Last week, my mentor, supervisor, colleague and close friend, Professor Supriya Singh retired. I have worked with her on and off for almost 16 years. She gave me my start in research and a great deal of what I teach others is a direct influence from Professor Singh. I often hear her words as I advise others. In honour of her and her retirement, I want to share some of the most important lessons she taught me about the qualitative research process.
KEEP A RESEARCH JOURNAL
I’m using shouty capitals for a reason. When doing qualitative research, it is ESSENTIAL to keep a research journal. Professor Singh instilled this into me from the very start. She told me repeatedly to keep writing my thoughts down. It was some of the best advice I received, and it kept me sane during my PhD. It is the only thing I say qualitative researchers MUST do.
What is research journal?
It is an informal document where you jot down all the thoughts you have about the research. This can be anything from:
- methodological notes
- thoughts after reading an article
- fears you have about the research
- theoretical ideas
- challenges or roadblocks
- ideas and musings on analysis
- meeting notes
- anything and everything!
Why keep a research journal?
The journal helps researchers log and keep track of the research as it progresses. It is essential for reflexive practice. It also gives researchers a space to write down any assumptions, biases and methodological mistakes (everyone makes them). It provides researchers with a safe space to write. No-one else has to see the journal. Your journal is informal, so it can be in dot points, have terrible grammar, include crazy doodles, be a piece of art, it really doesn’t matter.
If you are working in a team, it is a great way to share information and get insights into how everyone is relating to the project, as well as providing project updates.
Write detailed notes after every point of data collection
The first time I read Professor Singh’s interview notes I was captivated. They were so detailed, with descriptions of the sights (e.g. family portraits on the wall); smells (the smell of food cooking in the kitchen); sounds (birds chattering in the background). It is very useful to get into the habit of keeping detailed notes after every point of data collection, particularly face-to-face interactions such as interviews, focus groups, and participant observation.
Writing down your thoughts and impressions immediately after an interview, when it is fresh in your mind, gives you the space to identify the most important aspects as you deemed them when you were there.
You will never again get the opportunity to read the body language, the mood or the tones of the people at that point in time. People are rarely transcribing their own interviews these days, which means that emphasis and emotions can be lost. Even if you do transcribe your own interview, you cannot read body language from your transcript.
Working in teams: Writing these notes is especially important when working in teams, as it is often difficult to be across all the data, particularly for larger projects. It is highly unlikely and impractical for all team members to read transcripts of all the interviews. A summary of the interview is much more accessible and means that all team members get an overview of all the data.
What to write?
Write down everything, include the informal and formal conversations. Be as detailed as possible, include sights, smells, stories. These rich descriptions help with data retention, make for more interesting reading, as well as provide context.
You don’t necessarily have to write by hand. I used to keep a dictaphone in the car (back when we didn’t have smartphones) and record my fieldnotes on my way back from an interview or participant observation. I would transcribe them once I got into the office.
Have you written it down?
Supriya and I have had many wonderful conversations in our time together. In fact, I think all our conversations have been wonderful. The one thing I remember the most is the constant question she would ask me after I gave her some of my thoughts “That’s great! Have you written it down?” I think this could be one of her catch phrases! “Have you written it down?… no no no no no, you must write it down” she says with a shake of her head… Thank you Supriya… These words have carried me well with my research, and with my life.
Why write it all down?
To make way for new knowledge, to check that what you know is correct, so that writing up later becomes a breeze. If you have everything in your head, it often keeps swirling and whirling around, which makes it difficult to find room for new thoughts or ideas. We all become reluctant to let go of an exciting idea or thought, because we don’t want to lose it.
Once we have written it down, it is secure. We know we can’t lose it. This way we can intellectually make way to hear or see something new. It also means we can corroborate or check what we have already found.
Reflexivity: The personal is important
With qualitative research, you either need to get yourself and your biases out of the picture as much as possible, or you need to situate yourself and your place in the research. Both of these require you to be aware of your biases. This demands a certain level of reflexivity at every stage of the research process. If you are reflexive, you will have greater clarity around the purpose and direction of the research and be better able to communicate this to team members, supervisors and in your writing.
A good place to start with reflexive practice is to answer: Why are you doing the research you are doing? There will very likely be a personal reason. Then there will be intellectual reasons. The personal reason will help you identify any biases you have prior to diving into the research. Both the personal and intellectual help you tailor and refine your research question.
Reflexivity is important at all stages of the research process, but particularly when it comes to analysis. You will have thoughts about the analysis but are you able to determine where those ideas are coming from? They may be influenced by your own experiences, what you have read, or based on an interviewees response (rather than the larger cohort). In order to understand where your ideas are coming from, you need to be able to articulate what you are thinking and why. You either need to get yourself out of the way (in which case you need to know when you are in the way), or you need to identify where you are. In both cases, you need reflexivity and self-reflection.
But how? Through your research journal.
This is just a tiny part of what I have learnt from Professor Singh. She has been important and influential not only professionally, but also personally. I cherish our friendship. As she herself says “You cannot have intellectual intimacy without vulnerability”. It is her ability to make people comfortable with this vulnerability that makes her excel as a researcher, and as a close friend.
Ultimately, if I was to synthesise what I learnt from her, it is that the personal is really important, and it is important to understand yourself just as much as you understand your data in order to do rigorous qualitative research.