Notebook

Moving beyond the explicit knowledge dimensions of experts

by Stefanie Döringer

In the article The problem-centred expert interview’. Combining qualitative interviewing approaches for investigating the implicit dimension of expert knowledge, I discuss the implications of merging two qualitative interview approaches in order to explore implicit and tacit dimensions of expert knowledge. This note refers to this paper and outlines how the idea of a methodical combination arose during my PhD thesis in human geography. 

In my research, I focus on the influence of ‘key agents’ from politics, economy, and administration, but also from civil society in regional development. These agents are considered to take a pivotal role in socio-spatial change process through their special capabilities, networks, and knowledge. In order to explore their individual agency and to reveal how these persons might change the development of regions, I considered it necessary to move beyond explicit expert knowledge and to generate insights on the personal perceptions, orientation, and relevancies that guide their actions.

Based on this interest and former research experience, I had planned to draw upon a qualitative approach and to conduct ‘expert interviews’. However, on thinking about the appropriateness of this method in terms of my research, many questions arose: Can the potential interview partners be considered ‘experts’ at all? Is it necessary to have a specific educational background or an official position to gain expert status? How is the knowledge of experts characterized and how does it emerge? And how can I enquire about personal opinions and perceptions of experts, which might only be obtained in an indirect manner? These considerations encouraged me to scrutinize my previous knowledge about expert interviews and to dig deeper into the literature of methodological research.

In dealing with different interview methods, I realized that my research interest can best be addressed by a combination of two qualitative interviewing methods: firstly, the theory-generating expert interview that discusses the definition of experts, the complexity of expert knowledge, and the structures of interactions in expert interviews. Secondly, I drew upon the problem-centred interview, which highlights individual perspectives of interviewees and provides a supportive interview design for exploring biographical experiences. The two methods share connectable epistemological and methodological premises and proved to be a useful combination when the individual agency of experts forms part of an investigation.

My work benefited from the in-depth engagement with methodological literature in different ways. Bringing together elements of both approaches not only helped me to develop an eligible methodological approach in accordance with my research interest, but also challenged me to sharpen the epistemological focus of my study and to refine my theoretical assumptions on ‘structure and agency’ in regional development. By examining and working with both approaches, I gathered useful knowledge about methodical challenges and was able to draw upon concrete interview techniques during the ‘problem-centred expert interviews’. In research practice, I could greatly profit from this intensive examination, for instance when dealing with unexpected events in the interview situation or when critically reflecting upon the interview experiences in the follow-up phase.

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Narrative Rhythmanalysis: the art and politics of listening to women’s narratives of forced displacement

By Maria Tamboukou

This paper draws on my Leverhulme funded project, Revisiting the Nomadic Subject, where I have explored the use of ‘the nomadic subject’ in feminist theory and politics. The main research question that I have raised is whether nomadism has become a concept politically loaded and irreparably infected with the unbearable heaviness of those who are not able to move and cross borders and boundaries—the dark side of the moon of privileged mobility. Taking up the salience of stories not only in recounting experiences, but also in forming an experiential basis for changing the subject and its world, I have interviewed 22 migrant and refugee women in Athens and Lesvos, Greece, about their experiences of being on the move. 

The research was conducted in Athens and Lesvos, Greece during the academic year 2018-2019. My participants were recruited through a number of NGOs and civic organizations working with migrant and refugee women and the main motivation for my participants was that they wanted their story to be heard and circulated among other women. Since this was a narrative research project, I only asked my participants two questions: a) tell me the story of how you travelled to Greece and b) how do you imagine your life in 5-10 years’ time. Out of the 22 stories, which were all recorded with the consent of the participants, 6 were conducted in Farsi, 5 in English, 4 in Arabic, 3 in French, 2 in Greek and 2 in Pashto. The Arabic, Farsi and Pashto interviews, 12 in total, were conducted with the presence of an interpreter. 

Asking women to narrate stories of traumatic and life changing experiences across borders and languages has been one of the major challenges of this research. Following tracks and traces of Arendt’s political philosophy, I have encouraged my participants to tell stories about their decision to leave, as well as about their experiences of travelling without feeling obliged to limit themselves within discourses of victimization and vulnerability. In this light I have asked them to recount their lives in the light of ‘who they are’, as unique and unrepeatable human beings, and not as ‘what they are’ —objectified ‘refugees’, ‘victims’, ‘stateless subjects’. These stories have created a rich archive of uprooted women’s experiences and have brought forward a wide range of new ideas, including the art of listening, which is the theme of this paper. Listening has indeed emerged as a crucial theme in this research, despite its neglected importance in politics, as well as in the theory and praxis of social movements in general and feminism in particular. Turning my attention to listening practices, I have particularly focused on the materiality of listening, the force of corporeal voices, the rhythms of embodied listening and their effects on understanding and making connections within the web of human relations.

Migrant and refugee women’s corporeal voices were at the heart of how I have made connections with their stories of travelling, even when they were recounting their stories in languages that I could not understand. The sonics of women’s stories thus gave rise to unexpected affinities, brought up the notion of ‘narrative rhythmanalysis’ as an analytical mode and shifted my interest and attention from orality to aurality. This turn also gave me the insight of transcribing these stories in two textual modes: as prose and as free verses. Outside these experimental modes of transcription, women’s voices keep on turning and returning—reminders of the impossibility of their textual transformation. Most importantly these voices boldly express migrant and refugee women’s will ‘not to tell a story’. Such ‘unruly’ narrative performances have opened up a new analytical pathway in my research: quite simply, consider the effects of decolonial thinking in unsettling processes of knowledge production within critical feminist theories.

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Sex and Gender in the Census: a debate

There is much debate, often fraught, about the change to guidance notes on completing the sex question in the 2021 UK Census. On the one hand, there concerns about the implications of a shift to self-identified gender as sex for data reliability.  On the other, sex, gender and sexuality and associated identity are nuanced and interdependent concepts if we are to capture lived realities. The disagreement ranges across conceptual, methodological and political realms. Reflecting this, we, the editors of International Journal of Social Research Methodology, do not all hold the same opinions on this knotty issue.

As a contribution to debate we are pleased to make a series of short article exchanges available to download for free. These pieces are written with passion by people with divergent views but who share a commitment to good social research and to social justice.  We are grateful to them for their contributions.

Alice Sullivan – Sex and the census: why surveys should not conflate sex and gender identity

Andi Fugard – Should trans people be postmodernist in the streets but positivist in the spreadsheets? A reply to Sullivan

Sally Hines – Counting the cost of difference: a reply to Sullivan

Alice Sullivan – Response to Fugard and Hines

Rosalind Edwards, Malcolm Williams and Brian Castellani

 

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The contribution of theory to an ethnographic case study on interprofessional placements in healthcare education

By Noreen O’Leary, Nancy Salmon and Amanda M. Clifford

This Research Note is based on my experiences of writing ‘The contribution of theory to an ethnographic case study on interprofessional placements in healthcare education. The paper is a reflection on designing an ethnographic case study which draws on theory from the initial stages of research design through to data collection and analysis.

Developing this paper differed from other work I had been involved in. For review and original research papers the structure is relatively clear, or at least there are many examples to draw on. Less guidance was available for a paper reflecting on how theory was applied to the design and implementation of research. I found that I needed to write out all the actions and phases I had gone through in detail, highlighting a back and forth process of review and revisions. It was only then I could retrospectively fully see the order and sequencing of what my co-authors and I had done. Early iterations read as long monologues, highlighting aspects of the thinking process and reasons for and against certain decisions. During author group discussion around how to make this information relevant to other researchers a structure began to emerge. We settled on distilling a set of key steps that underpinned our use of theory and illustrating these with examples of what we had done during our case study research. 

One of the main benefits of writing this paper was that it immersed me in the realm of theory in research. Having previously found this to be a somewhat intimidating and confusing space, it forced me to deeply engage with not only theories themselves but really consider how and why theories are used. One of my key learnings was that there is often no perfect fit theory for a piece of research. I realised that my role as a researcher is to identify a theory or theories that add depth to the research, and which can be justified in terms of relevance to my specific research question and design. This perspective simultaneously made theory use seem less daunting and more beneficial to research. To quote Kurt Lewin (1951) ‘there is nothing so practical as a good theory’

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COVID 19 and ‘Big Qual’ Research

By Lynn Jamieson, University of Edinburgh

It seems appropriate to review the possibilities of secondary analysis of data that has already been gathered by face-to-face techniques, as the current pandemic closes down many such forms of research. The substitution of virtual means of data collection for face-to-face means, such as interviewing using internet telephony, is not the only possible response to barriers against tried and tested methods; researchers at or able to return to the design stage might consider the creative possibilities of drawing together existing archived qualitative data for new research. 

Secondary analysis of qualitative data remains a relatively under used research strategy, despite the accumulation of anonymised, quality-assured and well-documented data that has been carefully curated in official archives having been generated by peer-reviewed, funded and published studies. Researchers seem less able to see secondary analysis as ground breaking and, in the case of qualitative research, heightened sensitivity to the creative connection between researcher and researched builds concerns about ethics and intellectual property.  However, in our published work (Davidson, Edwards, Jamieson and Weller, 2019) we counter these claims and point to the ground breaking opportunities of merging data from several studies in a new data assemblage using a set of steps that iteratively combine breadth and depth.  The way of proceeding that we advocate, helps the analyst to ask new questions, to make theoretical use of comparison and, in the process, extend the generalisability of qualitative research. 

Our method is the outcome of a project under the umbrella of the National Centre for Research Methods http://bigqlr.ncrm.ac.uk/. We set out to develop materials that would assist other researchers to remain true to the principles of qualitative research while working with what could be called ‘big qualitative data’ or ‘big qual’ for short – a data assemblage that is much larger than the typical volume of a single project and too large to readily tackle solely by conventional qualitative analysis techniques. We have called our method of ‘big qual’ secondary analysis the ‘breadth-and-depth method’. 

The four steps in the method are described using an analogy with different stages in an imagined archaeological project. At each step, it may be necessary to return to the starting point or a previous step.

  1. The researcher’s research questions shape the direction of an enquiry-led overview of archived qualitative research using meta data about the archived data sets. This is equivalent to an archaeologist using photographs taken in an aerial survey to select ground for further scrutiny.
  2. Computer-aided scrutiny using text searching means that are so-called ‘data mining;’ albeit that the techniques used are more like surface mapping of the breadth of the selected data collections. This is like the archaeologists’ ground-based geophysical survey on the surface of an area to assess what merits closer investigation by digging.
  3. Analysis of multiple small samples of likely data, equivalent to digging shallow ‘test pits’ to find an area worthy of deeper excavation.
  4. In-depth analysis of the selected sample, using techniques and processes drawn from the repertoire familiar to qualitative researchers. This is the equivalent to archaeological deep excavation.

Our own demonstration project worked with the Timescapes archive https://timescapes-archive.leeds.ac.uk/  Because we were interested in possible convergence by gender in the language and practice of care and intimacy over time, we re-assembled data from across four projects into age cohorts of men and women. This new data set is now available for research and teaching purposes

Notebook

Confessions of a Muslim Researcher – Considering Identity in Research

By Maisha Islam

In this Research Note, I discuss some of the contentions I have faced when conducting research with Muslim students. As a Muslim myself, I initially believed it to be advantageous in conducting research with a community I also belong to. However, I was not prepared to question fundamental parts of my identity as I was conducting this research and throughout the research process.

Although my piece for the International Journal of Social Research Methodology has been reworked for publication, this paper originally emerged from a module I was taking looking at theory and ethics in Educational Practice as part of my professional doctorate in Education programme. This module gave me the opportunity to unpack the tensions I had faced in a safe and structured way, where I could delve into the literature exploring researcher identity whilst situating my own experiences within it. Whilst there have been authors who have explored the double-edged sword of conducting insider research, I myself was not prepared for some of the experiences (and the emotions they brought) I had encountered.

The paper outlines three main issues I’ve considered when interviewing Muslim students about sense of belonging, provisions provided for them in relation to their religious needs, and whether or not they believe to have been settling for less in terms of their university experience. These issues included: whether or not I was using inappropriate means to gather Muslim student research participants; If I was simply over-representing my own experiences when I was an undergraduate student and applying it to a wider Muslim student population; And how I began to question not only my beliefs but also my sense of religiosity when meeting and interviewing a wide array of Muslim students.

Within the paper, I exemplify where and how these issues have manifested. In doing so, and at times, it felt vulnerable in having to take myself back to uncomfortable situations. For example, one particular interview with a student not only made me feel like my own views were ‘too liberal’ but I also questioned why I was undertaking research when I was opening myself up to conflictual encounters. Additionally, why was I undertaking research, with the core aim to better understand and improve Muslim student experience, when my participants (notably, only one) could not appreciate this?

However, the paper is able to detail how I as a researcher have been able to reconcile with these critical incidents’, and that the research process and journey is bound to be one which brings uncomfortable situations. I conclude that, as an early career researcher, it is imperative to not only be reflexive in acknowledging such situations but, to be confident in confronting these situations. It is hoped that researchers who are embarking on the start of their journeys (particularly Muslim researchers) are able to take away lessons from this research note about and be more prepared when going into their field.

Notebook

The Methodological Chaos of Adverse Childhood Experiences

By Rosalind Edwards

The methodologies behind evidence that policymakers and service providers can adopt as ‘magic bullets’ to solve social ills rarely get attention. One such bullet is the notion of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which has been gathering speed as a basis for family policy and decision-making.  However, there are telling methodological and evidential drawbacks to ACEs, which seem to be left aside, particularly in terms of understanding and addressing the very real adversities that parents and children may face. Also, the varying definitions of what constitutes ACEs and different study designs for researching them mean that there’s no cohesive body of knowledge.

In terms of a definition, ACEs are an attempt to identify a set of traumatic conditions experienced before the age of 18, and to trace the combined ‘score’ (baldly, the number) of events in a simple causal manner through to the long-term damaged physical and mental health that these early experiences are said to create. Findings from studies using ACEs are regarded as rigorous ‘hard’ data for policy and decision-making; because they are quantitative they appear concrete and exact.

While statistical methods and evidence certainly have an important role to play in policy-making, the provisional and uncertain nature of quantitative social science in a complex and dynamic social world gets obscured in the rush to certainty. Weak measures, measurement error, missing data, and statistical significance cautions get swept aside. And yet they are evident in ACEs studies.

The need for caveats concerning ACEs evidence is compounded when the range of ‘inputs’ that are identified as adverse experiences are so ambiguous. For rigorous tracing of causal inputs through to effects, ACEs need to be a clearly defined set of experiences. And yet they lack cohesion in nature and extent. They encompass a shifting ragbag of possible abuses, dysfunction and extent of severity, timing and duration.

In standard ACEs inventories the boundaries between quite common family circumstances and abnormal experiences become blurred. For example, a ‘yes’ answer to ‘were your parents ever separated or divorced?’ is considered an ACE no matter whether it was amicable or adversarial, or occurred before the respondent was born, when a toddler, or age 17. Similarly the ACE criteria ‘living with anyone who was depressed, mentally ill or suicidal’ takes no account of who this is, for how long, and does not distinguish between the person feeling dejected and miserable or suffering clinical depression.

As the idea of ACEs gains popularity in policy and practice, the net is being cast more widely to add further situations to the standard inventories. The motley experiences reflect the agendas of the various agencies and researchers putting them forward. They include parental disability, mothers’ health, lack of childrearing routine, ‘inter-parental’ conflict, moving home, and violence involving a sibling or peer. The implication is that these different issues and the variety of combinations of them are comparable, underpinned by a common mechanism, rather than considering that different adversities may have different effects dependent on context.

There’s further chaos to the methodologies adopted by ACEs studies. Typical to a lot of research surveys into subjective wellbeing, there are retrospective studies subject to people’s recollections, and prospective longitudinal designs subject to the specificities of the temporal period they start from. There are different sources of information and assessment, from the subject of the ACEs themselves or a parent or a professional.

Whatever their methodology, though, what the vast majority of putative ACEs have in common is their narrow remit of consideration. They focus on and isolate the ‘household’ and in particular mother and child.

There’s no attention to the influence of subsequent experiences later in life in ameliorating or exacerbating the effects of stressful life events in childhood. And the concept and measurement of ACEs doesn’t capture confounding contextual issues that are beyond parental control or that can harm people emotionally and physically, such as being subject to racism/Islamophobia and misogyny. They don’t extent to contextual factors beyond the parent-child that may be harmful or mediating and supportive in the face of adversity.

In all, the methodological chaos of ACEs provides no indication of how best to intervene, can’t point to whether or not an intervention and of what type and when works, and can’t be used to predict individuals at risk. Yet it’s being implemented to drive policy and practice interventions.

Researchers investigating ACEs need to take care about claiming a body of knowledge in the face of chaotic definitions, and about the claims for certainty made in their findings about cause and effect. We have a duty to point out caveats clearly to policymakers and service providers. In turn, however tempting it may be to seize on a ‘magic bullet’ solution to social ills, policymakers and service providers need to be more cautious and questioning. And all need to widen their focus and concerns, to look outside narrow parent-child relations and address the adversities that poverty and prejudice pose for people’s mental and physical health.