On picking cherries

thinking about ‘difficulties’ in qualitative analysis…

The month of July. In the UK, the cherries are ripening. The neighbour’s tree is wrapped in netting to protect it from the birds.

The ‘difficulty’ is that birds like their cherries less ripe …

The expression ‘cherry picking’ is often used as a term of derision in science and social science. It refers to how researchers may, often unconsciously, showcase evidence confirming their hunches, values or biases: 

“It is not good enough to skim a transcript or set of field notes and to have a broad sense of ‘what it’s all about’, cherry-picking bits of data for quotation. Thin descriptions and unconvincing analyses derive from cursory reading and inadequate acquaintance with the data” (Hammersley and Atkinson 2019: 172).  

As a methodological counter to picking only the sweetest, plumpest, shiniest fruit, we deliberately try to look for ‘difficult’ fruit. That means looking for the data that might not necessarily show music therapy at its shiniest, or sweetest. 

Wild cherries

To that end, this week, we searched through Gary’s practitioner log for words such as ‘difficult’, ‘trouble’ and ‘problem’. For each word, we abstracted all the relevant passages. If we consider the word, ‘difficult’ (difficult, difficulty, difficulties) we found it yielded (at least) nine varieties (to pursue the metaphor) of ‘fruit’. These were:

 (1) Gary’s difficulties (e.g., times when he had trouble getting the group going, or when a musical choice or strategy fell flat)

(2) Residents difficulties (e.g., speech and movement, memory that impeded musical participation)

(3) Musical-technical difficulties (e.g., things in the music that residents or others found difficult and which excluded participation because they were too hard to follow, or to sing along to, or to play)

(4) Emotional difficulties (e.g., problems experienced by carers due to emotional work, grief, emotionally laden situations or atmospheres that made it difficult to be drawn into music)

(5) social difficulties (e.g., collective lack of energy, lack of collective coordination, group apathy, lethargy), 

(6) spatial/material difficulties (e.g., features of the spatial or material set up [arrangements of chairs for example] which impeded visual coordination or mutual awareness)

(7) disruptive behaviours (individuals shouting, walking in and out, gesturing, throwing objects that interrupted the flow)

(8) care procedures that disrupt the flow (e.g, needing to move someone quickly)

(9) musical reinforcement of negative behaviour or situation (e.g., someone engaging in distressed vocalisation where music encourages the pattern to continue or where music reinforces a negative mood)

There are, in other words, many qualities of ‘fruit’. If we want to achieve a balanced, nuanced, realistic portrait of music in scenes of care, we probably need to try to ‘pick’ them all. But we also need to query the very processes of picking and classifying – how we come to recognise, identify, analyse, and interpret what counts as a ‘good’ one, or a sweet, unripe, or sorrowful form of fruit. 


Hammersley, M. and P. Atkinson. 2019. Ethnography: Principles and Practice (fourth edition). London: Routledge.

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