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:

The Many Facets of a Meaningful Qualitative Report

Reporting in qualitative research, and particularly the element of transparency, has been the topic of various articles in Research Design Review (see “Reporting Qualitative Research: A Model of Transparency,” “Reporting Ethnography: Storytelling & the Roles Participants Play,” qualitative research reportingand others). While all types of research require complete and accurate reporting, the final report appears to be discussed less frequently compared to other aspects of the research process. This is certainly true in qualitative research. Just a look around RDR will prove the point that a greater emphasis has been paid to other research design areas – such as data collection and analysis – than to the actual reporting of the findings.

This needs to change. One could argue that the final written report is the most important component of the research process, the component that not only serves to document the study from beginning to end but also transforms qualitative research into a tangible, living “being” for the research users to grab hold of and utilize in any number of ways. Without the report, our research might as well not exist. This makes one wonder why relatively scant attention is paid to best practices in reporting and, indeed, why the final report in some research sectors  (e.g., marketing research) is often reduced to a less-than-comprehensive, fully-bulleted PowerPoint slide deck.

For anyone interested in a serious discussion of the many facets of the qualitative report, an excellent resource is Focus Group Discussions by Monique Hennink (2014, Oxford University Press as part of their Understanding Qualitative Research series edited by Patricia Leavy). Although the book is centered on the focus group method, the chapters devoted to reporting offer relevant and useful guidance regardless of the qualitative approach. For example, Hennink’s chapter on “Writing Focus Group Methods,” discusses the challenges researchers face when attempting to give “methodological depth” to their reporting while also writing in a clear and concise manner. Using qualitative terminology such as purposive Read Full Text

Reporting Qualitative Research: A Model of Transparency

A number of articles in Research Design Review have discussed, in one form or another, the Total Quality Framework (TQF)* approach to qualitative research design.  An RDR post last month pertained to applying the TQF to the in-depth interviewing method; while other articles have focused on transparencyways to integrate quality measures – in harmony with the TQF – into ethnography, mobile research, and the research proposal.  Separate from applications per se, an article in February 2015 discussed the compatibility of a quality approach with social constructionism.

One of the four components of the TQF is Transparency** which is specific to the reporting phase of the research process.  In particular, Transparency has to do with the researcher’s full disclosure of the research design, fieldwork, and analytical procedures in the final document.  This sounds simple enough yet it is common to read qualitative research reports, papers, and articles that too quickly jump to research findings and discussion, with relatively scant attention given to the peculiarities of the design, data gathering, or analysis.  This is unfortunate and misguided because these details are necessary for the user of the research to understand the context by which interpretations were derived and to judge the applicability of the outcomes to other situations (i.e., transferability).

There are, of course, exceptions; and, indeed, many researchers are skillful in divulging these all-important details.  One example is Deborah C. Bailey’s article, “Women and Wasta: The Use of Focus Groups for Understanding Social Capital and Middle Eastern Women.”  In it, Bailey provides Read Full Text