Who goes to school during their holiday? Nerds. Says the one typing this blog post after class, while supposedly being on holiday. It's been a couple weeks since my official last day as a Partner & Director at InWithForward. I stepped down from my day-to-day role there and am continuing to stay connected to the IWF work and superstar team, now as Senior Advisor. After a whirlwind 2 years building and leading IWF, I am taking this month for myself... and taking courses in social research methods at the London School of Economics to kick it off. This is the beginning of processing my whole incredible experience with IWF and of figuring out what will be next for me - I have some ideas ;)
The LSE program has been awesome so far. At InWithForward, the lab approach blends social science rigour with strategic design methods. My favourite part of this approach has been the social science research bits, especially the ethnographic studies and testing and tweaking new social services directly with users and frontline workers. So when I found this program I knew I had to apply.
So here I am, nerding out on qualitative research methods with 40 other practitioners and scholars from around the world—including a doctor from Ireland, lawyers from Spain and Kenya, university department heads from India, an energy advisor from Saudi Arabia, researchers from Croatia, UK, Norway, Germany and Indonesia, an educator from Belgium, development workers from UK and Kyrgyzstan... and it goes on. The diversity of thought in the classroom is incredible; I'm totally loving it.
One thing I learned from being part of developing Kudoz at InWithForward, is that: humans learn not from an experience on it's own, but from reflecting on the experience. That means: for me to get the most from this program, I need to spend time reflecting on what I'm learning.
Below are some of my reflections. They're still rough but they're there. Done is better than perfect.
1. Opinions are being formed and reformed all the time.
A constructivist point of view starts from the premise that our opinions are fluid rather than fixed. That our opinions are being formed and reformed all the time based on what we come in contact with in the world, who we're speaking with, what we're reflecting on - basically that humans are messy complex creatures. That we don’t have a set opinion, that things can change. Makes sense to me.
What's interesting for social research methods is that it means different kinds of information (data) will be unearthed in interviews versus in focus groups. That's because group conversations are a place where opinions and stances are formed, shifted, clustered, negotiated and debated. Where as in interviews, it's a two way exchange and the interview subject may present a particular side of themselves to you.
And, the Opinions Are Fluid perspective becomes interesting when thinking about the most common criticism of focus groups: that people's opinions will be swayed or silenced by whoever is the more dominant voice in the group.
BUT, a) if we accept that opinions are constantly shifting, then this is just part of what group discussion is about. So then what we want to watch for in focus groups are the dynamics and social norms about the topics. At what point are people being silenced, how and why might that be happening, what can that tell us about attitudes and societal norms?
AND, b) group composition plays a role. Not having obvious power clashes or situations where some members of the group are intimidated to speak up, is important in getting the most out of focus groups. There needs to be a degree of rapport and psychological safety formed or developed within the group (over the course of the session or prior) so that members feel comfortable to contribute.
2. Focus groups give us a window into what people really think - the noble, the shameful, the gossip.
Focus groups are good at gathering opinions or understanding how opinions shift or are negotiated or debated in groups. They can tell us about what are the complexities of issues - which often won't come out in an interview, for ex. because, as the moderator/interviewer, you may not feel right to press on about a sensitive topic but a peer may be able to.
It seems counter-intuitive, but people may be more likely to say taboo things in a group, if the group composition is right and if the group feels safe. For example, in an article about attitudes surrounding HIV/AIDS, a focus group's members revealed racist opinions about where aids comes from. In a one-on-one interview, the same person may not feel the support of the group in order to be able to say what they really think, for fear of judgement.
Focus groups are also a great way to learn about a group's shared reference points, slang or jargon, the latest gossip. For example, if you were studying teenage girls' attitudes towards social media, they are going to have a very different conversation with you, an adult, than with their gal pals. Because teenagers relate differently among their peers than they do with adults.
So focus groups can be a particularly powerful tool in getting useful and interesting data.
However, focus groups are not great at eliciting people's personal stories. Because telling your own story in a group setting isn't great at keeping a conversation flowing. People sit there politely waiting for you to finish. They can’t debate it because it's your story. But if it’s an opinion, they can jump on it and make jokes about it or refute it or whatever else. So, if you're looking for stories, interviews may be more appropriate.
3. Grounded Theory
InWithForward takes a grounded theory approach to research design. So, I was particularly interested in how my lecturers and seminar leads explained this theory and it's origins. Grounded Theory emerged in the 60s in response to the prevailing rigid quant-based research methods of the time - researchers felt they needed to get back to the rich qualitative data they were uncovering in the field and be led by this data. The main point about Grounded Theory is its heavy focus on being inductive, working from the data without preconceptions, and systematically working from field-notes, audio transcripts, and other qualitative data to coding, analysis and theory building. That means you don't start with a fixed research questions, rather your question gets more and more refined as you go along, and you keep circling back to get more in-depth data based on what you're hearing.
The way we developed Kudoz is a good example of Grounded Theory in action. First, we were exploring a hunch around the experience of social isolation among adults living with a cognitive disability. Then, as more was learned, the research focus was refined to study lack of novelty and poverty of experiences among these adults. Having IWF projects as reference points has been extremely helpful during this program; it is making the course material come alive.
4. Reading about a study's methodology turns out to be pretty interesting.
Qualitative Researchers describe, in great detail, exactly how they conducted their study. That's because one of the ways rigour is determined for qualitative studies is by the transparency and soundness of the methodology. This is in contrast with quantitative studies, where rigour is determined by replicability of the study findings. It would be impossible to have the exact same interview twice - people won't say the same thing, things will have changed in their lives, and anyway replicability is not the point with qualitative research (I'm reminded of that quote by Greek Philosopher Heraclitus: "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man"). By spelling out what they did in the study, the reader can decide for themselves whether the research design and execution is sound.
We also have to keep in mind that methodological decisions are made around constraints and practicalities. For example, in a report about infertility among women in Malawi, the researchers recruited their participants by asking nurses to recommend women who had infertility problems in the past. The researchers would then approach the woman, let them know that the nurse referred her, then ask her if she indeed had fertility problems. If the woman agreed, she could be part of the study. This recruitment approach is problematic because a) there is pressure on the woman to say yes, since the nurse referred her, and b) they may not actually think of themselves as infertile but then are asked to confirm this label - and since there is tremendous stigma related to infertility among this community, it could be distressing to be labelled as such if you did not think of yourself in this way. However, if we consider the context and constraints, going through the nurses may have been the only practical way to recruit research participants.
Moral of the story: qualitative research is murky and complex. As the Researcher, the best you can do is be as ethical as possible (including consulting and receiving prior approval from an ethics board), lay out all the details of what you did, and let the reader decide whether it is sound.
5. There are power imbalances between researcher and research subject - act responsibly.
With design, the user is king. The user has the opportunity to reject the thing that is designed. If the user thinks it doesn’t work, doesn't like it, doesn’t choose it, then who cares. It is worthless. However, for many researchers, the intent is not to create a product or service that will be used by the people being studied. Rather, the intent may be to further knowledge around a certain phenomenon.
So what happens in practice is that: the researcher goes into the field, extracts data from the field, analyses the data, writes it up, and uses it for their own purposes - be it teaching, presentations, in journals, to share with others in the social science community. So the researcher has power over what happens with the data and the purpose is not necessarily to create value for the people they interviewed. What struck me was that the language is about "not doing harm to" rather than "improving outcomes for". These are quite different stances!
This difference is really interesting to me, as it creeped into assumptions about methodological considerations. Still stewing on this one. The "so what" for me at the moment is that: there needs to be a value exchange between the researcher and participant. This doesn't have to take the form of cash or a gift certificate, it can also be a dinner together, a photo portrait, a phone chat anytime their image or video is used in a training, a nicely printed copy of their ethnographic story, and/or something else that makes sense for the participant and honours the trust that you mutually built.
6. Lingering thoughts and questions about interviewing...
When conducting a semi-structured interview, to what extent is the researcher guiding the interview and facilitating, and to what extent do you let it go naturally in the direction it wants to go - like a conversation. Obviously you have goals of the types of things you want to know about. But you are there to listen. What are the techniques that others use to balance allowing the flow and following your curiosity down interesting tangents, while making sure to stay within time, and achieve the research goals? It is such art.
How direct can you be with your questions, especially difficult questions - how to know when to stop and when to continue probing? What can be learned from the field of journalism about probing into sensitive or controversial topics (understanding that the goals may be very different - journalists may be looking for an emotional reaction, where as user researchers don't want to upset the participant) ? What ethical considerations are needed so that you don't cause harm to the interviewee by being too intense? And vice versa, what are techniques to protect our own mental and emotional wellbeing when researching topics that are particularly heavy or difficult?