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Hair and outrospection in the nonprofit and public sectors

Monika L. Hudson (Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Strategy, University of San Francisco, San Francisco, California, USA)
Keith O. Hunter (Organization, Leadership and Communication, University of San Francisco, San Francisco, California, USA)
Pier C. Rogers (Axelson Center for Nonprofit Management, North Park University, Chicago, Illinois, USA)

Qualitative Research Journal

ISSN: 1443-9883

Article publication date: 2 May 2017




Take the word “research,” combine it with the words “experiences around hair,” and you inevitably get a personal story. Whether it’s concerns about too much hair, complaints about one’s lack of hair, or the ability of hair to intimidate or convey authority, questions related to hair appear to provoke passionate responses in the form of narratives. The authors believed “hair” stories would provide a unique method for examining employment realities in nonprofit and public sector workplaces. The paper aims to discuss these issues.


Attendees at the 2009 Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA) conference were invited to a symposium discussing what “hair” might indicate about the lived experiences of individuals employed in nonprofit and public sector workplaces. A participatory action research methodology was used to engage 24 academics and practitioners in structured small group conversations about workplace hair-related image management issues. A storytelling framework was used to guide the content analysis of the 305 narratives generated by two focus groups.


The interview questions were literal ones, yet the responses that were elicited were figurative. As the process unfolded, it became clear the focus group participants had to tell their own individual stories, in their own way, before they could answer the research questions. Hence, the storytelling dimension became a critical component of this research as a vehicle for conveying the power behind what may have initially appeared to be a simple set of questions and answers.

Research limitations/implications

Selection bias in this study was unavoidable, given the voluntary nature of participation and the transparency of the study’s purpose. Given the chosen research approach, the project findings may also lack generalizability. However, since the so-called “subjects” of the investigation are the same persons found in sector workplaces, there is no way to avoid this limitation in any related assessment.

Practical implications

This project allowed for a new understanding of how the direct and literal approach often used by social scientists to investigate the impact of attitudes and perceptions on social outcomes might best be replaced or augmented by methods that uncover the ways in which subjects frame the effects under examination within the context of their personal experiences.

Social implications

One’s appearance takes on professional and, often, political ramifications whether the individuals involved desire this or not. Ironically, one’s ability to appear more casual may be one of the benefits of working in the nonprofit or public sectors as a means of connecting to constituents and stakeholders. However, given the need to serve multiple and competing audiences, this ability to identify and connect with others may have unintended consequences that may not be experienced in the private sector, where stakeholders may have a more unified set of goals.


This project focused on a relatively under-researched audience and subject: hair and image management. Each day, individuals make a choice about their appearance, which includes their hair. For those working in the nonprofit and public sectors, especially women and people of color, there appear to be implicit areas of concern that manifest themselves in the workplace, many of which were identified through this research.



The authors acknowledge the data entry and analysis support provided by research assistants Dharma Khalsa, Emily Lau, and Aubrey Leung along with the review suggestions offered by Dr D.T. Ogilvie, Rochester Institute of Technology.


Hudson, M.L., Hunter, K.O. and Rogers, P.C. (2017), "Hair and outrospection in the nonprofit and public sectors", Qualitative Research Journal, Vol. 17 No. 2, pp. 124-139.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2017, Emerald Publishing Limited

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