“Did I Do Okay?”: The Case for the Participant Reflexive Journal

It is not unusual for an in-depth interview (IDI) or focus group participant to wonder at some point in an interview or discussion if the participant “did okay”; that is, whether the participant responded to the researcher’s questions in the Reflexivitymanner in which the researcher intended. For instance, an interviewer investigating parents’ healthy food purchases for their children might ask a mother to describe a typical shopping trip to the grocery store. In response, the mother might talk about the day of the week, the time of day, where she shops, and whether she is alone or with her children or someone else. After which she might ask the interviewer, Is that the kind of thing you were looking for? Is that what you mean? Did I do okay in answering your question? The interviewer’s follow up might be, Tell me something about the in-store experience such as the sections of the store you visit and the kinds of food items you typically buy.

It is one thing to misinterpret the intention of a researcher’s question – e.g., detailing the logistics of food purchasing rather than the actual food purchase experience – but another thing to adjust responses based on any number of factors influenced by the researcher-participant interaction. These interaction effects stem, in part, from the participant’s attempt to “do okay” in their role in the research process. Dr. Kathryn Roulston at the University of Georgia has written quite a bit about interaction in research interviews, including a just published edited volume Interactional Studies of Qualitative Research Interviews.

The dynamics that come into play in an IDI or focus group study – and in varying degrees, ethnographic research – are of great interest to qualitative researchers and important considerations in the overall quality of the research. This is the reason that a lot has been written about the researcher’s reflexive journal and its importance in Read Full Text

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:

Reflections on “Qualitative Literacy”

In March 2018, Mario Luis Small gave a public lecture at Columbia University on “Rhetoric and Evidence in a Polarized Society.” In this terrific must-read speech, Small asserts that today’s public Mario Luis Smalldiscourse concerning society’s most deserving issues – poverty, inequality, and economic opportunity – has been seriously weakened by the absence of “qualitative literacy.” Qualitative literacy has to do with “the ability to understand, handle, and properly interpret qualitative evidence” such as ethnographic and in-depth interview (IDI) data. Small contrasts the general lack of qualitative literacy with the “remarkable improvement” in “quantitative literacy” particularly among those in the media where data-driven journalism is on the rise, published stories are written with a greater knowledge of quantitative data and use of terminology (e.g., the inclusion of means and medians), and more care is given to the quantitative evidence cited in media commentary (i.e., op-eds).

Small explains that the extent to which a researcher (or journalist or anyone involved in the use of research) possesses qualitative literacy can be determined by looking at the person’s ability to “assess whether the ethnographer has collected and evaluated fieldnote data properly, or the interviewer has conducted interviews effectively and analyzed the transcripts properly.” This determination serves as the backbone of “basic qualitative literacy” which enables the research user to identify the difference between a rigorous qualitative study and Read Full Text