What a waste of time… or was it?

As a part-time PhD student who works full-time whilst juggling family life, time is always my enemy. There are never enough hours in the day, either to get enough work done, spend enough time with the family, or even just to get enough hours sleep at night. This will be a familiar scenario to many part-time PhD students and possibly even some who are working full time on their studies.

Such pressure  makes it crucial to make good decisions on how to spend time. So deciding to spend two hours at a research seminar which eats into my study allowance is not something I do lightly, but a recent seminar caught my eye. It was on discourse analysis (DA). “Perfect”, I thought, “I’ll go along to that”.

Although I am using interpretive phenomenological analysis (Smith, Flowers & Larkin, 2009) in my PhD study, DA is not a million miles away, as both concern analysis of discourse. I thought it would be useful to go along to the seminar and hear from a researcher very experienced in using this approach, in order to deepen my understanding on where the two approaches converge, and where they are significantly different. At first I was a little frustrated as the presentation covered mainly the academic debate about who was worthy of being a discourse analyst and who wasn’t. I have little time for what I consider, “academic snobbery” – this is not directed at the speaker but at the debate.

However, I did gain something unexpected from this session. The session made me think about my research in a way I had not really anticipated. There was a discussion surrounding objectivity and subjectivity which then moved to realism and constructivism. As the epistemological stance in my own study is informed by social constructivism the discussion caught my attention and has kept me thinking since. It has reminded me of one of my favourite children’s stories, The Velveteen Rabbit (by Margery Williams).

What is real? is a question the Velveteen Rabbit asked of the Skin Horse, who tried to explain that being real wasn’t about things or objects, but about meaning, which is created by experiences. The Velveteen Rabbit becomes “real” when his owner makes a fuss and he feels loved, he experiences the feeling of love giving his life meaning and thus becoming real. So what seems real, is in essence a construction of socially mediated experiences. This has helped me to consider the relationship between realism and constructivism and the philosophical debate surrounding each of these epistemological viewpoints, not quite what I was expecting from the session on DA but a pretty good outcome nontheless.

There is often little time for philosophical debate in our busy lives but sometimes it is worth making the time and something unexpected might happen.


Balancing power, choice and research integrity in qualitative research

Well I am in the middle of analysing data at the moment. I have 25 transcripts to work through. The data is comprised of one focus group with specialist nurses and a mixture of individual and coupled interviews. Why such a mix? Well, in this blog post I will tell you why…

I recruited participants to my study who had been recently diagnosed with MS and wanted to explore their perceptions of how this diagnosis impacted on their sense of “self” (the primary participants). As a way of triangluating their account of this experience, I also wanted to interview their nominated “support person” (secondary participants), most usually this was the person’s partner, but in two cases this was a parent (the participants were still adults).

As a researcher I wanted to be sure the participants felt at ease during the interviews, and was aware of the literature surrounding power imbalances etc, therefore the primary participants chose their support person and the time and place of the interviews were negotiated between the primary participants and myself. Nothing unusual about that you might think but, I also gave the participants the choice of being interviewed individually or together. As all participants chose to be interviewed in their own homes, I saw myself as a guest in their home, and felt that could not really come into their home and ask someone to leave if it was not of their choosing. What resulted was five couples choosing to be interviewed together and five choosing to be interviewed individually (although one chose no support person). Rather neat, but it was a chance occurrence.

As I interview each participant twice, on my second visit I gave them the opportunity to to decide again. All but one of the couples chose the same interview format which indicated to me that they were happy with their initial choice.

There were differences in the interviews with couples and those who were interviewed separately and I am glad I made the choice to be open to either as this has given me lots of opportunity to reflect on the data from the different interviews. This will be great for my PhD thesis. Put simply, those who were interviewed separately appeared more open about the impact on their relationships and a few even made comment about how much more open they were because their partner was not sitting beside them. Obviously as this was a qualitative study there are no statistics to hold this assertion up, but some verbal quotes, which will be hepful when writing this up will support this.

For those who were interviewed together, I got a sense from some that the interview almost “legitimised” them being open in their discussion of how MS was impacting their lives. For some participants the physical limitations were played down by the person with MS and the support person would bring up little instances like them being unable to turn taps on properly, or being too tired to shop by the time they had walked to the shops. Whilst these discussion may have gone on outwith the research interview it was almost like the interview gave them “permission” to talk and be honest about MS to each other.

The purpose of research interviews are to gather data, however the therapeutic nature of the interview must also be recognised and indeed has been widely, in the literature. The permission to talk to each other I believe, was also possibly a therapeutic benefit to the interview. Those who chose to be interviewed together clearly had this opportunity, but for those who chose to be interviewed individually, the interview gave them the space to offload and perhaps there might have been some follow up discussion between the participants, I don’t know.

So what are the implications for me as a PhD student? I think choosing to opt for a flexible approach to the interviews has addressed any potential power imbalances that may have arisen between myself and the participants. Additionally it has enriched my learning regarding the complexities of the interview dynamics and how this impacts on the data collected and offered me the opportunity to be more reflexive as a result.

I would be interested to hear any comments or shared experiences from anyone reading this blog.