Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

“We’re Both PhD Students” and Other Confusions on the Road to Qualitative Data

Aside from taking pretty pictures, C. Speed and I have been conducting a number of formal interviews recently – well, formal in the sense that we sit down with a tape recorder, and in the sense that we negotiate and ask people to sign off on formal terms for the use of the recorded material. In most other respects, though, the interviews have been fairly unbounded: they’ve consistently taken far longer than we expected – we had originally tentatively asked for, and sometimes only grudgingly been granted, an hour of time. So far, the shortest interview has actually taken close to two hours, and the longest reaches past three. My fingers are already aching in anticipation of the transcription work to come… But the material – and the generosity of the people providing it – has been absolutely fantastic.

On one level, the methodology for the interviews has been quite easy to construct: we’re focussing on the development process for the region covered by the Mernda Strategy Plan, which was an unusually detailed strategy plan prepared by the local Council, when it feared that rezoning the very fragmented original landholdings would cause small parcels to be snapped up by a large number of developers, some of whom might not have the funds or the expertise to think on a regional scale when planning their individual developments. As it happened, a small number of large developers did piece together substantial land holdings – although it’s an interesting question whether this means that the local Council needn’t have placed as much effort into the planning process, or whether this means that the effort Council placed into the planning process is what ultimately attracted the major developers…

I spent some time with local Council staff last year, as well as with selected major developers. This year, I have been focussed on other stakeholders in the planning and development process: other developers, original community members (divided into two broad groups of opponents and supporters of the development process), residents of newly built estates, and social service organisations attempting to build community infrastructure for the area.

It’s been interesting to compare what we were worried about, when we were originally planning the interview strategy, with the sorts of problems we have actually encountered.

I: We had been very concerned that no one would want to speak with us – either because they would be concerned about how we might use the information they provided, or simply because it’s a time-consuming thing to do, and people have better things to do with their time.

For the most part, this fear simply hasn’t materialised. So far, almost everyone we’ve spoken to has been happy to be involved in the research in some way or another. Many have been unbelievably generous with their time.

Ironically, the one group of people we had thought would be very easy to approach – opponents to the development process – has been the most difficult. In retrospect, this makes complete sense. We had expected this group to be the most motivated to get their message out, and also had thought they might be generally aware that major figures at our university have been very critical of the development process.

Instead, we are finding that the people we have approached are nearing a point of psychological exhaustion with the development process. Some have been involved in opposition to various proposals for development going back decades and, at this point, with cranes and construction vehicles tearing up the landscape on all sides, are cynical about any further proposals to consult with them about the development of the remaining land. They are talked out…

It doesn’t help that our research is partially funded by the local Council and by two development companies, and that people are understandably concerned that we might be spying on their activities, in order to assist their political opponents. This fear we had actually anticipated – and, since it would be unethical not to reveal how we are funded, we had always known that we would have to be very direct with this aspect of our research, and then try to develop relationships from there.

What has been surprising to us is more that our sources of funding haven’t been an issue to other groups – that we can, for example, speak with the sales staff of a Stockland competitor, indicate that our research is funded by Stockland, and have them not blink an eye… The reality, of course, is that their information is perfectly safe – we aren’t conducting market research or feeding politically or economically-sensitive data back to our funders. But we were surprised that more people haven’t been concerned that we might be…

II: We hadn’t fully thought through the impact of having two of us involved in formal interviews. We are researching in tandem for two main reasons:

(1) We have different disciplinary backgrounds, and one of us will often recognise the potential for a significant line of questioning, when the other would have missed it; and

(2) We were concerned about safety – not that the area is particularly unsafe, but we are driving or walking through fairly isolated places, and it just seemed a good idea to have two people involved.

We are finding, though, that quite a few people are visibly startled when two of us arrive for an arranged meeting. This is in spite of the fact that we take care to explain that there will be two of us, and to explain who both of us are. While this usually reflects the fact that one or the other of us has made the initial contact, we have had one person continuously express surprise that both of us keep attending meetings, even though they have only ever seen the two of us together…

Related to this is what seems to be a very strong desire to perceive only one of us as really “in charge” of the interview process. When people ask, for example, what we are each doing with the interview material, they consistently struggle with the concept that we are both students, both working at exactly the same level, but applying different disciplinary perspectives. We usually run through an exchange that follows this pattern:

Interviewee: “So what do you both do?”

One of us: “We’re both PhD students, working on the same project.” (We have always explained this at the beginning of the interview process, but our experience has been that most people don’t process most of the information presented in upfront discussions.)

Interviewee (turning to the other): “But what do you do, then?”

The other of us: “I’m a PhD student, too: we’re both PhD students.”

Interviewee (visibly confused, looking between the two of us): “But… you’re not also a student, are you?”

Etc., until we finally resolve the confusion. I’m not trying, incidentally, to make fun of the people who are confused about this – it’s been a sufficiently consistent dimension of the interview process that it is clearly completely rational for someone to conclude that we can’t both fill the same role outside the interview process. We’re not completely sure, though, why this happens. And, in extreme forms, it can be very unpleasant for one or the other of us: sometimes, someone will make an arbitrary judgment about who is “really” in charge of the research, and address that person, and only that person, through the interview, while treating the other as though they really shouldn’t be in the room…

This is a significant concern to us, because it’s obvious that it makes most people uncomfortable to have two of us present. It presumably affects what they say to us, but it also significantly affects their comfort level during the interview process, and we don’t want the process to be unpleasant. We have tried in other ways to minimise discomfort: we are meeting people on their “turf”, and letting them drive the interview process by telling us what they think we should know, rather than responding to a pre-set list of questions. But the fact that there are two of us still has a significant impact on the interview process…

III: Another ritual element of the interview process – far less of a problem than the confusion over why there are two of us in the room – is the inversion of roles that happens at the end of each interview, when everyone, without exception, spends 15-20 minutes asking us questions. Some people, of course, are genuinely curious about the overarching project, or about our individual research or career goals, and they naturally feel a bit more comfortable asking these sorts of questions after they’ve spent a bit of time with us during the interview, and made a bit of a “connection”. Others, though, make it very clear (through body language, or by moving quickly onto the next question when you begin to answer the first) that they actually don’t want to know what our answer would be in any detail: the interaction is more about purging the system of the experience of being on the receiving end of questions for over an hour, seizing back the role of the listener (evaluator?) to the responses.

I’m used to this, having experienced the same thing in previous work – it takes a bit of judgment to decide whether this is someone who actually does want a thorough response, or whether this is solely a ritual interaction, but it’s a harmless and expected ritual for concluding the interview.

IV: We had expected, when thinking through the interview process, that almost everyone would want to be anonymous, although we had allowed (in the formal consent forms) for the possiblity that someone might want to be named. We were very worried about the issue of anonymity, because we’re studying a fairly small area – small enough, and distinctive enough, that we’ve decided it is not worthwhile to try to conceal the location – with only a small potential pool of people to whom we could be speaking. So we were prepared to have to sacrifice large amounts of data because it would likely be very clear exactly who must have provided it.

What we are finding, however, is that most people have passionate opinions about the planning and development process, and are very happy to go on the record with their statements. On one level, this is wonderful, and we’re extremely grateful for the information provided this way. On another level, though, this has created all kinds of new ethical dilemmas over whether people are protecting themselves as well as they should.

Admittedly, a very large portion of what people say will also come up in other interviews, from very different sources, so we can reasonably assume that much of this repetitive content is “in the air” among stakeholders in the development process. Interestingly, some of the things that are “in the air” are also almost certainly meant to be commercial-in-confidence materials – and yet it is obvious from the wide local knowledge of these issues that the information has leaked, and leaked widely.

While these commercial-in-not-so-good-confidence tidbits could potentially cause dilemmas for some kinds of research, we’re not generally that worried about them, because they mostly relate to matters that will become fully public fairly soon. So we might, for example, need to exercise caution over what we might say at a conference, but any kind of formal academic publication will most likely occur well beyond the date when these pieces of information would be freely available.

We do worry, though, about a few people who have said things “on the record” that we’re concerned might cause problems for them in their local community, with their employer, or with some other party. In these cases, we’ll need to assess whether we really “need” this information, whether we can render the source anonymous even though we have not been asked to (although this strategy raises its own ethical dilemmas: if someone has asked to be named, do we have the right to “anonymise” their information?), or whether we need to go back and discuss the issue more fully with the person who provided the original information.

V: I’ve mentioned earlier that we are not structuring these interviews. I should emphasise that we mean this in the strongest possible sense: we introduce ourselves and the general focus of the research, go through the formal ethics discussion and signoff, and then use what we already know about the person’s background to say: “You’ve been involved with X – would you like to talk about that?” So far, we’ve never had to mention more than two “x”es before someone was off and running. Conversations are recorded (with the consent of the participants but, so far, no one has declined) so that we don’t have to madly dash off notes while they talk, but we both generally make brief notes of follow-up questions we’d like to ask – we use these if the conversation seems to stall. In general, though, the strategy is, as much as possible, to get out of the way of the discussion – to let people tell us what they want us to hear, and to ask only the questions we need to ask, in order to understand what they are trying to say.

I used to use this technique quite a bit in conflict resolution work – my staff used to jokingly call it “conversational judo”. In conflict resolution, of course, the point was to “get out of the way” of all the emotions that would usually initially be directed at you, as the convenient target for all the anger and frustration associated with the broader conflict. The idea was that, if you “pushed back” on strong emotions – by arguing, or by becoming emotional yourself – you would be much more likely to end up with a train wreck, with both of you crashed into one another. If you just let someone else’s emotions run their course for a while, you often reached a calmer point, when negotiations were possible.

In the current context, with the possible exception of some of the groups who have been long-term opponents of the development process, no one seems tempted to use us as proximate targets for their personal anger. But many people are very emotional, and many people have been bruised in some way by the process. This experience is not unique to one “side”: in general, everyone is trying to achieve something they genuinely believe is a good thing, and everyone has been forced to compromise on, or surrender, all or part of their original goals – it’s not difficult to feel very strong emotions, to feel very bruised by the process. Given this context, it seemed at best insensitive to march in, clipboard in hand, requiring people to answer a series of questions that we had pre-determined would capture the “canonical” dimensions of their experience…

While I agree with this decision, all research strategies have their drawbacks, and one drawback of our strategy is that we are running into a number of what I’ve been calling “decentred facts” – items that come up in multiple interviews, which are strongly believed to be true, but where we are unsure of the… ontological status of the information. I’ll give one brief example: the development we’re studying most closely was originally designed by a very idealistic developer, who recruited homeowners very carefully (some have described the sales process as being similar to a job interview) to ensure that very specific values were inculcated among residents of this new community. The strategy worked – many residents were, in effect, converted to a specific vision of what the community would become. Residents were heavily involved in the “visioning” process for the planning of future stages, and were therefore much more aware than usual of the plans for the forthcoming town centre.

The town centre plans had progressed to the point where the only thing required for approval was signoff by the Planning Minister. Had this signoff occurred, the town centre would most likely have progressed as planned, even if the development happened to be sold off to another developer. For reasons I won’t detail here, the development was sold before the Minister’s signoff had occurred, and so the town centre development is now back on the drawing board.

For the residents, and for the original developer, this series of events is experienced as a significant betrayal. This sense of betrayal is underscored by two phrases repeatedly used in discussions of the town centre: that the plans were “on the Minister’s desk”, and that the Minister was “only two weeks away from signing off” on the town centre. These phrases give a sense of immense urgency – and tragedy – to the political and economic negotiations around the sale of the development. They communicate very clearly the sense that something very special was ripped away – just on the cusp of its realisation.

These statements are obviously valuable as markers of the emotional experience of the sale of the development. We are also curious, though – mainly because we’re not personally sure how someone would know the timeline for approval, once something reaches the Minister – whether the “two week” figure literally describes the Minister’s timetabling, or whether the phrase is more like a meme that has spread widely because it best expresses the stakeholders’ sense of tragedy.

Because we’re treading softly on emotionally-charged issues, we’re holding these sorts of questions in suspension for the moment. We will follow up – most of the people who have granted initial interviews have also agreed to be interviewed again. And there are other ways to triangulate between interview material and other information sources. But the issue of “decentred facts” – widely shared notions that are, in principle, easily empirically tested, but that may be repeated even in the absence of empirical knowledge – is something that has interested us in the interviews conducted so far.

VI: My final observation is that we’ve become particularly concerned about how little seems to “penetrate” from the discussions we have at the beginning of the interview process. It’s become extremely clear, from questions people ask at the end, that very little of what we say in the beginning is “registering” in a way that enables someone to process and fully understand what we’re saying.

This makes perfect sense to me, but also poses a dilemma for the formal ethics process – the part where we “mirandize” the people who will take part in the interview, in effect telling them: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be published in an academic journal”, etc. We go through this process at the beginning of formal interviews – for the obvious reason that we want to obtain “informed consent” before someone provides us with information they might choose not to provide if, for example, they distrust our financial association with the local Council, etc.

The dilemma is that, if people aren’t fully absorbing what we’re saying to them in the beginning – whether because they’re nervous, or because the process is unusual and they can’t fully visualise what it will entail before they’ve gone through it – then people may not make fully reasoned decisions about the sorts of things they need to choose on the ethics forms: can we use their name? do they want a transcript? etc.

Fortunately, since this is not an irreversible medical procedure, we have ample opportunity to ensure that people have fully understood what they have agreed to do. So far, for example, no one has asked for a transcript but, as I trundle through the transcription process, I am trying to make at least the transcript to the very first interview available. I’ll also have follow up discussions about the use of material, where I have specific concerns.

Providing transcripts, though, has raised its own set of (very minor) concerns. The biggest one is that things that make perfect sense when they’re said out loud, often look very weird as written words on the page. I’m not personally worried about this, because I have the actual recordings, where voice tone can often clarify meanings that seem obscure in the print text, and I’m not planning on using the transcripts to misleadingly imply that someone doesn’t know proper English: as spoken English, said in a specific context, the original interviews are absolutely fine.

I am, though, worried that it will come as a shock to someone who has never seen a transcription of their speech. This has already happened in-house: when I passed the first transcript to C. Speed, the immediate reaction was: “god, must remember to not say anything during the interviews in future – I sound like a complete moron!!!” This reaction has nothing to do with the actual quality of Speed’s contributions to the interview process: we just don’t normally realise how very different written and spoken English can be, even among quite articulate, university-affiliated folk.

So, although I’m currently planning on providing transcripts, I’m a bit ambivalent about this strategy: will it cause someone to be more self-conscious when they speak with us next time? Will it cause people to refuse to speak with us, or to withdraw consent, because they’re worried that we could misuse the material to make them look unprofessional? Should I try to mitigate the problem by correcting some basic things – omitting “um” from the transcript, for example? If I do, then does the Official Approved Transcript become the sole basis for the research, or can I still go back and use material from the original recordings?

I’m happy to hear suggestions, questions and criticisms (if anyone has made it all the way to the bottom of this methodological meander…).

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2 responses to ““We’re Both PhD Students” and Other Confusions on the Road to Qualitative Data

  1. Anon May 29, 2006 at 12:26 pm

    I’m encountering some similar dilemmas in my (ongoing) research in a small, rural Australian town. I discovered pretty quickly that most people are uncomfortable with formality (and see university research as a bit of a joke), which has led me to be very casual about the whole process. At the beginning of an interview I explain the study, what I hope to get out of the interview and their rights as participants (which I do very briefly and don’t make a big deal of). I’ve decided not to provide them with copies of transcripts; I’ll make copies of reports available to those who want them and will present (appropriate) findings at the local hall when it’s all done.

    A far greater issue is that of managing sensitive information and ensuring anonymity. Some people have shared fairly personal information about themselves and others. Their identification in reports, articles etc. could cause problems for them within the community, and there are a range of legal issues too. I’m not sure that placing an embargo on the thesis is the solution (as it will eventually become available), but it’s going to be very difficult to adequately address particular issues that I see as crucial to the whole project.

  2. N Pepperell May 29, 2006 at 11:16 pm

    Yes – hauling out the formal ethics consent form might as well be purpose-designed to cause people to distrust you… It’s very difficult for work that requires a more informal kind of interaction, in order for the research itself to move forward…

    On transcripts, I’ve gone back and forth: I originally intended not to provide them (there’s nothing in the formal ethics process that requires it), but then decided that it could potentially be beneficial in some cases. I may change my mind on the issue again…

    I’m not, though, intending to provide transcripts to everyone (I will ultimately be doing a lot of interviews, and I may not need to transcribe all of them, even for my own research purposes…) – although I’ll provide them to anyone who asks. I’m also assuming that, although transcripts can be useful to clarify whether I’m correctly understanding certain things, and can also provide a basis for talking through issues that may concern people about the research, that I won’t need to provide transcripts of every conversation with those I speak to multiple times…

    In some ways, I feel that providing copies of reports is at least as fraught, though, as providing transcripts. To some degree, in this kind of research, the personal relationships you develop are also your primary research tool. Personal relationships are rarely objectified the way academic analysis requires them to be, and I’m very concerned about how this will be received…

    The formal ethics process, of course, is meant to minimise these sorts of worries, by “informing” people about the academic research. I’m just not sure this level of formal notification is adequate (not that I can suggest a better alternative).

    As I mentioned in the blog entry, I’m in the unexpected position of working with many people who don’t officially want anonymity – but am also finding, as you’ve mentioned, that people discuss other people who aren’t formally part of the research process. And, in such a small and self-referential location, it’s extremely difficult to disguise identities. At the moment, I’m slowly working my way through people in the community, some of whom may give their own account of incidents I’ve otherwise heard about second and third hand, and this may make some of the ethical choices easier. More likely, it’ll just add new ones…

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