Giving Voice: Reflexivity in Qualitative Research

Homegoing, the debut novel by Yaa Gyasi, is a moving tale of slavery and its translation across generations. At one poinMinority voicet, we read about a descendant in Ghana who teaches history and on the first day of class stumbles on a lesson concerning “the problem of history.” The problem he refers to is that history is constructed from stories that are handed down over time yet “We cannot know which story is correct because we were not there.” He goes on to say to his students

We believe the one who has the power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture. (pp. 226-227)

The month of February seems like an appropriate time to reflect on power and what we as researchers are missing in our studies of vulnerable and marginalized segments of the population. After all, with the exception of participatory research, we are typically the ones who control the design and implementation of data collection along with the analysis, interpretation, and reporting of the findings.

Reflection on our role in the research process should be common practice. But our reflection takes on new meaning when our participants are those with the weakest voice. As we sit down with our reflexive journal and consider our prejudices and subjectivities (by asking ourselves the kinds of questions outlined in this RDR article), researchers might do well to pay particular attention to their assumptions and beliefs – What assumptions did I make about the participant(s)? and How did my personal values, beliefs, life story, and/or social/economic status affect or shape: the questions I asked, the interjections I made, my listening skills, and/or my behavior?

Few, Stephens, and Rouse-Arnett (2003) address this in their discussion on interviewing Black women on sensitive topics. As Black women themselves, they felt no less obligated to reflect on their status.

 As Black feminist qualitative researchers, we are particularly attuned to how we become the research instruments and the primary sieves of re/presentation in our exploration of Black womanhood. (p. 213)

By way of this reflection, the authors make recommendations toward the interviewing of Black women on sensitive topics, including such concepts as “contextualizing self in the research process.” The authors also come to the realization that “the diversity of Black experience has been misrepresented [by] traditional family studies orientations,” asserting that “the persistent matrix of intersectionality that Black women endure, succumb, and overcome” cannot be fully addressed if “researchers debate and deconstruct out of existence the ‘critical essences’ (i.e., race, class, and gender) that matter to Black women’s existence and survival in this world” (p. 213).

So, take another look at your reflexive journal. Take another look at your research with the vulnerable and marginalized. And, if not already there, consider adding these queries – so well put by Gyasi – to your journal: Whose story am I missing? Whose voice has been suppressed? Whose story do I need to seek out to help me gain a clearer, more complete picture of the people and the phenomenon I hope to illuminate through my research? How, indeed, have I used my power as a researcher to give center stage to the “critical essences” of society’s minority voices?

Few, A. L., Stephens, D. P., & Rouse-Arnett, M. (2003). Sister-to-sister talk: Transcending boundaries and challenges in qualitative research with Black women. Family Relations, 52(3), 205–215.

Image captured from: https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/category/connectedcourses/

The Focus Group Method

In 2018, five articles were published pertaining to the focus group method. Two of these articles discuss the key differentiating attribute of focus groups, i.e., participant interaction and engagement, and the important role this attribute plays in the integrity of the research.

The interactive component of the focus group method also raises questions concerning mode, which is the subject of two other articles in this compilation. Specifically, these articles address the strengths and limitations of the in-person and online asynchronous focus group modes.

The fifth article in this paper discusses the concept of saturation in the context of determining the “right” number of focus groups to conduct for a particular study. Saturation has been discussed before in RDR, with the emphasis being on the idea that saturation alone is an inadequate measure by which to derive the number of events and, in fact, as a sole measure, saturation jeopardizes data quality, see “Designing a Quality In-depth Interview Study: How Many Interviews Are Enough?”

The focus group method has been discussed in RDR over the years, such as this article on mode differences, and this article (actually, slide show) on applying the Total Quality Framework to focus groups, and a discussion on the use of projective techniques, as well as an article on the many considerations in the design and implementation of the focus group method.

Meaning & Essence of Qual Research

Among the 21 articles published in Research Design Review in 2018, five focused on a few fundamental aspects of the qualitative research approach. These articles address such topics as the meaning researchers give to qualitative research and whether researchers are really conducting qualitative “research” or uncovering qualitative “information.” These articles also include a discussion about the idea that a consideration of qualitative methods is separate from attention to paradigm orientation, and two articles are directed at what it means to be “literate” in qualitative research design and how rigor throughout the quality chain results in useful outcomes by way of new hypotheses, next steps, and/or applications to other contexts.

The compilation of these five articles is available for download by clicking on the title — “The Meaning & Essence of Qualitative Research: Five Articles from Research Design Review Published in 2018.” This is only one of many compilations that have been put together in the month of January since 2012 to cover articles published the previous year. In January 2018, for example, a compilation of 20 articles covering a wide assortment of topics in qualitative research was published. A similar compilation was put together in January 2017. In other years, the compilation includes articles pertaining to both qualitative and quantitative design, such as “Designing Research to Understand How People Think: The Bridge that Connects Quantitative & Qualitative Research” published in January 2014.