as a qualitative one. To untangle the mechanisms at play of something as complex as social belonging, you need to see what’s going on on the ground level before you introduce quantitative indicators.

AW: Could you briefly explain the difference between quantitative and qualitative research?

AL: It’s really about the method of collecting and analyzing data. To my understanding, qualitative research is a detailed analysis of a few different people. Because you’re collecting details on people’s life stories, you’re getting a lot of data from which you can identify possible patterns. Social phenomena are so nebulous and hard to quantify; it’s not like you’re looking at how many inches a ball traveled. Many times, people will do a qualitative study first to identify themes and patterns, and then do quantitative studies to see if this pattern is generalizable.

There’s also the other direction. Usually in surveys, you’re only measuring correlation. So to get the direction of causality, they’ll follow up with a qualitative study, picking people from the survey and asking them more detailed questions about what compelled them to put those responses. It’s something that quantitative studies cannot always capture, and you can miss a lot of subjective data when you’re just doing a quantitative analysis. But it really depends on your research question and what you’re trying to discover.

AW: What were some of the challenges you encountered and how did you navigate those difficulties?

AL: A challenge was getting interviewees, because they give you a goal at the beginning of your JP seminar to have around ten interviewees per group. So if you’re comparing two groups of people, an ideal number would be interviewing twenty people total. Because I was studying Asian American and Latin American students, I wanted twenty interviewees, but only ended up getting seven. That was a pretty big limitation, but I kind of made up for that by going into more depth with my interviews and asking more detailed questions. Another challenge was scheduling interviews, because you have to arrange around people’s busy schedules and rely on other people showing up to the interview on time.

AW: Is there any advice you would give to either students working on their JPs or students interested in conducting qualitative research?

AL: For people currently working on their JPs, be willing to be flexible. There are people who say, “Oh my God, I had to write so many pages,” but the writing is going to be the easy part. At that stage you’ll just be there with your computer…you’ll know what to do. But the data analysis and the interviewing is difficult, because those are skills you likely don’t have a lot of like experience with.

Another thing is to remember this is a learning experience. You shouldn’t take criticism from your adviser too personally—they’re trying to help you and make your paper the best it can be. If you encounter an obstacle, don’t catastrophize. Be willing to change your methodology and change the amount of people you’re going to recruit.

Interview responses have been edited for clarity and length.

I hope this interview helped to provide valuable insights into what the qualitative research process can look like. What I particularly enjoyed is how applicable Albert’s advice is to not just sociology majors or juniors, but to all researchers. This semester, I’m actually working on my first qualitative research paper in COS 436: Human-Computer Interaction. The challenges Albert encountered with participant recruitment and his flexibility were experience and advice I wish I had known prior to beginning my own research. If you’re interested in reading more about my key learnings from conducting qualitative research, stay tuned for my upcoming articles!

— Alexis Wu, Engineering Correspondent