Research Spotlight: Pengfei Zhao

Q & A with Pengfei Zhao, Assistant Professor in the School of Human Development and Organizational Studies in Education

What basic questions does your research seek to answer?

I am a qualitative research methodologist with an interdisciplinary background in inquiry methodology, sociology, and cultural studies. My methodological writing addresses key issues in the field of qualitative inquiry such as validity, language and representation, qualitative data analysis software, and inference-making. In particular, I draw from critical theory, pragmatism, and feminism to formulate a praxis- and social justice- oriented research methodology.

What makes your work interesting?

I ground my methodology work in long-term, multi-method empirical studies conducted in China and in the United States. Long-term engagement with empirical work always allows me to find interesting and often neglected angles to connect theories with research practice. For instance, one of my research commitments examines the coming of age experience of rural Chinese youth during and right after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Years of fieldwork with ordinary Chinese people have led me to reconsider the researcher-participant relationship in an authoritarian state. Drawing on social theories about the state and state effect, I propose to move away from a static, western centric, and territory-based conceptualization of the state, and treat it as a culturally and historically specific structuration, in which researchers and participants are engaged.

My work is also characterized by the notable feature of interdisciplinarity. While research methodology is an inherent part in the training of many social science disciplines, in a recently published book, Making Sense of Social Research Methodology: A Student and Practitioner Centered Approach, my colleagues and I take a sociological lens to examine research practice itself. Instead of taking research as a set of procedures or the application of principles, our book conceptualizes research practice as social actions situated in a larger social, cultural, and political structure, performed through the coordination of social actors, and resulted in real-world consequences.

What are you currently working on?

As I mentioned above, together with Karen Ross, Peiwei Li, and Barbara Dennis, I just completed the textbook, Making Sense of Social Research Methodology, based on our long-term action research on teaching research methodology. The book offers a systematic and accessible view of my approach to qualitative research. It was a tremendously meaningful, inspiring, and productive journey to write this book with my colleagues.

Another long-term book project that I am working on is the Changing Fate Project, which aims to turn my doctoral dissertation into a book manuscript. In this book, I explore the origin of neoliberalism in China. Specifically, I found that neoliberal rationality first took roots in China’s educational reforms in the late 1970s. Against this background of social structural changes, I explore how the early development of neoliberalism in China has profoundly shaped the life course and lived experience of disadvantaged rural Chinese youth.

I also have a passion for feminist methodology and critical feminist research. Along this line of inquiry, I have conducted research on sexuality education in mainland China and explored new feminist participatory digital methodology with a group of feminists in the U.S. Both efforts have resulted in academic publications. The latter, titled the WomenWeLove Project, also aims to engage the public through ArcGIS technology.

Last but not least, I am joined by colleagues at UF’s Lastinger Center to examine the Florida education system’s response to the COVID19 pandemic. In this latest research effort, we performed a mixed methods project to understand the experience and perspectives of a wide range of stakeholders, including educational leaders, teachers, parents/caregivers, and students. Last fall, we produced one of the most comprehensive and earliest research reports on this topic. With funds from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we have moved to the second phase of the project, developing a longitudinal understanding of the lasting impact of the COVID19 pandemic on families, communities, and schools.

To sum up, I am devoted to using qualitative research to serve our society, community and, in particular, our minoritized and marginalized societal members. I believe that qualitative research can empower us in our pursuit of social justice and equity. I am grateful to my colleagues and students who are walking with me in this long, winding journey together.