Book Review: Exploring Diary Methods in Higher Education Research: Opportunities, Choices and Challenges

By Yan Chen, Durham University

Edited by Xuemeng Cao and Emily Henderson

Exploring Diary Methods in Higher Education Research: Opportunities, choices, and challenges significantly contributes to higher education research, especially in using this creative research method to explore salient topics in the global context. Using solicited diary techniques across empirical studies creates a new perspective to learn participants’ perceptions and reflections on their experiences. Besides introducing this intriguing research method, as book editors in this book, Cao and Henderson also include research projects conducted by researchers from various cultural backgrounds. These research projects contribute to the study of marginalised and vulnerable groups in higher education, such as international students, LGBTQ individuals, economically deprived communities, etc. This book helps researchers employ the diary method in education studies, sociology, and other related fields.

This book draws a clear picture about what the diary method is (Part one), why it is crucial and how to design and evaluate diary studies (Part two), the research process and the importance of diaries for researching hidden issues (Part three). In addition to serving as an unsolicited and second-hand resource, the diary can also be developed as first-hand resource.  Through working together with participants, solicited diary aims to help researchers comprehend specific research questions that serve research purposes. In this book, different scholars present how solicited diaries are applied as a research method to enter participants’ everyday life, capture life as it is lived, and examine daily rhythms of life or within-person changes over time, particularly in longitudinal studies. Depending on diary method approaches, audio and video diaries can provide unique insights into the body and creative practices. 

Part one of this edited volume inspires researchers to use various techniques and approaches in the diary method. Cross-institutional research, audio diaries, photo diary research and potential duration that diary study needs to take are explored. Mittelmeier et al., in chapter 1, state that the diary method is flexible and can be easily moulded across a broad range of mix-method research designs (p.17). The mixed-method approach offers unique insights into participants’ worlds through flexible engagement with multiple facets of participants’ experience (p. 18). While applying this method, it is essential to think about study durations. In chapter 2, Handerson argues that temporality is observed in diary studies; short-term intensive research using the diary method could contribute to understanding participants’ experiences in academia, especially those with caring responsibilities attending higher education conferences (p. 30). Researchers could determine the time-scale of the study to capture ongoing phenomena, or they can impose the time-scale of the study to explore time-bound phenomena, for instance, in higher education or an academic year (p. 31). Indeed, no phenomenon is ‘too short, as long as the phenomenon is suited to diary method and the sampling has been carefully considered in the diary method’ (p. 40). Other than the flexibility of time spent on the diary method, there are different forms while employing diaries as method, such as an audio diary. For instance, a significant advantage of audio diaries is less time-consuming for higher education participants. In chapter 3, Dangeni et al. showed that the audio diary could ‘capture emotions and foster higher retention during data collection, especially in longitudinal studies’ (p. 55). Participants could take photos to keep photo diaries. The diary-based method ‘enhances participant’s opportunities to recognise themselves, be seen and act as epistemic contributors’ (p. 68). 

Part two discusses research ethics, participant experience, and considerations in conducting the diary method. While conducting research using solicited diaries, researchers need to be aware of the ethical concerns in higher education research. Participants in higher education fields usually shoulder heavy workloads. Through participant and researcher win-win considerations, researchers’ and participants’ research experience are enhanced to strengthen longitudinal qualitative diary research retention. As a researcher and a senior student in the department, for research with new international Chinese master’s students in the U.K., Cao demonstrates how she, through the diary method, helped participants understand the researcher’s close relation with participants’ experience. In the meantime, she offered academic development and emotional support sessions for participants (Chapter 5).  

In Chapter 6, Keenan mentioned that for inclusive diversity in higher education, the diary method in ‘participant-generated photo-elicitation’ could help illustrate the details of usually broadly understood groups rather than details such as LGBTQ (p. 93). Through interviews with photos captured and provided by the participants to present their everyday lives, ‘by its episodic nature’, the diary method allowed ‘a big story to be told in small parts’ (p.93). Furthermore, according to Baker, event-based diaries can capture the process in higher education decision-making and choice through reactivity. ‘Reactivity can potentially overshadow emotion in choice, and decision-making processes can therefore negate the strengths of the diary method, and reduce opportunities for the multifaceted nature of these processes to be captured’ (Chapter 7, p.104). However, there are ethical questions raised. Lawther showed that when researchers need to engage with photos, visual research has ethical challenges ‘in cases where participants choose to take identifiable photographs’ (Chapter 8, p.118). Although there are ethical concerns, with a suitable approach that is sensitive to research needs, visual diary-like methods can be useful in higher education research for approaching sensitive topics (Chapter 8, p.126). This, to a certain extent, helps to broaden research topics in the higher education field. 

Part three demonstrates how the diary method could serve as a powerful tool to explore voices from specific groups. Sabharwal et al., in chapter 9, concluded that the diary method helps to study agency and empowerment: for students in socially excluded groups who might experience ‘sexism, racism and prejudice’, the method could reveal the chronic nature of everyday oppressions that they are confronting (p.133). However, there are some issues: (1) data encompassing issues that do not fall into originally anticipated areas, (2) lack of control from the perspective of the researcher, (3) inequity caused by the selectivity of participants’ responses (Watson & Leigh, Chapter 10, p. 145). The various forms of diary methods can support voice from disabled students through modern technologies, such as Seeing AI for visually impaired students (Watson & Leigh, Chapter 10, p. 157). Burford, in chapter 11, introduced perspectives from feminist and queer scholars on affective-political contexts in New Zealand, and there are ‘uneasy feelings’ in research with doctoral students’ experience. However, event-based methods effectively capture affective phenomena (p.164). For international students, solicited diary method could provide researchers with ‘timely and dependable data about participants’ language lives’ (Groves, Chapter 12, p.187). Therefore, by asking participants to record diaries during certain events, their reactions can be documented timely. 

Overall, by showing various research approaches that researchers apply diary methods with a wide array of groups, the book generates insightful methodological discussions about using the diary in higher education research. The diary method thus pushes research boundaries through foregrounding the dynamics between researchers and participants. Researchers and students who want to study in-depth voices from participants and are interested in creative research methods could benefit a great deal from this book.


Cao, X., & Henderson, E.F. (2021). Exploring Diary Methods in Higher Education Research: Opportunities, Choices and Challenges (1st ed.). Routledge.

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